Something is unusual about The Wolf Man: remorse. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is the only Universal monster to feel sorrowful over what he has done. He experiences all of the emotions, from denial to acceptance, but none are more powerful than his remorse.
This is the least creature-driven film of the original horror cycle, a somewhat meandering film that comes across so short, there is little time for anything aside from Talbot’s own tormented mind. We praise modern casting decisions today, imagining how anyone else could play famous movie roles. As it turns out, few people were ever situated to better play the Wolf Man than Lon Chaney Jr.
Chaney’s mournful eyes and panicked performance highlight the film, crafting an unfortunate victim who has no control over his actions. Talbot is merely a visitor to his father’s estate after the death of a brother, and for the sake of romance, is taken to a gypsy fortune teller. That night, he is attacked by a werewolf, and instilling in him the ultimate multiple personality disorder.
Some of Wolf Man is a mystery, not of murder – we know who slashed the jugulars – but of perception. How much truth is there to the wolf man theory? Until sightings of Jack Pierce’s menacing make-up, there is a genuine possibility that Talbot is merely going mad. Officials wander around the Talbot living room, up in arms over what they believe is a cut & dry case of a man picking apart their small town.
The film is wise to establish Talbot rapidly, both in terms of getting to the meat of the film and to ensure the audience perceives that character properly. Despite fighting for lost love (The Mummy) or crying out for acceptance (Frankenstein), Universal’s roster still come across as blood thirsty. With Talbot, there is no confusion.
In terms of the creature rampage, Wolf Man is one of the tamest. His kills lack of viciousness, and his victims are few. He even struggles to kill one of cinema’s many shrieking, fainting female leads in Evelyn Ankers. One wonders if Talbot is still in the mind of that furry, clawed monster after all, even if those thoughts make him less of a threat. The wolf man will wander through repetitious forests with some of the best (and certainly consistent) foggy forests ever in search of a kill that will unlikely come. Despite the establishments of countless werewolf legends (silver bullets among them), the sequels would elevate the character into something with more weight behind it.
The Wolf Man is the only black & white feature in Universal’s box set to find itself struggling visually. It would appear that it has nothing to do with the source. In fact, despite some persistent damage marks, the materials are in good order. Any judder has been removed, and dropped frames do no present themselves.
Encoding is handled well too, and that is a partial compliment. Wolf Man is affectionate towards fog, a constant bother amidst a grain structure. Lucky for this AVC encode then that most of the grain has been removed. This is a weird half breed of sorts, where the grain does remain yet in lessened capacity. The effect is noticeable as faces take on a pasty quality and sets are poorly defined. There remains the possibility the grain is wholly artificial, although the smearing plus the static nature at times are more indicative of manipulation.
Similar elements show up in the other features within the box set, yet temporarily. Wolf Man carries this digital look throughout the entirety of the feature. Not helping is a layer of clear and poorly hidden edge enhancement. Lines are visible around every tree in the forest which are lit by heavy backlighting. While it is often easy to get away with a hint of sharpening against darker backgrounds, situations like this bring it out to the point where it is impossible to miss. This effect will wipe around the clean, natural appearance this could have were it not toyed with. Elements in the backgrounds turn edgy, and people become outlined.
Wolf Man always seems like a gray scale test where technicians were looking for a sweet spot but could not find it. Highlights are blown out, and the level of black crush evident in almost every scene is quick appalling. None of the texture within the trees is visible unless the light manages to shine just right. There is dark, and then there is pure blackness. This is the latter.
There is no question this 1941 horror piece benefits from the resolution of Blu-ray. Artificially enhanced or not, it is immensely sharp. Free from the reigns of outdated MPEG-2 compression, Wolf Man carries substantial clarity. The shame of it is that benefits of said clarity are all but lost to the noise reduction techniques.
Not tampered with is the audio, a complex introductory theme featuring brass, horns, and drums, each of which can falter with age or dying fidelity. Not only are instruments clear, they carry wonderful clarity and definition. Age defects have been kicked out, including hiss or pops.
The DTS-HD mix presents the materials without any notable fault. Elements mix and dialogue is tight, carrying the materials above the expectation. Despite the containment to a single channel, the minimalist styling captures spacious interiors with a small echo and open forests with wide studio-esque trappings. What it breaks in terms of illusion thanks to modern technology it makes up for with quality.
Respect for the wolf man carries over the bonuses, film historian Tom Weaver taking his shot with a commentary track. Monster by Moonlight is an older half-hour feature hosted by John Landis. From Ancient Curse to Ancient Myth dissects the various legends surrounding werewolves. Pure in Heart is a superb look at Lon Chaney Jr., focusing on his career and personal life.
Archives house posters and other documentation for viewing, scrolling automatically for seven minutes. He Who Made Monsters is a duplicate bonus from a previous disc, although no less of an excellent piece on Jack Pierce. Trailers for all of the Wolf Man sequels and a look at the Universal Lot for their 100th Anniversary remain.
Note: This review is based on the UK version of the disc. Contents (video, audio, extras) aside from the menus, are identical to the US release.