B&W, 1941, 70 mins.

Directed by George Waggner

Starring Claude Rains, Lon Chaney, Jr., Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Bela Lugosi, Patric Knowles, Warren William / Cinematography by Joseph Valentine / Music by Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner / Written by Curt Siodmak

Format: DVD - Universal (MSRP $29.98)

Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal had few preexisting sources to use as inspiration for their enormously popular The Wolf Man, the best of their post-'30s monster films. The vague lycanthropic mythology of Eastern Europe, not to mention the studio's earlier, much tamer Werewolf of London, made for a shaky springboard from which the crew had to create an entirely new set of rules for the title creature. Ironically, the public accepted everything in the film as legitimate monster folklore, and The Wolf Man has since inspired countless sequels and other films, almost always with the poor werewolf presented as a victimized hero.

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) travels from America to his family's estate in Wales where he stays with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), to cope with the death of his brother. Larry and a local girl go out at night and investigate a gypsy camp where they encounter the eccentric Bela (Bela Lugosi) and, of course, his memorable mother, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya). Out in the woods, Jenny is assulted by a wolf; Larry saves her from the animal but winds up bitten in the process. Maleva informs Larry that he will become a werewolf during each full moon, and sure enough, he does. John and the lovely Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) don't believe Larry's anguished version of the facts, but out on the forest, the horrific truth comes to look them right in the face.

Though not as artistically dazzling as the first two Frankenstein films, The Wolf Man possesses its own peculiar charm and has deservedly remained a fan favorite over the decades. Rarely has a fog machine been put to better use, and the whole film is drenched in a creepy, melancholy atmosphere, capped off perfectly by the famous downbeat ending. Though filmed on sets, the film beautifully conveys a palpable sense of dread and inescapable fatalism that compensates for a few minor flaws in the dialogue and plotting. Chaney makes a terrific, pitiable leading man, and Rains is at his suave, compassionate best, with everyone else turning in memorable, finely etched supporting performances.

Another welcome entry in Universal's monster collection, The Wolf Man looks sharper and richer here than it ever has before, though restoration addicts will be dismayed to note that some rough print damage still exists, particularly during the opening credits and a couple of reel changes. Historian Tom Weaver contributes a scholarly commentary track, filled with some useful nuggets of information along the way, and Universal also produced a lively half hour documentary, Monster by Moonlight. More expansive and cinema-oriented than their other documentaries in this series, this look at movie lycanthropy and The Wolf Man's development from its early stages as a Boris Karloff project to its final form boasts John Landis as an enthusiastic host (a nice choice, though it's a shame they couldn't get Joe Dante in there, too). The package is rounded off by the usual still and promotional art, as well as a tattered and virtually unwatchable trailer. (Incidentally, why has Universal only preserved its '50s reissue trailers for most horror films, and only one thrown in for each film title? Very odd.) Even horror fans who own The Wolf Man in its previous, uh, incarnations should be perfectly willing to upgrade to this version, which definitely delivers. Curl up and watch it under a bright, full moon.

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