'The Wolf Man' howls anew on DVD

The Wolf Man
Still barking at the moon: Lon Chaney Jr. stars in "The Wolf Man," re-released today on DVD. (Universal Home Entertainment)
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; 2:00 PM

It doesn't take a genius-level IQ to understand why Universal has re-released the original, 1941 version of "The Wolf Man" ($26.98) today in a special-edition DVD. With less than two weeks until its updated version of the classic horror tale -- that would be "The Wolfman," all one word and starring Benicio del Toro -- arrives in theaters, the studio clearly wants to issue as many reminders as possible that a new beast is about to be unleashed.

Of course, devotees of old-school scares or Lon Chaney, Jr.'s iconic portrayal of the fanged and furry monster will care less about the marketing motivations behind all this and more about the fact that this digitally remastered "Wolf Man" looks pretty crisp and clear for a black-and-white film that's 60-plus years old.

For those who have never seen it, the movie remains a simple, effective look at the anguish one man endures after a nasty wolf bite and the glimmer of moonlight starts to turn him into a murderous animal. Granted, the special effects aren't exactly advanced by today's standards; we watch our leading man's transformation via obvious camera fades instead of the close-up skin pulsations and spinal column expansions that came in later films like the ground-breaking "An American Werewolf in London." But Chaney -- no relation to the author, by the way -- infuses his character with a relatable humanity that transcends the datedness and makes viewers care what happens to him. And director George Waggner deserves credit for doing what so few filmmakers have the guts to do today: keep his story short. "The Wolf Man" clocks in at a perfectly appropriate 80 minutes.

The special features in this two-disc set include extras that have appeared on previous releases, as well as a trio of brand new featurettes. Not surprisingly, the three fresh pieces are the best, particularly "Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney Jr.," which traces the star's bumpy Hollywood career often spent in the shadow of his famous actor father, and "He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce," a 25-minute documentary that focuses on the make-up artist responsible for creating Universal's key monsters of cinema.

Contemporary make-up masters, from Rick Baker to Tom Savini, and film experts come together to discuss the importance of Pierce's work, from the ghoulishy grinning character in "The Man Who Laughed," which inspired the Joker, to iconic figures like Frankenstein, the Mummy and, of course, the Wolf Man. As author Steve Haberman puts it, "Halloween is a lasting tribute to Jack Pierce."

As satisfying and educational as those extras are, the rest of the DVD is a bit of a snooze. The documentaries "Monster to Moonlight," which traces the making of "The Wolf Man," and the feature-length "Universal Horror" both date back to the late '90s and seem a bit too stale to merit inclusion here. The audio commentary, also a relic of a past release, features some informative Hollywood trivia from film historian Tom Weaver. But Weaver talks at such a quick clip that it's sometimes hard to process what he's saying.

And of course, some trailers also appear on this DVD, including vintage previews of past "Wolf Man" movies and, naturally, a peek at the upcoming del Toro picture. You know, just in case anyone missed that all-important connection between this classic and the one that's coming soon to a theater near you.

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