Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
The Mummy: Universal, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], subtitles: French, single side-dual layer, 18 chapters, rated NR, 74 min., $29.98, street date 9/28/99.
The Wolf Man: Universal, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], subtitles: French, single side-dual layer, 18 chapters, rated NR, 70 min., $29.98, street date 11/2/99.
The Mummy: Directed by Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Arthur Byron, Edward Van Sloan, Bramwell Fletcher.
Boris Karloff’s legendary performance has become a landmark in the annals of screen history. As the mummy, Im-Ho-Tep, he is accidentally revived after 3,700 years by a team of British archaeologists. It is revealed in a flashback that he was a high priest, embalmed alive for trying to revive the vestal virgin whom he loved, after she had been sacrificed. Alive again, he sets out to find his lost love. Today, over 50 years after The Mummy was first released, this brooding dream-like film remains a masterpiece not only of the genre, but for all time.
The Wolf Man: Directed by George Waggner. Starring Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya.
The original horror classic that introduced one of the screen's most infamous monsters! Lon Chaney, Jr. portrays Larry Talbot, who returns to his father's castle in Wales and meets a beautiful woman. One fateful night, Talbot escorts her to a local carnival where Jenny's fate is revealed by a mysterious gypsy fortune teller. The dreamlike atmospheres and elaborate settings combined with a chilling musical score make The Wolf Man a masterpiece not only of the genre, but for all time!
Although I've never been a big fan of monster movies, I recently tried the DVDs of both Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein and enjoyed them very much. I followed up with Dracula and found it compelling as well. As such, I thought I'd push my luck by rounding out my collection with the other two titles in the Universal Studios "Classic Monsters" collection: The Mummy and The Wolf Man.
I tried The Mummy first. At the risk of inspiring flames, I must admit that I greatly preferred the 1999 version of the film. The 1932 edition is a decent movie but I thought it moved at a very slow pace and it often seemed dull to me. Really, not a whole lot happens in the movie. It starts out well and is quite creepy and effective for the first few minutes. The introduction of the Mummy (Boris Karloff) also appears in a surprisingly subtle and spooky manner, and I thought something quite compelling would follow.
Unfortunately, it doesn't. The Mummy comes across as more of a semi-mystical love story than it does a horror film. Such pieces can work well, but I felt this one didn't; even at 75 minutes the movie seems long and I just couldn't maintain my interest. The production is well-acted - especially by the ever-terrific Karloff - and nicely executed for the most part, but I simply couldn't muster any enthusiasm about it.
1941's The Wolf Man prompted a bit more excitement from me, but it still didn't approach the heights of some of the earlier horror flicks. This is the only one of the five "monster" movies that doesn't really attempt a kind of elegantly creepy atmosphere; The Wolf Man seems broader and more traditional than the others. Even though I didn't much like The Mummy or the Tod Browning edition of Dracula (the Spanish version is vastly superior), I did at least appreciate their eeriness and I miss that in The Wolf Man.
Compared to those films, however, The Wolf Man does offer more overt excitement, and it moves the plot along at a better pace. It just seems more pedestrian and workman-like than it needed to be. Overall, the film features a very strong cast, with the notable exception being Lon Chaney Jr. as our title character. He does well in his brief scenes as the monster but he has much more difficulty pulling off his "human" segments. Even ignoring the fact he's supposed to be British - which Chaney most definitely is not - the role of Larry Talbot really calls for a more dashing leading man sort; Chaney seems so dopey and goofy that I just couldn't accept him in the part.
Overall, I liked The Wolf Man a bit more than The Mummy or the Browning Dracula, but all remain largely on a par for me. I'll ultimately try them again at some point, but I have a feeling they'll stay on a level far below that of the two James Whale Frankenstein movies and the Spanish Dracula.
(As an aside, what's the deal with the extremely abrupt endings we find in these films? They all just kind of stop as soon as they hit their climaxes. It's like monster's dead - BAM! End credits! Did anyone teach these folks about the denouement in high school? I find these conclusions to be rather jarring.)
The Mummy appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; as such, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although clearly it displays a lot of flaws, the film looked pretty decent for such an old effort.
Sharpness is one of the picture's strongest points, as the image usually looked fairly crisp and well-defined. Some softness intruded at points, but not with any great regularity. No moiré effects or jagged edges were detected. Black levels also looked very solid. Dark tones were usually deep and rich, although occasionally the picture seemed a bit too gray. Shadow detail was fairly nice, though vaguely murky at times. Still, blacks were another good part of the transfer.
The image's main weakness comes from the very frequent intrusion of defects. The print seemed very grainy, and other flaws appear on a nearly-constant basis. I witness scratches, hairs, speckles, spots and other problems like running vertical lines. The rest of the picture looks good enough to overcome these faults, but they're still quite intrusive.
Also flawed but acceptable is The Mummy's monaural sound. As one would expect, it's a very modest affair, with the emphasis on dialogue; although The Mummy features a minor score (unlike predecessors Dracula and Frankenstein), speech dominates the soundtrack. Unfortunately, dialogue seems rather flat and muffled; even for the era, it's excessively dull and lifeless, although it does usually appear intelligible. Effects sound thin but decent, the very occasional music also appears adequate for its age. However, the weak quality of the speech really drags down the rest of the soundtrack. A consistent layer of background noise - mainly in the form of pops and a vague hum - also mar the audio. I can't call it a horrible track for a film of its age, but it's clearly quite flawed.
All of the "Universal Monsters" DVDs pack in some nice extras, and The Mummy is no exception. We get a decent documentary called "Mummy Dearest: A Film Tradition Unearthed". This 30-minute program is hosted by film historian Rudy Behlmer and follows the same tradition of the other documentaries. We find lots of interview snippets from a variety of film historians, other professionals like make-up artist Rick Baker, and relatives like the son of the screenwriter and Karloff's absurdly-tanned daughter. This feature does a fair job of discussing the history of the project, its inspirations and imitators, but it seems a bit drier than the other four programs. Oddly, it doesn't mention the 1999 movie, even though both DVDs appeared the same day, so one would expect they had time to discuss the story's most recent generation.
Film historian Paul M. Jensen appears in the documentary and he also offers the DVD's audio commentary. This track is fairly dry and is definitely the least stimulating of the five "monster" commentaries. At the start, Jensen spends much too much time describing what we're watching with a modicum of technique interpretation. This gets a bit better as he continues and he tells us about scenes that were cut from the original script; those parts were easily the most interesting aspects of the track. The commentary also suffers from Jensen's very stilted way of speaking; it can be hard to take, since Jensen sounds like he's reading a script, and doing so poorly. The track is worth a listen, but it's just not as delightful as most of the others.
The "Posters and Stills" section offers the usual conglomeration of film posters, lobby cards, and production photos but it does so in an unusual manner. Normally these would appear as still frames, but in this case, the entire program runs as a video, with pans in and out from different images, and all accompanied by music from the film. I like this presentation; it may ultimately be a little more awkward than the usual frame-by-frame access, but it shouldn't be a problem since one can easily fast-forward through the show, and I think the addition of the audio makes it a more dynamic and involving process. The total running time goes for a little more than nine minutes.
We also find some pretty good biographies of six actors and director Karl Freund. While these comments could have been a bit more detailed, they're still better than average and are worth a read. A trailer for a re-release of The Mummy pops up as well.
The DVD rounds out its supplements with some excellent text production notes. These consist of quotes from the actual cast and crew and more details on some subjects; they offer information we didn't hear elsewhere and they're quite interesting. Surprisingly, the DVD's booklet contains no production notes; Universal usually at least duplicate the comments on the DVD inside the booklet, but they declined to do so for any of the "Monster" productions.
The Wolf Man appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; as such, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Of all the DVDs in the "Universal Monsters" collection, this one easily looks the best. That may seem natural since it's also the newest film, but when you consider that it's not that much more modern than the other four movies, the large difference in quality is more glaring.
Sharpness appears consistently quite good, with images than regularly look crisp and well-defined. At times - especially during the foggy marsh scenes - the picture can seem somewhat murky and hazy, but this problem is not terrible. Moiré effects and jagged edges were not detected.
Print flaws are definitely the worst part of this DVD, although they seem especially problematic during the first half of the film. For that period, white spots and speckles are a near-constant intrusion, and I also saw lots of grain, scratches, marks and other faults. While some of the grain remains in the second half, and I also saw intermittent speckling, these problems are not nearly as severe during the film's second half; for that time, the image seems much more pristine.
Black levels seem consistently nicely deep and dark. Shadow detail also appears quite clean and smooth; on occasion, it can look a bit too heavy - also mainly during the foggy scenes - but for the most part, it's appropriately dense. Overall, the film has some problems, but it looks very good for such an old movie, especially in comparison with its stablemates.
The Wolf Man offers pretty decent monaural audio. The track presents some background hiss and clicks and pops, but these seem fairly mild and don't affect the sound to any significant degree. Dialogue sounds relatively natural and clear and always seems intelligible. The score appears a bit shrill but remains neatly defined and fairly smooth, and effects are clean and realistic for the most part, even if they do tend to lack much low end (as is typical of soundtracks from this era). Distortion is almost never a problem. It's not great audio and seems pretty average for the period, but it's still quite listenable.
The Wolf Man was the final of the five "Universal Monsters" DVDs that I watched, and since they all follow a similar format, I was pretty well-prepared for what I'd get on this DVD. Nonetheless, the 32-minute documentary - called "Monster By Moonlight" - surprised me a bit. For one, we actually hear from a member of the original production. Due to the age of these films, the vast majority of the participants are no longer with us, but Curt Siodmak, The Wolf Man's screenwriter, is still kicking, so we hear a few comments from him. The remainder of the interviews come from the usual crew of film historians and also make-up artist Rick Baker, and they provide a nice explanation of issues related to the movie.
One other surprise about the John Landis-hosted documentary is that it showed more willingness to criticize aspects of the production. No, there's no out-and-out slamming of the movie, but these kinds of programs - especially when they concern older "classic" films - tend to be relentlessly positive about the product and you hear little that could be regarded otherwise. During "Monster By Moonlight", however, we learn juicy tidbits like Lon Chaney's apparent dislike of make-up wizard Jack Pierce and Siodmak notes his feelings about the casting of Chaney in the title role. It's not exactly National Enquirer material, but it seems more honest than the usual comments, and it made the documentary more enjoyable for me.
Film historian Tom Weaver provides a terrific audio commentary for The Wolf Man. This track follows in the spirit of the documentary with its glib and revealing tone. During the commentaries for the other four films, the participants seemed overly somber and serious about the movies; Weaver, on the other hand, manages a light and occasionally sarcastic tone about The Wolf Man. He's more than happy to mention the film's flaws and this semi-critical tone makes his comments all the more compelling. He packs a ton of information into this track; some of the others drag at times but Weaver barely stops for air since there's so much to say and so little time in which to say it. Weaver's commentary is possibly the best of the five tracks.
The remainder of the DVD features supplements similar to those found on The Mummy (and the other three "Monster" DVDs, for that matter). The Wolf Man archive works along same lines as that for The Mummy: it's a mixture of posters, lobby cards and production photos accompanied by the soundtrack to the movie, and it runs for nearly seven minutes. In addition, we get good biographies for eight actors and director George Waggner, some more interesting production notes plus what actually appears to be the film's original trailer (all the others say "re-release" in their fine print, but this one doesn't). Some of the material's a bit redundant - the excellent documentary and the terrific audio commentary covered so much - but it's still worth a look.
When I reviewed the first three DVDs in the "Universal Monsters" series, I recommended them without hesitation. I don't feel nearly as strongly about The Mummy or The Wolf Man but I do feel both are worth your purchase. The movies aren't as good as their predecessors but I think they're somewhat interesting. The Mummy doesn't look or sound very good, but it's watchable, while The Wolf Man provides a relatively strong presentation in both departments. Each DVD features some good supplements, though The Wolf Man is the clear winner in that category because of the high quality of its audio commentary and documentary; those two are worth the price of admission alone. If you can't fit all five DVDs into your budget, go with the three previous entries, but I think you'll be pleased if you can pick up these two as well.
Current as of 6/16/2000
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