The Wolf Man is clearly one of the five or six best horror titles to come out of Universal studios in the 30s and 40s. Horror was Universal's lifeblood for that twenty-year stretch and though much of what they produced was true B-movie fair they hit a handful of homeruns including Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man. The Wolf Man is the well-known story of ill-fated Larry Talbot's brush with the supernatural and his subsequent demise. It's an atmospheric romp through a surreal world very reminiscent of the one presented in Bride of Frankenstein replete with memorable characters and situations. The Wolf Man's plot is shot through with holes but seems to work on almost every level none the less. Some modern viewers may not be able to get past the camp factor but those that do will be rewarded with an unforgettable study in gothic horror.
Unfortunately the picture quality is the most problematic element of this otherwise fine DVD. Universal seems to have been unable (or unwilling) to find a pristine copy of The Wolf Man. The print is damaged with dirt, exhibits pinholes and scratches, has a number of bumpy cuts and is plagued by a thin vertical black like that comes and goes throughout the first half of the movie. That being said, the transfer is good and shows no compression artifacts. The black levels and contrast are very good and the images look clearer than any other consumer version has in the past. For comparison one need only view the theatrical trailer which is much closer to the battered and beaten versions of the film that we're used to seeing on TV and VHS tape. Don't let the nicked and damaged film elements scare you away from The Wolf Man. This isn't a Criterion quality print but it's still light years beyond what we've seen to date.
The usual problem with films of this age is a combination of hiss and lack of dynamic range that make the music sound flat and the dialogue hard to understand. Universal did a great job with The Wolf Man's audio track (presented in Dolby 2.0 mono.) It's substantially devoid of hiss and has a clean mix, free from pops and other flaws. I had no problems with distortion even at fairly high volumes and the dialogue was crisp and clear throughout.
The Classic Monster Series is building a reputation for solid ancillary content and The Wolf Man is no exception. You'll find the usual cast and crew bios, production notes and theatrical trailer as well as an archive of production and publicity materials. Most of the text content is duplicated in the video documentary and audio commentary track and the production photos are actually a video title meaning that the user has no way to step forward and back through the images. Monster by Moonlight: The Immortal Saga of the Wolf Man hosted by John Landis is another great David J. Skaal production featuring interviews with screenwriter Curt Siodmak and makeup artist Rick Baker. It gives a nice overview of the history of lycanthropy movies in general and The Wolf Man in specific. The audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver follows in the tradition of earlier Classic Monster commentaries by being so information-packed and frenzied that you'll miss a great deal of it the first time through. Weaver talks a blue streak from the opening scene to the final credits and his friendly, outgoing style is fun to listen to. He packs the track with all sorts of interesting trivia, historical information and even a smattering of shot by shot breakdowns. Weaver can be a little juvenile at times but his slips into silly fan-boy mode can be easily overlooked.
All in all this is a fine addition to the Classic Monster series. The film elements and supplements don't come up to the level of some of the other titles but it's a great DVD none the less. If you're a fan of the Universal horror films this is a must-have.