Tag Archives: The Wolf Man

[Stop Button Lists] Film School in a Car, Lesson 03

Audio Commentaries discussed…

  • The Funhouse • 2012 • Tobe Hooper • Shout! Factory
  • Cat People • 2002 • Paul Schrader • Universal Home Video
  • The Wolf Man • 1999 • Tom Weaver • Universal Home Video
  • The American • 2010 • Anton Corbijn • Universal Home Video

I had good reasoning when I decided to listen to The Funhouse commentary; it’s similar to Psycho III in it being a Shout! Factory special edition, though I saw Funhouse more recently than Psycho III. It’s a horror film, but I really liked Funhouse. It’s one of my “dissenter” items on movielens. My co-host from Alan Smithee Podcast, Matt, loves the film and thought my exuberant reaction to it might be due to some kind of movie enthusiasm osmosis as I’m not a horror movie guy. But Funhouse is a monster movie, one with some startling reality to it.

So I listened to the commentary. And it is awful. Tobe Hooper, for his part, seems tired. I’m saying tired because the alternative is old. However he prepared for this commentary, it wasn’t the correct method, but it also doesn’t matter because he has a moderator. And the moderator, Tim Sullivan, is the single worst thing I’ve ever heard in front of a microphone. He’s condescending to Hooper, he’s condescending to the film–someone needs to tell Shout! Factory when their commentators hawk the blu-ray during the commentary track, it’s beyond obnoxious. He asks Hooper a question then cuts him off. He also exhibits zero empathy towards the characters in the film. Of course, he’s only seen it twice. Anyone would be a better moderator for this commentary. Even listening to Hooper ramble would be better than having Sullivan there.

Elizabeth Berridge stars in THE FUNHOUSE, directed by Tobe Hooper for Universal Pictures
Elizabeth Berridge stars in THE FUNHOUSE, directed by Tobe Hooper for Universal Pictures

And, while I turned off Criterion’s Godzilla commentary because of David Kalat’s moronic commentary–and even resisted the urge to reference “the stop button”–Funhouse does have Tobe Hooper. He does have things to say. Not a lot of them and Sullivan often interrupts or just derails Hooper’s train of thought, but he does have things to say. Sullivan’s just along to sound ignorant and offensive.

Most frustrating–and not Sullivan’s (presumably unintentional) misogyny–is how patronizing Sullivan gets. Shout! should get a moderator who’s interested in what the commentator has to say.

For my next commentary, I went with Paul Schrader’s Cat People as I happened across the DVD (the blu-ray doesn’t have the commentary). I grew up interested in Cat People–I was interested in all remakes in the early eighties–but didn’t see it until I was a teenager. I think I liked it the first time, but didn’t the subsequent times. I feel like I’ve told this story before. Anyway, the film impresses me quite a bit these days. Like Funhouse, it’s a Universal, early eighties horror movie. Unlike the Funhouse commentary, it’s Schrader alone and assured. Maybe Hooper just doesn’t have the ego for it. Schrader definitely does.

It gets off to a good start with Schrader talking about the production design and so on, but then he gets into the story of how the animals were treated and it’s real creepy. Schrader isn’t an animal lover. In fact, I’d say no animal lover should listen to the Cat People commentary.

Schrader manages not to become to personally offensive because he’s never actually likable. He’s not concerned with it. He’s talking about the filmmaking, not selling himself (or even selling the film) to the listener. It’s refreshingly pragmatic. If occasionally creepy.

Nastassja Kinski stars in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Paul Schrader for Universal Pictures.
Nastassja Kinski stars in CAT PEOPLE, directed by Paul Schrader for Universal Pictures.

The commentary also gets somewhat uncomfortable due to Schrader (at thirty-five, which is better than I thought) having a love affair gone wrong with lead Cat Nastassja Kinski (she was twenty). And Schrader’s openness about what shots he ripped off from Bertolucci and other European directors is cool. It raises this whole question about whether American film ever lost its proverbial virginity or just appropriated it from European cinema. The way Schrader talks about it, so matter-of-factly, makes one wonder if his peers were (or are) as forthcoming about their inspirations.

That openness has a callback to the Funhouse commentary where Sullivan accuses Hooper of ripping off a shot from Halloween and Hooper responded it was an intentional, obvious, acknowledged homage to “John” [Carpenter].

Having listened to two Universal horror commentaries, I figured I might as well go with a third (I had to reformat my iPhone and lost the various commentary tracks I’d assembled when I got the idea to listen to them again). Tom Weaver’s commentary for The Wolf Man; its DVD release was part of the same series as Bride of Frankenstein and I loathed that commentary track. But Weaver’s very different from Scott MacQueen, who did the Bride commentary. Weaver’s bemusedly hostile to the studio putting out the DVD. It’s never outrageous, but Weaver clearly doesn’t think Universal did enough to preserve the history of its horror films.

The Wolf Man commentary track reveals a subset of classic movie fan so big it appears to be its own thing–the classic horror movie fans. People who understand the studio system, understand how things worked, how classic films (especially b films) connect with one another, but their interest is entirely specialized on this one genre.

Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers star in THE WOLF MAN, directed by George Waggner for Universal Pictures.
Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers star in THE WOLF MAN, directed by George Waggner for Universal Pictures.

I grew up with The Wolf Man but also forget my sentimentality to it–maybe because I saw the sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, first. When my dad and I drove to a satellite location of our video store to rent The Wolf Man–you couldn’t return movies returned from this store at the other two, nearby locations, which meant another drive–we actually rented the 1979 Wolfman. I just remember it being an old dark house movie, but cheap seventies.

But I learned about old movies through the monster movies. And The Thin Man. My affection for The Wolf Man led to the “Films of the Golden Age” magazine, which led to discovering Eleanor Parker, which led to me seeing a lot more movies made before 1965. With rare exception (Kubrick, Hitchcock), I didn’t go back further than a Fistful of Dollars. Why? Because I could talk to most of my film-enthusiastic friends and acquaintances about those films. Older ones, not so much.

Weaver makes a lot of fun of Lon Chaney Jr. being full of it, but he always gives the impression of being a fan. Weaver’s rounded in how he talks about these people whose work he admires (though it’s not clear how much he really needs to talk about the drama).

The Wolf Man’s got an excellent commentary track. Weaver does a great job.

I was going to listen to another Universal release but ended up going with The American. I remember seeing it in the theater–we didn’t go opening weekend, but early in the second week. I loved it. I just haven’t seen it again. So I saw it almost five years ago. Made me wonder if I’d be able to follow director Anton Corbijn’s commentary as I’m not familiar with the film.

And, yes, I could follow Corbijn. He’s recording the commentary soon after making the film and he’s got a lot of narrative comments. He even quiets and tells the listener to pay attention to particular scenes. His enthusiasm for the film is refreshing.

The American was an impulse outing–cheap weekday movie night or something. I hadn’t seen much George Clooney since Solaris or so. But I really loved The American. I remember thinking about it at length afterwards. And Corbijn explains some of his inspirations and I think they’re what make the film special.

George Clooney stars in THE AMERICAN, directed by Anton Corbijn for Focus Features.
George Clooney stars in THE AMERICAN, directed by Anton Corbijn for Focus Features.

He went with a lot of Spaghetti Western visual influences and seventies Hollywood pacing, only set in the “Italy you never see,” in the modern day, with George Clooney as a hitman instead of a gunfighter. It raises an interesting question–where did the Western go? Did the genre just grow into thrillers? Triceratops and sparrows.

No. Because Westerns marketed to men, thrillers market to women. Kind of.

The American’s also an interesting commentary because, running under it, Corbijn was working with another director. George Clooney would’ve a more accomplished director. He probably still is a more accomplished director, missteps aside, than Corbijn. At least in terms of brand and marketing.

Corbijn does a fine job with the track. Not sure it’d be worth listening to again, but definitely once. Made me want to see if there’s a Tailor of Panama commentary too.

I was hoping for five commentaries minimum a post, but I’m getting close to the upper limit on word count so I’ll wrap it up right here.

Right here.

Here.

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The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner)

The Wolf Man‘s most lasting influence–beyond the advantages of using Larry Talbot as a synonym (Pynchon did it in Vineland) and the endlessly suffering protagonist–has to be the music. I noticed parts both John Williams (for The Empire Strikes Back) and Danny Elfman (for Batman Returns) lifted. The music is an essential part of the film, as many of Lon Chaney Jr.’s scenes are almost silent film style solo ones, where Chaney visualizes his internal turmoil.

Director Waggner’s style works for the film and against. There’s little attempt to create any sense of the uncanny. Between the booming music and Waggner’s fast-paced chase scenes, the film rushes toward its conclusion. All subtlety is lost in the last act, which is unfortunate, since the film started with so much.

Behind the film’s big story and special effects is the quiet one between Chaney–as returning, long absent son–and Claude Rains–top-billed as the father (and seventeen years older than Chaney). Rains has some lengthy monologues, which he’s good at delivering, and some other scenes involving Chaney, but at the end, when the two of them finally have a talk, The Wolf Man reveals itself. Rains then gets another nice scene on the same subject, only without Chaney. Had the film followed Rains, through his conflict over his son returning to his concern for the son’s sanity, to the fear the son might be right, The Wolf Man would have been high psychological drama.

Similarly, had it followed just Chaney, it would have been a stranger entering stranger and stranger lands.

As a mix of the two, it’s awkward. The big script holes don’t help either. There’s no consistency on how to prevent werewolf transformations or how often they occur. The film’s in a hurry to get done and it plays way too loose with the time it covers.

The other primary aspect of the film–the romance between Chaney and Evelyn Ankers–actually gets enough attention. Though Chaney and Ankers infamously did not get along, they appear to have lots of chemistry in the film, to the point Ankers’s absolute devotion (in the third act, after being off-screen for a while) makes perfect sense. Chaney’s transition through the film from utterly assured to abjectly despondent is one of the more fluid character progressions I can remember. Ankers helps out quite a bit.

Curt Siodmak’s script is best during those scenes with Ankers or Rains. The overuse of the gypsies is questionable as is the wasted supporting cast. The film’s filled with characters–Universal apparently needed roles for Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Patric Knowles–and it doesn’t have room for them. While Bellamy’s got a great, unintentionally absurd line, the film never–after mentioning it–discusses he and Chaney being childhood friends. William’s a superfluous doctor and Knowles should form a third side in a love triangle (for Ankers’s affection) but strangely does not.

There are a lot of ideas in The Wolf Man, but few of them are explored. Even the ending is strangely undercooked. The film stops rather than ends, but as it’s more in the hands of non-characters Bellamy and William, there’s really nothing else it can do.

Waggner’s got a gimmick he uses–blocking some of the frame with a lamp base or a tree–and, though it gets obvious, he uses it to great effect occasionally. The sight of Rains striking the unknown, even though the music is too bombastic, is haunting.

I was going to end there, but realized I haven’t really lauded Chaney enough. From his first moment on film, there’s nothing he can’t do here–and the script asks for a lot. He’s got to have all that turmoil in the middle and the end, but the beginning requires him to be completely different. Chaney does it all–and those silent-but-for-music scenes, as he discovers his feet getting furry or the wolf tracks in his bedroom, are amazing. He’s under-appreciated.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Waggner; written by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Ted J. Kent; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Claude Rains (Sir John Talbot), Warren William (Dr. Lloyd), Ralph Bellamy (Col. Montford), Patric Knowles (Frank Andrews), Bela Lugosi (Bela), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva), Evelyn Ankers (Gwen Conliffe), J.M. Kerrigan (Charles Conliffe), Fay Helm (Jenny Williams), Forrester Harvey (Twiddle) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man).


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