I worked hard for The Wolf Man in 1969. I'd seen the classic Universal monster movie on Mel's Matinee Movie and the late Friday-night staple Horror, Incorporated. I'd fallen hard for the plight of the tragic lycanthrope Larry Talbot, played by the tortured non-actor Lon Chaney Jr. I especially loved the parts where man turns to beast: Something about all that sprouting hair, rage, and lust got my pre-altar-boy-to-man juices flowing. And I was hypnotized by the mantra that the Gypsies, doctors, and townsfolk would all repeat, which I will now type by heart: "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers at night can become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the moon is full."
I was 10 years old. I wanted to own The Wolf Man, but that was a fantasy in those days, so I did it piecemeal. In the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the greatest magazine in the history of publishing, I saw an ad for Castle Films, which sold silent 8mm versions of the classics in 10-minute reels. I rustled up some allowance money, got my mom to write the check, filled out the order form, licked the stamp, and waited. Around the same time, I responded to an ad for a 33 1/3 rpm monster-movie highlights album from Decca Records. The fine print on both ads teased, "Allow six to eight weeks for delivery."
I may have lost my virginity, the rest of my family may have been murdered in their sleep, my Classics Illustrated comic-book collection may have gone up in flames. I don't remember. I can't recall anything about those six to eight weeks, but I remember the anticipation, the daily buzzkill of going to the mailbox to find only bills, shoppers, and other grown-up dross. Until.
The vinyl came first. I tore it out of the cardboard box, ripped open the shrink-wrap, and put it on the turntable of the family console, a massive piece of brown, Pledge-caked furniture that housed albums by the Monkees, Beatles, Archies; Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison, and the J.F.K. audio docudrama Four Days That Shook the World. I lay down on the green-yellow shag carpet in the living room and let narrator Boris Karloff escort me through the hits of Horrorwood. In a typical clip, an old Gypsy woman eulogized the steaming beaten beast: "The vay you valked was thorny, trew no fault of your own."
A few weeks later, a package with my name on it and the return address of Castle Films arrived. I opened it and beheld the small square box before me. The color painting on the cover--of a drama that I'd only seen in black and white--was nothing short of erotic. I took it upstairs. I set up my dad's projector, which we'd previously used to view his films from the Korean War, fumbled with the two reels, threaded the film through the slot next to the light bulb, and flicked the switch.
On a tiny square of my bedroom wall came the Universal Studios logo, with the plane circling the earth. It was a silent film, but I could hear the chop of the propellers plain as day, and the swell of the orchestra that abruptly introduced the bloody-lettered opening credits. It wasn't dark enough, so I unplugged the projector and took it inside my dad's office closet, and shut the door behind me. With my father's suit coats and my mother's dresses caressing my shoulders, I watched.
And watched and watched. I played it for my younger brother and sister. So many times did we rewind to the funny part where wolfie tiptoes on his haunches through the mist-covered woods that the film began to burn. I spliced it together with Scotch tape, played it some more, and eventually grew up and moved on. I've got the reel in a shoebox in the basement somewhere, along with a few more Castle Films that followed, but the erotic artwork is long gone.
The other day, I wanted to see it again. I wanted my 10-year-old son to see it. I went to something called my Dell Dimension 4100, punched two buttons, and a logo for something called Netflix filled the screen. I searched "wolf man" and there it was: The Wolfman Legacy Collection (1935). I punched two more buttons--one that read, "Add"; another that read, "Move to the Top of My Queue," and waited. You could cut the anticipation with a wet towel.
The next morning, I punched two more buttons. An electronic signal pulsed off to something called a server, which connected with something called my e-mail, which came on screen. In my inbox were pictures and videos from people from all around the world: quotes, songs, all sorts of breaking news and opinion, come-ons for penis enlargements, inspirational poems. One was from Netflix shipping, and it read, "For Wednesday: The Wolfman Legacy Collection."
My grandfather worked in the coal mines in Ireland and northern England until he was 21. When he decided to come to America, he lit out for the New World on the S.S. Celtic. It took him three months to arrive in Minneapolis. Once he got here, he never spoke or wrote to his family in Ireland and England again.
Two days after I thought about it, The Wolf Man came in the mail in a red and white wrapper. I opened it with little fanfare. The DVD slipcase was black and white, with just the basics typed out. I sat down with my son, and he fired up the digital video player. The sound was perfect. So was the picture: not a single blemish. There were special features, including the original movie-house trailer, and four other werewolf movies, all of which could be had at the bump of a fingertip.
The next night, we found ourselves in a Cracker Barrel, a restaurant that deals in comfort food and comfort: On the porch, they sell "adult rockers" (rocking chairs) for $130. In the lobby, they sell country music, resort wear, and DVDs. If you had told the boy hunkered down in the closet with the 8mm projector that one day he would find himself standing in front of a kiosk filled with the complete works of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Sherlock Holmes, all for five dollars a pop, and that he would walk away without gobbling up every last one, he would have looked at you like you were from The Outer Limits.
As for The Wolf Man: My son was genuinely horrified. He buried his head in his pillow and plugged his ears whenever the wild-eyed man-wolf started tearing at his lapel. The next day, I slid the DVD back into its return envelope and popped it the mail. Once was enough.
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.