Retromedia/Image Entertainment

Lon Chaney Jr. was one of the most popular character actors of the 20th century and he is fondly remembered today as one of the great horror performers along with such noted icons as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and John Carradine. During his tenure at Universal Pictures in the 1940s, Chaney gave us his own renditions of many classic famous monsters ranging from Frankenstein's Monster and Kharis the mummy to Count Dracula's son and ultimately his own personal signature role, that of Lawrence Talbot, the tragic Wolf Man. But there was more to Lon's career than just makeups and emulating ghouls and goblins; he also excelled in heartwarming parts and by injecting pathos into his acting. And in this special collection from Retromedia, he is given a chance to demonstrate a little bit of everything in "four rare films".

First up is MANFISH (1956), a seldom seen adventure feature supposedly based on two of Edgar Allan Poe's stories ("The Gold Bug" and "The Tell-Tale Heart"). Chaney plays a lumbering and gullible first mate nicknamed "Swede" to the mean and unlikable Captain Brannigan (John Bromfield). Taking place in exotic Jamaican locations, these two sailors board their ship, christened the Manfish, and search the waters of the Caribbean for a buried treasure. They gain an unwelcome partner when they cross paths with a cunning professor (Victor Jory, who tends to go off the deep end now and then) who happens to hold part of the key to their fortune. At first it's evident that MANFISH is not only rather cheap, but also not all that well directed, but much to its credit things gradually escalate to a satisfying and intense last act as murder and foul play kick into gear. If not for the fact that two of its main characters are so despicable (the captain and the professor) this could have been more potent. As it stands, Lon Chaney is the only likable member of the cast and while his old Lenny routine may be very familiar, at least it adds something light to an otherwise loathsome crew. This is definitely a feature worth watching.

I'm not positive just how hard it might have been to find better elements for MANFISH, but utilized here is a black and white 16mm print. I didn't learn until later that it was, in fact, supposed to be in color; as the ending credits clearly proclaimed: "Color By Deluxe". The audio is adequate and the picture quality as it stands is understandably imperfect, with occasional scratches. But while at first this is a bit of a jolt, given the elusive nature of this movie (and the two features to follow) this is easy to overlook and once the story is underway it's not at all a distraction.

THE GOLDEN JUNKMAN (1956) is an episode from the forgotten television show "Telephone Time," and I was highly impressed by Lon's strong acting in the convincing role of a Greek immigrant who raises two Americanized sons alone after the death of their mother, only to find that they grow to be embarrassed by their father's occupation as a lowly peddler. To try and win his boys' approval, Chaney enrolls in college along with them. I've seen many performances of Lon over the decades, but his turn here as an accented hardworking foreigner is one of his most shining moments, and it's a joy to be able to have it here neatly on this disc. Like the last film, THE GOLDEN JUNKMAN is again culled from a rare 16mm source print, and tends to run a tad dark. Taking this into account, it's still quite enjoyable under the circumstances and the sound is good.

Macdonald Carey was the star of the next TV show called LOCK UP (1960) and the episode included herein is, of course, one which features Lon Chaney. This time as a small-town sheriff, Chaney meets the acquaintance of Carey, whose character is Herbert L. Maris, Attorney. It seems a local woman has been shot to death and for some reason, Lon's nervous sheriff appears intent on framing the woman's husband for her murder, based only on circumstantial evidence. LOCK UP is again on 16mm, and in comparison to what's come before on this set, appears to be slightly out of focus at first. This flaw eventually works itself out, though I did hear a couple of instances on the audio soundtrack where the dialogue became distorted off and on. I know I sound like I'm excusing an awful lot in repeating this, but once again it should be taken into account the obscurity of this program, as well as what has gone before.

For longtime horror fans like myself, last but never least is the final chestnut on this compilation which, for some reason, is being tagged only as a "Special Bonus Feature" -- It's INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN (filmed in 1954 but released in 1956), which is a cherished favorite that people now in their 40s or older grew up with on Saturday afternoon TV once upon a time. In this doozy, Chaney plays a criminal known as "Butcher" Benton, who is double-crossed by his own lawyer and two of his accomplices when they turn state's evidence against him. He is sentenced and executed, but is accidentally restored to life by two bozo scientists (ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN's Robert Shayne and McHALE'S NAVY's Joe Flynn!). Now a revitalized automoton, Butcher seeks revenge on the three men who sent him to the electric chair.

For a lot of fans checking this review, the inevitable question will be, "so how does INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN look?" -- Now, we've all had our one irritating movie which has always been impossible to find in great condition on home video and for me, it's always been this one. I must have been through ten or more versions over the years, and now Retromedia proudly boasts on its rear packaging: "For the first time in 35mm! This Lon Chaney horror staple can finally be seen in a crisp, clear transfer unlike any DVD release before it. Throw away your budget edition. This is the real deal!" So what is the verdict? Well, I'm pleased to say that YES, of all the commercially available discs and VHS tapes that have flooded the market over the years, this IS the best I've seen to date. It even thankfully restores a line of Chaney's limited dialogue from his jail cell which is usually missing on other copies, heard early in the picture.

The sound on this disc is very good. The video quality is pretty clear, though I did spot the occasional tape glitch now and then. At times the image may have seemed a tad soft. While this is 35mm, I can't say the transfer is literally THE best I've ever seen, as I've got an unofficial DVD-R copy of my own from some unknown source which someone traded to me a few years back (I don't know precisely where that one originated from). By pitting these two against each other, I preferred my unknown DVD-R by a slight margin. But with that quibble aside, for all intents and purposes, most fans would do well to upgrade to this new DVD if they're specifically interested in acquiring the best INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN to date.

Before I forget, I should also take a moment here to mention that all these features are included on a single, double sided "flipper" disc, and that each of these features are offered in 1.33 ratio.

Also included within this set are two more extra features. There's a Still Gallery which mainly consists of vintage 1950s/1960s Lon Chaney pics, some of them very enticing. Another bonus is an interview segment with director/cinematographer Gary Graver called "Remembering Lon". Graver got to meet Boris Karloff, and was hired to drive Lon Chaney around as well as photograph him and J. Carrol Naish during the production of Al Adamson's THE BLOOD SEEKERS in 1969 (which later became the cult favorite DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN). Graver has some interesting stories to tell about this stage of Chaney's career, and it's a welcome way to cap off this package.

In summary, for fans of Creighton Chaney, THE LON CHANEY COLLECTION is a nice way to own INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN in its best quality on home video to date, as well as conveniently acquiring two rare half hour Chaney TV performances and another full-length feature, MANFISH, in the bargain. In my opinion, you can't go wrong.
(Joe Karlosi)