Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, Kate Nelligan, Richard Jenkins, Christopher Plummer
Screenplay: Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick
125 mins. Rated R for language and werewolf attacks.
It’s weird that Jack Nicholson (Chinatown, How Do You Know) was so passionate about making a werewolf movie. He and his friend and screenwriter Jim Harrison tried to get this project off the ground for 12 years before finally making it happen. What’s even weirder than Jack’s drive to make Wolf is the idea that the movie has seemingly disappeared from pop culture. No one talks about Wolf. No one really discusses its place in the wider horror canon, especially among the realm of Werewolf Cinema, perhaps the toughest horror sub-genre to crack in cinema history. So why did this film get forgotten. Let’s look at that today as we break down my first viewing of Wolf.
From director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Closer), Wolf is the story of Will Randall (Nicholson), skilled editor-in-chief from a major publishing house, who is bitten by a black wolf on his way home from Vermont. In the following days, Will’s life is upended by changes in his career and personal life, seemingly none for the better. What’s more curious are the changes to Will’s body and mind. His ability to smell and hear grow exponentially to a superhuman level. He’s waking up in new and interesting places with no memory of the night before except unusual dreams. As the odd occurrences continue, Will finds himself ulterior perspectives, including a doctor who believes that Will is slowly turning into a wolf following his bite. Now, Will is forced to consider his limited options as his time runs out.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I dug the hell out of this movie. It’s not perfect, but for what it’s trying to do, I really found myself taken with it. Jack Nicholson’s take on Will and his transformations into a beast are fantastic, which should be a no-brainer, but his commitment to the role is really great. He also has great chemistry with just about everyone in the movie, from his romantic entanglement with Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer, What Lies Beneath, French Exit), his new boss’s daughter, to even secondary characters like David Hyde Pierce’s Roy, a colleague and assistant to Will. It helps that Harrison’s screenplay with Wesley Strick treats Will like a human being with a solid characterization and a gripping realistic take on the idea of lycanthropy.
On the other side of things, James Spader (Avengers: Age of Ultron, TV’s The Blacklist) just chews the scenery as Will’s protege, Stewart Swinton. There’s a smarmy quality to Spader’s best characters, and Stewart has that and a healthy dose of pity. It’s almost like Stewart is fully aware that his lies are unconvincing, and he doesn’t care. His sociopathy is higher than most characters, and through Spader’s performance, I believed every second of it.
Wolf has a similar visual flair to other horror films of the early 90s, like The Silence of the Lambs or perhaps The Good Son. What struck me was the visual likeness to Kubrick’s The Shining. It may have been the inclusion of Nicholson as a fractured character, but I got the same sense of tone from what was on display in Nichols’s movie as well. The cinematography from Giuseppe Rotunno seems to take cues from classic Universal Monsters and updates it to the early 90s (that pre-Frighteners look of the 90s).
Perhaps the film was mostly forgotten because it chooses to steer away from the campier albeit more memorable facets of the Werewolf film. Much like how zombies are never called zombies in Romero’s Living Dead films, we never hear mention of werewolves as an entity, and the idea of Randall’s slowly turning into an actual wolf may have lent it to disappointment for horror hounds looking for carnage, but I think that’s part of the charm. Rick Baker was brought on to develop the makeup and transformation effects, which may have led some to believe that the film would be more in line with his famous work on An American Werewolf in London (for which he won the inaugural Best Makeup Oscar), but his restraint here gives a more nuanced werewolf movie for the adults in the room. Baker had to work around Nicholson’s allergy to spirit gum, and he also had to craft realistic pieces of transformation and wolf effects. My wife laughed at the look of the wolf from the opening of the movie, but I loved the practical effect at play.
That’s not to say that Wolf is without fault. There are some choices, like shooting day-for-night in the dream sequences looking completely out of place. The film also runs on about 20 minutes too long, and it leaves you with unanswered questions and a bit more open of an ending than I would have liked. I also found the building of the romantic angle between Will and Laura to be a bit simplistic (remember, I called out their great chemistry here as a saving grace, but it could’ve been written better all the same). I also would’ve preferred a bit more bite in the climax, which works well but left me wanting more.
All of that aside, it’s amazing that we had a 90s werewolf movie with Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, and Christopher Plummer (Beginners, The Insider) and directed by the guy that did The Birdcage. It’s also amazing that we don’t really talk about it. My copy of the movie was a Mill Creek barebones DVD, so the film doesn’t seem to have the fanfare surrounding the more classic of the Werewolf movies, and it didn’t exactly blow away the box office, but I would very much recommend checking it out (or revisiting it if it’s been a while), as I thoroughly enjoyed Wolf.
-Kyle A. Goethe