Wolf (1994) Blu Ray (Indicator) starring Jack Nicholson
Of wolf and man
Jack Nicholson plays Will Randall, the editor-in-chief of a New York publishing company who, on the way back from closing a deal in Vermont, accidentally runs over a wolf. When he gets out of the car to check to check whether it’s still alive it suddenly bites him. After he returns home he soon discovers that he is going through some incredible changes - amongst them being considerably enhanced senses of smell and hearing, a boosted libido, an insatiable appetite for red meat and a sudden propensity to drive nearby animals into a frenzy.
One evening, he attends a huge soiree thrown by his boss, Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), who invites him out for a walk and a talk in the ground of his mansion. Raymond reveals that he has given his job to a hot young rival named Stewart Swinton (James Spader). He offers Will a consolatory role: deploying him to Eastern Europe so as to break into the (then) nascent market in the area. However, our protagonist is rather upset about both propositions and, as soon as Raymond has left, suffers a sudden anxiety attack which scares his boss’s horses and leaves him staggering through the hedgerows.
When he comes around he finds that he is attended to by Raymond’s beautiful daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), with whom he soon hits it off. This turns out to be fortunate timing since Will discovers that Stewart has not only stolen his job but also his wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan). Our newly-empowered protagonist sets out to get his own back. However, when he starts going on some blood-splattered night-time excursions of which he has no memory he becomes increasingly concerned that his new abilities are the result of the bite turning him into a werewolf. He seeks out an unorthodox doctor named Vijay Alezais (Om Puri) to find out the truth.
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The era of classy horror
After the success of the Oscar-winning Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), the early to mid-1990s were a time when Hollywood studios poured large budgets and signed up top-drawer acting and directing talents to make classy horror films. Mike Nichols’ Wolf is one such product of its time.
From an acting and writing standpoint it’s undeniably a good movie. Jack Nicholson has as much presence and sly charisma as he always does - but, for the most part, keeps a surprising rein on the excesses he is known for displaying in many of his other roles. He’s believable and nuanced as a rather haggard, over-the-hill man torn between embracing his newfound powers and anguishing over the nagging sense of guilt that he may unwittingly be using them to kill other people. The supporting cast is also great, in particular, Michelle Pfeiffer as his headstrong new girlfriend and James Spader as his slimy and weaselly younger rival. The other roles are filled out with such fine actors as Richard Jenkins and Christopher Plummer.
A wolf-eat-wolf world
The script (by Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick and an uncredited Elaine May) makes a few wry digs at the dog-eat-dog (or should that be wolf-eat-wolf?) world of big-city business, office politics and me-first new-age empowerment culture. The characters are well-defined and there are several amusing moments such as Will’s classic line: “The worm has turned and it is now packing an Uzi!”
Unfortunately, Wolf has been hit by one life-threatening silver bullet: Mike Nichols’ direction. It’s not that the man (who passed away in 2014) was lacking in talent as a director; after all, he has been nominated for 5 Oscars and 5 Golden Globes, winning both for The Graduate. Unfortunately, genre movies have never really been his forte. To be fair, Wolf encompasses a much broader palette than the horror straitjacket normally associated with werewolves; there are elements of black comedy, satire, existential drama, romance and revenge tale in the mix.
However, it’s hard not to notice that when it does try to be horror it falls terribly flat. The wolf-prowling/attack scenes look like they’ve wandered in from a cheap made-for-TV production. The excessive use of slo-mo shots drenched in an incessantly bombastic Ennio Morricone score means that they are about as scary as an episode of The Magic Roundabout. The special effects are also incredibly underwhelming for a big-budget Hollywood production; Nicholson’s character’s “werewolf form” consists of tarting him up with a bit of extra facial hair, false teeth and coloured contact lenses. There are also a number of visual references here to old films such as Psycho, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Cat People which seem like contrived attempts to appear genre-aware without the realisation that genre necessarily depends on delivering requisite thrills.
On the other hand, Nichols does occasionally liven up the film’s slow pacing and dull attempts at horror with a few stylish flourishes. One pull-back shot taking in the length and breadth of a night-time New York Central Park, accompanied by an ever-increasing cacophony of wolf howls, is particularly smart. It’s clear that the big city is filled with literal (and, by extension, metaphorical) werewolves waiting to tear up their hapless would-be victims. At the end of the day, however, the film’s attempts to craft a more multilayered and “mature” take on lycanthropy mean that it misses the sense of fun that should come from its innately fantastical concept.
In the bizarre and ambitious genre blend stakes, Wolf is worth watching for its occasional bold ideas and a fine cast. However, the similarly magpie-like horror cum romance cum black comedy cum wish-fulfillment satire The Witches of Eastwick (1987) - which also featured Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Richard Jenkins amongst its cast - did it all in a much livelier manner. Meanwhile, An American Werewolf in London (1981) mixed lycanthropic horror with comedy and romance with a considerably sharper understanding of the demands of genre.
Runtime: 125 mins
Dir: Mike Nichols
Script: Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick, Elaine May
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, Kate Nelligan, Richard Jenkins, Christopher Plummer, Eileen Atkins, David Hyde Pierce, Om Puri
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The daytime sequences look great but the night-time shots could have been sharper. The soundtrack is pristine and full-sounding.
Something Wild Within: Mike Nichols’ Wolf is an interesting and well thought out essay by Brad Stevens, who discusses the film and its notion of Jack Nicholson starting out in a subdued manner - then becoming the “true” Jack Nicholson as he turns into the wolf-man. He also looks at how it fits in with the ideas presented in Nichols’ other films.
Mike Nichols on Wolf features snippets from promotional interviews with the director. He mentions how Jack was ideal casting because he is, naturally, halfway towards being a werewolf. He also reveals that it was a challenging production for him, being one of his rare films to fall behind schedule. Producer Douglas Wick on Wolf again features contemporary interview extracts.
The final section Critical Response looks at three of the (rather mixed) reviews from its 1994 release.
The Beast Inside: Creating Wolf
A solid if overlong 55-minute documentary featuring interviews with producer Douglas Wick, make-up artist Rick Baker and co-writer Wesley Strick. The film’s idea was apparently derived from the mystical feeling the story’s original writer Jim Harrison had when woke up in the snow one morning with no idea of how he got there. Strick was brought in by director Mike Nichols to rewrite Harrison’s work in order to make it more feasible to put up on screen. He also made a number of changes including altering the company where the main protagonist worked from a law firm to a publishing house. He also changed the character of Raymond Alden from being Laura’s brother to her father, which put paid to the originally-proposed casting of Mick Jagger in the role on the grounds that he looked too young.
Cast and Crew Interviews
Mike Nichols, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, Kate Nelligan, producer Douglas Wick, screenwriter Jim Harrison, SFX artist Rick Baker and production designer Bo Welch (but, unfortunately, not Jack Nicholson himself) contribute to the selection of interviews here. The highlight is Mike Nichols who discusses how New York’s similarity to a jungle inspired him to make this film. He also mentions that he wanted Michelle Pfeiffer to wear a little red hood (spot the reference). However, she refused to do so.
Some behind-the-scenes footage from the making of the film.
A trailer and image gallery round out the extras.
I came away from the film Wolf with somewhat mixed feelings. However, the extras did at least imbue me with an appreciation of what they were attempting to achieve here. If you enjoyed the film on its release or want to check out an unusual angle on the werewolf myth then this for you.