Review: Wolf

New York book editor Jack Nicholson is bitten by a wolf late one night after accidentally hitting it with his car. His luck worsens when he gets to work the next day to find that his rich boss Christopher Plummer has demoted him in favour of butt-kissing upstart James Spader. The married Nicholson also starts taking an interest in Plummer’s rebellious daughter Michelle Pfeiffer, despite being married to Kate Nelligan. Meanwhile, ever since his encounter with the wolf, Nicholson has started to notice changes in himself...heightened senses, an increased hunger and aggression. It appears he has been cursed to live by night as a werewolf! Om Puri plays an East Indian lycanthropy expert whose fascination with the subject is to the extreme to say the least. “Frasier” co-star David Hyde Pierce turns up as Nicholson’s loyal co-worker Roy (Does Niles Crane look like a ‘Roy’ to you?), Prunella Scales is an author associated with the publishing house, and Richard Jenkins is a nosy cop.

This 1994 Mike Nichols (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “The Graduate”, “Carnal Knowledge”, “Primary Colours”) horror/drama goes so far out of its way to be anything but a werewolf film that even when it does enter the realm of the lycanthrope, it’s still a low-key disappointment. The film seems to be three movies in one; 1) A “Wall Street” of the publishing world, 2) A ‘rich family with dark secrets’ tale, and 3) A werewolf movie...if we have time. The result is a mess, two plots too many, and frankly only intermittently enjoyable.

Worst of all, Nichols employs the services of respected makeup man Rick Baker (“An American Werewolf in London”, the 1976 remake of “King Kong”) and legendary composer Ennio Morricone (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, “Once Upon a Time in the West”, “The Untouchables”), and barely even gives them anything to do! Baker’s makeup and FX are deliberately stripped-down, so much so that any other FX/makeup guy could’ve done the same job for about $50 that Baker has been hired to do at a much higher pay rate. Granted, Nichols is obviously going for more sparse, realistic work here, and some will appreciate it, just not me. It is good for what it is, but I don’t like what it is. I’ve always felt Baker’s makeup work has been largely overrated, especially on “An American Werewolf in London”, so perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Hell, it’s ironically his best werewolf makeup to date, whatever you might make of that. But there is no doubt that Baker’s talents, such as they are (I’ve always rated Rob Bottin’s work on “The Howling” as the benchmark), are largely underused here. Nichols isn’t interested in a traditional horror film, let alone a traditional werewolf film. But Morricone is a major disappointment here and there’s no excuse for it. The master composer of so many iconic scores is barely even noticeable here, it’s a largely nondescript score. It might just be the least impressive work of Morricone’s long career (I didn’t much like his work on John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, either). However, it’s mostly Nichols and the screenwriters who are to blame for this film’s faults. By focusing on the dramatic elements rather than the horror/suspense aspects, the film becomes plodding, glacially-paced (20 minutes too long as well!), and far too low-key to really succeed in the horror genre that it ultimately falls into.

The film does have its positives, including a mostly impressive cast. Given some of their roles in the past, Nicholson (“The Shining”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and Pfeiffer (“Batman Returns”, “Ladyhawke”- in which she essentially was in love with a ‘wolf man’) certainly are not miscast, though the former proves far more effective than the latter, who is a bit bland. Nicholson’s best scenes are where he’s realising his enhanced sensory capabilities after being bitten, which are really quite well-done. It’s the one aspect of the film where the ‘realistic’ or minimalist approach pays off. Pfeiffer has never been my favourite actress, but for once (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), I’d have preferred Sharon Stone in the role. Pfeiffer’s too remote and cold, whereas Stone, limited as she may be, would have no problems heating things up (Demi Moore and Ellen Barkin are other names that come to mind). Worse still, the film’s final twist would’ve been a corker had Pfeiffer not telegraphed it from the very beginning of the scene. It’s called underplaying, Ms. Pfeiffer, and you might want to look into it sometime. As Nicholson’s adulterous wife, Nelligan is the same cold fish she always is, never once changing her facial expression. Quick, someone check her pulse! (Shame it’s not a vampire movie). Thank God for James Spader and Christopher Plummer, who take off with the whole film. Although he gets next to nothing to do, Plummer is an old hand at this sort of outwardly genial but sinister character, and Spader is just fantastic as a guy so gutless that he can’t even own up to being a total scumbag. ****Mild Spoiler**** I must say however, that Nichols misses the boat by not playing up Spader’s eventual transformation, which is really the whole point of his character. As a man he’s far too cowardly to reveal his true selfish intentions, but as a wolf, his inhibitions should be gone. Nichols gives us some of that, but not enough for my liking. At any rate, he’s fantastic in the role and clearly having a ball. ****End Mild Spoiler****

The other chief asset of this film (aside from the fun opening titles) is the superb night-time cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno (“On the Beach”, “Carnal Knowledge”, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”), which sets the appropriate mood and atmosphere that the director ultimately doesn’t much capitalise on.

As I’m fond of saying, there’s a good movie in here, but (to paraphrase myself) Mike Nichols doesn’t seem to want to make it. Scripted by Jim Harrison (“Legends of the Fall”) and Wesley Strick (“Arachnophobia”, “Final Analysis”) perhaps can’t be entirely faulted, it’s just a totally different film to the one you expect going in. It’s also a film I didn’t especially want. Perhaps you will disagree and find much to appreciate here. As for me, at least it’s far less pretentious and overblown than “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, I’ll give it that, but I’d still rather watch George Waggner’s “The Wolf Man” or Joe Dante’s “The Howling” for my lycanthrope fix.

Rating: C+


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