This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
“The animal is out. Nicholson. Pfeiffer. Wolf.”
Frankly, that sparse poster copy would have been enough to tempt most moviegoers into the theater in 1994, but a werewolf movie starring a man who already appeared to be mid-transformation in real life would have been a deal-sealer for many a horror aficionado. Which is perhaps why, when appraising Smiling Jack’s extensive filmography, Wolf is often drudged up from the file marked “oh yeah, I forgot about that one.”
Because Wolf is many things; but it ain’t a horror movie.
In fact, trying to pin Wolf down to a particular genre is a struggle. It’s often very funny but isn’t a comedy; there are murders and police investigations, but it really isn’t a crime thriller; Rick Baker-designed man-beasts attack and fingers are torn off, but I stand by my assertion that it definitely isn’t a horror film.
I used to be happy with “darkly comic fantasy (melo)drama with thriller elements” (it’s a sub-genre), but extensive reflection and my current appreciation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe has revealed Wolf for what it truly is: a superhero film for middle-aged people.
The most basic plot synopsis may fool you into believing that you’re in familiar horror territory: man gets bitten by a wolf during a full moon and slowly begins to take on bestial characteristics, all the while going on mysterious – possibly murderous – sleepwalks at night. But the film actually uses that familiar werewolf set-up as a jumping off point to do something that’s closer in spirit to a classic comic book origin story.
Consider the (now very recognizable) turn of events: ordinary guy gets bitten by a supernatural animal; is confused by – but then revels in – newfound abilities; teaches some bullies a lesson; woos a girl who was previously out of his league; gets hit by doubt and wonders if he’d be best rid of his powers, before embracing his gifts when his girl is threatened, launching himself headfirst into a battle with a similarly-powered individual for a climactic fight which turns out to be the dullest part of the film.
Instead of our Jack stumbling off and turning into an unconvincing lupine animatronic at the end, Sam Jackson should have shown up and said “I’m here to talk to you about The Monster Squad* initiative.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start – where many films tend to – at the beginning.
That is the film’s first line of dialogue, uttered by Jack Nicholson’s Will Randall as he drives through a blizzard on his way to a date with Destiny. (I’ve decided to call the wolf that bites him “Destiny.” She looks like a Destiny. Or maybe it’s a he – I don’t know, the camera doesn’t linger that long.)
It’s not an auspicious start, but the witty script is actually one of the film’s main strengths, navigating the inherent ludicrousness of the premise with ease while finding time to sprinkle a few mirth-inducing one-liners along the way.
For the most part, the film is played completely straight, allowing characters to speak, reflect, and react to the absurdities of the plot in a pleasingly naturalistic manner. When Will figures out that he’s been changed by the wolf’s bite, he asks a colleague to look up the author of the most reputable text on animal possession. “You mean like a manual for owning an animal?” comes the slightly bemused reply. Even when Will is talking to said expert (an almost unrecognizable Om Puri buried beneath some impressive old-age make-up) he makes it clear that while he now has super-hearing and is able to leap a flight of stairs in a single bound, he “doesn’t subscribe to any of this.” It all helps lend an air of verisimilitude to proceedings.
What’s perhaps a little less convincing is Nicholson’s attempt to portray Will as a put-upon everyman. It doesn’t matter how many times he utters how tired he is or how respectfully timid he tries to act; ‘90s Nicholson came with baggage. And that baggage was the irrefutable confidence of a man who wears sunglasses indoors – all of the time – and gets away with it.
It harms the film to a certain extent, as rather than witnessing the transformation of subservient ‘yes man’ to alpha male, what we actually get is Jack Nicholson becoming Jack Nicholson with fluffier sideburns. But let’s face it: we all kinda like Jack Nicholson – sideburns or not – so that’s OK. Besides, our sympathies are given an extra nudge towards ‘Team Will’ thanks to his gloriously perfidious nemesis.
For every moment that Jack Nicholson fails to convince as a meek pushover, James Spader knocks being a slimy jerk out of the park. Spader has always had a talent for playing amoral, sleazy characters, but his Stewart Swinton is a highlight of his seedy resume’: a particularly loathsome distillation of obsequious self-servitude. You almost admire his mendacious conniving: screwing Will out of both his job and his wife, all the while expressing how terrible he feels about it with that faux puppy dog look on his face. Many werewolf movies make you dread the inevitable transformations; such is your investment in the lives that are about to be ruined. In Wolf, you’re counting the minutes before Spader gets his lungs ripped out (a denouement we are, alas, sadly denied).
“He actually urinated on my shoe.”
Spader may be the film’s MVP, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the rest of the cast. There are, of course, the cinematic heavy-hitters of Nicholson, Christopher Plummer, and Michelle Pfeiffer (performing at peak Pfeifferocity). But the supporting cast is also a notch above top, with TV talent recognizable from acclaimed shows as head-snakingly diverse as Six Feet Under (Richard Jenkins), Frasier (David Hyde Pierce), Fawlty Towers (Prunella Scales), and Doc Martin (Eileen Atkins). And you may not think you need to see Ruth Ellingham use the f-word at Jack Nicholson, but you do. You really do.
With the notable exception of Spader – who dials his performance up to 11 in the final reel – they all play their parts with such natural understatement that the moments of melodrama are more glaring as a result. A sequence where Jack (or rather, a poorly disguised stuntman) stalks a deer through the woods has more than a whiff of Lou Ferrigno running in slow motion during an episode of The Incredible Hulk. A bionic man sound effect during his final leap from a tree wouldn’t have sounded amiss. Such brutal shifts in tone make it difficult to go with these more fanciful aspects of the movie, and scenes like this come off as plain camp as a result.
Ennio Morricone’s heightened score doesn’t help. It’s quite wonderful in isolation (let’s be honest, nearly all his stuff is) but it’s more than a little incongruous in context: a publishing editor turning in for the night while muttering about his tough day at work never quite gels with the Gothic crescendo of strings that plays whenever we cut to a shot of the moon.
Behind-the-scenes struggles are clearly a factor in the film’s uneven tone. The late great Mike Nichols helmed this one, and his reported clashes with the film’s original screenwriter Jim Harrison may go some way to account for the film’s inconsistencies. Nichols enlisted the aid of his erstwhile comedy partner Elaine May to significantly re-tool the script – and she is probably responsible for the lightness of tone and most of the droll dialogue. The relationship between Harrison and May was evidently a positive one, but he was so displeased with the final film that he left Hollywood for good following the movie’s release.
There are clearly two competing visions at the heart of Wolf, and due to the clumsiness with which they are spliced together it’s pretty easy to divine what they are. One is a reflection on the male mid-life crisis, where a talented hard-working man consigned to the corporate scrapheap fights back against unearned youthful arrogance. Ignore the tacked-on boss fight at the end, and Will defeats his enemies using that most feared weapon in the werewolf arsenal: the re-negotiated contract! Conversely, there’s the Gothic horror melodrama transposed to a modern setting, complete with blood, sharp teeth, and delicious histrionics. There’s also a satire on the publishing industry buried in there somewhere, but that kind of gets lost through all the teeth and hair.
These are all difficult bedfellows, to say the least, and probably the main reason Wolf failed to find an appreciative audience.
“The worm has turned and is now packing an Uzi.”
It’s right at the end that Wolf finally embraces the silliness that’s been bubbling under the surface and descends into farce, as two middle-aged men with facial hair appliances and joke shop fangs attack each other in a stable. The original ending – and you wonder if it really could have been any worse – was jettisoned in response to some appalling test screening feedback. But one wonders how hastily the replacement footage was assembled.
The opening credits are notable for stating “Special make-up effects by Rick Baker,” which – given he designed the lupine effects for An American Werewolf In London – might foster an expectation for a visceral conclusion. Alas, the subtle make-up effects during the first two acts are merely augmented to slightly cheesy effect, and what could have been a nasty, tooth and claw battle elicits some unintentional chuckles instead. Whether this approach was intentional or the reshoots resulted on a rushed reconfiguration of the prosthetics isn’t entirely clear, although there are pre-release publicity shots of Jack in full-on wolf-out mode that look far more polished and creepy-looking than anything that appears in the final film.
Maybe part of the fallout from those ill-fated previews was that the test audience didn’t like seeing Jack turn into a fully-fledged monster – that a furry-faced middle-aged superhero trying to prevent his girlfriend from being sexually assaulted by a furry-faced slightly younger super-villain was more appealing?
Either way, what should be a heart-pounding finale is instead in dire need of a little more… (I’m going for it)… bite. I would have strong words for members of that test screening audience – very strong words.
“What was your plan? To sit chained to the radiator ’til you grew paws?”
I haven’t mentioned Michelle Pfeiffer much, but then the film doesn’t seem particularly interested in her beyond setting her up as a rebellious ‘trophy’ for a newly invigorated Will to tame and woo (his wife cheats on him with Spader’s character, so it’s fine – he’s allowed to aggressively pursue the boss’s daughter who’s 20 years younger than him).
It’s a shame, as her initial indifference to Will’s advances is quite amusing (albeit short-lived) and she displays a fair amount of agency in her limited screen time: running circles around the police, figuring out Stuart’s agenda, and ultimately saving our hero from ‘death by secateurs’ by shooting the bad guy. She even gets turned without being bitten; we assume through “the passion of the wolf” as Om Puri puts it (although it’s not clear whether this is a euphemism for werewolvery being sexually transmitted – let’s not dwell on that).
Given all that, you’d expect it to be a meaty part, and yet her character feels frustratingly superfluous: more a foil than a fully realized character. There are hints of a tragic past and – natch – daddy issues, but they are fleetingly mentioned and never explored. More to the point, her attraction to an “old guy” (her words) who keeps collapsing in front of her is never satisfactorily explained. If she were responding to the bold and confident alpha male that was emerging, it may go some way to explaining why she hops into bed with him on only their third meeting. But during both their initial, fleeting introduction and a truncated evening in her apartment, he has a funny turn and she has to look after him.
“You’re a good man – and that’s very exotic to me,” she proclaims at one point, much to the assumed joy of male audience members in their fifties. It would carry a little more credibility if their previous two encounters hadn’t ended with Will accidentally groping her and running away in the middle of the night, respectively. It’s either wolf pheromones or bad plotting.
“Art is dead, and we are exhausted.”
I’ve ended on a downer. I must rectify this because – flaws notwithstanding – Wolf is a highly entertaining experience. Expunge any notion that it will deliver as a horror film, and you’re left with a witty – occasionally silly – but ultimately charming supernatural drama: a bit like a feature-length episode of Buffy, but starring Buffy’s mom and Giles instead of the Scooby Gang.
(That’s a recommendation, by the way.)
To return to the notion of superheroes, we’re constantly being reminded of late that “superhero” isn’t a movie genre; that films featuring superheroes can be spy-thrillers, or comedies, or even Westerns. The same is very much true of werewolf movies: consider the diversity of flicks such as Ginger Snaps, Teen Wolf, The Company Of Wolves, and The Howling.
Wolf may not be recalled as fondly as any of those takes on this enduring myth, but it’s worth rediscovering nonetheless.