With a moody opening that sings high with 1990s aesthete sensibility (the Columbia Pictures logo being swamped by oppressive clouds then fading into a pre-title sequence that resembles Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman in a sense – which became a trendsetter in mainstream cinema come the 1990s), Wolf (1994) sets itself up as a modern gothic chiller. Ageing publishing agent Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is driving through snow covered plains in Vermont when he accidentally hits a wolf. Being a compassionate and considerate gent, he goes over to check on the animal lying on the road and is bitten. The spindly wolf races off into the woodlands and is joined by a pack that watches Will race back to his car in terror, nursing a bleeding hand. It is unclear if this original wolf is in fact a werewolf, but this doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the film does something remarkably different to other werewolf fare – it doesn’t present lycanthropy as a “curse”, instead turning the condition into something rewarding, liberating and hypnotically endearing.
Director Mike Nichols creates a werewolf analogy and sets it in the “dog eat dog” mentality of the corporate world. He loads the film with some sly dialogue and gets his performers to deliver them with driving wit and sophistication, which is exactly what this film is – purely and utterly sophisticated. This is not to say that the film remains a cerebral outing with not much in the way of monster movie magic, because that it also delivers as well. The brilliant screenplay presents subtext that merrily dances within the surface dialogue, producing loaded lines such as “Don’t you think it’s a little Roman?”, which refers to the manner in which Will and his associates are being fired – a subtle play on the ancient world (the world of the Romans) in the contemporary setting of modern day publishing.
Along with these subtle notes, come very sharp accents with lines such as “I begged” and other loaded lines reflecting the canine culture. Besides Will’s gradual acceptance of his lycanthropy, which can be paralleled with some of The Colony members embracing their werewolf state in The Howling (1981), the film’s sophisticated and urbane wit in the writing is what marries it thematically with Joe Dante’s film.
As well as the witticisms that pepper the film are fundamentally beautifully realized characterizations such as James Spader’s slimy Stewart Swinton – the snake in the grass who embodies the very nature of the “dog eat dog” aspect of the business world. Matching his sneaky smugness is Jack Nicholson in a performance that is layered, measured, careful, sensitive and brimming with style and elegance. Michelle Pfieffer shines as a troubled and rebellious young woman attracted to the put upon Nicholson, and offers much of the film’s grounded realism and earthbound beauty, fragmented by a sombreness and desperation.
The wonderful writing propels the film along with certain early set pieces establishing a highly sophisticated horror film for the self-reflective 1990s, such as the cross cutting in conversations during the Alden party and so forth. Kate Nelligan as the unsympathetic wife – disloyal and cagey – sits as a centrepiece in this particular sequence, and Will’s interaction and effect on horses – a clear distinction of his impending lycanthropy – is the stronghold in the conclusive catalyst. Christopher Plummer’s smarminess and coldness balances out the core cast and when he offers Will Eastern Europe as the place of the alternative job that “nobody wants”, it is a nice throwback to the culture of old world monsters.
Pfeiffer’s Laura Alden has a haunted past; her relationship with her father, her brother’s suicide (the idea of damaged wealthy youths), and her seduction into a learned lycanthropy is made all the more passionate because it is an escape from the loneliness and perpetual bleakness of human life. Laura and Will’s first meeting sparks the response “Good boy”, while the underhandedness of Stewart, owned by James Spader’s lascivious and manipulative revelling in the grotesque elements as his werewolf counterpart, make for a wonderful balancing act in story, style and character. Will’s youthfulness as a result of his impending lycanthropy (materialized by his becoming self-possessed and healthier) is a strong point in the film.
Where for the most part, cinema has treated werewolves as cursed unfortunates, here in Wolf, to give into the animal and the bestial is something that is beneficial and wholesome. This is something that is touched on in The Howling, however, giving into the beast is ultimately becoming violent and free from inhibitions that control sanity and the peaceful. In Wolf, Will’s senses, such as being able to smell various scents, his increased hearing and eyesight, and his ability to understand human nature is treated as a gift (something that Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee) peddles in The Howling).
Production elements, such as Ennio Morricone’s sometimes jazzy New York flavoured score – which is for the most part a grandiose cinematic expression of monster movie bliss – and the uncredited Elaine May’s contribution to the script, add to the film’s brilliance and effortless refinement. The fact that the word ‘werewolf’ is never uttered in the film is another remarkable feat (matching the fact that the word ‘mafia’ is never mentioned in The Godfather (1971)). The play with the rules of lycanthropy in the set-up is also just as fresh and innovative. There is the factor of being bitten, however; one contributing aspect to the film is that the love of the werewolf (eventually Laura’s compassionate leanings for Will transform her into a werewolf herself) is something that can lead to the lycan-state. This is something expressed through exposition with the updating of Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) from The Wolf Man (1941), and presented as a genuine believer as opposed to Dick Miller in The Howling, the wise old shaman-type/a contemporary variant of the expert in the occult, explains the rules to Will and in a refreshing twist, requests the gift himself.
Jack Nicholson channels elements of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot in some scenes, most notably the way he runs through the streets and prowls Central Park. This is countered by the palpable and very involving romance shared between Will and Laura which drives the plot – the connection these two characters have is grounded in overwhelming loneliness and misunderstanding, as well as misanthropic values learned by the cruelty of the world. The film boasts sleek writing and the dialogue is peppered with a deep understanding of the politics of sex. Director Mike Nichols also delivers visual ingenuity such as reflecting the morose nature of Laura by shooting her conversation with Will about being bitten with backlighting – the sunlight in front of the running stream, while Will expresses himself, opening up to her: “More alive, stronger…”
The make-up design by Rick Baker harkens back to Henry Hull’s look in Werewolf of London (1935), and most certainly adds an element of realism to the already low-key nature of the film. The chase and slaying of the deer – waking up covered in fresh blood – is a nice tip of the hat to that long history of werewolves waking up lost in memory and perplexed by the situation at hand (as well as that night before). The artistic choices from Mike Nichols, such as the use of slow motion in sections (hunting the deer), high speed in others (during the werewolf fight), and the elegant use of fade- ins and outs, inform character and situation. A key visual example is the gleaming eyes of the original wolf/werewolf looking over Will, who stares blankly into a bathroom mirror in the early moments of the film.
The athleticism born into a middle-aged, tired man in publishing, who is now rejuvenated by his newfound werewolfery, is bought home when the dogs of New York City (his urban community/pack) start barking and howling at the sound of his own wolf cry – here Mike Nichols responds to the wild in the domesticity of the urbane. This is a horror film for the corporate world: the horror of business. Will taking charge and reclaiming his position at the publishing firm is a testament to the power of the animal within the confinement of the very human rat race. Through his lycanthropy he is able to take charge and build up his power – the film has a political and social agenda, making crisp commentary on ageing and the ruthlessness and coldness of industry.
The metamorphosis in this film has the werewolves transition into a full blown wolf as their lycanthropy progresses and they lose themselves in the way of the wolf – the mid-section is the troubled factor, the half-human/half-wolf – this is the sector that wrestles with itself. It’s as if the pack from the opening scene is a community of werewolves that were once people living in the city who have rejected their humanity in favour of being full wolves. Bad people will become bad werewolves, whereas the good folk will be righteous wolves. “Power without guilt, love without doubt” says the old shaman, while Mike Nichols also makes sharp commentary on the race issue in a film all about white privilege – the young black thug who has his fingers torn off is treated as throwaway and so forth.
Packing in sly wit, such as Will urinating on Stewart’s shoes (“Just marking my territory”), and having Stewart, as the smarmy underhanded opportunistic werewolf, played by James Spader is a brilliant addition. In fact, Spader at times (especially when in full horrific werewolf form) steals the show. His twitchiness and jittery behaviour in his early throes of his lycanthropy, when he questions Pfieffer’s Laura, is very similar to the mannerisms from the huntsman from The Company of Wolves (1984).
Matching this bestial aggression is Laura herself who, due to her troubled past, is a good candidate to become a werewolf because the animalism is an escape. Will’s rebirth into becoming a werewolf is summed up by him saying “I thought only the evil were cursed”, to which Laura laughs and cynically replies: “The worst things happen to the best people.” Her dark nature is somewhat explored and left open-ended. There is a great moment with the police officers who are set up as antagonists to reflect Laura’s problem with authority; when she is a werewolf by the end of the film, there is a hint of her returning to the police officer’s office to perhaps kill him. Laura’s realization, “Why does it have to be the worst news? The worst pain? The worst defeat?” is countered by Will’s beautifully executed line, which perhaps is where the film’s heart lies: “Maybe there’s happy endings for people who don’t even believe in them. I’ve never loved anyone this way. I’ve never looked at a woman and thought, if civilisation ends, if the world ends, I’ll still understand what God meant if I’m with her.”
As a romantic horror movie for modern sensibilities, Wolf works extremely well, and Rick Baker’s make-up effects are striking even in their subtlety. He would go on to take on werewolves again in 2010 with the remake of The Wolf Man starring Benicio Del Toro as the accursed Larry Talbot. “The past is a wilderness of horrors” says Talbot Sr (Anthony Hopkins) and this loaded line sums up what is essentially a somewhat bloated, exposition-riddled uneventful and unremarkable reimagining of the classic Curt Siodmak story.
Lawrence Talbot is reworked as an actor on the London stage, who is summoned by Gwen (Emily Blunt) to come back to his home town to help in the case of his brother’s disappearance. Gwen is engaged to his brother, and she begs him to help – reluctant and hedonistic in nature, Larry eventually heads back home and the film plays up the ‘return of the prodigal son’ motif in high volume, complete with Hopkins reciting the passage from the bible while playing the piano moments before the climactic fight between father and son as werewolves.
The original werewolf that began the curse is learned to be a feral beast boy and this leaves the notion and idea of children werewolves being so underused in film history. Something that wholeheartedly embraced such a concept was that fantastic House of Hammer episode Children of the Full Moon (1980), which had Diana Dors govern a house of child werewolves. However, in this modern film with its overuse of CGI, the flashbacks to Larry’s childhood are distracting and disorienting. There is some interesting art direction involving the animalistic with the hedges sculpted into gorillas and Hopkins’s costuming, including a tiger skin coat and the like, but the strongest elements in the film are when the picture slows down and catches breath. Most of this salvation comes from the character building attributes such as Larry’s gloomy relationship with Gwen, who remarks on his father: “Your father, he has a way of being distant”, something that the film continually obsesses over: the sins of the father and the wayward recklessness of sons, as well as the delicate fragility of a woman’s love.