Wolf (dir. Mike Nichols, 1994)
“They looked at each other bleakly, and laughed. Then they announced—they admitted—what weighed on them. It was the innocence of these husbands—the hearty, decent, firm, contented innocence. That is a wearying and finally discouraging thing. It makes intimacy a chore.” – Alice Monroe
“Mike Nichols has chosen to do things that are really meaningful, have real impact, and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they’re as much fun as if they were trash. “ – Elaine May
“Can’t run with the big dogs, those jeans are too tight” – DMX
What if I told you there were a film starring Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest), Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Liaisons), and James Spader (Sex, Lies, and Videotape)? Would you be interested? Then what if I told you the film were directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate) with an original score composed by Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly)? And just for good measure, let’s toss in Rick Baker (Videodrome), perhaps our greatest living make-up artist. Anyone would be excited to see that film, no?! Those are some of the most revered, respected artists working in Hollywood, especially in the early 90s when this film was released.
Now, what I told you that same film is the story of a man undergoing a transformation into a werewolf…? Well, I’m telling you. It exists. 1994’s Wolf is the story of Will Randall (Nicholson), an aging literary editor, living in new York City, who’s having a pretty bad week. Aside from being attacked in rural Vermont by a ravenous werewolf, the publishing house were Will works is being bought by billionaire Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer). Raymond has decided to lay Will off. The film follows Will’s attempt to save his job and at the same time come to terms with his transformation into a lychanthrope. James Spader plays the scuzzy brown-noser trying to take Will’s place. Michelle Pfieffer plays Rayomnd’s Alden’s daughter, Laura, with whom Will eventually falls in love.
Of course, there’s subtext under all the absurdity: aging, artistic irrelevance, the slipperiness of perceived power, and blah, blah, blah. Really, if you’re watching this movie, you could care less right? Wolf is a film where Nicholson, in full wolf makeup, chases down a deer in slow motion and snaps its neck with his bare hands. It’s a film with slow dissolves from full moons to human eyes. It’s a film that climaxes with a Spader-on-Nicholson Man-Wolf vs. Man-Wolf battle in the middle of barn. Hell, there’s even a scene where Will uses his new found wolf powers to give his wife the best sex of their marriage. The next morning she leaves a message on his phone saying, “…see you tonight, you ANIMAL!” Awwooooooooooo! Panting Noises! Hehe,rrrrrrr,raggghh!
The last time Mike Nichols directed Jack Nicholson was in the 1974 film, Carnal Knowledge. And if you’re looking for a succinct argument for the decline in adult subject matter during the thirty years between these two films, I’d encourage you to watch Carnal Knowledge and Wolf back to back. Carnal Knowledge is a challenging, stressful examination of human relationships. Wolf has got Nicholson making nighttime visits to the Central Park Zoo so he can bark and snarl at the chimps…because he’s a wolf.
Not to say Mike Nichols doesn’t direct the hell out of the material he’s given. Wolf actually creates more than just campy thrills. Will’s predicament at the publishing house is given equal time with all the wolf shit. So as bizarre as it is to write, I legitimately cared about how Will’s progress at work would be affected by his nightly transformations.
Praise should also be dealt to Nichols’ eye for shot composure. Every frame is beautifully staged, filled with lively background design: gnarled trees, musty shelves of books, tables piled high with papers and trinkets. Atmosphere. And the film includes some expertly executed tracking shots. Throughout the film it feels like an entire world was created and Nichols just set about exploring it with cameras. The depth of field in the party scenes, and in the literary agency, give Wolf a true sense of texture. And Nichols is a genius at using those previously mentioned dissolves. The foggy overlaps not only lend a spooky dream-like quality to the story, they help connect seemingly disparate scenes much more than hard cuts to exteriors would.
It’s also worth pointing out that despite the constant critical complaints of “Jack being Jack” in almost every film he made post-Batman, his performance here stays surprisingly reserved, especially given the subject matter. Only once or twice does his brow fly up in that manic, Shining-esque Nicholson way. And I can’t stress enough how much fun it is to watch Jack Nicholson work. However you define presence, he’s got it clumping up in the corners of his eyes.
However, while the film works in a lot of ways, there’re a number of practical werewolf related questions that go unanswered. Believe me, I understand that as a person transforms into a werewolf, he or she would gain a heightened sense of smell. That makes sense. Wolves have excellent smell therefore so would a Man-wolf. But Will’s other senses also improve dramatically. After being bitten, Will no longer needs his glasses. Do wolves have hyper-keen eyesight? Apparently not enough to avoid Sarah Palin’s helicopter. I thought wolves could only make out shapes?
Furthermore, as Will changes, he suddenly has boundless energy, illustrated by a scene wherein he edits 60 pages of a manuscript in under an hour. This also seems to be a talent unrelated to becoming a wolf. As far I know, wolves can’t read….much less make thoughtful editing suggestions for highly regarded authors.
One also wonders about heartworms? You know how you always have to give a dog heartworm meds? Is that a thing with werewolves? I’d would have loved a scene where Phieffer has to rub Nicholson’s throat so he’ll swallow the pills. And what is a heartworm anyway? Can humans get those? Is it similar to a tape worm? I really hope not. Like forget all this fantasy stuff, you could have a tapeworm living in your brain right now!!! Freak the fuck out!
There’s another sequence in the film where Will visits an elderly Indian Doctor in hopes that the doctor can explain his transformation. Like Tanginia in Poltergeist or Doctor Loomis in Halloween, lots of horror/fantasy films have the geriatric explainer character. These characters are usually frumpy, baggy clothing and such. They’re usually short (a physical attribute that all reasonable people know indicates mystical powers). They typically don’t dust their apartments. And of course, they’re prone to expository dialog. You know, there’s actually a palm/Tarot card reader (that’s kind of mystical right?) on my block. She sits in front of her store every morning and beckons anyone walking by the come in for a reading. At first I thought it must be front for some kind of happy ending scenario or other illicit activity. But no one ever goes in. I think it might be to her detriment that she’s a middle aged. Mystics gotta be old. Not to mention her hair is this really artificial red color…like having your palm read by the receptionist in a real estate office.
If nothing else Wolf confirms that the werewolf is probably the best of the classic horror monsters. Frankenstein is a boring lug. He can’t run and he’s scared of fire? So basically he’s an upright cow. Vampires have been forever ruined by pre-teens and Hot Topic. And mummies, well, they never really got off the ground. Too many rags. Too geographically specific. But werewolves! Now that’s some metaphor I can get behind. I mean do we even have a definitive werewolf movie? While Wolf may not be it, it’s a start.
– Wolf features one of the largest casts of balding actors ever assembled. Nicholson of course. As well as Richard Jenkins and Brian Markinson, both playing detectives. Even David Hyde Pierce as one of Will’s colleagues. Now that I think about it, maybe the inclusion of all these domes is purposeful. All these bald guys…hunting down a super hairy wolf. A comment on masculinity or something?
– Most superhero movies, especially the Brian Singer X-men films, owe a huge debt to Wolf’s aesthetics. The makeup used on Wolverine and Sabertooth are exact copies of the makeup in Wolf. Furthermore, the massive bounding leaps that characters make throughout the X-men films are identical to the fight choreography of Wolf.
– On a sad note, the news came down last weekend that Mike Nichols passed away at age 83. He was an incredible director, comedian, writer, etc. I’m not qualified to write an in-depth examination of his legacy. So this piddling review will have to suffice. And I’ll just leave you with this:
Really great analysis. I have always felt that way about werewolves as far as excitement level and metaphorical content. I saw this movie in theaters when it first came out, being a huge fan of Nicholson and werewolf movies, so for me, the triumphs you mentioned fill in all the holes one can poke. I whole-heartedly agree about Nicholson being reserved and yet powerfully present. Well said!…”Just marking my territory…”