Good werewolf movies are very hard to come by. That was until I came across Wolf a few years ago. Fronted by two amazingly electric actors in Jack Nicholson and James Spader along with a very tantalizing Michelle Pfeiffer, I couldn’t love this film more. It’s a different approach that is far more modern and character driven with these supernatural aspect slowly weaved into the plot.
Worn down and out of luck, aging publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is at the end of his rope when his co-worker and protégé, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), snatches both his job and wife out from under his nose. However, after being bit by a wolf on a snowy road, Will suddenly finds himself energized, more competitive than ever, and possessed with amazingly heightened senses. Meanwhile, Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful daughter of his shrewd boss, begins to fall for him – without realizing that the man she’s begun to love is gradually turning into the creature by which he was bit.
As should go without saying, Jack Nicholson is excellent in this movie. He gives us a performance that is mostly low key with modest manner and sense of heart. He’s a man living a less than stellar life, and that downtrodden feeling seeps into the cracks of the performance. There’s also the increasing worry about his wolf bite that truly begins to affect Will adversely. However, of course, Nicholson is able to turn on his mojo and even delve into a feral side that is fierce and primal.
It’s slightly humorous how the enhanced senses manifest in Will Randall. There’s a few funny moments, like being able to smell the tequila on a co-worker early in the morning, or how he doesn’t even realize that he can read perfectly without his reading glasses. However, it takes a more unsettling turn when he can start hearing far away voices throughout his office complex. Still, the film is able to maintain an occasional sense of levity mostly from the charisma of Nicholson and Spader. I love how the wolf instincts make Will more aggressive, able to take stand against his co-workers and boss. He becomes a man of bravado and cutthroat actions instead of a weaker willed pushover that he was. So, at first, this is all a good change in his character, but gradually, the wolf bite effects begin to take a more ferocious and bloodletting turn.
James Spader is wonderfully sleazy, as appears to be his regular strength, as Will’s apprentice / rival. Stewart is conniving and deceitful with no ethical or moral compass. He’s a real snake in the grass that will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back, and Spader makes it a richly enjoyable performance. He really excels in these kinds of roles, portraying them pitch perfect to make the character detestable while still being wholly entertaining. Awesomely, he gets the chance to just go full boar with it by the end with a very fearsome performance. This really is all the vile, juicy Spader you could ever want.
It’s surprising how good the chemistry is between Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. There’s a nineteen year age difference between them, but that seems to work better for these characters. Will Randall is a more worn out, tired career man while Laura Alden is young, vibrant, and intriguing. Pfeiffer certainly has a seductive aura about her that creates a dangerous air to the relationship. There’s plenty of sexual charisma to spare with both her and Nicholson. Overall, she does a tremendous job with this character who does have a harder, jaded exterior with a more approachable, comforting core.
The supporting cast of Wolf is also stellar. Most notably is Christopher Plummer’s gracefully egotistical, but also authoritative Raymond Alden, the owner of the publishing house. He carries a substantial weight as this slightly ruthless boss who insincerely sugar coats things. He has a great presence and a subtle way of acting that results in a lot of dimension coming out on screen.
The mystical ideas of the demon wolf are beautifully conveyed. There’s a grounded sensibility from Dr. Alezais when he tells Will of the lore. It’s not the ravings of some wild witch doctor, but of a man of science and research. He believes in the possibility that this mystical lore is true, and he sells the dreaded reality of it very convincingly. It comes at the right point in the film where both Will and the audience have experienced enough to believe that something supernatural is taking a hold of him. So, we are all ripe to fully believe what he has to say.
I love the make-up effects from Rick Baker, a go-to master for werewolves from his work on The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. While it is just some added facial hair, fangs, and yellow contact lenses, the visual of Nicholson in this make-up is frightening. He looks like a wild animal that would stop your heart at the real life sight of. Yet, he’s not the only one. Although, I do not wish to spoil anything, but the make-up is extremely creepy upon the face of another actor.
Director Mike Nichols had this film shot in a way that was rather uncommon for the time it was made. In many cases, it feels like a classic monster movie in its cinematography. Preferring some dramatic camera zoom-ins over dolly shot push-ins, using rear screen projection during the driving scenes, and employing conservative editing resulting in some beautifully long takes, it partially feels like something from the black and white era. Yet, it is such a brilliantly shot, composed, and executed film that it undeniably has a modern edge and beauty to it. There’s a great sense of artistic horror and suspense to appeal to modern audiences. There’s not much gore here, but there is a wealth of ferocious veracity that will satiate your desire for intense, horrific, primal violence.
The climax is absolutely wild. Everything really converges in an animalistic confrontation that delivers in a hugely dramatic and savage high point. How it all ultimately ends is tragically heartbreaking and powerful. Yet, it still has a nice quirky and mesmerizing punch right at the end, too. Mike Nichols’ ability to pull off these complex tones which mesh unsettling tension with a dash of quirky humor is really marvelous. How this film progresses from a light drama about Will Randall’s inter-office politics and his developing romantic relationship with Laura to a full-on werewolf horror film is amazing. That’s actually why this film works. It builds these characters up into a realistic setting with convincing relationships and conflicts. They are charismatic and entertaining characters that really invest your interest. Then, the film gradually builds up the supernatural wolf element as it begins to affect Will’s behavior from a re-invigorated, confident man to a frightening metamorphosis that he deathly fears. It’s a wonderful twisting arc that never loses credibility or its grounded sensibilities. The conflicts it establishes, and the relationships it grows remain an integral part of the story all the way through. It really is a stellar work of screenwriting by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, and a brilliant directing job by Mike Nichols.
Add in an excellent score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and you’ve got one hell of a great film that I dearly love. It’s a real gem I only discovered a few Octobers ago, and have really wanted to share my admiration for it for a long time. Wolf was actually delayed into release by several months to completely re-shoot the entire third act of the movie. Whatever they did is entirely seamless. I cannot see any deviation in quality or story to hint at what was changed. There was no novelization, and no script available online to find out what the original third act was. I’m certainly intrigued, but the film that was released is entirely amazing and I wouldn’t change a thing. As I said, good werewolf movies are hard to come by, and I think Wolf is a surprising pleasure. There was no shortage of remarkable talent behind this film, and that talent shines through in every moment. I think it’s a great and original horror films with a lot of entertainment value to offer any audience.