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.
This film was based on the novel A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson, and David Koepp, the screenwriter and director, made a hell of solid and smart thriller out of it. Koepp has plenty of fine credits to his name ranging from generally good to great films. While there are a few black marks on his filmography, he showcases a vast amount of solid talent with this nicely crafted supernatural thriller that is Stir of Echoes.
Tom Witzy (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) in Chicago. They live in a neighborhood with a good reputation, but at a party with a bunch of his neighbors, the narrow-minded Tom dares his open-minded sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), to hypnotize him. She does, but when she implants a post-hypnotic suggestion for him to ‘open his mind’, he begins to see disturbing and confusing visions. His son has an imaginary friend called Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), but Tom soon realizes that she is not imaginary. She is the ghost of a young girl that is now terrifying and driving Tom towards strange ends. As the horrific visions intensify, Tom realizes they are pieces of a puzzle, echoes of a crime calling out to be solved, but when his other-worldly nightmares begin coming true, Tom wants out. He desperately tries to rid himself of his eerie, unwanted powers – only to be seized by an irresistible compulsion to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery that is consuming his life.
Kevin Bacon absolutely does an incredible job in this role. He really absorbed himself into it adopting a subtle Chicago accent and a textured blue collar working man appearance. His physicality is very raw, and it helps that he seemed to be in excellent, lean shape for this film. He pushes the performance through every fiber of his body with a powerful nervous energy and charisma that is electrifying. Bacon portrays the increasing obsession and near psychotic behavior amazingly well. His manic intensity becomes scary like he is going off the deep end, which is quite the truth. On the flip side, he shows the heart of Tom Witzy with a lot of genuine depth. Beneath this crazed obsession, he is a deeply caring husband and father with a touching levity of heart. It’s good to see the real man before this psychic awakening occurs, and thus, we get full context on how drastically he changes and what he’s jeopardizing with his crazed behavior. There’s ultimately a lot of compassion and humanity in this man who starts out with a bit of an abrasive attitude.
Playing perfectly off of Kevin Bacon is Kathryn Erbe. She also shows a strong range from loving, bright wife and mother to woman of fire and conviction when Tom goes further out of control. Erbe and Bacon have very honest and heart-filled chemistry which is a main strength of the movie. Zachary David Cope was a fine young actor here. While he has an appropriate innocence and cuteness, he proves to have a mindful intelligence to portray the nuances of the role. Acting opposite thin air to an unseen ghost is definitely a challenge, but Cope really showed a lot of promise here. Sadly, it was only second and last film acting role. The remainder of the cast does equally fine jobs building up a realistic community of dimension characters that ground the film very firmly.
Stir of Echoes is definitely a spooky and startling film with a tight pace. It keeps a nice unsettling atmosphere going as Tom is very unnerved following his hypnotic awakening. As the visions begin inflicting more graphic images upon Tom, the more freaked out he gets, and the more the tension of the film rises. It’s an entertaining and fascinating descent into manic hysteria which just drives the film’s suspense and danger to a more chilling height. When the film hits those peaks, it gets the heart pounding very strongly. It winds itself up to a frightening full head of steam once the third act slams itself upon the audience. While it’s not a rousing climax that is practically horror-based, it definitely resolves itself properly. It builds upon the more underlying qualities of the film, namely the characters and the community they inhabit.
Thus, I really like the character driven strength of this supernatural thriller. It’s a ghost story that doesn’t boil down to defeating an evil specter, but instead, helping find justice for an innocent soul. Showing the quality of this seemingly tight knit Chicago neighborhood plays an important role in the story, and it’s nicely developed and demonstrated to ultimately explore the heart and soul of these people, no matter where they might lie.
Admirably, this film boasts some very good visual effects. From the ghoulish effects to make Samantha a frightening apparition to the hypnosis sequence in the theatre, these are all consistently top notch effects. The ghostly make-up effects work done on actress Jennifer Morrison are very haunting and unsettling. She did a fine job in that aspect as well as the living Samantha in the flashbacks late in the film. She was a very sweet, shy young woman that is a worthy of the sympathy and tragic value put on the character. While the “shot in reverse” movement is a clichéd trick to give a creepy quality to her ghost, it is still very effective.
Now, I also have to admit I find a bit of pleasing notoriety from the theatre scenes when Lisa hypnotizes Tom. They were shot at the Rialto Theatre in Joliet, Illinois where my high school graduation was held the year before this film’s release. I really love that the filmmakers shot on location throughout the Chicago area bringing a real authentic feel to the neighborhood and other locations. There’s one shot where Tom’s up on a telephone pole making a call to Lisa, and it pulls back to reveal the Chicago River and Metra trains rolling by. It’s a location I am very familiar with, and it just creates an honest sensibility that I commend. Chicago really is a diverse and beautiful city that deserves to be shown off more prominently in film and television, and this is a small gem that takes pleasant, if small advantage of that.
While David Koepp is the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, there was some work on it done by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en). So, I would like to share my praise for the quality of the script with them both. I’ve never read Richard Matheson’s novel that this was based on, but Koepp and Walker clearly had an intelligent foundation to build upon. The story never goes for cheap clichés of the genre, and instead, stays focused on its smart supernatural thriller path. The film makes it a point that it is very focused on Tom Witzy from early on, and the script follows that path very steadily. It keeps the audience in tune with what he’s experiencing, and we are able to relate to him even when he becomes more irrational and brazen. He’s intensely driven to uncover whatever it is he needs to in order to shut these psychics visions down. He himself becomes connected with Samantha, even if he doesn’t entirely know what his purpose in all this is. So, we follow him on this haunting journey that is exceptionally well executed by David Koepp. It surely helps this film that there was a highly effective score put together by the immensely talented James Newton Howard.
While this turned out to be a bit shorter review than I usually post, I think the quality of Stir of Echoes has been well conveyed. It’s not a very complex story, but it lacks no depth of character or scares. It won’t slam bang you with horror, but it has a solid atmosphere, some startling, graphic imagery, and air of compelling supernatural mystery that is very satisfying. Seeing the film is worthwhile for Kevin Bacon’s exceptional and amazing performance alone. He really showed a very wide breadth of talent and commitment here that I find incredible. The only iffy aspect is that I’m sure the climax would feel stronger if there was an actual supernatural element added into it instead of a straight physical confrontation. However, I’ll say again that it suits the more character based sensibility of the story, which is somewhat refreshing to see, and does support the idea of needing a living person to resolve things instead of a vengeful spirit stalking and killing people. So, I certainly do not knock the climax one bit, but an audience could feel like a little extra punch was desired after all the spooky paranormal happenings throughout the film. There’s just not much of a climactic pay-off for the scary elements in the film. Overall, I do highly recommend Stir of Echoes as a smart and suspenseful film that has some refreshing turns on the old ghost stories premise.