Aooowww — Woo! Jack Nicholson summons his inner dog — and dons the makeup and scary contact lenses — to go the Larry Talbot route. Unfortunately, his moon-howling nighttime life isn’t as interesting as the dog-eat-dog infighting in the publishing house where he works – where feral instincts and sharp lupine senses are a major aid to ‘getting a leg up’ on the competition. I know, cheap metaphors are the ruin of promising writers.
1994 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 125 min. / Street Date November 20, 2017 / £14.99
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Plummer, Richard Jenkins, Eileen Atkins, David Hyde Pierce, Om Puri, Ron Rifkin, Prunella Scales, David Schwimmer, Michael Raynor.
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Film Editor: Sam O’Steen
Production Design: Bo Welch, Jim Dultz
Makeup Effects: Rick Baker
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick
Produced by Douglas Wick
Directed by Mike Nichols
I think my mother took an instant disliking to Jack Nicholson because of his cat-that-ate-the-canary smile, a dirty, hungry grin that indeed seemed ‘hungry like the wolf.’ That element of danger, not knowing what a Nicholson character would do or say, is part of what made the actor’s career. In the middle ’90s Nicholson’s was on a healthy roll of okay pictures, and every few seasons a real winner role would come along to put him back on top again. 1994’s Wolf is not one of those pictures, but it is a fun departure from more serious parts. We also secretly think that Jack Nicholson loves monster movies, which didn’t hurt back in the 1950s when he was kicking around trying to get either an acting or writing career going with Roger Corman.
But Wolf was a gilt-edged project from the beginning — with the top director Mike Nichols interested the script went right to the elites of the business. As with any other Nichols project the casting is impeccable. So is everything else in this beautiful production, shot by Giuseppe Rotunno and edited by Sam O’Steen, with music by Ennio Morricone. Working for Mike Nichols was a coveted honor. If the director of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf wanted to make a movie about earwax, the best in the business would have lined up for a chance to collaborate with him.
Nichols did difficult book adaptations, goofy comedies and even a science fiction movie, but nothing so plain as a normal genre exercise. Jack Nicholson as a werewolf? It doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea. The wolfman subgenre had been moribund since the revisionist The Howling from about fifteen years before. Joe Dante, John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless reinvented the werewolf formula with self-referential observations and wicked comedy — acknowledging that the audience already knew the drill regarding wolf bites and silver bullets.
Way into the 1990s, with cynical-hip Quentin Tarantino movies knocking at the door, a new werewolf movie would have to bring something entirely fresh to the table, something to make us see a familiar movie monster in an entirely new light. It doesn’t happen often. David Cronenberg thrilled us this way with his re-think of The Fly, and Guillermo Del Toro has done the same for The Creature from the Black Lagoon with his new The Shape of Water. We knew Mike Nichols as a fine purveyor of drama and comedy, but not necessarily someone to reupholster such a known quantity.
Much of Wolf goes in a great direction by contrasting the feral instincts of a wolf-monster to the take-no-prisoners game of high stakes careerism. Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is a top book editor for the stately publishing house of Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer). Will knows his job is shaky simply because of his age; Alden demands not the best, but the trendiest staff below him, and although there’s nobody more experienced, opinionated or tasteful than Will, he’s not all that easy to control. On his way back from signing a major author in New Hampshire, Will is bitten by a wolf and sees a group of wolves by the roadside. His doctor (Ron Rivkin) dismisses this claim, as there are no longer any wolves in the U.S. While nursing his hurt hand — a wound that grows unexpected hairs — Will gets more bad news. Alden gleefully reports that his subordinate Stewart Swinton (James Spader) has stolen his job, and Will finds out that his brown-nosing subordinate has also won the affections of his wife, Charlotte (Kate Nelligan). But Will doesn’t take the setback lying down. He feels changed — not only has he more energy, his senses have become more acute, and even his vision has improved. He also strikes up a relationship with Alden’s rebellious daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer). Will manages to turn the tables on the slimy, disloyal Swinton just as other problems crop up — murderous problems of a lycanthropic nature.
Wolf works up a fine conflict — we initially love the cutthroat competition between Nicholson’s principled Randall and James Spader’s odorous Swinton (Swine, get it?). But the two ideas don’t mesh as well as they should. The struggle for power in the publishing house is terrific: Will tries not to show his anxiety, and Swinton wields pure flattery to suck up to Alden and various authors. Plummer’s Alden knows from the get-go that Swinton is a complete snake, but he thinks the struggle between his subordinates is amusing.
The business chicanery is accurate enough – Will Swinton has no shame whatsoever. When Will regains the high ground, the craven usurper Swinton has the gall to try to cozen him again with pleas of helplessness. The only other movies I can think of that match this kind of corporate treachery are Shattered Glass and The Informant! The only real justice for Swinton would be a firing squad. In the movie’s most interesting, original and satisfying scene, Will symbolically retaliates against Swinton with the kind of Alpha-Male gesture that any wolf pack would understand — he urinates on the punk in the men’s room, ‘marking his territory.’
It’s a great scene because it seems true — if in real life somebody tried to f___ over Jack Nicholson the way Swinton does Randall, we could see Nicholson doing the exact same thing.
Unfortunately, the monster end of the movie isn’t as original, It insists on following a standard werewolf plotline, almost as if an unimaginative Hammer scribe had been given the job. The ‘people’ story seems separate from Nicholson’s nocturnal prowls, murdering random victims. The Morricone music and some slick visuals from cameraman Rotunno certainly present things in an elegant way — dissolves merge Nicholson’s face with the full moon, etc., but it’s all standard stuff. Good writing shows Michelle Pfeiffer’s Laura slowly coming to realize that Will’s mania is a physical reality, but it doesn’t matter — we’ve seen it all before. Plus some details get plenty fuzzy — Laura is shocked when she sees mud on Will’s boots and realizes that he really has been romping in Central Park. So where are the telltale mud-tracks leading back into the hotel and up to his room?
It’s all done in exceptional taste, with excellent dialogue, as in Will Randall’s visit to an Indian sort-of guru (Om Puri) who believes in shape-shifting demons. The guru-authority actually asks Will to bite him on the wrist, so he can become an immortal wolf-demon rather than die of cancer. Since the story really doesn’t connect the dots, lycanthropy-wise, these scenes don’t really add up. Are the wolves in New Hampshire just wolves, or are they transformed humans? Is Will going to turn into big black wolf, and stop being human? Is there an unlikely werewolf social underground, as in the fascinating but fatally fumbled horror thriller Wolfen? That movie twists itself in knots, trying not to be an old-fashioned wolf-man story.
We would have been happier to see Will Randall use his spider senses Wolf Powers in more subtle ways at the office – as when he directs his enhanced hearing to overhear private conversations. The power-sex equation seems to be present, at least subliminally, when Will’s wife Charlotte strays into the bed of the shifty new kid on the block, Swinton. Why not show Will using his wolf instincts to seduce a reluctant author, or make a statement about powerful businessmen treating their female underlings as a harem? After all, doesn’t the top-dog wolf in a wolf pack enjoy first dibs on siring puppies?
Instead that angle is abandoned in favor of a police investigation, with Laura covering for Will, etc. The way Swinton snookers the main detective (The Shape of Water’s Richard Jenkins) doesn’t work at all — Swinton’s ‘innocent’ act is so self-servingly obvious that we’re disappointed when the detective buys it. At the eleventh hour the film opts for the Hammer / A.I.P. pathway ending in a lycanthropic battle in a barn on the Alden estate. The somewhat flubbed finale suggests that multiple conclusions were considered, and dropped. Specific details become really fuzzy (along with the spooky imagery of clouds and snarling faces) but the ending simply isn’t very smart. ‘Surprise’ revelations about other characters aren’t surprising at all, but a major disappointment.
Wolf is a terrific production. The Alden offices are set in the famous Bradbury Building in downtown L.A., with its tiled levels and ornate iron elevators; Rotunno and Nichols pull off a nifty rack-focus telephoto trick, incorporating two elevators into one shot. The Alden estate is magnificent, as are the nighttime scenes in Central Park. On the other hand, the werewolf makeup, while effective, won’t win any honors for originality — it’s somewhere between The Were Wolf of London and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The animatronic deer is convincing, but the furry wolf-mockups can’t hold a candle to the beauties in Wolfen.
The acting is also impeccable, with Nicholson and Pfeiffer committed to their roles. James Spader is certainly effective, but at this time he had become typecast playing immoral, unethical scum. He does make us uncomfortable — how many of us have been taken in by an ambitious sociopath user like Stewart Swinton? Again unfortunately, the concluding wolf man donnybrook requires both actors to ‘get their inner Oliver Reed in gear,’ and the snarling, teeth gnashing and slow motion leaping just becomes silly. At age 57 or 58, Nicholson just isn’t in good wolf condition — he was beginning to look dumpy in the drawers as far back as Batman.
Indicator’s All-Region Blu-ray of Wolf is a fine encoding of this handsome picture. The adapted flat scan back on cable TV compromised the show’s fine visuals, and this corrected HD scan recovers the film’s lush appearance Even some of the more contrasty opticals look great in widescreen and glowing color. The audio is in full remastered 5.1 stereo surround, all the better to enjoy maestro Morricone’s suspense cues.
Previous U.S. releases on disc exist, so even with the improved picture, the main draw here will be the tall stack of special extras provided by Indicator. The disc producer appears to have secured original EPK (Electronic Press Kit) video from 1994, including uncut interviews (see below for a full listing). These are paired with new interview material with some of the principals (not the actors, though) in a way that puts the show in deep-focus perspective. Producer Douglas Wick doesn’t even look like himself, across a twenty-year gap.
Older interviews include a piece with Rick Baker, who calls himself a ‘hairy monster’ specialist – wolves, apes. He reminds us that Nicholson’s makeup transformation is not like others that add major facial appliances, etc. As with most Indicator releases, a handsome illustrated insert booklet (36 pages) offers a full essay by Brad Stevens and interview excerpts from director Nichols and producer Wick. I first gravitate to the critical excerpts from Philip Kemp and Philip French.
The major new extra is an hour-long interview documentary from Robert Fischer’s ‘Fiction Factory’ outfit. It covers the entire production saga through new interviews with Wick, Rick Baker and screenwriter Wesley Strick. There’s a bit of defensiveness in their discussion, but also some insight into how the production developed, and why the ending is the way it is.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
All-Region Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: The Beast Inside: Creating Wolf (2017, 54 mins): a new documentary on the making of the film with new interviews from makeup effects creator Rick Baker, screenwriter Wesley Strick and producer Douglas Wick; Never-before-seen archival interviews with director Mike Nichols, actors Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader and Kate Nelligan, producer Wick and writer Jim Harrison; Never-before-seen archival interviews with Baker and production designer Bo Welch; B-roll footage; trailer; image gallery; Illustrated booklet with an essay by Brad Stevens.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 26, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson