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Wolf Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Wolf Review

    Coming next in our second Full Moon Frenzy series of werewolf movie reviews is Mike Nichol's rather ill-fated, and mostly ignored, Wolf, from 1994, a film that possibly deserves a little bit more attention now that it has arrived on region-free Blu-ray.

    With Sony and Columbia Tristar initiating something of a classic monster revival of the stalwart Universal titans during the first half of the nineties - we'd already seen Bram Stoker's Dracula (BD reviewed separately), courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (BD review coming soon) from Kenneth Brannagh, but overseen by Coppola, as well - the completion of the trio of cherished creature-feature throwbacks came with a strangely un-traditonal lycanthropic tale starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and James Spader.

    After the Gothic theatricality of the GaryOldman-starring Dracula and the flamboyant operatics of the luvvie-darling Frankenstein, the studio turned to Nichols to helm a modern-day satire on the werewolf myth, one that would provide some neat character-play, witty dialogue, a killing or two and, hopefully, bring the hoary old wolf man camp-fire tale bang up-to-date for a modern audience not quite so enamoured with mist, castles and sizzling lightning-bolts. Finding the dog-eat-dog world of the modern publishing business a perfect allegorical landscape in which to unleash their corporate hell-hounds, the studio flung cash and big name stars into the project with veritable gusto. The casting coup, beyond any shadow of a doubt, being in one Jack Nicholson, a man who was surely born to play a carnivorous, moon-howling predator, if ever there was one. Biting into the lead role of Will Randall, chief editor of a prestigious publishing house led by heartless money-man, Raymond Alden, played by Christopher Plummer. With a company buy-out on the cards and heads about to roll, Will realises, too late, that he has been offered up for sacrifice by his own protège, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), who has been busy inveigling the top job behind his back the whole time. Not considered as ruthless, as ambitious or as merciless as this treacherous and usurping young buck, Will could find himself on the scrapheap if he doesn't come up with a plan pretty quickly to overthrow those who betrayed him.

    Wow, it's lucky that he got bitten by a strange wolf out on that snowy mountain road in Vermont in the opening scene, then, huh? Because, as it soon transpires, that wolf that chomped on his hand has passed something on to him, something that is steadily altering his body and his mind and sharpening both his instincts and his desire for revenge.

    When Stewart's full treachery becomes clear, and the cycle of the moon begins to take effect, Will starts going for nocturnal feasts in the woods and late-night, mugger-baiting walks in Central Park, waking up the next day with blood on his shirt, or with some freshly nipped fingers in his pocket. Yet all the while, with senses heightened and a lean, mean approach to office tactics, Will is beginning to turn the tables on those who sought to run him out.

    Thus, Wolf is not exactly your typical horror yarn. In fact, like its main character, it is a weird hybrid of ideas and intentions. Confused and yet intelligent at the same time, it is neither one thing nor the other, flitting, instead, between two plots before, finally, blowing one of them out of the water. But what many people railed against at the time of the film's release - the duplicity and scheming of the business world - is possibly its strongest and most satisfying component.

    For his part, Nicholson is having a ball. His trademarked easy letch is in full effect, as is that wicked sarcasm and slowly-drawled, conversational wrangling, expertly designed to undermine and self-deprecate. His Will Randall is, in many ways, the quintessential Nicholson character - masculine, arrogant, unhinged and chock-full of ticks and traits. But there is also a softer, tired old underbelly to him that celebrates the ticking-clock of celebrity. Nicholson and Will Randall are both esteemed and forthright personalities, and both are credibly suffering from a peg-or-two drop in popularity when put up against the voracious new kids on the block. It can sometimes become difficult to separate the two identities - Jack's renowned animal magnetism matching-up exactly with both the set-in-stone literary kingpin and the unleashed beast-in-heat that he becomes. But the character is unavoidably aged. Even when his body is in flux, he is prone to little seizures and all-day sleep-binges. Unlike, say, David Kessler, the iconic American Werewolf, Will needs a lot of power-naps to fuel his ferocity, despite feeling energised, and even if the portly little editor also has a penchant for disturbing animals in the zoo, he does so purely out of sensation-tingling zest, rather than just the supernatural equivalent to waking up in a dumpster. Then again, Will does, at least, hunt deer for real and seems to sleep so soundly that he isn't bothered by the voodoo-tainted dreams of death and savagery that so plagued 1981's iconic transformee. But, getting fully into character, Nicholson displays some fine animal attributes along the way. Sniffing the air and running, hunched-over, through the streets to check out suspicions about his wife's extra-marital activities look perversely wonderful, his usually un-intimidating form fighting to urge to get down on all-fours. The famous scene of him “marking out his territory” by urinating on his rival's shoes - “they're suede, you know!” - is perhaps the best example of his hunting ground dominance. I love the moments when Will realises that his senses have become more honed, more acute - suddenly he is speed-proofing manuscripts without the aid of his usual glasses, sniffing out tequila on someone's breakfast-breath and, best of all, hearing all those lovely snippets of office-gossip and hushed honesty rippling through the air. Of course, this all helps him to sniff out the presence of his arch-nemesis encroaching upon his domain both at work and at home.

    Alpha-male pack leadership and the battle for rutting rights swiftly become the order of the day as predatory tendencies and primal instincts bring the law of the jungle into the boardroom and the boudoir. And when the only law in the big city appears to be a bumbling plod who lets suspects boss him around, and a pre-”Friends” David Schwimmer, so wet behind the ears that he can't even keep hold of his handcuffs, the beasts should be able to hold sway, Wolfen-style, over the Big Apple. But their collective bite - there is more than one wolf at work in the film, you see - ultimately winds up being quite superficial and more of a nip than a ravage.

    The film is terribly uneven. Some very clumsy dialogue scenes sit right beside some very clever dialogue scenes, the screenplay from Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick unsure precisely what direction it wants to go in. For a kick-off, it commits the cardinal sin of a many a studio-tampered genre movie, in that the script seems absolutely terrified of mentioning the name of the very beast that it is all about. Thus, you will never hear the word “werewolf” uttered once, despite many conversations circling around the very fact that Will is, indeed, a werewolf. This was the kind of attitude that prevailed during the nineties when producers and writers would do their utmost to find some other form of category to fit their films into other than “horror” - the very type of film that they so obviously were. Dark fantasies, psychological thrillers and chilling suspensers were all the rage, even if they contained vampires, werewolves and un-killable madmen. In the case of Wolf, this attitude just seems bone-headed and even insulting. The fable-like qualities of the film are actually quite potent, too. The prologue bite out on the open road has a quasi sort of pre-ordained ambience about it, as though Will has been selected by his future pack-mates. The vague unreality of New York, and especially the vast tracts of wilderness that he is able to hunt and forage through just outside of the city at the Alden estate also give the film an unusual milieu of its own. Yet, because we like Will so much, there is absolutely zero sense of fear when night falls and the moon begins to shine. If we think back to American Werewolf's anguished David, no matter how likeable he was in the flesh, he was still utterly terrifying in the fur. Going back even further to Chaney's serialised misery-guts of Lawrence Talbot, we had a lot of sympathy for him as the haunted and persecuted man, but complete dread of him once the yak-hair had been applied.

    Jack Nicholson, it seems, for all of his own inherent “wolfishness” is still good ol' Mad Jack even when sprinting in bizarre (and rather naff) slow-motion through the trees. So, thankfully, the script makes sure to give us another lycanthrope - and a really nasty one, at that - to rip some tension into this confused hodgepodge of romance, power and age-related trauma.

    This element, I have to say, actually took me by surprise when I first saw the movie all those years ago, and even if the development smacks of contrivance and melodrama, it does allow for some genuine feelings of unease once the final act claws its way along. And, giving the writers the benefit of the doubt, I will admit that I like the monstrous nod they seem to be making to Universal's mostly underrated The Werewolf Of London (1935) that they seem to be making. What I don't like, however, is the sudden, and patently ludicrous, ability that these wolf men have for jumping around like bionic baboons. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and, in spite of the down 'n' dirty antics that they both get up to in their freakish, fur-ball dust-up at the stable-set climax, it just looks so damn silly. Honestly, imagine a school-play of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on bungee-cord and you've got the daftness on display here pretty much sewn-up.

    Beyond Wolf Man Jack, the casting is all over the show.

    Michelle Pfeiffer, sadly, is woefully unbelievable as the troubled rich-chick hell-bent on annoying Daddy. She may well be extremely attractive and exactly the kind of woman that any red-blooded male, human or beast, would go howling after, but even if she does look a little bit more mature here than usual she is still much too young to be falling for Jack's withered old Will, heightened senses or not. She has that eternally sensual allure, all right, but there is never any tangible credibility to her character of Alden's drop-out daughter, Laura. As her father, the eminent corporate sleaze-ball and career-crushing tycoon, Raymond Alden, Christopher Plummer is typically ice-cold and excellently believable as such. Sounding almost exactly like Patrick Stewart, he brings a classical gravitas to the film, ladling dark-hearted efficiency as a smilingly callous, profit-snaffling boss. With roles such as this, it is hard to believe that he could play the good guy just as winningly.

    But the surprising piece of inspired casting is ex-brat-packer James Spader. Given the slimy, backstabbing and thoroughly smarmy role of Stewart, he truly makes a meal of it. You don't, for one second, believe that he has ever been on Will's side, despite the evident shock that Will, himself, feels at his betrayal, but it is such a joy to watch Spader twist and squirm with fake platitudes and absurdly hollow excuses whenever his painfully thought-out plotting has been uncovered. There's a great moment when he and Raymond Alden speculate upon the possible repercussions of Will's implication in a murder, with Spader's conniving swine digging delightfully deep holes for his nemesis, yet still trying to make it sound as though he is on Will's side.

    Perhaps not strictly a misstep, but certainly a mishandled element is the whole sequence when Will goes to visit a supposed authority on, ahem, “people possessed by animal spirits” - just call 'em werewolves, eh - and learns some half explanations and mythical mumbo-jumbo about his condition. Featuring Indian superstar Om Puri as the lonely and obsessively unorthodox academic Dr. Alazais, this scene is basically meant to be the film's little rule-book for Will's werewolfry a la Madame Ouspenkaya's tragic Romany traveller in The Wolf Man, but where there should have been icy shudders and a sense of dread from the strange old esoteric there is nothing but a blasé matter-of-factness about a seemingly much more commonplace affliction than we once anticipated. Where there should have been either a cloying impression of the supernatural, or forlorn offering of tribal advice, there is banal wittering and a wholly unaffecting and quite ridiculous plea for some wolf-spit in exchange for an old protective amulet. There is a hint that Harrison and Strick are attempting to give us both a token reference for the old gypsy laws of Curt Siodmak's 1941 script and yet debunk the whole folkloric angle at the same time. Nichols, however, just allows the scene to falter and become another frustratingly ill-used contrivance.

    Rick Baker's effects are, well, subdued, which came as a big surprise to most werewolf-movie fans who were, no doubt, expecting a much more visceral approach to the subject along the lines of his highly esteemed, and Academy recognised American Werewolf cavalcade of skin-popping and flesh-ripping. One of the better, though no less subtle items on his prosthetic shopping list was the initial bite on Will's wrist which, upon inspection after his mammoth sleep-in (when, presumably, his body assimilated the lycan genes and began its understated transformation), has sprouted course hairs and really looks sore and swollen. Very convincing, in other words.
    But one of the things that clearly went against the movie as far as die-hard genre-fans were concerned was the lack of full-blown transformations and ferocious monsters. However, as far as I am concerned, this refusal to wallow in latex and bone-elongation enables the film to retain a positively homage-laden respect for the more vintage howlers like Lon Chaney's Wolf Man and Henry Hull's Werewolf Of London, as these creatures effectively retain their human semblances even in the throes of complete metamorphosis - something that is actually far scarier to encounter, I believe. Seeing the person beneath the fur and the fangs truly creates a nightmarish quality that an animatronic, or a CG snout disguises. It is also quite apparent that Chaney's nose twitching, savage grin and excitedly flitting eyes has been carried-over from The Wolf Man, with Mad Jack doing the exact same thing during the two moon-morph shots that we see him undergo at his lunar-leisure. This is great, too. The actor may already look somewhat lupine - what with that wicked smile, those cheekbones and, of course, those amazingly arched eyebrows - but these little facial gestures add a wonderfully nostalgic sense of Chaney's old man-gone, wolf-here shtick. Literally, as the moon comes up, we see Jack smile and his eyes become little slitted windows onto the mania within.

    In another quite surprising novelty, the film features a score from the accomplished Ennio Morricone. Channelling his aggressive style for the action set-pieces from The Untouchables and State Of Grace, and fleshing things out with typically lush romanticism and moody textures elsewhere, the maestro comes up with an unusual and haunting score. Whilst very far from his best work, this is often warped and crazy stuff. His music for that final wolfish scrap is utterly brilliant. Bristling brass and a raucous saxophone vie for supremacy over relentless thump-thumping on percussion, the whole thing coming together to create a crazily addictive and catchy cue that sounds supremely exciting and, yet, brashly comical as well. If you listen there are even little reminders of his score for John Carpenter's The Thing tucked away in there, although overall, his music here is something of a curate's egg that harks reverentially to his own former glories and yet confounds his normal standards.

    The problem with all three adaptations in this short-lived classical horror reworking was that none of them were properly considered as being full-on “horror movies” by audiences who, largely unconcerned with any literary foundation they may have had (well, Wolf excepted, of course, as it was an original screenplay), expected genre offerings with, well, a bit more bite to them. But Wolf's scenes of terror are much less overt than either of the other two, though it does, to be fair, intentionally lope out across a different path. In this way, Wolf is the odd-one-out of the trio. Plus it is deliberately funny and somewhat overcooked in the melodramatics. It is interesting to note that around this time, estranged author Whitley Streiber (who penned one of my all-time favourite novels in Wolfen) wrote another lupine-based book, Moon, which was, itself, an altogether different type of werewolf tale. Curiously, after this period of horror-denial, the market would open-up considerably, containing, as it happens, plenty of new werewolf yarns - from Ginger Snaps and Cursed, to Underworld and, ahem, Big Bad Wolf. But Nichols' Wolf remains a bit of an anomaly, keen to remind us of the genre's illustrious past, yet apparently afraid of its own shadow. Much re-written over a lengthy gestation period, the script bears the brunt of frightened hands at the helm and a considerable lack of heart in the overall project. Nicholson, himself, possibly only took the gig because it meant working with his friend Mike Nichols again, a director he knew would allow him free-reign to explore yet another angsty-yet-predatory character after they'd worked together on Carnal Knowledge, The Fortune and Heartburn, and be appreciative to just sit back and give him plenty of screen to chew. And with screenwriter Jim Harrison another close personal friend, as well, it seemed set-in-stone that Jack would go with the flow for yet another indomitable, film-owning performance. Plus, as a bonus, he'd get to perform on-screen bedroom duties with both Michelle Pfeiffer and Kate (Dracula 1979) Nelligan, as Will's untrustworthy wife, Charlotte - which, of course, should be enough to sway any hot-blooded male.

    At the time, Jack Nicholson found it necessary to break with his typical press-junket avoidance and actually come out in promotion of the movie. And you can't help but feel that he knew this one wasn't quite up to the usual standard, yet felt obligated enough to his firm friends behind the camera to press home his support. Critical backlashes against both Dracula and Frankenstein - which, arguably, took themselves far too seriously - had done the genre a disservice, possibly helping to point the “Wolf” ship in a bold new direction of satire and black comedy. Yet the film is still fine entertainment, straddling a couple of interesting concepts and proving perfectly enjoyable for its duration. It adds nothing new to the genre and pays only lip-service to the accepted traditions of the form. The writers and the director clearly have no affinity for the subject, but there is a sardonic-cum-poetic grace to the endeavour that provides a different enough perspective on the topic to make it worth sniffing out.