The werewolf occupies an interesting place in movies. The wolf man stands in the unholy trinity of Universal monsters with Dracula and Frankenstein, yet he seems largely forgotten today. Only the mummy fares worse, but that may have more to do with Stephen Sommers than anything else. At the moment zombies and vampires dominate our cultural nightmares, and the lowly werewolf is left to slink in the shadows, begging for scraps.
While not necessarily a great werewolf movie, or a great horror movie, Mike Nichols’ 1994 movie Wolf is an interesting foray into the genre. Jack Nicholson plays Will Randall, the lead editor for a publishing house recently bought by millionaire Raymond Alden. On his way home from a business meeting in Vermont, Randall accidentally hits a wolf on a lonely country road. He gets out to move the wolf’s body out of the way only to be bit by the animal, who runs off into the woods, seemingly unharmed. At first this seems like just one more incident in a life slowly winding down into quiet desperation, but the wolf bite may turn out to be a new lease on life for Randall.
Or a curse that will damn him forever.
When Wolf came out fifteen years ago it was novel in that it suggested that becoming a werewolf might be a good thing. It takes its cue from eastern European traditions which treat becoming a werewolf as a life-affirming, powerful state, and it was a neat twist on the traditional werewolf movie. The danger and the horror don’t necessarily come from the supernatural, but from human beings. It’s all about power and control, and what people do when they suddenly gain incredible power.
The themes of chaos and order, and the dark side of human nature occur are classic staples of the horror genre, but for some reason Wolf just misses the mark. The horror of the werewolf story is watching a good man or woman lose themselves to the beast within. It’s a powerful allegory for human nature, and while the movie tries, it doesn’t reach the same tragic, emotional level as, say, The Wolf Man.
A lot of that has to do with casting Jack Nicholson as the lead. While I enjoy his movies, Nicholson doesn’t have the emotional range as an actor to project vulnerability and anguish. He’s great at playing the cool anti-hero, but when he tries different roles his weaknesses as an actor become evident. He doesn’t sell it for me, and given that the effectiveness of the horror depends on his ability to appear tortured by this change, it takes quite a bit away from the overall movie experience.
And then there’s the forced love story between him and Michele Pfeiffer’s character, Laura Alden. I know that the romantic view of love states that age doesn’t matter, but I couldn’t get past their age difference. Nicholson is just too old for her, and I couldn’t get that out of my mind. It also doesn’t help that he and Pfeiffer have zero chemistry together. It was impossible for me to buy their love story no matter how much the movie insisted that they were soul mates.
On a broader note, I didn’t find either character particularly appealing. Nicholson’s charisma only works when he plays the rogue, and Michele Pfeiffer’s character is written as a tragic, damaged person with a deep philosophical bent and a biting wit, but she comes off as flaky. One scene in particular makes me laugh: at an early point in their relationship, Pfeiffer takes Nicholson to a lake on her father’s property and her first line was, “This is the where I used to bury my pets.” I’m sure it’s supposed to come off as tragic-philosophical, but it ends up sounding like something a moody fifteen-year-old girl would say.
The real treat of the movie comes in James Spader’s performance as Will’s protégé, Stuart Swinton. Spader is at his unctuous, sleazy best as Swinton and he becomes truly disturbing in the climax of the movie. Although part of it may be due to his character being the best written, Spader outshines his costars and acts circles around them.
But the cardinal sin Wolf commits is that it’s just not scary. Spader provides the only moments of horror late in the movie beginning with his scenes in the police precinct, but other than that the movie is rather bland and at times borders on the silly. I think Mike Nichols wanted for the werewolf effects to be subtle, so even though Nicholson gets wolfier as the movie progresses it mostly takes shape as him getting hairier, his teeth a bit sharper, and his eyes a bit lighter. At times he looks like an evil Martin Van Buren, or a older, grizzlier Wolverine. Personally, I can appreciate what they were trying to do and look past it, but I can also see how younger viewers would find his appearance more comical than supernatural.
The movie is presented in widescreen 1080p high definition, 1.85:1 aspect ratio with the audio tracks in English, French, and Portugese 5.1 DTS-HD MA. The video looks great and the movie definitely benefits from the Blu-ray treatment. The picture is sharp and clear, and I found that I could see the dark scenes much better than in the regular DVD. The audio, though, doesn’t fare as well. The music and sound effects tracks were much higher than the dialogue, and because of that I had to constantly fiddle with the volume. It’s very annoying, but unfortunately common with DVDs.
The only extra is that the movie is BD Live enabled, which means that I could record and then upload a commentary track for this movie. Why I would want to do that, or why I would want to listen to other people’s commentaries, I don’t know, but that seems to be the big thing with Blu-rays right now.
It’s odd, but despite its problems, I still enjoy the movie. It could be that I’m a sucker for a werewolf movie, or that the strength of Spader’s performance and Nichol’s directing surpass the movie’s flaws. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that this movie was re-released on Blu-ray. But be warned that it’s not for everyone. I’d say this is a renter if you’re a fan of werewolf movies, but I wouldn’t pay the $24.95. Mildly recommended.
Columbia Pictures presents Wolf. Directed by: Mike Nichols. Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michele Pfeiffer, James Spader, Kate Nelligan, Richard Jenkins, and Christopher Plummer. Written by: Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick. Running time: 125 minutes. Rating: R. Released on DVD: October 6, 2009. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: Christopher Plummer, jack nicholson, James Spader, werewolves