Two years after Columbia disappointed us with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the same studio would do so again with Wolf. Both films had Oscar-winning directors at the helm, telling classic stories which had lain dormant for a while.
However, Wolf deserves a bit more leeway than Coppola’s movie, because its director, the late, great Mike Nichols, told people upfront that his werewolf movie would be different than previous ones. So while the end result could have been better, the movie does have interesting moments which make this movie, if nothing else, a noble failure.
Our story begins with book publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) driving home one snowy night in Vermont. This storm causes him to hit a wolf, prompting Will to pull over. However, the animal suddenly comes back to life and bites Will’s hand before running off. Will then sees an entire pack of wolves staring at him from the woods, and so he returns to his car and resumes his journey.
We then get an effective, funny bit in which we see the wolf in a bush growling before those growls segue into Will gargling mouthwash in his bathroom the next morning. He explains to his wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan) how desperate things are at his job before noticing that hair is growing around the wound on his bitten hand. Sure enough, Will soon finds himself demoted from his cushy editor-in-chief position at a publishing house following a takeover by business tycoon Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer).
Will’s colleagues Roy MacAllister (David Hyde Pierce) and Stewart Swinton (James Spader) are in angst over the situation. However, Will begins to doubt Stewart’s sincerity when, later at a business dinner, he learns that Alden offered him Will’s position.
At the same time, Will also begins to experience an increase in his hearing and visual abilities, as well as, of course, his sexual prowess (no doubt helped by the fact that he’s now literally sleeping all day). Unfortunately, this doesn’t impress Charlotte, as Will sniffs her clothing one night, which leads to him going across town to Stewart’s place where, after warding him off with a bite to the hand, he finds Charlotte in Stewart’s bedroom.
Despite the fact that his marriage is now in ruins, Will’s mysterious new abilities begin to give him more self-confidence. He basically tells Alden to piss off when the latter offers him a less-than-ideal position in Eastern Europe.
To add insult to injury, Will befriends Alden’s rebellious daughter Laura (Michelle Pfieffer). In a very nice, surprising touch, these two don’t hop into bed immediately. They actually have conversations first, and get to know each other better. He eventually tells Laura about his wolf encounter, and while she responds that it could be a gift, considering the benefits, he’s scared that there will be a downside to it all.
Sure enough, just as Will’s relationship with Laura begins to take a sexual turn, that downside begins to show itself when he wakes up during a full moon with the appearance of a wolf. He goes into the nearby woods and hunts down a deer. This is reminiscent of a similar scene in the classic werewolf picture An American Werewolf in London, but nowhere near as disturbing. Will wakes up the next morning next to a stream, covered with blood, with apparently no memory of his recent meal.
Will then visits a doctor (Om Puri) about his condition. The doctor informs him that he’s turning into a wolf—thanks for confirming the obvious, Doc—and gives him an amulet designed to prevent future transformations. The doctor then asks Will to bite him and make him into a werewolf. Will’s look of awkwardness reflects my own at this point. So I guess he should be thankful it wasn’t an STD that Will went to this guy about. Thankfully, Will leaves without indulging this fellow.
Next, we get to the movie’s best moment, when Will is walking home and encounters muggers. He calmly asks them how much they want from him before going werewolf on them. That’ll teach them to try to mug the Joker.
The werewolf curse is making its mark on Will big time by now. At the publishing house, he tells Stewart to figuratively piss off before literally pissing on his shoes. This leads to Will’s obvious line, “I’m just marking my territory.”
But as Will cleans up, he’s freaked out when he discovers fingers from one of his would-be muggers in his pocket. More chaos heads Will’s way when, back at his apartment, he and Laura are informed by a police inspector (Richard Jenkins) that his wife Charlotte has been murdered. When Will asks how it happened, he’s told her throat was torn out.
Stewart has also learned of Charlotte’s death, and attempts to frame Will for the murder by going to the police and telling them about the affair. Laura also goes to talk to the police, but changes her mind after her run in with Stewart, who’s showing signs of wolfism himself, while he also makes it painfully clear that he’d like to get into her pants.
Laura makes plans to leave the country with Will. They go to her dad’s estate, where Will locks himself in a barn wearing the amulet. However, Stewart, who’s becoming a werewolf himself thanks to the bite that Will gave him when he discovered him with Charlotte, tracks them down, kills the two guards at the estate, and begins to assault Laura.
Will then tosses aside his amulet so he can become a wolf in order to fight Stewart. That’s right; the werewolf of our movie is now acting like Superman to save his love. I guess Will isn’t concerned with the possibility that he may kill Laura once he gets his werewolf groove on. But this fight becomes anticlimactic, as Laura manages to be the one to shoot Stewart to death. Will then briefly looks at her before running off into the night.
After the police arrive, Laura begins to show signs of lycanthropy herself, when she smells the vodka on the inspector’s breath. She informs the police and her father that she doesn’t know where Will is, nor does she care.
The movie’s final shot is of Laura’s eyes becoming more wolf-like as a wolf who is (presumably) Will is heard howling in the distance. That must have been some hot, heavy sex they had. Too bad we couldn’t have seen it, a la The Howling.
So the ending is basically a tease that Laura will soon be a wolf herself, and I guess she’ll join Will, have wolf pups with him, and live happily ever after? I’m all for subtlety in the endings of movies, but considering that it was Laura, and not Will, who killed the bad guy, I was hoping for a resolution that was a bit more lively.
The moments with Will becoming accustomed to his emerging abilities are fun to watch. However, Nichols and company seemed so concerned with adding these kinds of scenes that they neglected to shake things up by adding some scares. One film that perfectly balances curiosity with scares is The Fly. In that film, we see Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle becoming initially astonished with his new physical abilities. Slowly but surely, however, he and the audience become aware of the more horrific angles of what he has now become. Wolf simply decides to focus exclusively on what’s awesome about being a werewolf.
The cast is fine, if a bit too low-key, with the exception of Spader, who is appropriately slimy, but goes way over the top once he starts his werewolf transformation. It’s as if the movie was hammering into our skulls who the real monster of this movie should be (there’s even a suggestion that he’s the one who murdered Charlotte), even though Spader isn’t even on the damn poster.
Plummer sounds rather bored in some scenes, but then again, maybe he thought this film was a step down after playing a general who quoted Shakespeare effortlessly and had a Bird of Prey that could fire while cloaked.
Pfeiffer, who previously worked with Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, is sassy, but in some cases too much so. However, her character really didn’t add much to the overall film, making her basically the token love interest.
Regarding the movie’s star, Wolf accomplishes what I previously thought was impossible: it actually features Jack being restrained. I don’t want to say he was bad in this, but while he looks like he’s enjoying wearing the werewolf makeup, at no time in the movie does he either scare us or evoke our pity the way the protagonists of previous werewolf movies did. This came as a complete surprise to me considering how Jack scared us in The Shining and Batman (the one with the leading lady so wimpy she makes Willie Scott look like Xena), or the way he made us sympathize with him in Easy Rider and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Heck, Jack displayed more urgency in The Terror than he does here.
I honestly think this film is to Mike Nichols’s career what 1941 is to Steven Spielberg’s. Both movies had stellar casts, accomplished directors, and the best production values you could ask for. However, Spielberg’s film lacked the one thing all comedies need in order to be good: laughs. Likewise, Wolf lacks the one thing all horror movies need in order to be good: scares. Happily, both directors would bounce back with their respective next films; Spielberg with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Nichols with The Birdcage.
As simply a movie, Wolf has some interesting moments, but doesn’t match The Wolf Man (the good one, not the one with Benecio Del Toro), or the aforementioned Howling or American Werewolf in London. However, it has moments that make it less painful to watch than, say, Cursed, or An American Werewolf in Paris. And if that isn’t damning something with faint praise, then I don’t know what is.