In the world of horror cinema the werewolf subgenre doesn’t contain a ton of movies as compared to say those featuring vampires. Some of the most well known titles would include: WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935), THE WOLF MAN (1941), I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957), WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS (1971), THE HOWLING (1981), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), SILVER BULLET (1985) and TEEN WOLF (1985). One film that I think doesn’t get noticed as much is Mike Nichols’ WOLF (1994) starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. When I originally found out Nichols directed this I was rather surprised because I knew him from completely different kinds of films like the coming of age classic THE GRADUATE (1967), the adult drama CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971) and comedies like CATCH-22 (1970) and BILOXI BLUES (1988).
While driving through the Vermont countryside on a cold winter night, Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) a publishing editor on a business trip, accidentally hits a wolf in the road. When he gets out of his car to inspect the animal (which appears to be dead) he is suddenly bitten by the still living creature, after which it runs off into the nearby forest.
When Will returns to his home in New York City, he learns that he and his fellow editors have been invited to a party at the estate of Mr. Alden (Christopher Plummer) their boss and wealthy owner of their business. Will’s co-worker Roy (David Hyde Pierce) informs him they’re all a bit nervous about this celebratory gathering because it’s rumored to be just a way for Alden to announce he’ll be getting rid of certain employees. Will doesn’t seem worried but is later shocked to find out from Alden that he’s actually been demoted and his protege Stewart (James Spader) a brownnoser extraordinnaire has been given his job as Editor-in-Chief. After the bad news Will is alerted something’s wrong when he encounters one of Alden’s show horses who is oddly disturbed by his presence. He immediately experiences some strange chest pains and sits down but is comforted by Alden’s beautiful but rebellious daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer) who offers him a strong drink. The following day Will ends up sleeping the entire day away not waking until later on that night after his wife discovers him still in bed. He also gains a strong appetite for food and sex. It becomes clear the wolf bite is slowly changing his metabolism. When he stops to take a look at how the bite wound is healing he notices long coarse hairs growing from it and trims them. Soon, all his normal senses begin to sharpen to intense amounts, he can overhear people talking throughout his office building and he even notices a fellow employee has drank tequila in the morning just by walking past him. He begins feeling different, more alive and stronger.
Meanwhile, the growing animosity between Will and Stewart gets worse when he learns that his wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan) has been cheating with him (his smelling Stewart’s cologne on his wife’s clothing is the main clue) and it drives him into full revenge mode. So Will decides to have his own fling and gets to know Laura better. To help keep anymore of his nocturnal activities from occurring, Will also investigates the background of lycanthropes by meeting with a paranormal scholar (Om Puri) who gives him an ancient silver amulet that may help him ward off any further transformations.
Will doesn’t waste any time at getting back at Stewart and Alden when he announces to his co-workers that he wants leave and start a new publishing house, hopefully with their help and from other friends who aren’t happy in their current situations. During a meeting with Alden and his lawyer he also threatens that he’ll cause trouble like smearing the corporation’s name unless he gets his old job back. This “deal” would ensure him additional powers and investments in the company as well. Seeing Will has the upper hand, Alden agrees and it seems his new wolfish sensibilities are helping him in every area of his life. Yet things take a dark turn when Will is informed by the police his wife has been murdered and the bloody trail leads right to him. He must then evade the police with the help of Laura until they can find out who the real culprit is. For me WOLF is an exceptional entry in the subgenre that doesn’t fall into the usual trappings that many of these kinds of movies do. It is certainly a werewolf film, but it’s played out with a combination of realism, sly humor and romance. I think what Mike Nichols did was create a solid character driven story first then add the werewolf elements to that which really worked for me. Using the backdrop of the book publishing business and the inner battles for seniority between Will and Stewart was very refreshing. I really enjoyed all the power play aspects mixed in with the supernatural elements. Of course any movie with Jack Nicholson in the lead is always worth watching and in this movie he delivered another entertaining performance infusing his trademark sense of humor and wit into the proceedings giving it a more grounded feel. The score by Ennio Morricone is another knock out (has he ever not delivered?) and I particularly liked the guitar driven “werewolf theme” that plays during Will’s transformations. The special wolf effects by master makeup artist Rick Baker also aren’t heavy handed, but instead woven into the the story with very liberal flourishes. One little detail I picked up on and found really interesting was the odd reactions of normal people to seeing the powers and physical appearances of the werewolves: they aren’t really scared or disturbed at all. The way in which the werewolf characters were portrayed, as opposed to older films where once the change occurs, they are completely animalistic, was changed to give them a certain level of natural elegance and composure.