From The Parallax Review Vaults: Wolf (1994)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Wolf was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Showtime

I’ve always loved werewolves in movies. I’m not talking about the perpetually shirtless Abercrombie & Fitch models that pass for werewolves in films these days. I mean the haunted, guilt-ridden soul that is cursed to transform into a beast at every full moon and savagely kill anyone unlucky enough to be in their way. The problem with this love is that there just are not enough good werewolf movies to fill even one small section of my DVD shelf. There are only three acknowledged classics in the genre: The Wolf Man, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London. To that list, I feel that Neil Marshall’s manically entertaining Dog Soldiers will one day be included. Unfortunately, beyond those four movies, the pickings are very slim. I had hopes that Wolf would be better than I remembered and make up for the dearth in worthwhile werewolf cinema. But it turns out that my reaction to the film today is exactly the same as it was 16 years ago: good first hour, increasingly inane second hour.

The film opens without any real setup, which is rather refreshing. Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is driving along a snowy Vermont road and hits a wolf. When he tries to pull the seemingly dead animal off the road, it bites his hand and runs into the woods. So far, so good. Will returns home to New York City and his wife, Charlotte (Kate Nelligan), shaken, but not showing any ill effects from the bite. When he discovers that he is losing his job as senior editor at a respected publishing house due to a corporate takeover by billionaire media mogul Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), Will doesn’t have the backbone to stick up for himself. He even refuses to shame his friend, Stewart (James Spader), for being the one to force him out. But when Will starts to exhibit sharpened senses of sight, smell, and hearing, he finds his personality is more aggressive. He uses this new aggressive nature to fight for his job and to ditch Charlotte who has been cheating on him with Stewart. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever seen a werewolf film knows, Will’s new powers come with a dark price.

That dark price is where the film falls apart. While Will’s transformation into an icy corporate shark out to take control of his life and punish Stewart is played with the right pitch of dark humor, the more overt horrific elements are laughable. This can be blamed mostly on director Mike Nichols. While he has a firm handle on the early scenes, Nichols seems to be unsure of how to create horror sequences that aren’t just rehashed tricks used more effectively by seasoned genre directors.

Even worse than Nichols’s unoriginal uses of jump scares and musical stingers is the silly way that Will’s transformation is represented: Nicholson with heavy sideburns, making ridiculous grunting noises, while sniffing the air. The result is cheap looking makeup over a hammy performance. This can only take the film into the dire realm of camp. It feels as though Nichols was bound and determined to make a werewolf movie without ever acknowledging the werewolf aspect. This keeps the film in a stagnant limbo between seriousness and self-parody. If Will had been allowed to turn into a completely different creature, the film would have been better off for the overt horror. Instead, most of the second and third acts contain silly scenes of Will looking as though he’s dressed up as “Wolverine” for a Halloween party.

Aside from Nicholson’s early scenes and a suitably oily turn by Spader, the acting is very shaky for a Mike Nichols film. Plummer and Michelle Pfeiffer (as Plummer’s black sheep daughter) are especially bad. In most of their scenes, they look utterly confused about what the tone is supposed to be and eventually just begin playing everything with constant smirks as though they were pretending to be in on a joke they didn’t understand.

I can understand the desire of the studio to go after a filmmaker of Nichols’s pedigree, but I felt he was the wrong choice for this film. He fails to grasp the fact that the cast has to buy seriously into the outrageous premise for the film to work. It doesn’t help that the script by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick meanders uncertainly in the second and third acts, but the absolute collapse into unintentional laughs during the last hour is inexcusable for a filmmaker of his abilities.

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