a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

June 17, 1994

Okay, this one is not a Summer Fling with a McDonalds tie-in. It’s more like a prestige horror film for grownups that didn’t make much of an impact despite its pedigree. It’s Mike Nichols (WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?) doing a serious and/or metaphorical monster movie, reuniting THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK‘s Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, both at new career heights thanks to Tim Burton BATMAN movies. The score is by Ennio Morricone – more of a minimalistic one than he usually does, and very important to the tone of the movie. The cinematographer is Giuseppe Rotunno (FELLINI SATYRICON, AMARCORD, THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN).

Like one other serious grown up horror movie that I know of, WOLF opens with Jack Nicholson driving down snowy roads. But it’s night and he’s by himself and he has to stop because he hits a wolf. He experiences that common horror movie experience of “Do I have to put it out of its misery?” before a very effective “oh shit Jack don’t do that!” as he grabs the thing by the paws and tries to drag it out of the street. So anyway, yeah, he gets bit.

In THE SHINING of course he was a writer. Here his character Will Randall works with writers as editor-in-chief of a major New York publishing house. But the company is being shaken up by new owner Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, DRACULA 2000), who offers him a shitty different job and replaces him with his young protege Stewart (James Spader, THE NEW KIDS, SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE). Spader is great as a Kushneresque young prick whose douchiness happens mostly off camera. We hear that he pushed relentlessly for the job, but only see him playing innocent, apologizing, offering not to take the job, pretending to be the nicest guy in the world. And Will, to the disgust of his wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan, DRACULA [1979]), is not the type of guy to directly confront the little bastard. He leaves it up to Stewart’s own conscience whether to accept the job or not, so of course he does.

As if that’s not enough shit to deal with, Will’s wolf bite seems infected and is getting hairy. I know when I mentioned the wolf biting him at the beginning you assumed that was just kind of an odd thing that happened that would have no bearing on the plot, but in fact it causes him to merge his soul with that of the wolf. Just because he hit the wolf with a motor vehicle nearly killing him does not mean they can’t become some sort of telepathic human-wolf superbros.

He starts to notice weird things, like animals (notably horses) are scared of him. That’s one of those handy abilities like being able to eat things that’ll make a billygoat puke. Also he can hear people’s conversations from another building. He can smell people. I don’t know if this is worth mentioning but I have had a couple times in my life where I identified people by smell. There was a guy I hadn’t seen in a couple years and I was like “That smells like so-and-so” and turned around and it was him. I really wondered why I was able to do that. Admittedly this guy had a trademark odorousness, and I have never been bitten by a wolf. But this movie says that it can be transferred by the “passion” of a wolf, and it’s left ambiguous what exactly that means. You guys don’t think–?

Anyway, Will’s super-smell causes him to catch his wife sleeping with Stewart! Jesus christ.

Other than that though he feels good most of the time and becomes newly aggressive. He hatches a secret plot to take all the writers away and start a less corporate, more writer-friendly company. He’s giving his staff (Eileen Atkins and David Hyde Pierce) instructions and they’re excited by his new attitude. They want to be part of his pack.

Pfeiffer plays Laura, troubled and rebellious daughter of Alden, who lives in a cabin on his estate and meets Will at the party where he finds out he’s demoted. She kinda hates him at first but takes care of him as he has fainting spells from his condition, and she becomes more open to him because she senses her dad hates him.

The most exciting part of the movie is the attempted publishing mutiny, but I also like the more standard waking-up-werewolf type business. Please note, Rick Baker did the makeup but went 180 degrees from his AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON work. It’s closer to the classic Universal wolfman – mostly some contacts and teeth and mutton chops. I can’t fault anybody who finds it laughable to see hairy Nicholson slo-mo running and hopping on digitally erased wires, but I sorta dig the old school simplicity of it. I mean, at first you’re like “ha ha, that’s just Jack Nicholson, he’s harmless,” but next thing you know he’s chewing out a deer’s throat.

Sometimes a man wakes up and smells a deer, you know? And has to run out into the woods. I actually really wondered how they did this scene, because as far as I can tell they really had Nicholson sprinting through the woods right on a deer’s ass trying to grab her. It looks kinda dangerous.

At work and in his love life it’s like he’s on speed and it’s working out for him, but there’s always a crash and waking up in regret. I know this has been done well in other werewolf movies, but Nicholson does a particularly great groggily-waking-up-confused-in-the-woods-with-animal-blood-all-over-him. It’s the expression of somebody waking up face first on the sidewalk after a night of drinking, if he’s maybe done this before but not enough to be used to it.

But also the wolf’s not entirely gone. He crawls on all fours and dumps his face in a stream – the wolfman’s version of going to the sink and splashing cold water on his face. Now he remembers he was sleeping over with Laura, but he’s not about to crawl back under the covers covered in deer blood. He has to sneak back onto the property though because his car is still parked there! That’s a pretty funny walk of shame.

He gets kind of used to doing crazy shit late at night. At one point he sneaks into the zoo and scares the animals. When the cops come he just jumps away. It’s extra funny now because the cop who tries to frisk him is David Schwimmer (Friends debuted 3 months later).

Here’s a class difference for you. When THE METEOR MAN realized he had powers he had to use them to fight crime in his neighborhood. WOLF just uses them to deal with his mid-life crisis. When he does randomly encounter DEATH WISH style Central Park park muggers, fighting them off seems more like a way to have fun and blow off steam than a community service.

There’s a standard horror trope where Will goes to visit Dr. Alezais (Bollywood star Om Puri), an old occult expert type who provides speculation that we can take to be a true explanation of how the werewolf stuff works. I’ve seen reviews that single this out as an example of clunkiness, but 1) a little bit of exposition never hurt a genre revisit and 2) I love the ending to the scene where the doctor asks Will to bite him. Will tries to filibuster a little by questioning his choice of “damnation” over death, but you can tell he’s uncomfortable as hell sitting there in this guy’s apartment, not wolfed out at all, and picturing himself trying to bite into an old man’s hand. Nobody ever said lycanthropy was gonna be easy, but I bet he didn’t expect this type of awkwardness.

If there’s a most famous part of the movie it’s gotta be when Will tells off Stewart in the company restroom and then intentionally pees on his shoes. This joins the climax of THE NIGHT FLIER as one of horror’s greatest urinal-related happenings. Maybe I missed something, but when Stewart (SPOILER) later shows up as a werewolf, he never got bit, did he? I wonder if it was transferred by Will’s “passion,” or by his piss?

A mysterious original ending (or entire third act, depending on where you read about it) was discarded and reshot, delaying the release. They obviously believed it wasn’t working, but I wonder if it was more organic than the goofy werewolf-on-werewolf barn fight where Stewart tries to rape Laura in front of Will. We know that being a wolf didn’t make him evil. It just got him to show his true colors.

A threat that Stewart makes and the suggestive way he grabs Laura are upsetting and would cause controversy today, but I think maybe this turn serves to distance Stewart and his abusive aggression from Will, who fears hurting people while “sleepwalking,” but never does hurt the women in his life. Otherwise this plays a little too close to the MRA fantasy of the “nice guy” forced to start being a dickwad because his woman and his job took advantage of his passivity. Stewart shows that being an “alpha” is not a good thing.

Though I’m a little wary of these themes, I like that this is not from the young perspective of most horror movies. Laura and Stewart, played by actors in their thirties, are both people from the young world being used to reinvigorate the Randalls. Kids, almost. Both literally and figuratively Will’s concerns have to do with having spent many years settled into a job and marriage and now realizing he can find something better. And now that I put it that way it sounds like some dumb macho ’80s shit, but at least a nuanced performance by Atkins as Charlotte adds some layers to it. She obviously fucked up by cheating on him but she comes across as something more complicated than the bad lady who ruined everything.

Pfeiffer also brings a certain strength and humanity to a lightly written role. She feels pretty in control of herself even though she’s basically second banana and caretaker. I also like the dumb little detail that she lightly snores while asleep next to him. I don’t know if I’ve seen another movie where a woman (or even man) snores other than for comedy.

But mostly this exists as an exercise in watching Nicholson grumpily react to things, from the routine to the crazy. Like with THE SHINING, many (including Dario Argento) are on record saying it doesn’t work because he’s already a weirdo before the transformation. I disagree. I even like watching his expressions as he’s having a hard time driving in the snow at the beginning. He doesn’t know how to be boring. That’s not a sin. It’s even better seeing his face as he’s realizing that he’s possessed by the soul of an animal.

This was a long-in-the-works project for Nicholson and his friend Jim Harrison, the poet and author of Legends of the Fall who had written Tony Scott’s REVENGE. A fan of nature and rugged individualism and what not, Harrison claimed (poetically?) to have once transformed briefly into a wolfman, giving him the idea for the script. His 1971 debut novel was also called Wolf (but with the subtitle “A False Memoir“) and I suspect he’s using the same metaphor here. I haven’t read the book, but a New York Times review interprets the title as representing “a loner, an anachronism,” quoting, “There are only three or four hundred native wolves left in the United States. . . . I felt that if I could see one all my luck would change. Maybe I would track it until it stopped and greeted me and we would embrace and I would become a wolf.”

Will is explicitly singled out as a loner and an anachronism, shunned by Alden for his “taste and individuality,” making a scene at parties with his politically incorrect (obnoxious) conversation topics, and brushed aside by the current direction of the publishing industry.

Like Will, Harrison himself was replaced by a younger upstart, Wesley Strick (TRUE BELIEVER, CAPE FEAR, script doctor for BATMAN RETURNS), with additional tweaks by an uncredited Elaine May (in part to convince Pfeiffer that her part wasn’t just “the girl”). Harrison was unhappy with Nichols’ new direction, complaining “He took my wolf and made it into a chihuahua.” The writer decided to stop working in movies, though CARRIED AWAY and DALVA were made based on his works.

According to The Werewolf Filmography by Bryan Senn, WOLF was first offered to Stanley Kubrick. Man, that would’ve been good! (I’m assuming, because Kubrick made good movies.) Since Kubrick turned it down, Nicholson brought it to his CARNAL KNOWLEDGE/THE FORTUNE/HEARTBURN director, and this was their last collaboration.

* * *

Obviously WOLF wasn’t gunning for #1 movie of the summer, so it’s okay that it came out in the week between SPEED and THE LION KING. It opened in first place (the other new release was GETTING EVEN WITH DAD) and ultimately made a bunch of money, despite what I sense is an overall reputation of “ehhhh…” The top moneymakers of summer ’94 were THE LION KING, FORREST GUMP, TRUE LIES, THE MASK, SPEED and yes, THE FLINTSTONES. Other notable releases of the season include THE CROW, WYATT EARP, THE SHADOW*, FRESH, and NATURAL BORN KILLERS. Also COLOR OF NIGHT and a forgotten Dolph movie that I like, PENTATHLON. So there were plenty of things to offer plenty of audiences, but WOLF ranks pretty high on that list, and it’s the only one that combines adult relationships with fangs and jumping.

I for one can’t wait to see Will Harrison return to fight the mummy

p.s. I’ll be skipping the summer of 1995 since I already reviewed CASPER, JOHNNY MNEMONIC, CONGO, JUDGE DREDD, MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE, FIRST KNIGHT, WATERWORLD, VIRTUOSITY and LORD OF ILLUSIONS in a previous series.

*I thought I’d already reviewed THE SHADOW. Apologies for skipping it in this series. I may have to come back to it.

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29 Responses to “Wolf”

  1. I haven’t seen this one since at least 20 years, when it debuted on TV. Can’t really remember much of it, but it’s high on my rewatch list, both because of my werewolf movie book (that of course will never be finished) and because over the last 10 or so years, I learned to really appreciate James Spader, thanks to his TV work.

    Another thing that was added to Jack Nicholson in this movie btw, was an animatronic mouth. Or maybe they just built an animatronic Nicholson for certain scenes. I don’t know. They built it, so that his character could open it wider than a normal human being could.

  2. I remember really wanting to see this but never really did. I’ve seen bits and pieces like Spader v Nicholson but never the entire thing. Gonna have to rectify that.

  3. All I remember is that the trailer for this one was before every single movie I saw that year. I have the EW Summer Movie Preview issue somewhere and I’m going to look at it and report back 1994.

  4. Will bites Stewart on the hand when he puts it on his shoulder.

    This is one of my favorite horror films of the ’90s mostly because it’s my all-time favorite actor playing my all-time favorite monster and fighting a wolf wrestling match with my all-time favorite yuppie asshole. But also like Vern said, this is a much more interesting and adult approach to the genre. I mean Scream was two years off so there’s no ironic detachment, just a good (if simple) story and great performances.

  5. Been a while but I enjoyed this one. With this, FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, and KENNETH BRANAGH’s MARY SHELLY’S FRANKENSTEIN Columbia Pictures had themselves a nice little interesting monster trilogy (yeah FRANKENSTEIN wasn’t a winner but is still interesting). This was back in the day when we didn’t necessarily have to have a sequel and definitely no need to do cross-overs but still a DARK COLUMBIA UNIVERSE with Gary Oldman, Robert DeNiro, and Jack Nicholson in legit horror/monster movies (even if they are dressed up in ‘respectable’ clothing) is more interesting than what the actual DARK UNIVERSE is promising us. No one has mentioned it yet but WOLF is a much better and more interesting WOLFMAN update than the official one. The official WOLFMAN movie isn’t bad, it strives for greatness, but it never fires on cylinders.

    Really enjoyed the FANTASTIC MR. FOX shout-out. It should always be getting shout-outs.

  6. What killed THE WOLFMAN was how scatter brained it was due to it’s massive production issues. It did however have it’s heart in the right place unlike the next crop of Universal Monster jawns.

  7. Watched this a few months back as part of a werewolf-themed month my wife & I programmed and I have to say I pretty much hated it. Mike Nichols was a thoughtful, literate, intellectual filmmaker, which makes him exactly the wrong choice for a movie about the inner beast coming out and rejuvenating a middle-aged guy’s life with a fresh dose of testosterone. The pacing is too slow, the action is dull, and even the comedy is only tentatively committed to (I mean, how do you cast David Hyde-Pierce in a comedy role and make him unfunny?). Total mismatch between director and material in my opinion. A werewolf movie has to be hairy and it has to have balls. It needs a hot-blooded filmmaker. Mike Nichols is not that guy.

  8. I haven’t seen this since it first came out on VHS. If I remember correctly, the upper class publishing world politics wasn’t exactly all that exciting for younger me. And even back then, I knew that Nicholson looked goofy during the final fight.

  9. I will controversially state that I actually prefer the WERWOLF OF LONDON/CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (two of the best ever monster make-ups, for what it’s worth) style wolf-men to the HOWLING style Wile E. Coyote man-wolves, and I think Jack looks awesomely berserker-ferocious in the WOLF make-up. I don’t recall the character being served particularly well by the screenplay, but the look is totally fucking hostile. Only wish Jack had been that slim and fit in BATMAN.

  10. Fuckin’ A! I loved when high concept movies for adults were summer tent poles. Jack Nicholson as a werewolf? Sold! The bus that couldn’t slowdown? Sold!

    I guess some of the comedies still are. This weekend we get Scarjo does a raunch com. Amy Schumer gets kidnapped with her mom kind of was too. Animated food has an orgy, I guess.

  11. “If there’s a most famous part of the movie it’s gotta be when Will tells off Stewart in the company restroom and then intentionally pees on his shoes.”

    I’ll second that, if only because that scene was in the trailer (“Just marking my territory” says Jack). I still remember that bit even though I never saw the actual film.

  12. Ok, so it’s actually the Fall Movie preview I have from EW.com. The cover is for Pulp Fiction. Here are some highlights along with the “What’s at stake” for each movie according to EW.com. Sorry Vern this kind of hijacks but I also think most are just going to ignore me.

    The River Wild – EW wondered if (at 45) Streep needs a hit because at that age there is a shortage of “substantial roles” They also think that if the film is big she could go the Liam Neeson route (before that was even a route to take)

    Timecop – EW thinks it could give Van Damme a more “upscale” career.

    Terminal Velocity – Can Charlie Sheen be an action star? No, no he can’t. HOWEVER, Terminal Velocity fucking rules.

    Shawshank Redemption – Darabont needs to prove that he was the best man for the job. You see he wouldn’t sell the script without the promise of directing. I would say he proved it.

    The Professional – An American career for Besson. I’d say he did fine.

    Jason’s Lyric – Does anybody know if this movie is good? Seems like a movie Vern should review.

    (Btw Also September is The Next Karate Kid)

    The Specialist – (gets the multipage treatment)
    Ed Wood
    Pulp Fiction – EW thinks this film could be a career boost for everyone involved. I’d say it worked.
    RADIOLAND MURDERS – What’s at stake is Stars 4, 5, 6. “So be nice; if Lucas doesn’t like the reception he gets, another long retreat could be in store” I’d say.
    Stargate – “Landfill of Stargate action figures if the film doesn’t work” Did they even make figures?
    New Nightmare

    (Also in October, Clerks, EXIT TO EDEN, The Last Seduction)

    Interview with the Vampire – “For Cruise, a chance to drive a spike to the heart of anyone who thinks his acting lacks bite”
    Star Trek: Generations
    The Crossing Guard – Anybody seen this one? I remember balling my eyes out during that one scene.
    FRANKENSTEIN – EW thinks the movie needs to worry about Interview with the Vampire

    (Also in November, Low Down Dirty Shame, Double Dragon (Vern should review this one as a companion to Super Mario Bros, I also bet there are some regulars here who love that movie non-ironically)

    Nell – What a piece of shit this one is
    The Jungle Book – Since when did Stephen Sommers direct Jason Scott Lee in a live action Jungle Book? Did this even come out?
    Drop Zone – “Snipes, whose asking price has skyrocketed, is looking to avoid a crash landing”
    Streetfigher – “De Souza’s future, Can he flex his pecs as a director”

    (Also in December, Highlander III: The Scorcerer)

    The big movie reviews in this issue is Natural Born Killers (A rating btw) Number one movie in the country is Clear and Present Danger.

    Also Poll Results
    Favorite Actress – Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Meryle Streep, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeifer
    Actor – Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood
    56% of people thought Eddie Murphy’s career was in decline (they were right)
    Most people were most excited about The Santa Clause (over Star Trek:Generations, Mission: Impossible and the Brady Bunch movie, latter two were upcoming 1995 titles)
    Even in 1994 most of the people said they go to the movies more if they were cheaper. Boy are 1994 movie goers in for a shock.

    Sorry Vern but I just needed to do this.

  13. Damn, that’s actually an interesting time capsule, Sternsheim. Now I wanna check out my old movie magazines, as long as I still have them. (I’m planning to get rid of them soon. CJ needs the extra space.)

  14. I’m pretty certain I saw the Stephen Sommers Jungle Book movie in theaters. Jason Scott Lee should be in more things. IMDB does tell me he was on that Hawaii 5-0 show, so at least he’s not wallowing in obscurity.

  15. *The Shadow is pretty fucking great even if the CG demon dagger looks terrible on home video (for some reason, it actually looked pretty cool in the theater). It was one of those movies I saw at the dollar theater and the entire audience was having such an obviously good time that it left me wondering why it wasn’t better received in regular release. But alas, perhaps some things work better at bargain prices…

  16. JASON’S LYRIC was a decent coming of age movie with a standout performance by Bokeem Woodbine.

    I too remember Disney’s first live action THE JUNGLE BOOK. It was pretty boring but it was also the first time I saw Leana Headey in anything so it had that going for it. I was actually expecting a portion of the internet to champion that one over the Favreau one (which to be fair also bored me from what I saw) on some hipster shit but the internet surprised me since I guess most didn’t even know it existed in the first place.

  17. I was really into the Hawaii 5.0 reboot show for the first couple of seasons until I realized they weren’t interested (like most CBS shows really) in having a serialized story. They set up a big bad in the first episode and then proceed to do nothing with it. They introduced Wo Fat, long time nemesis from original (played by Mark Dicascos), and they did nothing with it. As a procedural it was alright but I also discovered they weren’t goign to keep up the action like the pilot did. I’m telling you, Len Wiseman for action is so underrated. If only he were better with directing story.

  18. Christ 94′ was a grand year for movies. True Lies, Speed and two(!) jumping out of planes action movies. I saw practically every film listed in Vern’s conclusion (even the fuggling Flintstones) at the cinema. Didn’t even hear about Wolf. My only recollection of it was a “huh” way-back-when as I came across it in the video store. The lack of badass makeup effects turned me off. Seemed kind of lazy.

    I wonder if Baker either wanted to go in a different direction for the makeup, or just didn’t have the money. Maybe he didn’t want to pigeon-hole himself as the “werewolf dude” (although I’d be pretty cool with that moniker myself).

  19. To be fair though Jack has such a naturally intense look to him that the minimalist makeup approach actually worked with him. Not so much with Spader.

  20. Baker’s approach was that you have a fantastic actor like Nicholson so you don’t want to cover him in appliances. Let his expressions enhance the make-up and not the other way around. Also he’d done elaborate wolf make-up in the past so this was a new way to achieve the same goal.

  21. I liked this one. It’s weird and quirky but has a great cast. We need more like that. I still think back to two scenes that have nothing to do with the horror element, but are Will talking to the two women of the movie and I thought had some interesting insight. One was when his wife was begging him to take her back because her affair meant nothing. He’s enraged and says something along the lines of “You betrayed me over and over again for NOTHING?!”

    The other one was when he met Michelle Pfeiffer and talks about how she acts like a bitch because she wants men to want to get to know her and like her for more than her beauty, but by behaving in such a disagreeable way, the only reason anyone would want to get to know her is because of her beauty, thus putting herself in an impossible situation.

    Just goes to show, you can pick up life lessons anywhere.

  22. Sternshein, those old magazines are a great sort of time travel. It puts you back into the mood of what people were thinking at the time. That’s the sort of aspect that’s often left out of academic history. I’m partial to old Fangorias myself. How far back does your EW collection go?

  23. Will does in fact bite Stewart, friendo. In human form, no less. Can’t remember if it happens right after the infamous bathroom scene or not, but Will’s walking away, Stewart’s scrambling behind him and grabs him on the shoulder. Will gives his hand a quick fairly minimal chomp, barely breaking stride. But apparently the “passion” is no joke.

  24. Fred, it’s the only EW I own and it was because I wanted the keep the Pulp Fiction cover. I used to have more Fangoria but younger me only kept one instead of saving it. It’s the Army of Darkness issue. Also I have a Darkman comic magazine and a bunch of old Pro Wrestling Illustrated.

  25. I had an entire collection of CINESCAPE magazine spanning across like 10 yrs once upon a time. Same with STARLOG. Lost both to an eviction.

  26. That’s a bummer on many levels.

  27. This movie makes it sound like Jack Nicholson is an otherkin, “possessed by the spirit” of an animal and all that.

  28. Sternshein wrote, “Nell – What a piece of shit this one is.”

    Reminds me of my all-time favorite movie review, where the Michigan Daily’s review of Nell was one word long: “Hell.”

  29. They could have actually had Jack play detective John Wolf. Would that have been too much?

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