Quantum Geek: Wolf (1994)

Friday; what better day to let the animal out?

Quantum Geek reviews Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer's Wolf (1994)

Many of us love werewolves. I'm sure a lot would change their minds if they ever saw the size of the scratches those overgrown hairballs left in the furniture, but if there's one horror subgenre that's brought us so much fun over the decades it's the wolfman movie. The ever faithful neck-chomper has had some awesome moments since his rise to prominence in the '50s; An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Fright Night, The Monster Squad and Dog Soldiers, to name my favourites. Just steer clear of the sequels. They're forgotten for a reason!

The last of this month's Quantum Geek throwback movies is a curious title. There were a few big reasons it shouldn't have been successful, and yet it proved quite a hit upon its release June 1994.

Jack Nicholson Michelle Pfeiffer Wolf movie poster

Wolf is many things combined but above all else it's a '50s throwback B-Movie made glossy modern film noir by style and a steamy psychological thriller true to its time (and its cast). As mainstream movies tend to be, after they've aged a couple decades and put a little weight on, Wolf is not one of the most memorable features when concerning Jack Nicholson and co-star Michelle Pfeiffer. Being a film music fan, I can also tell you that you're not likely to find its soundtrack on an album of Ennio Morricone's greatest hits, and that man has a hell of a lot of greatest hits albums. Regardless, it's actually a very good movie, and one that you can easily immerse yourself in.

Jack Nicholson stars as Will Randall, a down on his luck Manhattan publisher who not only loses a top job, he also loses his wife to the guy who took that job from him, Stewart Swinton (Boston Legal's James Spader, soon to be the voice of The Avengers' Ultron). If that's not bad enough, he's attacked by a bloody werewolf. Infected and slowly changing into the beast that bit him, he miraculously regains his vitality and lust for life, discarding of everything dragging him down and engaging in war with Swinton. Enter Laura Alden, the stunningly beautiful daughter of his boss, and things heat up in all senses.

As Will struggles to keep the beast within at bay, his need to give into his deepest desires (notably lust and revenge) comes to the fore and he fears for the safety of Alden, who is quite the huntress herself. Rather than appealing to the fans of straightforward horror, this is more a genre twist on what was yet to be the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street, and every pun imaginable right there is fully intended.

Directed by the Mike Nichols of Dustin Hoffman's The Graduate and the legendary Catch-22, this movie is classic at its heart and even though it is not intended as a comedy, those old conventions are still there. With the movie specifically written for Nicholson, his character caters for him and you can tell. Not only taking advantage of the batshit loony behaviour he has always been known and loved for, Wolf really brings out the old-school actor that reminds us why he's an Oscar winning acting genius. There are hints of Dirk Bogarde and Carey Grant in him that twists the plot evermore, while adding a gallon of sophistication.

Jack Nicholson hairy wolf man Central Park mugging scene
If Nicholson played Wolverine, right? Right?
Pfeiffer, arguably in the height of her popularity, is so sizzling hot that when I revisited this movie, I quite fancied howling, myself. As Laura Alden, the sophisticated but adventurous daughter of Christopher Plummer's wealthy tycoon Raymond Alden, she isn't out for the kind of trouble she's about to wind up neck-deep in, but goddamn if her character barely escaped the grotty fantasy appeal of movies such as 9 and a Half Weeks. The early to mid-nineties were full of that stuff. Basic Instinct, anyone? Disclosure? Not to worry, it's not a softcore bestiality flick or anything...

beautiful actress Michelle Pfeiffer in Wolf (1994)

James Spader, starring as Stewart Swinton, proves early on in his career before Stargate certified his popularity just how an amazing actor he really is. There are despicable villains in movies and there is serial killer material that never quite gives in to the satisfaction. Sociopathic, slimey and creepy, Spader is like the prototype to Christian Bale's American Psycho, and he's here to prove that Nicholson's werewolf-to-be is actually not the bad guy in this movie. It's not everyday you see an actor play so well with Nicholson and even without the monster movie subtext, those two and Pfeiffer could have sold this so easily.

That's something I miss these days. Can I please have more horror with a human plot I can sink my teeth into? Can I please have that with actors that work to satisfy their audience on both primal and intelligent levels? Kudos to the great Nichols for nurturing his cast in such a way, I really mourn that he no longer makes movies.

The only con I can bring up with this movie is the special effects. Sticking to that old '50s hairy guy with fangs look, that's a bit of comedy gold until you see Nicholson's face. Spader's makeup was fucking hilarious, though. Aside from that, you could tell that Nichols was never an action director of any sort, the action was also pretty primal too, but not in a good way?

So how has Wolf changed the way we view cinema today? Let me be frank. It hasn't. Congratulations, Hollywood, if there's one thing you don't fuck up today, it's usually the action. That much you get credit for. But nobody knows how to do suspenseful drama, immersive storytelling and sneaky laughs and relatable in-jokes like Nichols or writers Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick. Saying that, Strick went on to script Doom... *shudder* and Harrison didn't do much at all with his writing career after Wolf.

What the hell happened?

Jack Nicholson Wolf transformation
A flash in the pan for everybody other than our brilliant director and ensemble cast, I really can't complain because I'm fond of one-offs that aren't subject to being milked to death. If it's cold and raining where you are tonight, like it is outside my windown right now, and you're not hitting the town, give Wolf a try. It's pretty damn decent!

Thanks for reading and feel free to comment on your favourite parts. Quantum Geek is done for the rest of the month but will return in July with some seriously wacky classics. Take my word for it.

-Dan Ashley
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