Sunday, 9 May 2010

Wolf (1994)

Occasionally reviewed as the thinking person's horror film, this movie certainly has a lot going for it. Its impeccable credentials include direction by Mike Nichols from a script co-written by Wesley Strick, Hitchcockian music from maestro Ennio Morricone, and lead roles filled by Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. The supporting roles are equally well-cast and include turns of varying importance from Christopher Plummer, James Spader, Kate Nelligan, Richard Jenkins, David Hyde Pierce, Ron Rifkin, Brits Om Puri, Eileen Atkins, and Prunella Scales, and even a early cinema appearance from David Schwimmer.

So why am I in two minds about this film? Probably it is because its clever opening scenes and its sophisticated dialogue end up in a confusing mess of half-baked horror conventions. It is very definitely a film of two halves and only the first half allows the brilliance of the personnel to shine. Nicholson plays a high-powered publishing editor whose career looks ready for the dustbin when Plummer's conglomerate takes over his firm and erstwhile protege Spader is conniving behind his back (to say nothing about shagging his wife). On a business trip to New England, his car hits an animal; on investigating he finds an injured wolf who bites him before running off. Back in New York he finds his senses becoming sharper and his behaviour more predatory. The wimpish executive prepares to fight back as the wolf in his DNA takes control.

I have always liked Nicholson's screen presence, even in some of his early and rather wooden roles, but I would never place him amongst the highest acting talents, despite his number of Oscar nods and wins. Like many of the best screen actors, he normally plays variations of Jack the Lad, rather than losing himself into any Actors Studio-ish characterisations. However in this film he shows the bestial side of his personality with great cunning. One can see that he understands the gradual changes that are occuring within him, combined with amazement at his new prowess and despair at his lack of control. Pfeiffer too moves from initial indifference to deep infatuation in something of an underwritten and confusing character. In the course of getting even with Spader (and one should ask here why that actor has moved from an interesting screen actor to a television stalwart), he marks his territory by peeing on his suede shoes (!) and biting him, causing Spader also to mutate.

This is where the film begins to go downhill. Although Spader makes up as a swell werewolf, his wolfish behaviour is so far over the top that the viewer's initial inclination is to laugh at his excesses. This builds to an ending where the two leads combine to dispatch the vile Spader, but leaves the viewer at a complete loss to understand what happens next. One has no idea what will be the fate of Nicholson's transformation and the writers then throw in the suggestion that Pfeiffer is a werewolf as well, perhaps the one responsible for Nicholson's own infection, although she has displayed absolutely no wolfish behaviour or symptoms at any point of the action.

I don't consider this comment a spoiler, since the viewer is left to make up his own mind on the basis of some, I think, misplaced visuals. While these may serve to explain the earlier death of Nicholson's unfaithful wife, you can debate until the cows come home which of the characters was actually responsible. They add very little to a movie that has started out as an intresting riff on horror film-making.
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