Werewolf movies have existed for over a hundred years. There are dozens upon dozens upon dozens of them and new offerings arrive with each passing year. Contrary to popular belief, however, there are plenty of good ones out there. From the classics to the cult favorites to the obscure offerings, this column will cover a different werewolf film each month near the latest rise of a full moon. So throw out your wolfsbane and silver, take to the moors, and run towards that gleaming globe in the sky, because it’s time for Full Moon Frights!
I toiled for a very long time over which film I should cover to launch this column. Some old black and white classic? An ‘80s favorite? Maybe a forgotten gem? Perhaps a more modern choice? All such eras will eventually be poured over in this monthly series, but for some reason, Wolf Man Jack entered my mind and just wouldn’t leave. So, Wolf it is!
Wolf was born in the early 1980s as a pet project of novelist/screenwriter Jim Harrison (Revenge, Legends of the Fall) and the concept quickly drew the interest of Harrison’s friend, actor Jack Nicholson. By the time Harrison had conjured up a draft of the script that both he and Jack were happy with, the ‘80s were winding down and it had been awhile since a hit werewolf movie had come along. In other words, it wasn’t the best time to be shopping around a more expensive, prestige monster flick.
Lucky for them, Colombia Pictures’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula burst onto the scene in 1992 and became one of the highest grossers of the year. Prestige horror was in again and Columbia was hot for more. Along with its sister studio, TriStar, they would go on to produce the following similar efforts over the next decade: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Mary Reilly, Hollow Man, and…of course…Wolf.
With their furry and fanged passion project finally getting off the ground after a decade of development, Nicholson enlisted the talents of his friend and regular collaborator, Mike Nichols. What better way to entice non-horror fans to see a monster movie than have it come from the director of The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Working Girl who was re-teaming with his star from Carnal Knowledge (among others)? The script received an initial round of rewrites by Wesley Strick (Arachnophobia, Cape Fear), with a final uncredited overhaul coming from Elaine May (Heaven Can Wait, Tootsie). The result is a melting pot of Hollywood class, commercial genre elements, and a dark sense of satirical humor.
That all sounds well and good, but what does it have to do with Jack Nicholson turning into a werewolf? Everything. At its core, Wolf is the story of a middle-aged man on the verge of a midlife crisis that is brought about by sizable changes in his life. Will Randall (Nicholson) is the aging editor-in-chief of a respected New York publishing company. He likes his job and his clients, he’s been married for a decade and a half, and has an extremely comfortable life. Comfortable, but somewhat passionless.
Unfortunately for Will, the publishing company is in the process of being bought out by a ruthless billionaire (Christopher Plummer) and he is being phased out. His conniving young protégé, Stewart (James Spader) is replacing him and Will has been offered a demotion in the form of “a job that no one would want”. Did I mention that said protégé is also sleeping with Will’s wife, Catherine (Kate Nelligan)? After all, if you’re casting James Spader in the James Spader role, you might as well go full Spader with it!
In other words, Will Randall’s life has gone to shit. In any other kind of film, we’d see this turn into either a depressing drama about how fleeting one’s happiness is or Will would go off on some life-affirming vacation allowing him to forget his troubles. Instead, all of his bad luck happens to come to a head after he was bitten by a wolf on a full moon. This leads to Will’s inner passion and ambition, his inner wolf, being reborn again both literally and metaphorically. The beast within has awakened and he’s not going down without a fight. What follows is a series of events that sees Will Randall reclaiming every aspect of his life, from his self-confidence to his profession to his love life.
As the power of the wolf continues to take over, Will’s four senses increase tenfold. He no longer needs his reading glasses. He can smell liquor on the breaths of his co-workers. He can hear gossip about himself from across the building. He’s stronger and no longer looking like a tired schlub. He’s vital, vigorous, and ready to seize the things he wants most.
There’s a downside, of course. After all, this is a werewolf movie. For every moment of triumph that his newfound gifts afford him, there’s an equal tragedy. One minute, he’s spending a wonderful day with his boss’s intriguing daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the next he’s waking up in the forest covered in animal blood. One moment he’s gleefully pissing on Stewart’s career and the next he’s finding severed fingers in his jacket pocket from the night before. One minute he’s about to go out for a romantic dinner with Laura and the next he’s being questioned by a detective (Richard Jenkins) about a recent homicide. The wolf’s bite is taking away from him as much as it gives and it’s only a matter of time before his nightly transformations become permanent.
For all its satire, humor, romance, and drama, Wolf is still very much a horror film. Ennio Morricone’s haunting themes permeate the film like a Gothic fog. Nichols’ and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s post-transformation sequences are shot in a very dreamlike and heightened fashion, hearkening back to the classic monster films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, albeit with a ‘90s sheen. As for the transformations themselves, all involved were wise enough to hire the talents of Rick Baker. Still, you will find no full American Werewolf in London or Howling-style wolfbeasts here.
Baker & Co. have instead allowed the performers to convey much of the werewolfery; opting for old school make-up, hair, and facial appliances to enhance their already-present predatory nature. Thus we have a true Wolf Man Jack, with Nicholson jogging, running, leaping, grinning, and growling about in a riff on the classic Jack Pierce/Henry Hull look from 1935’s Werewolf of London.
Wolf isn’t a perfect movie. It’s not very scary (although not all horror needs to be) and while her performance makes up for it, Pfeiffer’s character is underwritten. Plus a couple of the heavier horror elements don’t quite fully land at times and can come off a little campy. I don’t see this as a problem, however. After all, the older era of werewolf and exploitation films that it’s hearkening back to had a similar vibe. In many ways it feels like a great marriage of Mike Nichols & Elaine May’s previous works with AIP-esque exploitation. Fitting, given Jack’s career beginnings.
What makes it sing most are Nichols’ juggling of tones and some stellar lead performances from Nicholson, Pfeiffer, Plummer, and especially Spader. It’s not an all-timer, but it’s still a damn good werewolf movie. One that weaves classic monster tropes (including an aging mystic) throughout its themes of midlife crises, self-examination, the rejuvenation of passion, and…of course…werewolf vs. man (and werewolf vs. werewolf) carnage. It’s not something we get very often and therefore should be cherished.
See you next full moon!