This may come as a shock to those with short memories, but not all summer blockbusters used to be about larger-than-life superheroes, rampaging robots, and radioactive lizards. As a matter of fact, some were even about ordinary men who have to come to terms with the fact that they periodically change into inhuman beasts. Such was the case in June of 1994, when Jack Nicholson discovered how good it feels to be Wolf. It’s the first werewolf movie I saw in a theater, which means I came of age just in time because it was also the last werewolf film made by a major studio before digital effects really took over. The only thing it’s really lacking is a good transformation (which is a shame because Rick Baker did the makeup effects), but you can’t have everything.
Wolf marked the only time director Mike Nichols ventured into the horror genre, but he had a good road map in Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick’s Saturn Award-winning screenplay, and with expert cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno behind the camera he was assured that the final results were at least going to look good. Then, of course, there are the actors who take the story — of a cultured book editor (Jack Nicholson) who’s in danger of being put out to pasture when he has a nocturnal encounter with a wolf whose bite brings out his predatory instincts — and class it up more than you would think possible. Nicholson has a lot to do with that, but he’s helped immeasurably by the likes of James Spader (as his backstabbing protégé, who not only steals his job but is carrying on an affair with his wife), Christopher Plummer (as the new boss who’s more impressed by aggression than good breeding), David Hyde Pierce (as his top editor), Ron Rifkin (as his skeptical doctor), and Richard Jenkins (as a homicide detective who enters his life after there’s been a homicide). In comparison, I thought the women in the film were a bit underwritten, with Michelle Pfeiffer’s behavior and emotional state changing from scene to scene and Kate Nelligan barely registering as Nicholson’s wayward wife, but Eileen Atkins fares much better as his faithful secretary and Prunella Scales shines as one of his star authors who threatens a walkout in solidarity.
Of course, a walkout is hardly necessary once Nicholson embarks on his campaign to get his job back. Along the way he discovers that the wolf bite has imbued him with heightened senses of smell and hearing and corrected his vision. (It even causes his thinning hair to fill out.) He also seeks out an expert on animal possession (an aged academic played by Om Puri) who informs him that “the wolf rests by day and prowls by night, but is always present,” and gives him an amulet to keep the wolf at bay. It wouldn’t be much of a werewolf story if that actually worked, though. In the end, Nicholson may have to sacrifice his humanity to save the woman he loves, but at least he can stand on his own four paws and howl at the moon. That’s about as close to a happy ending for a werewolf film as I can imagine.