Wolf

An upscale horror tale with a golden pedigree, WOLF starts out energetically. But about an hour in, it loses its biting edge and limps towards a climax that's simultaneously too much and not enough, neither an ambiguous metaphor for the beast within us all nor a straightforward werewolf story. Middle-aged book editor Will Randall (Nicholson) becomes...read more

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An upscale horror tale with a golden pedigree, WOLF starts out energetically. But about an hour in, it loses its biting edge and limps towards a climax that's simultaneously too much and not enough, neither an ambiguous metaphor for the beast within us all nor a straightforward werewolf

story.

Middle-aged book editor Will Randall (Nicholson) becomes a victim of the corporate jungle when money man Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer) buys the staid publishing house for which he works. Alden gives Randall's job to Stewart Swinton (James Spader), Randall's hustling and disingenuous

protege, and offers Randall a humiliating demotion to a dead-end corner of the business. It's almost enough to make him forget the odd thing that happened earlier: as he was driving in to New York City from Vermont, he was bitten by a wolf he struck on the road.

Randall undergoes a gradual transformation. His eyesight becomes sharper and his hearing so acute that he can hear conversations taking place in other offices. His sense of smell is so keen he can detect a drop of liquor on a co-worker's breath and the scent of another man on his wife Charlotte

(Kate Nelligan). That the man is Swinton is particularly galling, and Randall confronts the adulterous lovers, then moves into a hotel. Still more remarkable is the change in his personality. He salvages his career by persuading the house's best-selling authors to threaten to leave with him, then

negotiating a contract that gives him back his old job and much, much more. "I'd never have fired you in the first place if I'd known you were this ruthless," says Alden. Swinton is less pleased, particularly after Randall urinates on the younger man's suede shoes while explaining blandly that

he's just marking his territory. Finally, Randall takes up with Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), Alden's rebellious, unhappy daughter.

The trouble begins when the moon is full, and Randall begins hunting. One night he kills a deer out on the Alden estate and wakes up covered with blood; the next, back in Manhattan, he savages three youths who threaten him in Central Park. Randall doesn't remember his nocturnal prowls, but when

he finds a pair of severed fingers in his pocket, he realizes he's paying a terrible price for his newfound confidence.

Randall confides in Laura, who's understandably skeptical, but begins to take Randall's worries more seriously after Randall's wife is horribly killed. She locks him in her barn and, frightened, goes to the police station, where she runs into Swinton. His newly yellow eyes and hairy ears give

him away: he too has become a wolf, having been bitten by Randall earlier. She flees home and he follows, killing a guard and a groundskeeper on the way. The two wolf men fight it out, and when the dust clears, Swinton is dead--Laura shoots him with the dead groundskeeper's gun--and Randall has

fled. When the police and her father arrive, Laura is alone, a strange gleam in her eye. She offers a detective another vodka tonic, saying she can smell the liquor a mile away.

In the movies, werewolves are the embodiment of pure animal lust, and the first two-thirds of WOLF is a clever illustration of the proposition that Will Randall--"the last civilized man," as Laura calls him derisively when they first meet--is a far better man once he lets the hairy wolf within

out for some air. The suavely malicious world of publishing is sharply evoked, and Nicholson gives an excellent performance as a man whose taste and individuality are no longer professional assets, but downright liabilities. He only gets better as the wolf emerges, letting his voice slip from

sophisticated restraint into a guttural smirk that segues into an animal growl. As his protege-turned-nemesis, Spader turns in a study in spineless viciousness that he'd be hard put to better, and while the women's roles are underwritten--particularly that of Charlotte--Pfeiffer is convincing as a

bored woman coasting on her good looks.

If only the film's last half-hour weren't so disappointing. Some of the problem lies with the script, which is credited to Harrison and Hollywood hack Wesley Strick (FINAL ANALYSIS, ARACHNOPHOBIA); Swinton's pivotal transformation into a truly wolfish wolf is a wonderful idea, but nothing much

is done with it. Part of the trouble lies with Rick Baker's werewolf effects, which hark back to classic pictures like THE WOLFMAN, with their two-legged man-wolves; to a generation raised on amazing lupine transformations (e.g., Baker's own work in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON), it looks

half-hearted and unsatisfying. And part of the problem lies in the direction: Nichols seems nervous about the film's straightforward genre element, so while the publishing parties crackle with metaphorical backbiting, the scenes in which Nicholson must literally bay at the moon are simply

ridiculous.

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