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The Animal is Out

The Animal is Out

What’s it About?

Publisher Will Randall becomes a werewolf and has to fight to keep his job.

“I’ve been offered a choice between no job and a job no one would want.”  – Will Randall

“Wolf”

Directed by Mike Nichols

8 out of 10

By Vic

Director Mike Nichols ( The Birdcage, Silkwood, Working Girl ) takes a stab at the horror genre with “Wolf.” Released in 1994, it is a rather  smart and elegant take on the modern Werewolf mythology. What makes Wolf so unique is that it is a witty, thought provoking and handsome looking production. With Nichols at the helm and  a fantastic cast to elevate the material to a near perfect pitch, Wolf succeeds on a few levels. There are some great dynamics in the story  and Wolf explores what it means to feel unwanted, past your prime and old. The animal-istic tendencies of  every human lies just below the surface and when the animal is let out then whatever flaws and reserve we feel or have just go away to be replaced by ferocity.

That is what Nichols and writers Wesley Strick ( Cape Fear ) and James Harrison ( Legends of the Fall) reel us in with. The use of this metaphor works in spades here because of the great performances of leads Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. Exclusively, though, Nicholson as weary Book editor Will Randall is top notch here as he starts off very defeated and used up but changes eventually into the animal we all have inside of us. Randall, though, revels in it. There are consequences that he must come  to terms with and that is what makes Wolf a lot of fun to watch.

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The movie opens with the mysterious but stylish score by the great Ennio Morricone ( The Thing ) and then we watch as Editor Will Randall ( Nicholson ) drives back home to New York City during a night time snow storm. Will is returning from a business trip which he later admits to grovelling and begging with the author in order to get the deal. Nichols sets up mood right from the start and one can’t help but be impressed by the picture that Nichols paints in his eerie homage to the classic monster films of the 30 and 40’s. Nichols is no dummy and he knows better than anyone that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Well, Will loses control of his vehicle after hitting what looks like a dog and slides around in the snow on the desolated stretch of road in Vermont where a pack of really nasty looking wolves seem to hanging out. He gets out and checks on the wounded animal that isn’t so wounded after all. In a slow and tense moment, while Will pokes the dog with a stick, he realizes that it’s a wolf and as he tries to get it off the road gets bitten right on his hand. He notices the other wolves and gets back in his car and bolts out of there.

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He makes it back to NYC and the next morning he tells his wife Charlotte, played the the very pretty Kate Nelligan (Dracula 1979) the whole sordid story. Plus, he has a huge bite mark on his hand and eventually he starts to exhibit some strange behaviors like hair growth and increased sensibility in his hearing and smell. Watching Nicholson as a book editor was interesting. His day by day interactions with his co-workers and employees is fun to watch. In one cool scene he stands out in the courtyard of the firm and just “listens” to everyone and everything that he comes across.

Nichols even gives us a close up of his ears turning and twitching in response. So wicked. “Frasier” alum David Hype Pierce stars as Roy and Eileen Atkins is his secretary. Hyde Pierce steals every scene he’s in and has a great line regarding Will’s new stamina and forcefulness: “You are my God”  The proper Mary gets a good one in with: “Is the worm turning?”  to which Will responds “The worm has turned and is packing an Uzi.”

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Now, this movie is packed with talent. James Spader as Will’s protege Stewart, Michelle Pfeiffer who plays Laura, Christopher Plummer who plays a tyrant billionaire that wants to buy Will’s publishing firm named Alden. They all are spot on and really well written characters. Will meets the rebellious Laura at a party thrown by Alden and they get close. Laura, who is mourning the death of her brother and is estranged from Alden, is morose but intellectual.

All the while Will continues to go through strange changes. Some good of course and some bad. Will ‘Smells” other people on his wife’s clothing and figures out it may be Stewart he smells. Meanwhile, Will gets aggressive at his job and finds out that Stewart is not the stand up guy he thought he was. Now, James Spader easily knocks it out of the park as Stewart.

Spader gets more seedier and just as dangerous after Will discovers that Stewart is stabbing him in the back in a few ways. After he turns once, Will seeks out Rom Puri as a mystic named Vijav who may help him after he gets nowhere with his amusing doctor played by Ron Rifkin. He is given an amulet to help keep the wolf at bay. But the real Will, that lied underneath, is let out if the wolf isn’t. He takes on Alden and wrestles control of the firm back with extra control and gives Stewart a reality check by “marking his territory.” in the gentleman’s washroom.  A great scene that shows Nicholson reveling in playing Will.

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What happens next is the meat and potatoes of Wolf. The competition between not one but two animals for the the same woman. Charlotte having been taken out of the picture supposedly by Stewart, Laura is the one thing that Will will do anything except become a wolf to protect. But in the end his hand is forced and it comes down to a showdown on the Alden estate between the “wolves” of this story.

Wolf is a revelation to me because it succeeds in being a great homage with a curious and detailed feel of the classic while exploring new ideas and hardships of people who feel that they have passed their prime. All about the animal within. Then there is the wrapping or shall I say the “wolf’s clothing” – a down to the nitty gritty monster flick that doesn’t disappoint. Some detractors say the the film devolves at the end but I think it was inevitable. It was the absolutely best climax to fit the story.

There is a battle royale between Will and Stewart. Rick Baker, who was nominated for a Saturn Award, supplies once again some great Wolf make up here. Nicholson and Spader look almost unrecognizable under all the make up and they emote terrifically underneath. Everything is top notch too. Morricone’s score is creepy, elegant (there goes that word again) and almost a bit jazzy and minimalistic in some ways.
“Wolf” succeeds in relaying the message about controlling urges and tendencies  and Nichols and his writers involve the audience with the mythos of the werewolf without all the aplomb and gravity. It’s about beliefs too and how we see our place in modern society. A great example is of a wolfed out Jack Nicholson walking around in central park still in his nice clothes and still speaking well and articulately as he takes on a gang of thieves. After they accost him he shows no fear and even challenges them right before he shreds them to bits.

“Wolf”  is a rare horror romance  that is engaging, a slow burn and very nice to look at. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno ( Popeye ) and Bo Welch ( Batman Returns ) deliver a good looking production that is half classically made and half modern in it’s storytelling. Nicholson, Spader and the beautiful Pfeiffer are the ones to watch here, you’ll enjoy the interaction between them all before Nichols pushes the movie into a whole other level in it’s horrifying conclusion. Enjoy gang! Highly recommended!

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