“Wolf” is a decidedly upscale horror film, a tony werewolf movie in which a full roster of fancy talents tries to mate with unavoidably hoary, not to say hairy, material. Offspring of this union is less ungainly than might have been feared, but is also less than entirely convincing, an intriguing thriller more enjoyable for its humor and sophistication than for its scare quotient. Classy production’s artistic schizophrenia mirrors the perplexing marketing challenge facing Columbia. The studio must convince the horror/special-effects crowd to attend a Jack Nicholson/Michelle Pfeiffer/Mike Nichols picture and persuade the filmmakers’ fans to see a genre pic. Best guess is that film will attract a portion of the audience that went for the studio’s previous lavish, prestige shocker, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” but far from all of it, making recoupment of its reportedly $ 70 million-plus production cost a dicey matter.
Clearly, no expense has been spared in outfitting this project, which bears comparison to such perennials as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,””Beauty and the Beast” and many mangier monster epics turned out over the decades.
But no matter how snazzy the trappings, when you get down to it, this is still, at heart, a werewolf picture, the story of a man who starts growing an abnormal amount of hair, developing acute senses of smell, sight and hearing, and roving out under the full mooningly learns courtesy of his acute new sniffing abilities, prompts him to seek solace with Laura, to whom he confesses what happened to him and with whom he eventually starts an affair. On a nocturnal outing, Will attacks a deer, and the ante is upped on each successive night as he is increasingly dominated by the aggressive animal growing inside him.
No doubt highly mindful of the audience’s suspension-of-disbelief mechanism, the filmmakers have carefully charted Will’s transformation, having chosen an intelligent, skeptical man as their subject and retaining rationality as far as possible. The strong humor injected into the proceedings, at least through the second act, also helps keep one on the film’s side.
But as Will’s attacks become increasingly savage, the story becomes channeled into a more conventional format, and fact that the Will-Laura relationship has no resonance delivers the picture a body blow that may not knock it out but puts it on the ropes.
Laura is presented as a bad little rich girl whose life is mostly devoted to defying Daddy while still enjoying his money. Despite their convergence at this time and place, she and Will inhabit different wavelengths, and nothing that happens between them develops any particular rooting interest for the viewer.
Ultimate revelation that “Wolf” is supposed to be a transcendent romance almost seems like an afterthought, and one that’s hardly prepared for by the treatment of the story up until then.
Script by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, which bears no relation to Harrison’s novel “Wolf,” tries hard to make this shaggy story play plausibly as a modern piece, but still can’t avoid such tired devices as full-moon fever and the Middle European expert who explains lycanthropy to Will and even gives him an amulet to try to keep the wolf in him at bay.
A sensible intelligence has been applied to the characterizations. Unlike the case in his previous, over-the-top horror outing, “The Shining,” Nicholson begins his performance in a low key and cranks it up only by degrees. Except for the nocturnal moments when the wolf takes over, the actor holds the line firmly in order to create a tension between his will to normalcy and his helpless transformation into savagery.
By contrast, Pfeiffer’s Laura comes across as very hard and brittle. It’s not a rewarding role and, given the grandly romantic goal the film fails to achieve, her character needs more shading and generosity of heart.
Spader is back playing the sort of loathsome yuppie he excelled at earlier in his career, and doing it just as well as before. Nelligan has little to do as the unfaithful wife, while some of the other supporting perfs, notably those of Eileen Atkins and David Hyde Pierce as Will’s loyal publishing underlings, are dead perfect in the venerable Nichols shorthand mode.
New York locations and elaborate soundstage sets are accompanied by fine use of L.A.’s Bradbury Building as the home of the book firm. Rick Baker, who knows his werewolves (numerous credits include “An American Werewolf in London” and “Greystoke”), has once again done ace special makeup effects, and brief scenes in which people run and jump in wolflike fashion are highly effective. Other tech credits represent the best that money can buy.