There was a moment somewhere in the early 1990s when Hollywood decided that what audiences wanted was lavish, grown-up, romantic but not scary updates of classic monster movies. The first and most successful was Bram Stoker’s Dracula from Francis Ford Coppola. Kenneth Branagh had a go with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In between, Mike Nichols directed Wolf, a modern-day retelling of the werewolf myth, starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. It is hard to think of better casting, and Wolf was marketed as one of the major releases of 1994, but the final film pleased neither critics nor audiences (it had a big opening weekend, but faded fast) and was quickly forgotten. When Vanity Fair published the ‘definitive oral history’ of Nichols’ career shortly after his death in 2014, Wolf didn’t feature.
Now receiving its first UK blu-ray release courtesy of the Indicator label, it would be great to say that Wolf is due a reappraisal, but it really isn’t. It has moments, particularly in the first half, but it remains what it was in 1994: a big, confused mess. Yet for the first time, thanks to Indicator, Wolf does come with special features, including an excellent hour-long documentary that details and explains its difficult production.
The film starts with considerable promise. Nicholson is Will Randall, Editor in Chief of a New York publishing house, who is driving back from a meeting when he hits a wolf. When he tries to remove the seemingly lifeless animal from the road, it revives and bites him. Back in New York, the bite at first seems the least of his problems - after a recent takeover, Will is under pressure at work, struggling to make purely commercial decisions. As his new boss (Christopher Plummer) tells him, “These days, taste and individuality are something of a handicap.” Soon, though, Will starts to experience changes. His senses sharpen, and he finds a new ruthless streak that enables him to fight back against his office competitors, including his duplicitous former protege (James Spader). At first, Will is delighted with his new vulpine power, but the changes continue and he begins to lose control.
Wolf is at its best as a satire of American business and culture. In these scenes, it works as a dark mirror version of Nichols’ earlier Working Girl. But they only account for a small part of the whole. Much more time is spent building a vapid romance with Pfeiffer, who plays Plummer’s rebellious daughter, and going through the motions of a werewolf horror movie. Pfeiffer’s role makes almost no sense. She only exists to fall in love with Nicholson. The attempts at horror are half-hearted and sometimes laughable. As he turns into a wolf, Will leaps around a lot, a trick that can look rather silly, particularly in the numerous shots where Nicholson has been replaced by an obvious stunt double. In the final act the film falls apart completely, as all attempts at satire or even character are abandoned for a big creature showdown where Nicholson and Spader (now also a wolf) jump at each other.
From the looks of things, Indicator have used the same encoding of the film as featured on Sony’s region A release. It’s often good, but erratic. For a film with so many night scenes and dark suits, it’s unfortunate that blacks can be a problem, with heavy noise and indistinct detail. When Plummer tells Nicholson he’s going to be fired, the image quality is awful. Yet later, a lakeside scene at sunset is perfectly clear, right down to the dense check of Nicholson’s jacket.
The main special feature - and really the main reason to get this disk - is the exclusive documentary, which features producer Douglas Wick, co-writer Wesley Strick and make-up effects artist Rick Baker. The documentary is fascinating, as much for what is implied as for what is said directly. Wick and Strick never actually contradict each other, but want to tell very different stories. Wick emphasises the contribution of first writer Jim Harrison, and presents Nichols as the controlling force behind the project. Strick is much keener to describe tensions in the various working relationships: he was brought in as a second writer by Sony executive Amy Pascal, and got on well with Nichols (they both agreed Harrison’s draft was too macho and focused on unfilmable internal struggle); Nichols was not necessarily keen to collaborate creatively with Wick, and wanted to demonstrate that he could handle modern blockbusters; at the same time, Nicholson was good friends with Harrison and wasn’t afraid to use his star power, which for the first time in their four-film relationship unquestionably outstriped Nichols’ (this was their last project together). Baker has an excellent anecdote about Nicholson’s veto of numerous more transformative make-up elements. He is also quick to point out that he was only responsible for make-up effects and didn’t have a hand in the (ropey) animatronic wolves.
Also included are a series of interview clips from the press tour, four minutes of ‘B-roll’ footage, the trailer and an image gallery. The clips range from 15 minutes with Nichols (who makes the film sound much better than it is) to 30 seconds with Pfieffer. The B-roll is interesting as it demonstrates how much was filmed on sets. As with many of the effects sequences, Nicholson is completely absent.
An accompanying booklet features an essay from Brad Stevens - which does heroic work connecting the film to both Nichols’ and Nicholson’s careers - contemporary reviews and Nichols and Wick interview excerpts. All are worth reading.
Review by Jim Whalley