We always like to pick out a Halloween horror as All Hallows Eve approaches. I've spent much of the last few months in towns across Europe mysteriously visited by all these "lone wolves" we keep hearing about, so, given the rampant lycanthropy, I've plumped for a whiskery Jack Nicholson:
For a while in Hollywood, the principal cinematic function of Vermont was for New Yorkers to find themselves in. Back in Baby Boom (1987), Diane Keaton, a big town ad exec elbowed aside by ambitious tyros, scrams to Vermont, starts up a line of Country Baby products and fleeces the yuppies back in New York. Seven years later, in Mike Nichols' Wolf, Jack Nicholson, a big town book editor elbowed aside by ambitious tyros, heads for Vermont to see an author, runs over a wolf, stops the car to check the animal's condition, gets bitten and returns to Manhattan to swat the competition aside as a beast of the boardroom, a corporate carnivore, a literary lycanthrope, hirsute among the hardbacks, putting the fangs into the fiction list.
In Vermont, where I first saw the film 20 years ago, the locals were more interested in the wolf than the wolfman â€” seeing the episode as a stinging rebuke to those Fish and Game managements then busy promoting a revival of the wolf population in northern New England. It's as if, at the Transylvanian premiere of Dracula, the villagers left muttering about how everyone knows you don't wear off-the-shoulder cloaks on Walpurgis Night. The vampire/werewolf myths fit Eastern Europe because they're about horrors which lurk within, ferocious animal rages deep inside the blood that must out: look at the genital-severing and breast mutilation in Bosnia; lycanthropy's almost the most rational explanation.
America has its own horrors, of course, but don't blame the animal kingdom. When Jack gets back to town to take revenge on upstart slimeball James Spader, he tells his secretary, "The worm has turned and he's packing an Uzi." He means it metaphorically, but you're reminded that, in a real American horror story, he would be packing an Uzi, not just Engelbert Humperdinck side whiskers. In Baby Boom, Diane Keaton returned to New York with the messiness of rural life neatly packaged into a theme- park cutesy-pie product; in Wolf, Jack returns to New York with himself neatly packaged into a theme-park cutesy-pie version of ancient primeval terrors. Those dumb Carpathian werewolves just wanted to tear you limb from limb, but here's a wolfman for the arts-and-croissant crowd: every sense is sharpened â€” smells, sounds; good grief, even his reading's more satisfying. Who's afraid of Virginia, wolf? Not me, snarls Jack.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, incidentally, was Mike Nichols' first directorial assignment. Three decades on, he's lost four words and lost for words. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were hairier and scarier than anything here. Wolf, as has been the fashion for a generation, is a psychological horror film, about coming to terms with the animal inside. After a night of passionate wolfing, Jack declares, "I feel good" â€” the standard pschobabble formulation and also how President Clinton described his feelings after bombing Iraq. But, for a film about loosening up, Wolf is incredibly repressed: as a film about lust unleashed, it's too scared to unleash any.
It doesn't help that the love interest is Michelle Pfeiffer, who at this stage was beginning to make a habit (after her dull Catwoman) of helping turn great junk into bad art. But maybe it's Nicholson; maybe the casting's too neat. After all, he earned those "Wolfman Jack" headlines years earlier. The grin, the leer, the flash of the teeth, the insatiable sex drive: been there, done that â€” on-screen and off. When we first see him, he's a gentle, rueful, bookish loser with failing eyesight â€” or rather, he's an icon of super-cool trying to be a gentle rueful loser.
These days, we tend to laugh at the old horror boys â€” Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi â€” with their funny names and freaky looks. But that's the point: they always did exist in a sad marginalized celebrity, trapped by a narrow specific stardom that seemed as much a prison as being a vampire or werewolf and which gave them great pathos. Jack's got the fangs, but he can't cut it like they can.
As to the other effects, it's mostly down to the aforementioned sideburns which make him look like a rabid Elvis impersonator. Now there lies a true American horror story: driving through the Nevada desert one dark and stormy night, a traveling man from New York is mysteriously bitten by a fat guy in a spangled catsuit...
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