Ever since the 1940s, filmmakers attempting to make a new monster film, in the vein of the classics Dracula or The Wolf Man are often saddled with the contempt or disbelief provoked in response by contemporary audiences, leaving the end result either comedic or a camp attempt at a thriller incapable of being taken seriously or enjoyed by anyone other than caffeine riddled thirteen year olds. After numerous of said attempts, it was refreshing, to say the least, to experience a film which would normally fall under the aforementioned category, but which took its subject matter in a straightforward and serious fashion, helmed by a quality filmmaker and with a strong enough cast to properly sell some of the less credible aspects of the production. The result was Wolf, a modern werewolf film not intended as a joke or cinematic money grabber, but instead an intelligent look at the themes which thrilled 1940s audiences in a contemporary context.
Director Mike Nichols should be commended for instilling his subject matter with enough dramatic intensity to appeal to an adult demographic, without forgetting the primary intent of such a film - to thrill and chill its audiences in turn. But rather than milking the audience's emotions with a series of oh so trite horror clichés, Nichols is willing to forgo outright shock value screams for a continual chilling sensation - a more subtle and ultimately more eerie touch many modern hackneyed attempts at horror could learn volumes from. Adding to Wolf's credibility is some creative and intriguing camera work, although the continued use of slow motion during dramatic points does begin to appear hokey after a while, despite working brilliantly at other points.
The quality of the film is also strongly aided by a strong script, brilliantly paced between frights and character development; also a rarity considering the genre, and with just enough fleeting moments of perfectly placed comedic relief. The ever reliable Ennio Morricone contributes a wonderful score, a sublime tribute to the horror films of old without ever seeming clichéd. The filmmakers should also be commended enormously for resisting the temptation to overload the werewolf character with special effects, and take the classic makeup route instead. In an industry inundated with computer altered special effects, there is something very laudable about seeing an actual actor covered in prosthetic hair giving an actual performance, rather than a CGI created monstrosity. Whether intended as a tribute to the original Wolf Man (the facial hair designs are unmistakably familiar to Lon Chaney Jr.'s infamous antihero) or simply taking inspiration from it, the makeup works enormously well, and gives a welcome dose of nostalgia in a modern incarnation of the genre.
The casting of Jack Nicholson as a modern day werewolf may have immediately come across as a very mixed blessing, inciting excitement that such an iconic actor was taking a shot at a part which seemed tailor made for him, and fear that Nicholson might simply coast by on the premise, and indulge in his tendency to drift over the top to the point of pantomime, effectively ruining the intent of the film. Thankfully, Nicholson also had the credulity to take his subject matter seriously, and emerge with a perfectly tuned performance. Nicholson channels his legendary charisma into an entirely credible character, riddled with pathos and dark menace, easily dispelling fears that his facial prosthetics might come across as laughable, and emerging with a surprisingly powerful and very serious performance. Michelle Pfeiffer gives a tremendously charismatic and entirely believable performance as Nicholson's surprisingly well written love interest - rather than being reduced to screaming and floundering around, Pfeiffer injects her character with real human emotions, taking what could have been a routine romantic lead and nearly stealing the film in one of the most impressive performances in her career. James Spader makes a deliciously slimy antagonist, and classy support is provided from Kate Nelligan, Richard Jenkins and Christopher Plummer.
What might have degraded into cheap watered down horror trash culminated as an intelligent, mature and unapologetic modern monster thriller, made all the stronger by its firm, capable direction, intelligent and wonderfully paced script, with excellent performances from Nicholson and Pfeiffer. Wolf makes a wonderful modern take on the Wolf Man classic right down to the facial prosthetics, and is easily worth seeing for any fans of the genre in the mood for a horror film which refuses to patronise its audience - a very refreshing change.