Pity the poor werewolf: By day, a suffering soul doomed by an ancient curse; by the full moon, a ravening beast roaming the countryside. Now pity him all the more, because Hollywood has never really nailed that basic duality. Most movie werewolves are too human to be scary, or too monstrous to be sympathetic, or not enough of either to be anything. Only a handful of films have come close to striking that balance close enough, that is, to be all the more frustrating.
Mike Nichols' Wolf is the latest near miss, erring on the human side. Jack Nicholson is thoroughly sympathetic as a tweedy New York book editor unfit to compete when corporate sharks take over his publishing house. He's even more compelling after a wolf bite brings out the animal instincts that help him turn the tables at work and win Michelle Pfeiffer. The trouble starts when his changes become more visible. The sight of him baying at the moon and dogfighting with fellow wolf man James Spader come closer to funny than frightening. And Rick Baker's toned-down makeup hurts more than it helps. We never forget that it's really Nicholson under the fur.
In a sense, Wolf is a throwback to the first genre effort, Werewolf of London, which stars Henry Hull as a bitten botanist stalking the city's streets. In minimal makeup, Hull looks more like Eddie Munster than a hairy monster. But his performance as a man of science who is emotionally and rationally confounded by his condition gives this rather staid story its air of desperation.
More innocent, and thus more tragic, is Lon Chaney Jr., who goes from good-natured lug to growling lycanthrope in The Wolf Man. Chaney's famous makeup job makes him suitably beastly but the pathos of his human half tempers the horror. As he prowls the misty English moors preying on local villagers, you can't help feeling for the guy.
Ironically, Chaney would help trash the wolf man genre by appearing in a series of increasingly silly sequels (such as 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) that started the werewolf down the road to near-camp status. By the time Michael Landon began attacking classmates in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the cinematic lycanthrope seemed on the verge of extinction.
It wasn't until the '80s that werewolves got scary again thanks mostly to a breakthrough in monstrous special effects. In The Howling, Dee Wallace is pursued by a pack of rabidly realistic werewolves; in An American Werewolf in London, David Naughton's cursed hero terrorizes Piccadilly Circus, looking like a cross between a wolf and a grizzly bear. Yet in both films the characters are overshadowed by showstopping on-screen transformations, and dread is overpowered by visceral shock.
Visceral shock is not what Nichols had in mind with his relatively low-tech Wolf. But in eschewing gross-out effects for a more civilized approach, he has filed the beast's fangs so low that his belated attempts to conform to genre conventions ring totally false. Beyond being an unconvincing werewolf movie, Wolf commits the greatest error of all: It isn't scary. Wolf, Werewolf of London: B- The Wolf Man: B+ American Werewolf, The Howling: B