MR. HOWL

I am obliged to consider . . . that the assertion that men are turned into wolves and back to themselves again is false, otherwise we must also believe in all the other things that over so many generations we have discovered to be fabulous.

--Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia

Pliny wrote the above about 2,000 years ago, and many of us still haven't taken the hint. Since 1935, when fresh-faced botanist Henry Hull's sideburns and eyebrows and teeth thickened up in Werewolf of London, the movies have proved to be the perfect vehicle for the legend, common to most cultures, of the person who shifts his or her shape to that of a predatory animal. It isn't hard to spot the psychology behind the symbol. The werewolf is simply the id unleashed, the pure-rage, pure-appetite part of ourselves that we fear--or perhaps hope--will overwhelm our civility and self-control.

In the 30s, 40s and 50s, when the seminal werewolf movies were made, loss of control and giving in to animal passion was shameful (if sometimes irresistible). But the id gets better press these days, and Wolf, Mike Nichols' clever and beguiling new werewolf movie, reflects this. It stars Jack Nicholson as a milquetoast publishing executive who is bitten by a wounded wolf while driving home to Manhattan from Vermont, and who at first finds the change in his personality, and in his hairline, very agreeable.

Right away, a potential problem with the film arises--the Jack thing. Obviously, the plot will initially move forward, before the inevitable turn to murder, on the changes in Nicholson's personality. He'll become a sexual dynamo, and a deadly corporate marauder. Trouble is, we're unable to believe in the prewolf Nicholson as repressed.

The tweediness and broken spirit are right there in the lines, and Nicholson plays these traits fully. But for all that Nicholson's a consummately skilled actor at his best, he isn't stronger than "Jack," the lovable, eyebrow-waggling, mischievously psycho persona he's developed over the years. He's worn his id on his sleeve for too long to go back.

Perhaps because he saw this problem, director Nichols swept through the opening setup very quickly, and moved on to the good stuff. The publishing house for which Nicholson works is undergoing a corporate takeover, and Nicholson is struggling for his job against a smooth-talking young pup (James Spader, in a fine caricature of stammering yuppie shamelessness). Nicholson begins to notice that he's bringing a certain animal cunning to his business dealings.

This first half of Wolf has the movie's juiciest material--the application of lupine gimmicks to the life of an urban office worker. Nicholson can smell what his co-workers drank for breakfast, or who's been in his office before he arrived; he can hear gossip two floors down. Little growls of hunger or anger or satisfaction keep leaking out of him. Of course, the script--originally by Jim Harrison but drastically reworked by Wesley Strick and an uncredited Elaine May--keeps the dramatic irony flying, having Nicholson's wife (Kate Nelligan) compliment his newfound prowess by saying "You animal!" and that sort of thing.

In the film's second half, Nicholson gets around to romancing a beautiful woman he's met (slyly played by Michelle Pfeiffer). He also gets around, under Rick Baker's low-key makeup (quite similar, in fact, to that worn by Hull in Werewolf of London), to shedding some blood. It's here that we run into Wolf's limitation as a horror picture--it's charming, funny, neatly worked out, but it isn't frightening. Nichols used scare tactics from the genre's dusty prehistory, and timed them poorly to boot. But I thought I detected, with my wolflike critical nostrils, a faint scent of self-deprecation in the director's extremely formal, old-fashioned approach, and to the burnished palette he allowed cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno to use. Nichols' work of the last few years has left much to be desired, but the seductive foolishness of the monster genre seems to have given him a lift.

If Nichols doesn't have the gifts necessary for true horror, he does the genre's trappings so affectionately that we don't mind much. He brings a splendid light touch to corny visual devices, like superimposing the moon over the sleeping Nicholson's face, or equally corny expository devices, like Nicholson's visit to a sage lycanthropy expert, a role that could easily have been played back in the 30s by Edward Van Sloan (but is in fact played by Om Puri, buried under old-age makeup).

This return to classicism may well be the coming vogue for the horror picture. Gore has exhausted itself; the technicians have gotten too good at it, and it's a bore. The very few good gore films, like Night of the Living Dead or The Eyes Without a Face or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, can shock us into cathartic alertness, but the vast majority simply bludgeon us with wearisome gross-outs, and last year's splatter comedy from New Zealand, Dead Alive, would be hard to top (I wouldn't want to see the attempt).

In gore's place there already appears to be rising in horror cinema a sort of New Gothic romanticism, which emphasizes the sexual and spiritual appeal of the macabre over the privations of civilized life. Just last week I saw a television report on young people who like to socialize in vampire drag.

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