ONCE upon a time, the dark-toned fantasies called horror movies were aimed more at grownups than at youngsters. Starting with early classics such as ``Dracula'' and ``Frankenstein'' and continuing with pictures ranging from ``Cat People'' and ``Dead of Night'' to ``The Birds'' and ``Rosemary's Baby,'' serious filmmakers hoped serious moviegoers would approach their works with at least a little bit of thought, pondering the themes and suspending disbelief long enough for the stories to cast a reasonably scary spell.
The horror game has shifted to a younger arena in recent decades, however, with endless ``Halloween'' and ``Friday the 13th'' sequels aiming their gory outbursts primarily at the under-30 crowd. When a more mature picture does come along - the flamboyant ``Bram Stoker's Dracula'' is a good example - it's likely to be a postmodern pastiche, embedding its story in an ironic style full of knowing winks to fans who know this territory all too well.
In this atmosphere, Mike Nichols's ambitious ``Wolf'' comes as a surprise. While it contains enough gore and sexuality to mark it as a contemporary film, in many ways it's a throwback to the largely vanished period when a supernatural subject didn't automatically disqualify a movie from retaining a fair share of dignity and sobriety. ``Wolf'' builds its story with a care and deliberation rarely associated with the horror genre nowadays.
It even has enough sensitivity to resurrect what might be the most poignant of the classical horror-film conventions: the notion that the monster of the tale may not like being a monster, but hates his evil impulses as much as anyone. Not since Lon Chaney Jr. starred in ``The Wolf Man'' more than 50 years ago - in an era when fantasies like ``King Kong'' and ``The Bride of Frankenstein'' showed a measure of real sympathy for the unhappy lives of their bizarre creatures - has a monster been as self-critical as Jack Nicholson's character often is.
Nicholson plays the top editor of a respected publishing company about to be engulfed by a big-money takeover. His troubles begin with a venerable horror-movie flourish - a painful bite from a mysterious wolf that improbably crosses his path on a wintry New England night.
In an interesting twist on the old horror-film formulas, his transformation into a werewolf starts psychologically rather than physically. Too hesitant and submissive for his own good in the early scenes, he soon begins asserting himself with wolfish abandon - standing up to his new boss, maneuvering himself back into his rightful job, taking gleeful revenge on an upstart who's been doing him wrong.
The story turns more ordinary when tangible werewolf traits - the traditional hairy face, pointy fangs, and so forth - become the movie's main interest, along with a predictable escalation in carnage and killing. These ingredients carry the yarn to a violent yet oddly romantic finale that ties up all the plot's loose ends while leaving plenty of opportunity for a Hollywood-style sequel.
Although the comparative seriousness of ``Wolf'' is one of its most appealing characteristics, the film errs in a couple of important respects. Its attention to credible plot development and fully rounded characterization is careful to the point of fussiness, paying dividends at first but weighing down the action during the picture's second hour. Then the filmmakers swing to the other extreme, flinging so much mayhem that you think you've strayed into another movie.
This notwithstanding, ``Wolf'' has many more assets than the average modern-day horror yarn. Nicholson gives one of his most ingenious performances in a long while, finding complexities in his troubled character that lend the picture much of its emotional authenticity. Fantasy fans will surely measure his acting here against his work in ``The Shining,'' and there's little doubt that the new picture wins.
The strong cast of ``Wolf'' also includes Michelle Pfeiffer as the wolfman's girlfriend, Christopher Plummer as his steely-eyed employer, James Spader as his professional rival, and Kate Nelligan as his less-than-faithful wife.
Just as important to the movie's success is the evocative cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno, whose handling of expressive colors and tonalities of light and shadow is as deft as one has come to expect from this fine artist. Also worth a special nod is Ennio Morricone's atmospheric music. Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick wrote the screenplay, and Sam O'Steen did the editing. These and other contributions have been orchestrated into an effective whole by director Nichols, a veteran filmmaker whose work attains this level of expertise all too rarely.
* ``Wolf'' is rated * for violence, sexuality, and language.