Wolfen, to use a grotesque yet appropriate pun, is an unusual beast. The only post-Woodstock directorial credit for director Michael Wadleigh (and his only narrative effort) was released in the summer of 1981, wedged between two high profile werewolf pictures, Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. Audiences thinking that the film made up the third horse in the lycanthropic trifecta left this decidedly odd effort left feeling cheated, as the filmmakers had something more profound in mind than a simple ‘monster movie’.
After breaking ground on his sprawling South Bronx real estate project, super-wealthy businessman Christopher van de Veer and wife Pauline slip down to Manhattan’s Battery Park, where the happy couple enjoys a cocaine-fuelled frolic around a replica of a windmill erected there by van de Veer’s ancestor, all under the watchful eye of his mountainous armed bodyguard. But the trio isn’t alone in the park – something silent and swift is stalking them in the darkness, something with acute night-vision that registers even the most subtle changes in the human body’s temperature. After a few moments, the creatures strike; ripping off the bodyguard’s hand before he can get a shot off with his gun, and tearing apart the wealthy scion and his wife. The odd circumstances of the crime bring one of the NYPD’s more odd detectives onto the case, the sarcastic and possibly alcoholic Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney, marking the actor’s first lead role since 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express) who is aided in his investigation by the equally unorthodox medical examiner Whittington (Gregory Hines) and criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) who is put on the case at the behest of a shadowy international security service that provides security for executives all over the world, and are anxious to see the van de Veer case closed quickly.
The investigation leads them to several terrorist organizations that might have a bone to pick with van de Veer (who was not, as Det. Wilson points out, exactly a friend of the third world) until the body of a derelict found in a particularly desolate area of the South Bronx turns up in Whittington’s morgue. Like the van de Veer case, the skin was torn with some incredibly sharp, non-metallic blade and numerous internal organs were missing, but the body from the Bronx contained several diseased organs that were left untouched – almost as if whatever killed him was somehow able to sense this and leave them behind. A few strands of non-human hair lead them to zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan; for the first time billed under an actual character name and not simply as ‘Man’) who confirms that the hair is, in fact, canis lupus – a wolf hair. Dewey’s investigations also lead him to Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) a former radical in an AIM-like Native American movement just released from prison and with one political assassination already under his belt. Speaking to Eddie requires Dewey to scale the Manhattan Bridge where Eddie works with other members of his tribe who possess uncommon skill at working Manhattan’s high steel jobs (based on the amazing story of several generations of Mohawks who came down from their reservation in Canada to work NYC’s skyline for over a century) Eddie eludes to an ability shared by some Native Americans to “shape shift” into certain animals – including wolves. With his investigation dead-ended by the supernatural, Dewey and Whittington set out for the ruins of a massive church in the south Bronx where the bodies of several derelicts have been found with their (non diseased) organs removed, armed with automatic weapons and high-sensitivity microphones.
Wolfen avoids the same trap that other ecologically themed horror films of the era fell into by managing to balance the potentially over preachy ecological agenda with effective storytelling and expertly filmed suspense sequences. Not only was this Wadleigh’s first (and, to date, only) narrative film, it was also his first time shooting with 35mm cameras and considering his inexperience the end result is startling. His Panavision cameras run, swoop and climb all over the city, making superb use of Battery Park and the financial district of downtown Manhattan, and the final sequence featuring several real wolves stalking the steps of Federal Hall says more in a few shots than 20 pages of “You have your technology, but you lost” soliloquies ever could. Much was made in 1981 of the film’s wolf POV shots, which were basically a re-jiggered thermographic image, but just as Terminator 2 overused the new-in-1991 morphing effect, so did Wadleigh (or his producers) lean on this trick a little too hard. Luckily, the non-POV location photography always gives us something interesting to look at; in addition to the sleek skyscrapers and ornately columned government and financial buildings of Wall Street, Wolfen also affords us a view of the desolate Charlotte Street area of the Bronx – an area of the borough that resembled a bombed-out European city just after the second World War throughout much of the 70s through the mid 80s. A wasteland of abandoned tenements and rubble strewn lots provide the setting for the long abandoned, cavernous, cathedral that the Wolfen use as a den (the only artificial set used during these sequences, incidentally.) The notion that a race of wolves with God-like hunting instincts living in and feeding off the garbage of our inner cities comes directly from Whitley Strieber’s novel, but the Native American mythology that serves as the creatures’ motivation comes directly from Wadleigh and co-writer David Eyre. Wadleigh’s portrayal of Native Americans is certainly meant to be respectful – even reverential – but he falls into the trap that caught many other liberal, well-meaning filmmakers by elevating them to a level of near deification. Wolfen wasn’t the first – or the last – film to imbue them with mythic qualities as a cinematic reparation for genocide, but we can’t help but groan at hearing how in touch Native Americans are over and over again. It would be quite a few years before they would be allowed to behave like normal people on screen (beautifully done in the little seen Powwow Highway) instead of a symbol of our lost connection to nature and a fashionable emblem of white guilt (we’re looking at you, Oliver Stone.)
The mere presence of Albert Finney classes up the proceedings immeasurably, though occasionally his performance seems to wander – the actor badly stumbles over a line in his very first scene – and we wonder if the inexperienced filmmaker was too intimidated to offer much in the way of precise direction. Finney’s appearances had been limited in the years prior to Wolfen, and his shaggy, disheveled appearance must have been jolting to those who remembered him as the essence of youthful exuberance in Tom Jones some two decades earlier (Finney did look a bit better rested in Michael Crichton’s Looker, out later that same year.) A bigger surprise is how handily Gregory Hines steals each of his scenes from his significantly more experienced co-star; this was the only the second major role for the world class hoofer and he lends the stock character a genuine, unforced humor that aids the film immeasurably. We re-watched The Cotton Club just a few weeks before checking out Wolfen for this review and suddenly found ourselves missing Hines in a powerful way. The almost always underused Diane Venora – a theater actress whose best film role to date is probably as Al Pacino’s unstable wife in Michael Mann’s Heat – is fine in a mostly underwritten role. Noonan, another Mann veteran, is almost too quirky as an eco-minded zoologist (though we loved the very inside NYC reference of having his character report a fire rather than calling the police – a jaded New Yorker in 1981 would have certainly known which call would generate a quicker response) but Olmos give a nice, unmannered performance as a not-quite-so-former radical (compared to some of his later performances that, frankly, you could slice with a knife.)
Wolfen turned out to be the filling of a wish sandwich when it was released in 1981 – the werewolf picture without werewolves. We’ve heard that Wadleigh wasn’t completely happy with the film’s final cut, as may be evidenced by the theatrical trailer included on Warner Bros’ DVD, which contains glimpses of several scenes not included in the film proper. Whatever the reason, Wadleigh never made another film in spite of the real promise shown here, and spends much of his time being interviewed about Woodstock and forgetting that Wolfen even existed. Warner’s DVD looks fine during the on-location daylight scenes, but nighttime and dark interiors can look quite pale. On the plus side, the Dolby Surround track is quite muscular, nicely supporting James Horner’s terrific score (so good that he used much of it the next year for The Wrath of Khan.) Sadly, no informative extras are included.