1981 was the Year of the Werewolf in horror; An American Werewolf in London and The Howling were easily the leaders of this particular pack, with Larry Cohen’s comedy Full Moon High offering up another unique monster spin. There was one other film that put its own twist on lycanthropy, and that’s Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, laden with social commentary writ large in place of silver bullets and gypsy fortune tellers. And it’s all the better for it.
Released Stateside in July by Orion Pictures, Wolfen (based on the novel by Whitley Strieber) only returned $10 million on its $17 million budget; critics however were very kind, unlike audiences who probably were expecting more traditional tropes for a trip to the movies. This is not that film; a measured pace and a heightened sense of intent set it apart from the others. (Plus the antagonists are shape shifting wolves, but don’t get ahead of me just yet.)
The well to do Van der Meer couple are walking through Battery Park, NY with their chauffeur when they are attacked and destroyed by something; definitely an animal or variant thereof, established through a swirling mix of POV thermal vision and amplified sound design. And whatever it is, it’s vicious, sending the chauffeur’s hand reeling through the air. Enter forcefully retired, rumpled police detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney – Annie), brought back to help out the delicate diplomatic matter. The Van der Meer’s high social standing (well, former standing, I guess) has the city concerned as they were heading a “clean up” of several desolate boroughs with brand new condo developments for the wealthy.
Wilson is joined by criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora – Heat) and coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines – Running Scared), hunting down the unknown predators and leading Wilson to Native American high beam worker Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos – Blade Runner), an ex convict with a political past. Is Eddie somehow involved in the preservation of the tattered realm? Is the film really on the nose with its message?
Wolfen is a film built on the noblest of intentions. Director Wadleigh’s only other film was Woodstock (1970), the legendary documentary of peace, love, and distrusted brown acid, and this, his first narrative, was a very auspicious effort. He has style to burn (which is not something immediately recognized with documentary filmmakers), and he’s aided considerably by cinematographer Gerry Fisher (Exorcist III) who contrasts the gleaming skyscrapers against the dilapidated ghettos, hammering home the chasm between the haves and have-nots with a visual clarity.
It’s kind of amazing that anything coherent was made of this film. Four editors worked on Wolfen; a lot of footage was excised to end up with a 115 minute running time, and honestly, another fifteen could have been cut from the procedural portions. Not to say the film is slow per se, but perhaps one too many times it visits the morgue to re-establish the same motif. Having said that, it has a lot on its mind, and fights with the more commercial aspects of the story; it wants its relevance cake to eat as well as provide thrills for the mainstream crowd. It’s an interesting juggling act, and for the most part Wadleigh pulls it off; just when it seems to smother us in well intentioned sanctimony, he reels it back and gives us dismemberments and decapitations.
But back to that cake. Wadleigh isn’t shy with sharing his message; or all of them for that matter. The most obvious is the gentrification of the obsolete neighborhoods, but this seems more a plot point than anything else; merely the Van der Meer’s evil machinations. No, he’s thinking broader and deeper – the raping of the entire land shot through the anamorphic microcosm of New York, and specifically the displacement of the Native American. Wadleigh and David Eyre (Cattle Annie and Little Britches)’s script lays their concerns front and center, and while it does seem like a thorough discussion was woven initially, this final cut reduces their plight to no more than a totemistic display of righteousness.
Which isn’t to say it doesn’t work; Finney has a great scene with Olmos atop a bridge where he calls out Finney for society’s ignorance towards his people, but I’m curious how much deeper Wadleigh originally went with the material. As well, he addresses the growing divide in North American class structure; the space between the glistening steel and the gloom laden inner city is deafening. Finney and Hines by default represent the struggling middle class; looking to help their helpless brethren, they have to rely on the resources of the wealthy to execute their jobs. The only puzzling misstep is positing the shapeshifters as territorial to a fault – there’s little nobility in the random violence that is perpetrated against the homeless just looking to survive. It’s easy to imagine this was included to appease the late night crowd looking for a cheap kill.
Wolfen was rightfully acknowledged for its innovative optical effects; the same thermal visage later afforded Predator was pioneered here, and suspense is built by focusing on the creatures POV instead of putting them on display, which is good – because when you do finally see them, wolves are all you get. This had to play a part in the box office disappointment; no bladder abuse or transformations to showcase the horror, but rather the fear of the mundane. (They do possess a menacing growl, however.)
Wadleigh leans heavily on his cast to lift his weighty tome from scene to scene, and they’re a large part of why the film still holds up. From Dick O’Neill (The Jerk) to Tom Noonan (Manhunter), the film is littered with great character actors, all helping to propel the story forward. This was Venora’s first role and Hines second; she does what she can with a severely underwritten part, but Hines is incredibly winning and more than holds his own against Finney, here entering his American film phase after a self-imposed four year sabbatical. Sporting a disheveled mop top and a mush mouthed Brooklyn slang, his Dewey is a weary underachiever with a keen intellect; the essential blueprint for every Yank he played from then on, and a winner right out of the gate.
The blame for Wolfen’s lack of success cannot be laid at the feet of Wadleigh; preconceived expectations on behalf of ravenous horror fans hoping for full moon raptures and lycanthropic rhapsodies must own that particular burden. Wadleigh’s idea of transformation is a universal hope for harmony; and while falling just short is his burden, he should be praised for using his one shot to say something that is, sadly, more relevant than ever.
Wolfen is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.