1981 was certainly the Year of the Wolf. We got John Landis’s amazing An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s equally excellent The Howling, but there was a third wolf film out that year that many people have forgotten called Wolfen. What people didn’t know, and the studio did their best marketing spin to keep it that way, was that Wolfen was not a werewolf movie like the previous two. At no point in this film do we see anybody’s body parts stretch or shift and grow an abundant amount of hair, and though this film is classified as a horror/crime/thriller the horror element is very, very small.
What this film is truly about is man’s hubris towards the environment and how it will eventually bite him in the ass, and in this case quite literally. Long before Global Warming became a hot button topic many people cried out against man’s treatment of the natural world, and using film or television to promote environmental political agendas was certainly nothing new, and one of the best ways to sneak that stuff to the masses was to slip it into a genre movie. So in this outing we have a former NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) yanked out of retirement by his gruff boss (Dick O’Neill) to investigate a particular gruesome crime; Christopher Van der Veer (Max M. Brown), a powerful real estate magnate, and his lovely wife (Anne Marie Pohtamo) are horrible torn apart in Battery Park. Their chauffeur/bodyguard is also found dead, his hand severed yet still holding his unfired gun.
The Wolfen-Vision is one of my bigger problems with the film, because for most of the films 114 minute running time we do not see our title creature, instead we get Evil Dead-Cam tracking shots that go on for fucking ever. Now keeping your creature’s appearances limited can be very effective, just look at how well that worked for Spielberg’s Jaws, but in the case of Wolfen we get way too many of these thermo-cam POV shots before even knowing what the creature is supposed to be. In Jaws even if you don’t see the shark we all know what a shark is and how terrifying they are, but what the hell is a Wolfen? This is not helped when we eventually see them and they look just like normal wolves.
I’m not saying wolves aren’t scary, if I was alone in the woods with them, and I wasn’t Liam Neeson, I’d be terrified too. But the simple fact is that wolves are really beautiful animals and plucking them into an urban environment takes much of their power away. It’s not until the third act that we get the supernatural element of these creatures explained, but what we learn wasn’t worth the wait.
Note: Back when I first saw this film I assumed they were invisible as that is really the only way to explain them wandering around New York City completely unnoticed, but that turned out not to be the case as they apparently can “ghost out” and teleport.
During his investigation Captain Dewey Wilson, who gets partnered up with criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), first suspects that Native American militant member Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) is involved, and it’s while interviewing him up on the high steel of a suspension bridge that the first mention of shape-shifting occurs, totally getting our hopes up. Holt tells Dewey that he can turn into many types of animal including wolves and eagles, and even tells Dewey to go jump off the bridge and flap his arms, offering the tip, “It’s all in the head.” When Dewey tails Holt that night he finds him naked at the beach acting like a wolf, but just when Dewey is going to shoot the apparently “Crazy Indian” before he can pounce on him Eddie stops cold and says, “Dewey, I told you man, it’s all in your head.” Eddie Holt was totally fucking with him. This is one of my favorite moments in the movie as it’s nice to see the “Wise Native American” having fun with the stupid white guy.
Unfortunately this moment is harmed by two things; one being that Edward James Olmos is of Mexican descent and not a Native America, but secondly and more damagingly is that later the Wolfen are revealed to actually be magical Native American bullshit. I would have been much happier if the whole Native America thing had just been another red herring like the terrorist angle that most the bigwigs in the movie believed it to be. Instead we get a scene where, after his friend Whittington (Gregory Hines) is killed while trying to help hunt the wolves, Dewey staggers to a bar frequented by Native Americans and is told by Holt that the Wolfen are wolf-spirits that combined with some of the Native Americans during the genocide caused by White Man’s arrival in the New World, and that they now live off the forgotten people of the world, with the occasional murder to protect their hunting grounds.
So we learn that Christopher Van der Veer was targeted because he was demolishing the slums that the Wolfen hunted in for his urban renewal project. This of course relies on us buying wolves seeing a man in a suit using a silver shovel during a “Ground Breaking” photo op to be the guy they need to kill to save their home. The Wolfen even start targeted people who are investigating the deaths. Ferguson (Tom Noonan), a zoologist that Dewey and Whittington go to so that he can identify animal hairs found at the scene of the crime, is slaughtered by the Wolfen. This happens after we learn he loves wolves, hates how they were hunted to near extinction, and doesn’t believe they could be the culprits.
Setting aside the title monsters not making any sense we now look to the film’s bigger problem and that would be its pacing. This movie trundles along like the slowest police procedural in the history of film, and when I heard that Michael Wadleigh’s cut of the movie, before his removal from the film in post-production, was over four and a half hours, my mind reeled in wonderment as to what the hell else he shot. A year later Larry Cohen would release Q: The Winged Serpent a film with very similar themes; it has police investigating a series of brutal killings that turn out to be done by a creature, but he managed to tell that story in 93 minutes. Not to mention the fact that the movie ends with them facing off against what is basically a dragon and not a bunch of wolves that have been living off the homeless…
Michael Wadleigh’s only other screen credit is the 1970 Woodstock documentary and one wonders why the hell he was hired to helm a monster movie, but its certainly clear why he never directed another movie. The only thing this movie has going for it is the cast as across the board every part in this movie is handled really well, even non Native America Edward James Olmos is fine. Maybe if he’d stay closer to Whitley Strieber’s book, which had no mysticism at all, we may have got a better movie. In 1983 Tony Scott would tackle Whitley Strieber’s book The Hunger and by staying truer to the source material he gave us a film that was much better adaptation of Strieber’s work than Wolfen was. I will say this though, Wolfen had a really nice tag line.