Michael Wadleigh’s “Wolfen” was one of three major werewolf films of 1981 (the others are the far more celebrated “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London”) and certainly the most unusual.
The first shot is of the New York City skyline, with the World Trade Center front and center. We also see urban decay and trash on the street, as well as characters indulging in cocaine.
Welcome to New York of the ’80s.
A murder in Battery Park is startling to authority figures for its vicious nature (body parts strewn everywhere) and because the victim is a member of high society. New York Police Department Captain Dewy Wilson (Albert Finney) investigates the bizarre case, which takes him on a tour of the city’s most diminished structures and includes sightings of hungry wolves roaming the city.
The thriller is based on the 1978 novel “The Wolfen” by Whitley Strieber (a few years before his #1 bestselling “non-fiction” “Communion” made him a controversial and infamous figure in UFO enthusiast circles). “Wolfen” is an underappreciated, socially observant and visually arresting spin on the werewolf lore that, when you get down to it, might not even officially be a werewolf movie.
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After all, the reveal of what exactly is going on has more to do with Native American mysticism than of run of the mill, full moon fur monsters. This is just one distinction that makes this refreshingly different than most lycanthrope tales of its type. Thematically, this is similar to “Poltergeist” (1982) in that it focuses on the U.S. losing sight of its past history by building over it.
In the lead, playing American “Dewey Wilson,” Finney did this during a weird period of taking mainstream roles in American films; this came alongside Michael Crichton’s fun but bonkers “Looker” and Daddy Warbucks duty in “Annie.”
Thankfully, “Shoot the Moon” (1982) and “Under the Volcano” (1984) were around the corner.
This was the first major film role for Diane Venora, who is forceful here as the detective taking on the case alongside Finney (Venora is a powerful actress, superb in works ranging from “Heat” to “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”). The always unforgettable Tom Noonan also stands out in one of his first major film roles.
The incomparable Gregory Hines steals all of his scenes as a coroner on the case (the brilliant dancer is better served in a character turn here than in “Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I,” which he did the same year, stepping for Richard Pryor, unavailable due to his infamous burning accident).
Edward James Olmos is vivid playing the leader of the Native American activists. He has some scenes here that take real nerve, like an encounter with Finney in which they are both atop the Manhattan Bridge.
James Horner’s terrific score offers traces of his later compositions, particularly “Aliens.” The cinematographer is Gerry Fisher, the same director of photography on William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist III” and “The Ninth Configuration.”
FAST FACT: “Wolfen” scored a tepid $10 million during its 1981 U.S. theatrical release. “An American Werewolf in London,” by comparison, netted a heftier $30 million the same year.
The feel of unease is there right from the start and not necessarily due to the supernatural content: the thermographic tech used during the early police interrogation scene gives the impression of a city under constant surveillance.
This is New York, twenty years before 9/11, depicted as a place of fear and paranoia.
“Wolfen” is best remembered for its scenes of “wolf-vision,” the in-camera thermographic effects shots that create the unseen wolves’ POV. John McTiernan’s “Predator” (1987) provides the most well-known example of this technique (as it gives us, in almost exactly the same way, the perspective of the hiding creature).
Here, it’s not just the otherworldly glow it creates, but how it makes night scenes appear like twilight dreamscapes.
Wadleigh is most famous for making the documentary “Woodstock” (1970), and his approach as a documentarian is visible here as well — the feeling for atmosphere and its sensitivity to society’s oppressed and overlooked make this oddly comparable to “Woodstock” and a standout in the genre.
“Wolfen” is moody, classy but also disjointed, a probable result of reported studio recutting. It’s also strange and slow paced, which is why it fits in the do-you-remember-this-one category and isn’t a genuine cult favorite like Joe Dante’s “The Howling” or John Landis’ genre-defining “An American Werewolf in London.”
Using the horror genre and werewolf lore to present a lesson on the neglect and abuse of Native Americans and the homeless, as well as a glimpse of New York from long ago, “Wolfen” is potent, skillfully made and one of a kind.