Wolfen directed by Michael Wadleigh
I well remember loving Whitley Strieber’s 1978 novel The Wolfen, back when it was first released. The book was atmospheric as could be and managed to do something that all good horror novels of its ilk should do: make the reader believe in the possibility of the supernatural. The book was most assuredly unsettling, and one that this reader has not forgotten, even 40+ years after experiencing it. But despite my love of that book, somehow, I never got around to seeing the film that was made from it, three years later. Released in July ’81, Wolfen (why the name was changed is a matter best asked of the Hollywood production team that doubtless spent hours wondering if the dropped “The” would lead to more ticket sales) turned out to be something of a box office flop, pulling in only $10 million after being produced for $17 million. Today, the viewer can only wonder why, as it is most assuredly a class production, featuring wonderful acting turns by its leads, a solid story that admittedly takes liberties with its source material, and excellent special FX. It is a film surely ripe for reappraisal … or a first-time watch, such as I indulged in just the other night.
In the film, billionaire real-estate developer Christopher Van der Veer, his beautiful blonde wife, and his 300-pound Haitian bodyguard are murdered in NYC’s Battery Park early one morning, ripped and mutilated by something unknown. The trio had just been returning from a party following a ground-breaking ceremony in the South Bronx, where the magnate was in the process of tearing down the abandoned tenement buildings there and putting up new ones. Dewey Wilson, a suspended cop (George Wilson in the novel … again, why the name change?) here played by the late, great English actor Albert Finney, is assigned to the case, and learns from the man in charge of the autopsies, Whittington (tap-dancing/choreographer legend Gregory Hines, here in one of his earliest films), that no traces of metal could be found in any of the wounds; in other words, no knives or other weapons had been used. Wilson is partnered with a woman named Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), a criminal psychologist and an expert on political and gang violence, and the two of them pursue some leads.
A rash of murders has begun in those previously mentioned buildings in the South Bronx, with some of the corpses bearing traces of hair on them that zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan, here in one of his earliest films) says belong to a subspecies of wolf. An interview with Native American terrorist Eddie Holt (Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos, here in one of his earliest films) leads Wilson to believe that what he is dealing with here are possible shape-shifters: men who can possibly turn themselves into animals. But ultimately, the truth comes out: The Wolfen, a 20,000-year-old race of superwolves, has been feeding on the dregs of mankind for millennia, preying on the homeless, the drug addicted, the loners, the abandoned. And now, with their tenement shelters in the South Bronx being slated for destruction, they have become very, very angry. As the film’s promotional poster declared, “They can hear a cloud pass overhead, the rhythm of your blood. They can track you by yesterday’s shadow. They can tear the scream from your throat. There is no defense.”
Wolfen withholds any glimpses of the titular creatures until the film’s final ½ hour, but the wait turns out to be well worth it. The rampaging beasts are revealed to be both beautiful to look at and remarkably savage to behold as well, their eyes bespeaking both supreme intelligence and invincible power; no wonder that Eddie Holt holds them to be gods. But although we do not get to see the creatures themselves until the final act, we do get to see through their eyes, and the effects used to generate their POVs are quite wonderful indeed. These shots look as if they were created using thermal imaging techniques, and are pretty darn psychedelic to watch; indeed, I could look at these bizarre images of NYC all day. The glimpses of the metropolis that we see through the Wolfen’s eyes make my hometown seem both familiar and otherworldly, particularly at nighttime. The South Bronx at night, indeed, seen via these thermal imaging techniques, looks almost like another planet; a blasted and desolate one. So yes, the film is quite visually striking, all the way through.
Director Michael Wadleigh, whose only other directorial credit, strangely enough, is the wonderful Woodstock documentary of 1970, turns in some pretty impressive work here, keeping his film both suspenseful and stylish; I love his seamless shot in which the camera sweeps over Battery Park and then, somehow, into the sewer depths beneath. His screenplay, cowritten with David M. Eyre, Jr., is fairly no-nonsense, while alternating serious patter with humorous asides. And the film’s score, by James Horner, keeps things grim and eerie, although it of course cannot compare with the absolutely magnificent score that he created the following year for Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. It should be added that Wolfen does not hold back in the Grossisms Dept., giving us such tasty images as a man’s hand being torn off, corpses being analyzed in the morgue, maggots crawling around the head of a homeless man’s corpse, a head being ripped from its owner’s body, and so on. The gorehounds in the audience should be well satisfied.
Wadleigh’s film also boasts some terrific acting turns from all concerned. Finney, here appearing in his second of three action/horror/sci-fi outings in 1981 (the others being Loophole and Looker), after a four-year acting hiatus, turns out to be particularly well cast as Wilson. He makes the character appealingly cool, so cool that he is able to watch a stomach-churning autopsy in the police morgue while munching on chocolate chip cookies, enter an abandoned and crumbling church alone to search out the murderous marauders, and climb the cable walkways of the Manhattan Bridge in order to have a conversation with construction worker Eddie Holt. Who would have thought that the actor who had been so identified with the British “angry young man” films of the early ‘60s, the man who played Tom Jones, could be such a cool action character? He is backed up by a raft of excellent supporting players here, Diane Venora being both beautiful and highly convincing, Hines being both likeable and funny (his death scene is one of the film’s many highlights), and Olmos being not a little freaky (his naked imitation of a wolf is absolutely chilling). Kudos also to the great character actor Dick O’Neill, playing Wilson’s police superior (his death scene is still another film highlight). Also in the film is Reginald VelJohnson, of all people, in his very first film; he would of course later go on to appear in the first two Die Hard features, as well as TV’s Family Matters. He supposedly plays a morgue attendant here, although I must confess that I did not spot him initially.
Wolfen is hardly a perfect film, and I must confess that I found some of the fast-paced dialogue a little hard to follow. The picture also has a few too many phony jump scares (you know the kind I mean; you think something nasty is about to leap out at one of the characters, and it turns out to be … a cat); around a half dozen or so too many, actually. And ultimately, I must also confess that I was not entirely clear concerning the powers and abilities of the Wolfen race. Can they actually read minds? Turn invisible? Besides their ability to lope around at 40 mph and tear a person to bits, what precisely are their superhuman abilities? The film does not clearly delineate these matters – certainly not as clearly as that promotional poster – and so we are left to infer what we like. The film surely leaves things open-ended enough so as to provide ample material for a sequel, and if the film had only been more successful with audiences, perhaps that sequel might have been made possible. The idea of a superrace of ancient wolf creatures feeding on mankind, just as mankind feeds on chickens, is a good one, and it might have been nice to see this most-interesting film serve as a springboard for a fascinating little series. Sadly, it was never to be.
So we are left with this, a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been. The South Bronx, of course, has been largely renovated from its previous blasted state since this film was made, and it is to be inferred that the Wolfen must needs have found another desolated neighborhood to exist in. Fortunately for them, NYC still has plenty of them. Perhaps a much-belated sequel could be made today, set in the sordid depths of Maspeth, Queens, or in East New York, Brooklyn? The Wolfen may not have made for good neighbors, but they sure are fascinating ones, indeed.