From the mists of time: “Wolfen”

August 3, 2015


1981 was a banner year for werewolf movies. I’m sure there’s a perfectly fascinating thesis to be written about why this was the case—maybe it was a reaction to beard-friendly ‘70s, maybe it had something to do with cocaine or Vietnam or Reagan or something—whatever the case, 1981 gave us The Howling and An American Werewolf in London released within a few weeks of each other. Both films cannily married cutting-edge special effects and social commentary, and reinvigorated the werewolf genre like nothing else since Lon Chaney Jr. donned the yak-hair 40 years earlier. Also released that summer was Wolfen. You can’t hear things on a blog, but let me assure you, crickets are chirping right now.

In fairness, Wolfen isn’t actually about werewolves per se, but when you make a horror movie and it’s called “Wolfen” it’s just natural people are going to associate it with werewolves. I mean, you don’t go into a movie called “Vampey” and expect it to be about about a killer giant squid, right? Maybe you do, I don’t know you. But most people don’t is my point. So we’re going to just lump this in with werewolf movies, even though the titular monsters are actually…um…ah…yeah, I’ve watched this movie a couple times and I’m still not 100% on that.

"Got an alibi for your whereabouts last night?"

“Got an alibi for your whereabouts last night?”

Wolfen begins with a fat-cat-type Manhattan real estate developer and his coke-head arm-candy being savagely attacked down in Battery Park. The audience follows the attacker as it stalks them, and then meticulously takes out their bodyguard (literally disarming him—cutting off his gun hand) before going after them.

Stuck investigating this crime is exiled NYPD detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney). Wilson’s suspension? retirement? Is never really made clear, but it’s suggested he’s good at weird cases, so he’s brought back in to investigate–he’s like Fox Mulder with a Welsch-fro. 

There's a lot of hair-related stuff going on there.

There’s a lot of hair-related stuff going on there.

Since the developer was a big-money guy naturally city hall is very interested in this case. Seems the murder victim was building on some Native American land and the various Native American advocacy groups have been targeting him pretty heavily. Also, his daughter had hooked up with a violent leftist extremist group. To this end, Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), a police psychologist who specializes in radicals and terrorists is partnered up with him. For his part, Wilson doesn’t mind because, hey, 1981 Diane Venora. Could be worse.

Could be much worse.

Could be much worse.

The terrorist angle is more or less a dead-end, as the radicals are mostly just spouting stale rhetoric, and the real firebrands are retired or in jail. The only promising lead is Eddie Holt, a Native American activist who just got out of prison after doing a stint for killing an “apple” (kind of a Native American Oreo—red on the outside, white on the inside).

Wilson has a contentious confrontation with Eddie atop of the Brooklyn Bridge (in a truly great scene shot on location that makes Wilson’s vertigo palpable), where Eddie works as a steel worker, and while Eddie still despises the cops, he assures Wilson his murdering days are long past.

Wait, the city of New York just let them shoot up there?

Wait, the city of New York just let them shoot up there? The ’80s were a different time.

In the meantime, more people are savagely murdered in the same manner—the next few in a ruined section of the South Bronx, which in the tail end of New York’s long period of urban blight looks more like post-war Dresden than a major American city. in the 1980s. The coroner, Whittington, (Gregory Hines) discovers what appear to be animal hairs and claw patterns in the body and enlists the aid of a naturalist named Ferguson (Tom Noonan). Ferguson finds some hairs that appear to be lupine, but they don’t match any kind of wolf that has ever lived, and besides, wolves have been extinct in the New York area for a century.

"In 20 years this will all be Starbucks as far as the eye can see."

“In 20 years this will all be Starbucks as far as the eye can see.”

Wolfen does a laudable job of keeping the audience guessing as to the nature of the monsters right up to busy, confusing final act. It’s clear we’re not dealing with terrorists, bit it seems completely plausible that Eddie might be a skinwalker or something—until he demonstrates his “shapeshifting” to Wilson. Basically it’s just LARPing, involving a heavy mescaline trip, and a lot more nude Edward James Olmos than I wanted or needed (I would have been fine going to my grave without seeing Commander Adama’s ballsack).

The question of what the predators are seems to have stumped the filmmakers as well. When we get a handy info-dump from the Native Americans, it only partially clears things up, and Wilson’s final confrontation with the Wolfen confuses them all over again. Are they super-intelligent wolves? Possibly. Are they wolf-spirits? Well, one of them does vanish into thin air. All we know for certain is that they feed on the forgotten populations of cities—society’s dead tissue. And they’re really pissed off about gentrification, since it’s going to displace them and their food supply (plus then they have to deal with all those Trader Joe’s douchebags).

Whatever they are, one of them is in the car with you.

Whatever they are, one of them is in the car with you.

Still, Wolfen weaves a certain spell like a lot of those horror movies from the early ‘80s. The location shooting in New York gives it a tactile grittiness, especially when the action moves to the ruined Bronx. This has the effect of giving the movie a feel of seriousness and verisimilitude that you just don’t see anymore.

Likewise, Wolfen utilizes some great character actors. Aside from the perpetually-growly Finney, Noonan and Hines give their characters an authentically eccentric vibe. It gives Wolfen some genuine personality that goes a long way toward papering over the storytelling flaws.

Actually, one of Tom Noonan's less-creepy roles.

Actually, one of Tom Noonan’s less-creepy roles.

It’s easy to see why Wolfen was a commercial failure upon release. After The Howling and American Werewolf, I think audiences’ wolf-meter was pretty well pegged. Wolfen’s subsequent spotty releases on DVD and Blu-Ray (stripped of any extras) hasn’t done the movie’s legacy any favors, and that’s too bad. Wolfen isn’t a great movie, but it’s enjoyable and looks fantastic. It didn’t revolutionize horror cinema like its companions released that summer, but it’s a solid entry nonetheless.

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