Wolfen. 1981. Directed by Michael Wadleigh. Screenplay by David Eyre & Wadleigh; based on the novel by Whitley Strieber, The Wolfen.
Starring Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, Dick O’Neill, Dehl Berti, Peter Michael Goetz, Sam Gray, Ralph Bell, & Max M. Brown. Orion Pictures/King-Hitzig Productions.
Rated R. 115 minutes.
In the aim of transparency, I’m not a huge werewolf movie fan. Not my favourite of the sub-genres. That being said, when a horror gets it right there’s no telling how well it can turn out. There are well known classics, pinnacles of the sub-genre many people have seen before, some we all see each October leading into Halloween.
Michael Wadleigh’s 1981 cult classi Wolfen manages to use the werewolf trope in a different sense than just a slice of horror in which the blood spills freely. In fact, you could say this isn’t even a werewolf flick at all.
Starring Albert Finney and Edward James Olmos, this is a dose of crime, horror, with an icing of social commentary to sweeten the deal. If you want more substantial horror than just a werewolf running amok, Wolfen has what you need. As New York City is being terrorised by unseen killers, maniacs ripping people to shreds and leaving their corpses in the streets, one policeman has to come out of retirement to take on the bizarre case. Rather than work as a conventional werewolf horror movie, this takes on a crime-thriller-style plot with elements of a police procedural, all in order to make a statement about the plight of Native Americans specifically in big urban centres. When the wolves keep claiming victims, Dewey Wilson (Finney) comes across a man named Eddie Holt (Olmos), whose activist-like demeanour leads the cop to believe maybe there’s a greater mystery to what’s happening in his city.
The wolfen themselves are a microcosmic metaphor for the displacement of Native Americans. Existing amongst a wasteland of urban America, they are natural beasts trapped in a concrete jungle; beautiful creatures captured in the cages of neighbourhoods neglected, nearly forgotten. Likewise, the wolves represent how Native Americans have been forced to assimilate over the years into white culture. The wolfen were once like gods amongst nature, they were shapeshifters, and still are. Their significance was much larger in the context of how Native Americans originally lived before the white man came to start their genocide. Native Americans were forced into urban slums, made to deny and forget their heritage, their tradition, even themselves as individuals. Up here in Canada, our own Holocaust involved indigenous peoples being put into residential schools where untold physical, sexual, and emotional abuse went on behind closed doors guarded fiercely by the Roman Catholic Church. So, there’s no denying this case.
Wolfen is an overall depiction of that as a horror metaphor. Once a forest, the inner neighbourhoods of New York City are now the wolfen’s hunting ground. The animals live in a run down, busted up church; ironic, as they use this faded relic for their hideout, a way of turning the church’s use and meaning back against it by claiming the now abandoned building for their own. This could also be a statement on how the church failed the Native Americans, or better yet how the church led a large part of the attack on their culture in the first place. Urban decay in the late ’70s and early ’80s forced the wolfen into the open, as they begin the murder spree prompting Dewey Wilson’s involvement in the case. In a way, the murders come as an overdue act of revenge against the imperialist American empire of white men trying to eradicate Native American culture from society.
In the end, isn’t this evident in the way Dewey lowers his weapon to the wolfen? Faced with shooting the wolfen, he instead drops his gun and then destroys a model of city skyscrapers, rejecting what he sees as the further spread of his race’s deepening manifest destiny obsession.
“I told you, man: it‘s all in the head.”
I often talk about the visceral nature of certain horrors. Directors and cinematographers can use particular techniques in horror to help us feel perfectly situated in the POV of characters, whether that be a victim or a killer is up to what type of story they’re trying to tell. In regards to Wadleigh I have nothing to really gauge his work against here. Cinematographer Gerry Fisher has done a few interesting films, such as See No Evil, Man in the Wilderness, The Offence, and John Huston’s Flannery O’Connor adaptation Wise Blood. In all those his work was fantastic. Together with Wadleigh, he gives Wolfen a chilling look and atmosphere.
I bet a lot of people who haven’t seen this movie don’t realise Predator wasn’t the first to bring thermal camera work to the forefront as a prominent technique. This is the movie to start it. Thermal vision is how Wadleigh puts us into the killer’s perspective. I mean, you know who the killers are, right? Can’t be hard to guess. Well, the viewer is given a unique perspective, as not just getting to see through the eyes of the wolves (something we’ve seen before with different animals) , it is an extensive point of view that takes us inside the actual murders. So there’s an adrenaline factor, watching the kills. Added to that, the practical special effects are phenomenal. Yes, I love the severed head! I don’t care. Much better than the severed head at the end of Friday the 13th. One specific kill sees us approach a man, thermal vision providing an odd experience, then the unseen wolfen rips out his throat; normally, this would be standard. Wadleigh makes it interesting with jump cuts, giving us an intriguing effect together with the bloody throat. A must see moment, in my mind. One of my favourites in the genre. The thing that gets me spooked for the longest time is that we don’t see the wolves killing, at all. In that jump cut kill, you can’t even see anything biting or slashing the guy, his throat simply opens up like a gory smile. While there’s a strong idea the wolves are the killers early on – plus the god damn movie is called Wolfen! – the unseen killer always freaks me out. Combine that with thermal vision, practical effects on a high level, Wadleigh’s direction and the way the film is shot generally what I consider perfect horror.
This is yet another classic horror with a cross into crime. Social commentary is one thing; Romero did all that within a zombie picture. Wolfen successfully comments on the situation of Native Americans in modern day America, as well as tells the story of a policeman with a very down to earth view of his city, who goes on to find out there’s an altogether different side to what he’s known so long. Finney is classic with plenty of great lines to reel off throughout, as is Olmos in a raw role with plenty of chances to be equally frightening and exciting. Not enough time in the day to talk about everything Wolfen does perfectly. If you’re a werewolf fan and haven’t seen it yet, get on that. Halloween is calling and it’s one of those nice fits for a cold, quiet October night.
And listen – did you hear something out there? A voice? A howl?
Who knows. Maybe it was just all in my head.