Directed by: Michael Wadleigh
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, Anne Marie Pohtamo, Sarah Felder, Reginald VelJohnson, James Tolkan, John McCurry
(out of 4)
Warning: Some spoilers ahead.
Condescending and heavy-handed, the Michael Wadleigh-directed Wolfen, made in 1981, is not unlike the film Prophecy made a couple of years prior – it’s an attempt to give B-level material A-level treatment. It’s a genre mashup consisting of police procedural, political thriller (sort of), and creature-attack horror, but it is too interested in being a “message” movie to be very effective as a horror piece (indeed, the director later admitted in an interview that he doesn’t really consider it a horror film). What works in Wolfen‘s favor is great cinematography, with fascinating views of a burned out South Bronx, and some inventive POV shots. If only it had enough sense not to overdose on its ecological, white-man-bad moralizing.
After the gory murders of a rich industrialist named van der Veer, along with his wife and bodyguard; a gruff, weathered cop named Dewey Wilson is called in to investigate, with a little help from criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora). Some time is spent with van der Veer’s security firm, which seems to have unlimited powers of video monitoring, bringing in suspects, and determining through sophisticated video/audio analysis if they are lying. (Is this some sort of CIA or FBI front?) Through the collaborative investgation between the security firm and the police department, we are introduced to red herrings in the form of homegrown terrorists (like Weather Underground). Meanwhile, Dewey gathers up a motley crew of his own, including quirky but likable zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan), who clearly sides with nature over man, and quirky but likable medical examiner Whittington (Gregory Hines), who finds strange hairs on the wounds of the victims (but no saliva?). These hairs are later identified to be from canis lupus, but how can wolves be hanging around in New York City?
Some answers may come from a local contingent of Native Americans, including Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), who once killed a man for being an apple (red on the outside, white on the inside) and who likes to run naked at night acting like a wolf. Eddie talks about the ability to shapeshift into different animals. After more victims fall prey to the unseen predators, Dewey walks into an Indian bar/hangout in desperation and is given an explanation – the killers are a super intelligent breed of wolves who don’t take kindly to their South Bronx hunting grounds being intruded upon by corporations and their redevelopment ideas. It is here that Wolfen reveals itself to be an anti-colonialist screed about the Western world’s imperialism messing up 20,000 years of balance between the natives and the wolves, who may be gods, as one Indian surmises (another refers to them as a Nation). The fact that the wolves are surviving off the killing of the local homeless population doesn’t seem to faze anyone too much, but I think the movie is more concerned with drawing parallels between the wolves and the plight of Native Americans. The opening scene where the rich couple are killed takes place at the site of the first windmill erected by van der Veer’s Dutch ancestors in the year 1625 – the year that Fort Amsterdam was established on Manhattan Island (and considered New York City’s birth date). Of course, the next year, Manhattan was purchased from the natives for a measly 24 bucks.
Albert Finney manages to mumble his way through the picture with nary a visible emotion. His brief sex scene with Venora comes out of nowhere (and is seen through the Wolfen’s thermographic point of view). Points go to the movie, by the way, for using the colorful POV technique that would be utilized by Predator in 1987. The problem is that Wadleigh uses the technique too much, causing it to lose impact. He also preaches too much, which reaches an apex (or a nadir, depending on how you look at it) in a bar scene where Indians collectively make bird calls and the camera keeps the American flag in the forefront. “You don’t have the eyes of the hunter, you have the eyes of the dead,” taunts Eddie Holt – actually, I liked Olmos’ performance in this film. In fact, I’m not against Wolfen‘s message of learning to get along with nature, either (or that America has a nasty history), but this kind of thing requires a more subtle touch, something the Woodstock director can’t pull off.
There’s still some interesting stuff in Wolfen, including an enjoyable performance from the late Gregory Hines, whose character seems comfortable enough surrounded by disturbing images of bodies being autopsied. (Dewey also doesn’t seem to mind, as he chomps down on a chocolate chip cookie while at the morgue). There’s also a connection made between the ability of man to enhance his senses through technology (as witnessed in the enhanced video feeds, and also through the eyes of a homeless man on street drugs) and the inherent abilities of the Wolfen, who can do this stuff naturally. Another funny thing about Wolfen I noticed is that, for a film set in New York City, this is the most desolate I have ever seen it. I can only assume this was intentional. Scenes of the Bronx (looking like a bombed out city), with a decrepit church in the middle of Charlotte St., speak volumes related to the film’s message about the Christian era without any dialogue whatsoever, which works well.
James Horner’s score is adequate, even though it sounds like all his other scores (I kept looking for Khan, myself). The brief scenes of gore are well done, but the ending standoff between Dewey and the Wolfen tends towards the ludicrous. After a buildup of expectations of a supernatural enemy, what we are given is closer to Cujo than The Howling, after all. I’m also left confused about the ultimate outcome – obviously a deal is reached between man and wolf, but it seems to involve abandoning the burned out Bronx to nature instead of rebuilding it, and allowing the forgotten homeless residents to be downgraded in status to mere food items. Wolfen is a strange, uneven movie, but one you should see once anyway, mostly because it’s so great to look at, and makes for a good conversation piece.
- Bill Gordon