Sunday, September 18, 2011
1981’s Wolfen is not a very good film, but I love it anyway. I find myself throwing it on once a year and enjoying the hell out of it despite its leaden pacing and preachy storyline. It was released the same year as two similar but far superior films—The Howling and An American Werewolf In London dazzled audiences with breakthrough transformation effects, witty, postmodern approaches to the werewolf legend, and buckets of gore. Comparatively speaking, Wolfen seems like the stuffy older cousin of these films, opting for environmental themes and a sober police-procedural approach that doesn’t quite coalesce into a fully satisfying movie. And yet, I always come back to it.
Based on Whitley Streiber’s novel of the same name, Wolfen isn’t strictly a werewolf story. The movie opens as a wealthy New York developer, his wife, and their bodyguard are violently killed by something off-camera in Battery Park, something that moves low to the ground before ripping out throats and tearing off limbs. Boozy detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is assigned to the case, reluctantly teaming up with younger investigator Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora). Tons of red herrings are thrown their way; were the murders actually committed by the terrorist group whose Patty Hearst-like spokesperson claims responsibility? Do the bodyguard’s Haitian Voodoo connections have any bearing on the case? What about outspoken Native American troublemaker Eddie Holt (a shockingly young, yet still craggy-faced Edward James Olmos) who seems to know a lot about the killings? The real culprit, it turns out, is a pack of godlike superwolves from Native American myth who have been forced out of their native habitat by encroaching development, hiding among the concrete canyons of Manhattan to feast on the rich and poor alike. As I said, not really a werewolf story, but what else do you call it?
The pacing of Wolfen is seriously out of whack, spending way too much time on those aforementioned red herrings when it’s obvious to the audience from the opening scenes that something supernatural is afoot. Finney’s detective character is enjoyably cranky, but not the most compelling lead, and the romantic subplot between Wilson and Neff is pretty farfetched. Far more interesting are the supporting characters, like Olmos as the Native activist, Gregory Hines as Wilson’s wisecracking cop buddy, and notable weirdo Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Monster Squad) as a zoologist who is sympathetic to the Wolfen’s plight. In addition to the memorable supporting cast, director Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) makes innovative (at the time, anyway) use of tracking shots for the Wolfen POV sequences, as well as heat-vision photography of the kind that would be popularized by Predator a few years later. The score by James Horner is suitably exciting, although he would go on to cannibalize parts of it for later projects like Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and Aliens. Wolfen’s real strength, though, comes from its urban setting, shot for maximum creepy impact by cinematographer Gerry Fisher. The central horror behind Wolfen—the idea that, even in a modern-day metropolis of technology and civilization, you could be hunted and torn apart by creatures straight out of folklore—doesn’t really come alive until Dewey and Neff’s final confrontation with the Wolfen on Wall Street. Wolfen doesn’t completely succeed in selling its premise of modern man vs. ancient myth, but it comes pretty close at intermittent moments throughout, and I love it for trying.