Wolfen (1981)

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*. Sometimes films do improve with age.
*. I remember seeing Wolfen when it first came out on VHS and being underwhelmed. Nothing much stuck with me except the bit that sticks with everyone: the weird point-of-view shots suggesting a kind of thermography. Audiences at the time didn’t buy it and critics weren’t won over either.
*. This is a judgment that hasn’t changed much. It’s a movie that has been eclipsed by its ’80s werewolf brethren (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London), and doesn’t have much if any following today.
*. Returning to it some thirty years later, I came away rather more impressed. This is a good flick, and I hope it doesn’t get forgotten.
*. The main knock against Wolfen, then and now, is that it’s preachy. Kim Newman, for example, calls it out for being “top-heavy with issue-consciousness.” I disagree. Yes, it has a political angle, but I don’t think it’s overdone. The Wolfen aren’t terrorists, or even identified with the Native Americans we see. They are a separate species, and they’re simply defending their hunting grounds. Most of the political stuff in the movie is either a red herring or just stage dressing.
*. Another criticism made by Newman is that the Wolfen themselves “are disappointingly ordinary when they finally make their appearance. They look like the cuddly, real-life animals of Never Cry Wolf who wouldn’t dream of ripping anybody’s head off.” I think this is overstated as well. It was an obvious, and I think correct, decision to use real wolves and not made-up werewolf creatures, and I thought they worked well.
*. It’s not terribly scary, but then director Michael Wadleigh didn’t think he was making a horror movie. This may have led to some of the problems he had later.
*. You have to like how, in the police office, there are boards up with information on the two Van der Veers killed by the Wolfen, but nothing about the (black) chauffeur who was killed alongside them. I guess he didn’t count.

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*. Now here are some reasons why I like it.
*. In the first place there are a lot of really interesting sets and locations. Starting with the creepy old windmill in the opening sequence, which looks like a laundry tree but gets put to good use, we then move on to the desolated Bronx neighbourhood and its ruined church (a set that was built specially for the film), and the top of the Brooklyn and (I believe) the Manhattan Bridges. We’re in the heart of New York City but it feels like we’re in a fantasy landscape, an impression aided by the Wolfen-vision effect and the strangely depopulated streets.
*. Another big plus is the cast. Now I’ll admit that Albert Finney as the lead is the one choice I would question. But Wadleigh really wanted to work with him (turning down Dustin Hoffman for the part), and Finney does have his moments underneath what looks like a ridiculous wig. But the supporting cast of relative newbies are all fun to watch, from Diane Venora (as Neff), Gregory Hines, and Edward James Olmos (showing off some surprising full-frontal male nudity). These are all actors with great faces that you can’t help but find interesting.
*. Most of all, however, I just like the strange wedding of a bizarre B-film premise with such seriousness. It could have been a heavy-handed film with a weighty political message, or it could have been a silly gorefest, but instead it plays like a well-paced X-Files episode. It’s creepy and weird and not at all as stodgy as it sounds.
*. This was Michael Wadleigh’s only dramatic feature, and really the only movie he did other than Woodstock. Which is kind of weird. But people often drop out of the industry for different reasons.
*. Perhaps it wasn’t that odd that he disappeared. Wolfen wasn’t a box office success. Apparently United Artists, the releasing studio, wanted a cheesy exploitation pic and didn’t like what they got, so they didn’t bother with much publicity (I’m getting this from Roger Ebert’s review). Also a lot of time had to be spent in post-production re-cutting it and doing other work (Wadleigh’s final cut is reported to have been over four hours long). If there were big creative disagreements, and the studio ended up losing money, then I can see why Wadleigh might have found himself on a blacklist.
*. That’s a shame. There’s a real vision here of a different kind of horror movie, literate and ahead of its time. Parts would be scavenged and stuck into other, more commercial films, most notably the POV technique being adopted in Predator. But its most distinctive qualities were to remain a road not taken.

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