July 24, 2015 This Week in Horror Movie History – Wolfen (1981)
This week in Horror movie history, Wolfen was released on July 24th, 1981 through Orion Pictures, the same year as John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, Joe Dante’s The Howling, and Larry Cohen’s Full Moon High. Wolfen was directed by Michael Wadleigh, who also helmed the Award winning documentary Woodstock (1970), and stars Albert Finney (Big Fish 2003, Bourne Ultimatum 2007), Edward James Olmos (Blade Runner 1982, Miami Vice TV series), Gregory Hines (Running Scared 1986, Tap 1989), Tom Noonan (Easy Money 1983, The Monster Squad 1987) and Diane Venora (Heat 1995, The Jackal 1997). Wadleigh and David Eyre (Cattle Annie and Little Britches 1981, Wait ‘Til Your Mother Gets Home! 1983) co-wrote the screenplay for the film, which was based on the eponymous 1978 book by Whitley Strieber. Although uncredited, Wadleigh also co-produced Wolfen with Rupert Hitzig (Jaws 3-D 1983, The Last Dragon 1985), while Titanic’s (1999) James Horner composed the music in just twelve days. The special effects were also a combination effort, with the people of Praxis working hand-in-hand with Connie Brink (War of the Worlds 2005, Cloverfield 2008), Ron Otteson (Happy Birthday to Me 1981, Sleepy Hollow 1999) and Bill Traynor (Scrooged 1988, Ghostbusters II 1989). Taking the Horror out of the deep, dark woods and dumping it into the center of the city, Wadleigh filmed his shapeshifting Terror on location in The Big Apple.
When Real Estate magnate and all around rich guy Christopher Van der Veer (Max M. Brown) and his wife Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo) are found literally torn apart in New York’s Battery Park, their high credentials garner some major political attention and pressure, so police chief Warren (Dick O’Neill) calls on his trusted, yet recently suspended, Detective Dewey Wilson (Finney) to help solve the case, pairing him up with criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Venora) in an effort to solve the case quickly. Wilson gets some interesting news from the city’s resident coroner, Whittington (Hines), who tells the detective that several non-human hairs were found on the victims. They find out from zoologist Ferguson (Noonan) that the hairs are Canis Lupus, otherwise known as the grey wolf, although he cannot pinpoint which subspecies. When asked about the behavior of wolves, Ferguson states that these now rare animals are much like Native Americans, calling them tribal, superb hunters who do not overpopulate their land, and always look out for their own. Most of all, the passionate zoologist insists that wolves do not kill people – people kill people.
Meanwhile, a homeless man stumbles around the decrepit church sited for the late Van der Veer’s latest apartment complex and is hunted and killed by a being that sees its prey with trippy, Tales From the Darkside-like vision. His body parts, along with many others, are found later by construction workers. Ironically, Executive Security, Van der Veer’s video security client, uses similar camera effects to tell if the suspects being interviewed by police are telling the truth.
The mention of Native Americans sends Wilson to a recently paroled Native American Movement radical named Eddie Holt (Olmos) who works high up on a suspension bridge. As he unhooks the acrophobic detective’s harness, Holt tells Wilson about his ancestor’s ability to shapeshift into any animal, including wolves. Wilson slowly makes his way back off the bridge. Later that night, Wilson follows Holt and his kin, witnessing an elder man give Holt what appears to be a hallucinogenic. Bolting to the beach, Holt gives in to his animalistic desires, yanks off his clothes and runs through the waves at the water’s edge, howling at the moon.
Ferguson decides to follow his own instincts and attempts to hunt down the wolves he is sure are living in Battery Park. This, of course, gets him killed by said beasties. The following night, Wilson teams up with Whittington to stake out the church. Just as the coroner is being attacked and killed by a wolf-like creature, Executive Security apprehends a terrorist cell that they have connected to the Van der Veer killing. Traumatized, Wilson stumbles to the nearby Wigwam Bar where he encounters Holt once again, along with other Native Americans. Here he finally gets the whole story. He learns that “Wolfen,” the wolf spirit, is the real killer. Holt explains that they are omnipotent, stealthy, and that they might even be gods. The Wolfen had been here long before the Europeans claimed the land and will be there long after, laying claim to their rightful hunting ground at the decrepit church in the city.
Although Wilson promises Holt that he will end his investigation, he, Neff, and Warren are cornered in an alley by the Wolfen pack. Warren tries to flee but is attacked and decapitated. Wilson does manage to blow up Warren’s car with one of the pack members inside. Neff and Wilson are then chased to Van der Veer’s penthouse where Wilson smashes the model of the construction project that had threatened the Wolfen hunting ground, finally proving that he will fight to keep the grounds unblemished by Van der Veer’s vision. The Wolfen melt back into the darkness as the police bust in. Wilson blames the same terrorists that Executive Security discovered, and the group goes down for all of the murders. As the camera pans over shots of the dark city, Wilson’s voiceover explains that the Wolfen will continue to prey on the weak and isolated members of the human herd, the same way humans do to their own, both socially and economically. The nature of the Wolfen will keep them invisible to humanity, and their superiority will always set them higher on the food chain.
Technically a Box Office bomb, coming in almost seven million dollars under the initial budget of seventeen million, Wolfen has grown in fan’s hearts over the years. Even Rotten Tomatoes ranks the film at a sweet 73% fresh. Warner Home Video released a DVD version back in 2002, but the film did not get the Blu-ray treatment until June 2nd of this year, although neither release offers much more than the theatrical trailer. Wolfen was known as one of the first uses of the in-camera effect, similar to thermography, to portray the subjective view of an evil creature, leading the way for others like John McTiernan’s Predator (1987).
Although there is some disagreement on whether Wolfen is a straight up werewolf movie or a film on Native American legends, neither choice follows directly with the book, which was about the evolution of the wolf itself, giving the Canis Lupus an almost human-like intelligence and opposable thumbs. No matter which direction one takes, there is no denying that this combination of Crime Drama, Supernatural Horror, and Native American tradition is a unique twist on the popular Hollywood werewolf legend, making it a standout in a time of hairy monster movies.