October 11, 2016

REVIEW: WOLFEN (1981)


The 80's were a wonderful time for movies. Some are timeless classics, while others are a direct product of their time, cramming in as much neon lighting and Aqua Net as one can possibly stomach. There was very little, if any, use of CGI (Young Sherlock Holmes has the distinction of featuring the very first CGI character committed to film, a knight made of broken pieces of stained glass); from the get-go the heat was on for special effects houses to come up with new and interesting ways to depict the impossible on screen in various horror films, from the very first real-time werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London and other innovative monster makeups, to more bombastic depictions of gore and viscera such as those seen in the Evil Dead series. For whatever reason (most likely budgetary constraints, or a direct decision made to maintain a sense of realism), today’s film features live wolves in the role of the antagonists, whereas in the original source material, they were actually the next step in wolf evolution, complete with different physical features including opposable thumbs with which they could open doors. Why this was not incorporated into the film, we may never know, but the end result is still a highly entertaining genre piece with laudable performances, set against the backdrop of total urban decay in early 80's New York City.

Wolfen is a 1981 horror-crime film directed by Michael Wadleigh and is written by Wadleigh, David M. Eyre, Jr., and Eric Roth, and features Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, Edward James Olmos, and Dick O’Neill in the main roles. It is based on a novel, The Wolfen, written by Whitley Strieber, published in 1978 by William Morrow & Co. Though an adaptation of the book, the film only bears a passing resemblance to the original story. It is also notable for being the first to use a camera technique similar to thermography to convey the point of view of the Wolfen as they stalk their hunting grounds, which was later adapted for use in the Predator series. The film also features an impressive, pulse-pounding score by composer James Horner, which is still highly regarded as one of the film’s best aspects.

Wolfen opens with a ground breaking ceremony in South Bronx, where urban decay has run rampant and all of the buildings are condemned shells of their former selves. Christopher Van der Veer (portrayed by Max M. Brown), a rich developer and magnate, digs the first shovel-full of dirt from the site of a new construction project which will raze the area to make way for a series of new apartment complexes. Unknown to Van der Veer, something is watching intently from afar.

Later that night, Van der Veer is enjoying a car ride with his wife, Pauline (portrayed by Anne Marie Pohtamo), and their driver/bodyguard, a large, powerful Haitian man with voodoo ties, when they make the decision to stop at Battery Park to take in the view of the many art sculptures. As they walk through the park, something vicious (clearly the same thing that was observing Van der Veer earlier at the ground breaking ceremony) attacks and kills them in grisly fashion.

The next morning, we are introduced to the story’s protagonist, NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson (Finney), who is on an early morning jog. As he stops at a convenience shop to buy some groceries and a newspaper, he receives a call on his pager. He calls his NYPD superior, Warren (O’Neill), and learns of the deaths, and heads to the crime scene. There, he meets with Warren, the mayor, and Jonathan Ross (portrayed by Peter Michael Goetz), the Bureau Chief of Van der Veer’s personal security client, Executive Security, who suspects the Van der Veers were murdered by terrorists. Also at the scene examining the bodies is Wilson’s buddy Whittington (Hines), who fills Wilson in on the details of the attack; Van der Veer’s brain is missing, and his wife’s head has nearly been severed clean off. Later, Wilson arrives at the morgue where he learns from Whittington that no metal objects were used in the killings, as any metal object, no matter how sharp, would have left a residue that would be picked up on soft x-ray.

Ross is conducting his own investigation at the Executive Security home base and discovers that a niece of Van der Veer’s happens to be a prominent member of a terrorist cell known as the Götterdämmerung, and commands to have her picked up by the police for questioning. Ross also decides to bring in a criminal psychologist, Rebecca Neff (Venora), who teams up with Wilson to work on the case. Together, they examine thermal imaging and voice analysis of Van der Veer’s niece and determine that she knows nothing about the murders. There investigation takes them to Van der Veer’s penthouse office to search for more clues. Wilson receives a call from Whittington and meets with him to discuss that the hairs found at the scene of the murders is definitely not human. Meanwhile, back in South Bronx, a homeless man is killed by an unseen creature in the same fashion as the Van der Veers. His body is later discovered by construction workers, who contact the police.

Wilson and Neff head to South Bronx to investigate the scene of the latest murder. Their search takes them to the abandoned church in Charlotte Street, where Neff is distracted by the sound of a baby crying in the bell tower, but Wilson states that he doesn’t hear anything. As she goes to investigate, Wilson realizes they are being lured apart, and sensing danger, hurries to rescue Neff, dragging her out of the church. As they leave, a pair of reflective eyes watches from the dark staircase in the bell tower. As night begins to descend, the creature rushes out under cover of darkness to track them. While crossing a bridge, it kills an unsuspecting construction worker who is unlucky enough to see it. The creature resumes tracking, eventually discovering where Neff is staying in town.

Later, Wilson and Neff visit a local zoologist named Ferguson (Noonan), who confirms that the hairs found at the scene of the crime are those of a wolf, although the subspecies is unknown. Ferguson states that wolves would never hunt man, likening them to Native Americans. This causes Wilson to think of Eddie Holt (Olmos), a local Indian who Wilson arrested for killing an “apple” (a conservative Indian—red on the outside, white on the inside), and he decides to question him. Holt insists that he has nothing to do with the murders, but their conversation turns tense as Holt chides Wilson with thinly veiled threats and admits that he can “shift,” or turn into an animal, including a wolf. A later meeting with Neff reveals that Holt was not present during the murders, but after their conversation, Wilson has his doubts.

After ruminating on the facts of the case as they stand, as well as the bizarre scene with Neff at the abandoned church, Wilson pays Whittington a visit at the morgue and learns that the injuries on the homeless man, as well as other bodies of homeless and drug-addled people that have been brought in, matches those on the Van der Veers. Whatever has been killing people appears smart enough to know when organs are diseased, and discards them, while other organs are missing completely, presumably consumed. Ferguson also arrives and takes a look at the bodies, and offers that while he still does not believe wolves are the culprits, it does appear that some sort of animal is to blame.

That night, Wilson follows Holt by a deserted pier and observes him removing his clothes, seemingly reduced to an animalistic state as he dashes around naked and howls at the moon. Holt then spots Wilson watching him and confronts him, growling. Wilson tries to walk away, but he is blocked by an increasingly agitated Holt until he finally resumes his normal state of mind, telling Wilson cryptically that “it’s all in the head.”

Meanwhile, Ferguson is back at the zoo recording some notes about wolves when he hears the animals crying out in agitation, and suddenly realizes he is being watched. Deciding to test a theory, he places a fake call for help to the fire department, then heads out on his motorcycle to an empty underpass. As the sirens from the fire trucks sound in the distance, he hears multiple howls rise in the night and realizes that there really are wolves in New York. At first he is overjoyed to learn that it is true there are wolves in New York City, but then a growl emanates from the darkness behind him. Realizing he is in trouble, he starts up the motorcycle and tries to escape, but is knocked off the vehicle and killed.

Wilson goes to Neff’s apartment. While sitting in the car outside, he spies something watching him in the dark which appears to be a wolf, but by the time he can turn on his car lights to get a better look, the creature is gone. Fearing for Neff’s safety, he rushes into her apartment and learns that she is fine. At this point, the two acknowledge their feelings in each other and sleep together. The next morning, as Wilson is leaving Neff’s apartment, a man is seen trying to ride Ferguson’s stolen motorcycle, crashing it into a pile of garbage cans.

Whittington meets with Wilson at Ferguson’s office and confirms the presence of another wolf hair found on a diseased human liver. While realizing that Ferguson is strangely absent, the two talk about how many homeless people go missing every year with little to no investigation, and come to accept that something in South Bronx is preying on the dregs of society. At this time, Ross, who has been diligently conducting his own investigation at the Executive Security headquarters, runs across video footage of a known Götterdämmerung member who states that their group “harasses the boys who are calling the shots.” When asked if that includes people like the Van der Veers, and whether or not said harassment might include assassination, he concludes, “absolutely.” Ross then calls for the FBI and Warren to be notified.

Wilson and Warren disagree about the connection between the Van der Veers and the recent attacks on the homeless, but leaves Wilson to his investigation while he goes to work with Ross and the FBI. Wilson and Whittington set up a stake out in the abandoned buildings of Charlotte Street, where Whittington is soon brutally killed by a wolf-like creature before Wilson can rush to his aid. Wilson finds Whittington’s body with his throat torn open, and cries out in anger. Meanwhile, the security team at Executive Security are busy compiling evidence against the Götterdämmerung for the murder of the Van der Veers.

Seeking answers, Wilson enters a bar frequented by several Native Americans, where he finds Eddie Holt and his buddies drinking. They proceed to tell him about the legend of the Wolfen, explaining that the creatures were once prolific but nearly died out. Relegated from hunter status to scavengers, they hid from humans wherever they could, picking off the weak, infirm, and homeless so as to avoid detection. Holt realizes that Wilson has seen them, telling him, “you don’t have the eyes of a hunter. You have the eyes of the dead.”

Still trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, Wilson heads to Van der Veer’s office, where he sits in darkness thinking about all he’s seen and learned. While observing the model of the construction project and some films of the project’s proposal, he comes to realize that South Bronx, with its urban decay, abandoned buildings, and high rate of homeless people, is the perfect hunting ground for the Wolfen and that the construction project threatens their very existence. Before he can do anything, Neff and Warren arrive and state that the case is closed with the arrest of several Götterdämmerung insurgents. They head out into the street and are about to leave when they are all suddenly surrounded by the Wolfen pack. Warren panics and tries to shoot them, but one rushes forward and severs his hand before he can pull the trigger. He then tries to escape in his car, but unknown to him, one of the Wolfen has slipped into the back seat and decapitates him with a mighty bite.

Horrified, Wilson and Neff rush back inside the building and head up to Van der Veer’s office, where they are once again confronted by the Wolfen. Eyeing the pack leader, a huge, ghostly-white wolf, Wilson slowly lowers his gun and demolishes the model of the construction project, signifying to the Wolfen that the project is dead and won’t be a danger to them any longer. The almost preternaturally smart creatures appear to understand and withdraw, leaving a terrified Wilson and Neff alone in the office as police rush in. When questioned about what happened, Wilson states that it was the Götterdämmerung, so as to protect the secret of the Wolfen, and allows the terrorist cell to take the fall for the Van der Veer murders. The movie ends with a voice over from Wilson, who states that the Wolfen will continue to live in the shadows, feeding on the isolated members of society just as humans do on social and economic scales, as they are creatures higher on the food chain than us.

And that’s Wolfen, a fantastic little genre flick with great performances by the principle cast all around. There’s been a lot of confusion over the years about whether this movie qualifies as a werewolf film; in my opinion it doesn’t, although it does tread the line closely with a lot of the Native American lore and the concept of men “shifting” into animal forms. This highlights possibly the only beef I have with the film; the concept of the Wolfen as it stands in the novel is far more interesting to me, as I stated in the first paragraph of this article that they are supposed to represent the next step in the evolution of wolves, with differing features, opposable thumbs, and the ability to mimic human voices. While the latter is showcased to a degree in the film (particularly during the scene with Wilson and Neff in the abandoned church), there’s little to differentiate them from normal wolves, and it would have been nice to see some of the other concepts from the novel make their way into the movie, perhaps through the use of animatronics, while regular wolves could have been used more to fill out the background. The very idea of a wolf being able to open a door as it’s chasing someone through a building is a frightening one, and it’s a pity a scene like this did not make it into the film.

That gripe aside, I have to give credit where credit is due. This film is not particularly amazing by any standard, but what makes it memorable after all these years are the strong performances from the cast, coupled with strong writing, which elevate the material from what it could have ended up being had this film been in less capable hands. The relationships on display never feel wasted, even with the minor characters; each individual has a specific role in the story, and the actors do their due diligence in fleshing them all out in a way that feels organic and relatable.

Also, as mentioned before, James Horner’s score is urgent and terrifying, aptly conveying a sense of impending dread, and remains one of my personal favorites to listen to while writing. His use of certain queues and motifs pays off well here.

I hope you have enjoyed this review as much as I enjoyed writing it; it was a joy to revisit this film once again. If you have a suggestion for a review, I encourage you to use the contact form in the right column. Until next time, readers!