Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wolfen (1981) * * ¾

After attending the groundbreaking of a real estate development he's building in the impoverished South Bronx, wealthy industrialist Christopher Van Der Veer (Max M. Brown) stops off with his wife Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo) in Battery Park, where his ancestors built the first windmill in New York. Stalked by an unseen predator with four legs and highly acute senses, the couple are quickly attacked and killed. Their driver has his hand severed before he's able to shoot his gun.

Haggard NYPD Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) returns from a self-imposed retirement and is assigned to solve the bizarre violent murders in which it appears the victims were killed by animals. He is a chunky loner who lives on Staten Island and always seems to have drunk too much the night before. Wilson receives a page from his commanding officer Warren (Dick O’Neill) and is dispatched to the crime scene: "It's very weird and it's very strange, just like you." Coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines) gives him the grisly facts, like how long a severed head can remain conscious, and he found no trace of metal on the victims' wounds. The security firm that was protecting Van Der Veer pairs Dewey with their own expert, psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora).

Warren: I'm going to team you up with Dewey Wilson on this Christopher Van Der Veer thing.
Rebecca Neff: I didn't know he was back. I thought he retired, disabled, mental...?
Warren: He had a lot of family problems, he started to drink a little too much, police work... piled up on him. He's a good man, you'll like him.
Rebecca Neff: Okay, fine.

Counter-terrorism tactics fail to net a suspect, but when the predator attacks a vagrant in the South Bronx, hairs found at both crime scenes indicate the killer is the same. Dewey and Rebecca visit a zoologist named Ferguson (Tom Noonan) who reveals the hairs belong to "canis lupis", a wolf. Dewey's suspicions lead him to Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), a former member of the Native American Movement. Holt spends his time on top of bridges and claims to be able to shape shift into different animals. He is a construction worker who loves hanging out on the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. In his investigation, Wilson learns of an Indian legend about wolf spirits, and that there may be predatory shapeshifters living in the vicinity.

(Holt and Wilson are up on the top of a bridge)
Eddie Holt: Shape shifting. We do it for kicks. Turn yourself into a different animal. One night a deer, next night a salmon...
Dewey Wilson: Or a wolf?
Eddie Holt: Sure. (Eddie unhooks Dewey's safety line) Or an eagle. (Dewey looks down) C'mon Dewey, just flap your arms and jump, its easy. It's all in the head.
Dewey Wilson: That would be murder. You wouldn't kill anyone else, would you?
Eddie Holt: That's what they pay you to find out...

Old Indian: (about the wolves) They're shiftless. They might be gods!
Edddie Holt: It's not wolves, it's Wolfen. For 20,000 years Wilson--ten times your f**king Christian era--the skins and wolves, the great hunting nations, lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came.
Edddie Holt: The smartest ones, they went underground into a new wilderness, your cities. You have your technology but you lost. You lost your senses
Old Indian: In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes.
Edddie Holt: No need for detectives.
Old Indian: In their eyes, you are the savage.
Dewey Wilson: They kill to protect family?
Old Indian: In the end, it's all for the hunting ground.
Dewey Wilson: They kill...
Old Indian: The sick. The abandoned. Those who will not be missed.
Dewey Wilson: More than that.
Old Indian: They kill to survive. They kill to protect.
Dewey Wilson: Family?
Old Indian: Man kills for less. But in the end, it is all for the hunting ground.
Eddie Holt: You've seen them, haven't you? You don't have the eyes of the Hunter. You have the eyes of the dead.

Ferguson maintains that wolves were wiped out in the east a century ago, along with the buffalo and Indians: "Wolves and Indians evolved and were destroyed simultaneously. They're both tribal, they look out for their own, they don't overpopulate and they’re both superb hunters." It becomes obvious that something out there is preying on New Yorkers. Dewey and Whittington arm themselves with night vision and go hunting in the South Bronx, but discover they're up against a pack of intelligent and savage wolf-like creatures that are stalking the city, the Wolfen. The Wolfen are not werewolves, but a more advanced version of a wolf which is above man on the food chain. They are eating the local bum population, as they are diseased and weak. Unfortunately, the Police Commissioner may be willing to sweep the Wolfen problem under the rug to convict some terrorists of the same crimes. There are a succession of hallucinatory sequences through the film that continue right up to the somewhat anticlimactic climax.

Wilson and Rebecca take an elevator to the top of a building, and the wolves follow. Things are settled when Wilson smashes a model of the building that was going to be built in the wolves' stomping grounds in the Bronx. The wolves are satisfied and disappear. The movie's point is that the Wolfen are just protecting their territory and that its businessmen and developers who are the real enemy. It also seems the underlying theme is that the Indians and wolves were both kicked both out of their native land by the white man, and the Wolfen are the result. At the end of the movie we learn that the Wolfen are really supernatural beings, which makes us wonder why they hang out in a ghetto.

WOLFEN is a thriller that doesn't fit easily into a specific genre. It is primarily a horror movie, but as the mystery of what is behind the killings unravels, thriller and fantasy elements start to take over. The film is engrossing, frightening and intelligent, with sensational special effects. Director Michael Wadleigh uses these effects to great advantage, frequently showing the movements of the characters through the eyes of the Wolfen. The use of a polarization effect and a steadicam to represent the wolves' point of view is quite stunning and eerie. Produced in the 1980's, when the werewolf film was being redefined with THE HOWLING (1981) and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), this film truly set itself apart as the oddest and most socially conscious. It asks the question of what really is the true horror, the monster or the man. It's not a film that permits clinical distance, but which strives to create a tumult of ideas that crystallize into a grand finale.

Although the goriness of the film isn't excessive, mostly generated by graphic descriptions of the events, this does have the effect of making the movie a little more unnerving. There are a few shots of dismembered bodies and the like, but the more these are shown, the less convincing they become. In fact, that can be said of the film as a whole, which retains more interest as a mystery than after all the cards are shown. By the time it all clicks together, enough thrills and chills have been had to make it a worthwhile viewing experience. It features good performances from its cast, some ghoulish autopsy scenes, a weird mystery and incredibly vivid atmosphere.

With strong performances all around and interesting point of view special effects shots, reminiscent of the ones used later in PREDATOR (1987), WOLFEN is a different sort of horror-thriller that will probably please viewers tired of derivative schlock shock. The movie hints at werewolves but doesn’t really follow through with it. It eventually combines some Native American ideas of shape shifters and the wolf spirit. The whole camera effect of the audience seeing through the wolves' eyes can be cute and amusing when used sparingly such as in PREDATOR, but it used so often here that it starts to be aggravating. In fact, it takes a full 90 minutes to finally figure out we are dealing with wolves and not werewolves, causing disappointment.

Watch this movie for the cast, not for the story. This film is basically CUJO (1983) with a better director. It would have rocked at ninety-minutes, but at nearly two hours, WOLFEN goes on for too long. The opening moves rapidly, and the ending delivers the right amount of apocalyptic violence you expect, but in the center the spaces between the wolf attacks start feeling longer and longer. WOLFEN appears to justify the early murders of a rich, multinational tycoon and his beautiful, cocaine-sniffing wife on the grounds that the victims are not good people, but it also accepts without comment the murders of a number of other people who haven't done the Wolfen any harm.

WOLFEN sets up its mysteries with an admirable tenacity, though the resolution we're ultimately offered is mostly forgettable. It infuses a healthy respect for nature into its "change your ways or else" narrative and the message is a good one. The problem with most supernatural thrillers is that sooner or later they have to explain their supernaturalism, and then they fall apart. WOLFEN almost avoids this problem by sliding discreetly into its supernatural world. It's a thinking man's supernatural monster movie of extraordinary stylishness in looks and sounds as well as performances.

The performers are all fine, but it's the film's otherworldly look and sound that give WOLFEN the frequently stunning effect it has. It is so good-looking that one tends to ignore the real inner vacuity. This film is the screen debut of Gregory Hines, too exaggerated in his semi-comic role. The wolves look like mean German shepherds or renegade police attack dogs. Wadleigh, who directed the music festival documentary WOODSTOCK (1970), makes an auspicious debut here as the director of a fiction film.

The cast also includes: Dehl Berti (Old Indian), Peter Michael Goetz (Ross), Sam Gray (Mayor), Ralph Bell (Commissioner), Sarah Felder (Cicely Rensselaer), Reginald Vel Johnson (Morgue Attendant), James Tolkan (Baldy), John McCurry (Sayad Alve), Chris Manor (Janitor), Donald Symington (Lawyer), Jeffery Ware (Interrogation Operator), E. Brian Dean (Fouchek), Jeffery V. Thompson (Harrison), Victor Arnold (Roundenbush), Frank Adonis (Scola), Richard Minchenberg (Policeman), Raymond Serra (Detective), Thomas Ryan (Detective), Tony Latham (Victim), David Connell (Victim), Jery Hewitt (Victim), Roy Brocksmith (Fat Jogger in Park), Michael Wadleigh (Terrorist Informer), and many others. James Horner composed the incidental music. David Eyre, Michael Wadleigh, and Eric Roth wrote the screenplay from Whitley Strieber's novel "The Wolfen". Michael Wadleigh directed.

WOLFEN is based on the 1978 debut novel by Whitley Strieber. The book opens with the violent deaths of two police officers in a junk yard and focuses on the efforts of cranky detective George Wilson and his young partner Becky Neff to track down the killers. They discover a savage pack of highly intelligent wolves preying on the castoffs of society. The wolves are stalking the city and willing to kill to keep their existence secret. Streiber’s agent showed her husband, producer Rupert Hitzig, an advance copy of the book, which Hitzig bid on and won the screen rights to.

Dr. Obrero at Digital Retribution wrote, "A beautifully lensed picture, Wolfen captures the look and feel of New York circa late 70’s/early '80's in a way few other films have ever managed, and the effective camera-trickery that gives us 'Wolfen-Vision' is almost dream-like and effective in sustaining the atmospherics of the attack sequences … Wolfen is an essential choice for those who enjoy intelligent thrillers as opposed to blood-splattering slice and dice and braindead horror films." Vince Leo wrote, "It's an uneven experience, but does have its rewards, and the quirky nature of it can probably be attributed to the previous directorial experience of counter-culture director Michael Wadley." And Bill Chambers at Film Freak Central wrote, "Wolfen goes through the paces of a typical detective thriller, but I'll bet you’ve never seen anything like it … My mother calls Wolfen 'a werewolf movie from the werewolf’s point of view,' and that's not a bad take on it, since the homicidal title creatures are in essence the good guys of the piece."

In the film, the setting for the transient home of the wolves was shot in the South Bronx, at the intersection of Louis Nine Blvd & Boston Road. In the opening panorama shot, the church seen was located at the intersection of E 172nd & Seabury Pl. The decrepit site of ruined buildings was no special effect. Urban decay in the Bronx in the early 1980s was so widespread that it was the ideal production setting. Today, this community contains mostly suburban-style privately owned houses.

Selected premiere engagements of WOLFEN were presented in Megasound, a high-impact surround sound system similar to Sensurround created by Warner Bros. in the early 1980s. Director Wadleigh was unsatisfied with the final cut of the movie, but so far no director's cut of the film is available. The DVD has an extremely good transfer, which is surprising considering the film's age. The print looks almost pristine and is gorgeously formatted in widescreen. Warner Bros. usually doesn't put this much effort into back catalog movies like this. The Dolby Surround Stereo is adequate and a bit low in volume. The extras are skimpy: the trailer, a page listing the cast and crew, and a few screens of text on the history of werewolf movies. An interview or two, or even a short on the filmmaking would have been nice, but none of that is provided.

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