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Cult Classics Revisited: WOLFEN (1981)


(US - 1981)

Directed by Michael Wadleigh. Written by David Eyre and Michael Wadleigh. Cast: Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Dick O'Neill, Tom Noonan, Peter Michael Goetz, Dehl Berti, Reginald Veljohnson, James Tolkan, Victor Arnold, Max M. Brown, Anne Marie Pohtamo, Sarah Felder, Caitlin O'Heaney. (R, 115 mins)

Thanks to influential makeup effects wizards like Rob Bottin and Rick Baker and their mastery of their craft, werewolf movies were able to make a huge comeback in 1981. Rather than the old time-lapse method done with Lon Chaney Jr. in the Universal horror movies of the 1940s, it was now possible to show a character's entire agonizing transformation into a wolf. Released in the spring of 1981, Joe Dante's THE HOWLING boasted stunning man-to-wolf transformation work by Bottin that still looks better than CGI today, and the same goes for John Landis'AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released at the end of the summer of 1981, which featured makeup so convincing that it won Baker an Oscar. WOLFEN was released in July 1981, between THE HOWLING and AMERICAN WEREWOLF, and while it isn't a werewolf movie in the vein of those other two films, it typically gets lumped in with them. Based on the 1978 novel The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber, who would later be best known for his alien abduction memoir Communion (turned into a 1989 movie with Christopher Walken as Strieber), WOLFEN is much more ambitious in scope than either of 1981's other big wolf movies, with a labyrinthine plot involving Native American folklore, police surveillance, radical activism, urban trust-fund guerrillas, domestic terrorism, voodoo, urban legend, and urban decay, among other themes that range from half-explored to abandoned. With extensive location shooting in the hellhole that was The Bronx of that time, WOLFEN is very much a product of its era, while at the same time being amazingly prescient in its depictions of corporate greed, gentrification, and the way its NYPD's secret surveillance unit draws obvious comparisons to the NSA and prefigures the Patriot Act. Make no mistake--the film is an often unwieldy, confused mess but it's a fascinating mess. If WOLFEN is guilty of anything, it's biting off more than it can chew in two hours.

When multi-millionaire developer and political scion Christopher van der Veer (Max M. Brown), his coke-snorting wife, and their bodyguard are torn to pieces in Battery Park, the culprits are believed to be the "Gotterdamerung," an underground, left-wing urban guerrilla network protesting van der Veer's demolishing of old buildings in the Bronx and other boroughs to replace them with expensive high rises, driving out the longtime residents and bringing in the wealthy and the privileged. Given van der Veer's status and Washington ties, the case is deemed top priority by the mayor and the police commissioner, and is handed to (of course) troubled, eccentric detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney), a recovering alcoholic who's brought off suspension by his beleaguered captain Warren (Dick O'Neill). Department brass works hard to establish any connection to Gotterdamerung, but Wilson and criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) aren't convinced, primarily because the murders were too violent for a bunch of rich kid activists. When a similar slaughtering of a homeless man draws them to an abandoned church in the Bronx, Wilson hears a wolf's howl and is further convinced the killer isn't human when coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines) discovers hairs on the victims belonging to the wolf family but aren't indicative of any known breed. Acting on a hunch, Wilson visits Native American activist Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos)--Wilson arrested him on a murder charge years earlier--who talks of shapeshifting and "Wolfen," a unique breed of wolf that's lived in secret alongside humanity, a close-knit clan that will do what it needs to do to protect its turf--turf that was being threatened by van der Meer's revitalization of the Bronx.

Almost everything in WOLFEN turns out to be red herrings and misdirection. Much time is devoted to the police investigation of Gotterdamerung activists that turns out to have no bearing on anything. Holt's "shapeshifting"--witnessed when he's tailed by Wilson--turns out to be nothing more than Eddie stripping nude after dropping acid and pretending he's a wolf. Unlike the lupine creatures in THE HOWLING and AMERICAN WEREWOLF, the wolves in WOLFEN are just that: wolves, albeit a unique breed of wolf, the next step in canus lupus evolution, complete with near-human intelligence and heat-sensory vision conveyed in then-innovative Steadicam tracking shots using thermal imagery that would be popularized several years later in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic PREDATOR. In their hunting and the establishment of their turf, the Wolfen have survived on the least visible, and therefore least missed, people. Hence, their stronghold in the Bronx, an area filled with the homeless and the disenfranchised, and all of that is threatened by van der Veer's attempts to gentrify the area. The message is hardly subtle: whether it's the wealthy or the Wolfen, something's always feeding on society's least fortunate.

Garrett Brown (with Steadicam) and director Michael Wadleigh (turned around,
facing stars Finney and Venora) on location in the ruins of the Bronx in 1979.

Recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive, WOLFEN was a troubled production that started shooting in and around NYC in the fall of 1979, with director/co-screenwriter Michael Wadleigh at the helm. This was Wadleigh's first film since his directing debut, the 1970 Best Documentary Oscar-winner WOODSTOCK. Prior to that, Wadleigh dropped out of medical school and enrolled in NYU's film school, where he met fellow student Martin Scorsese. Born in Akron, OH in 1942, Wadleigh made short political documentaries and found work as a cinematographer on several micro-budget underground films, including 1968's WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, Scorsese's directorial debut. Scorsese repaid the favor when Wadleigh got his first major gig, helping his friend out as an assistant director and editor on WOODSTOCK. After that film's phenomenal success, Scorsese cemented his place as one of America's great young directors with 1973's MEAN STREETS, while Wadleigh spent the bulk of the decade planning what would've been an epic about the American Revolution that ultimately never came to fruition. When funding fell apart in 1979, he was offered a list of potential projects by then-fledgling Orion Pictures as a consolation prize and chose to adapt The Wolfen, not because of any desire to work in the horror genre but more likely because of the activism themes in the novel. When filming wrapped on WOLFEN in February 1980, Wadleigh assembled a four-hour rough cut and neither the producers nor the execs at Orion were happy with what they saw when Wadleigh turned in his finished version, which clocked in at 149 minutes. Claiming Wadleigh made a "message picture" and lost sight of the fright factor, the producers demanded more horror and a shorter running time. When the filmmaker wouldn't budge and it became obvious that the delays would now force the $10 million film to miss its announced October 1980 release date, Wadleigh was fired. Screenwriter Eric Roth, who would go on to win an Oscar for his FORREST GUMP script, was commissioned for rewrites and director John Hancock (LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY) was called in for reshoots that were done in November 1980 to reach a sufficient horror and gore quota. Neither Hancock nor Roth received credit for their work and an irate Wadleigh unsuccessfully tried to have his name removed from the film, which ran 115 minutes when it was finally released on July 24, 1981, its cost nearly doubled to a then-expensive $17 million by the time it was completed. WOLFEN was met with generally positive reviews, but the often-confused jumble of half-baked ideas is strongly indicative of too many cooks in the kitchen (there are four credited editors), and the lack of werewolves or transformation scenes have always placed WOLFEN a distant third among fans when it comes to the big three 1981 lycanthrope classics.

Finney and Olmos atop the Manhattan Bridge. No doubles, no CGI, no greenscreen.

Nevertheless, it has moments of greatness. Though commonplace today, the groundbreaking thermal imagery tracking shots (with help from Steadicam creator Garrett Brown) are outstanding and the film's sound design is remarkably effective, whether it's garbled surveillance chatter or the fingernails of a corpse scraping across a morgue slab as the body is being moved. WOLFEN has a terrific performance by a grumbly, shaggy-haired Finney and a scene-stealing, star-making one by Hines in what was his big-screen debut, even though Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART 1 (1981) was shot later but released first. There's some amusingly dark humor throughout (Finney's Wilson stuffing cookies into his mouth while viewing an autopsy) and the climactic showdown between Wilson, Rebecca, and Warren with a pack of Wolfen (probably shot by Hancock, considering the amount of splatter involved) is terrifying. In addition, WOLFEN boasts one of the earliest scores by the late, legendary James Horner. Wadleigh and cinematographer Gerry Fisher do a stunning job of capturing the sights of 1979-80 NYC, from Battery Park to the war-zone-like Bronx to some dizzying shots of Olmos atop the Brooklyn Bridge and Olmos and Finney on the Manhattan Bridge, both sequences done pre-CGI and with much effort made to show that, yes, the actors are really up there in a way that just wouldn't be done today, both for the sake of safety and efficiency (how did they get a camera crew up there?). Watch Finney on top of the Manhattan Bridge--it's a windy day and he's visibly terrified. That's exactly why the scene works as well as it does.

Wadleigh (with headband) and Martin Scorsese (on headset)
during the shooting of the landmark documentary WOODSTOCK 

A 2013 photo of Michael Wadleigh
After his unpleasant experience on WOLFEN, Wadleigh almost completely withdrew from the film industry, emerging from self-imposed exile every now and again, whenever WOODSTOCK gets an anniversary re-release in theaters or on DVD/Blu-ray. He also apparently recorded a commentary track for the 2002 DVD release of WOLFEN with Olmos and the late Hines (who died in 2003) that was ultimately shelved and never heard by the DVD-buying public (any bets that he's still bitter and let it be known on the commentary?). In the decades since, he earned degrees in Physics and Medicine, and became a Harvard professor. Still a counterculture icon to his core at the age of 72, the now-UK-based Wadleigh may be an enigmatic figure in the world of cinema, but he's known in activist circles, working for various nonprofit organizations, traveling the world, and giving interviews, lectures, and multimedia presentations on the dangers of climate change. Barring any surprise comeback attempts after 35 years away from the game, it's a safe assumption that Wadleigh is done with mainstream filmmaking. If so, he leaves a unique, if very brief, body of work behind, with two movies in the last 45 years being the kind of sparse output that makes Stanley Kubrick look like Woody Allen.

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