(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.
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.
|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.
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.
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