Retro Review: Wolfen
Retro Review: Wolfen
by Laurent Hasson
Give me a high-concept horror film, give me style, give me New York City, and I can be a pretty happy man. It’s funny that New York has been such a fertile ground for filmmakers in the late 70’s and early 80’s with films that have stood the test of time, even if most of them never escaped cult status. Who can forget Laura Gemser strolling on 6th Avenue or Park in many Black Emanuelle films? Who can forget the gangs of The Warriors? And anyone who wants a trip back to when Times Square was a seedy place can check out Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper. You can also watch with a strange sense of nostalgia and sadness as Snake Plissken lands on top of the Twin Towers in Escape From New York. Finally, for a reminder of how crumbling and disaffected the Bronx once was, just check out Wolfen.
After a series of gruesome murders, New York City veteran cop Dewey (Albert Finney) is taking up the investigation and enlists the help of his friends Whittington (Gregory Hines), a coroner, and Rebecca (Diane Venora), a police psychologist. Soon, they uncover that those murders may not be man made, and instead, be the product of wild wolves roaming the disaffected areas of the Bronx. What are they, where do they come from, and what are they after?
Wolfen is best described as a flawed masterpiece. It has an amazing cast that really brings this horror film to great heights, and overall production value that is very high. The views of New York are gorgeous and the various sets, such as the remnants of a church, are incredibly detailed and moody. Location shooting has rarely been used so well, and been so perfectly matched, to create the right mood. And of course, you have the sound design and cinematography. During most of the film you rarely see the animals and Michael Wadleigh made some great innovative choices to create a subjective view from those ever present protagonists. It was interesting that in my head, I kept hearing and seeing references to Predator and it’s obvious where that film drew its inspiration from. Finally, you have James Horner’s ornate score that contrasts well with the barren city-scapes on screen.
Wolfen is flawed most prominently to me because of how it presented itself: It wanted to be a Werewolf movie. Remember that at that time, The Howling had just been released and was quite a success, and An American Werewolf In London was coming out just a few weeks after (August ’81 vs. Wolfen’s July release) along with saturation level marketing. Audiences were pumped up, and in the mood for werewolves stories. But this film was not such a film. It tried to be and compromised itself in the process while never really making the leap to enter the realm of the supernatural. I can understand the reaction most people had during the scene where Edward James Olmos “morphs” into a wolf, and go “WTF! That’s stupid!”. But was that the fault of the expectations or the movie in and of itself?
The movie is much higher concept than that, focused on what are today easily recognizable environmental themes and mysticism, but in the early 80’s such ideas were probably a little bit too esoteric. Wolfen is a quasi masterpiece because technically it was executed very well and because it dared to break ground in high-concept horror, but it failed by compromising too much of its integrity to appeal to the commercial currents of the day and missing the mark in that respect.
Wolfen is ultimately about nature retaking the ruins of human civilization and then subsequently being displaced when Humans want to clean up. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, you could walk for blocks at a time in the Bronx and see nothing but disaffected buildings in ruins. In that context, the Wolfen, a highly evolved, and very smart, species of Wolves have retaken that environment, living side by side, but separately, from human civilization. It’s when developers came back to the Bronx to rebuild the neighborhood that this new-found habitat becomes threatened, and the Wolfen go on the attack.
Even though Wolfen suffers from an identity crisis, which is the root cause of its “strangeness” and prevents it from achieving a masterpiece status, it is nevertheless a movie that has aged well. Its environmental themes are ever more current, and its hip stylized look and sound remain very attractive and engaging today. Additionally, it offers a glimpse of a beloved city in ruins, on the cusp of a major phoenix-like revival. This is a movie I had wanted to watch again for so long, and I felt really happy I did it. When the credits rolled, I had a smile of satisfaction on my face.
Laurent Hasson watches upwards of 1000 movies every year. You can read more of his reviews at RatingMovies.com