‘…a big, meaty studio film with lots to say about how the worship of money turns us against each other…’

‘What’s new on the international mutilation front?’ asked top cop Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) as he investigates a set of grisly murders in Manhattan. Quite a lot is new, as it happens; this is a big-budget, big ideas horror thriller that’s to be commended for leaning into sociology and politics, while not skimping on the thrills. It’s a rare Hollywood film that has a strong slant towards Native American people, and even though they’re supposedly the guilty party here, it’s impossible to watch Wolfen and see them as villains; quite the opposite.

Wolfen might have rung more box-office bells with mooted lead Dustin Hoffman, but Finney does some great work here; Wilson may be out of shape, but he exudes professionalism, and the much-rewritten script gives him some choice dialogue. This is no werewolf movie; ‘international terrorism’ is constantly name-checked as the concern of the authorities, and the film starts with the murder of a NYC property magnate and his coke-snorting girlfriend, murdered on an evening sojourn via limo to Battery Park. Wilson’s investigation leads him to a group of Native Americans who he comes to believe have shape-shifting abilities, including Edward James Olmos as Eddie Holt. There’s an absolutely amazing sequence shot on top of Manhattan Bridge, during which Eddie removes the handcuffs which attach Wilson to the railings; the sense of threat, and vertigo, is quite remarkable here. Wilson also understands that the actions of these Wolfen figures are political, and that their fight is against the corporate gentrification of their neighbourhood.

While audiences flocked to lowest-common denominator slashers in 1981, Michael Wadleigh’s blend of social critique and political theorising found few takers, but the whole package seems pretty lit in 2020. There’s no transformation scenes, but a tiny shorthand sees Eddie making a paw-print in some sand as he selects the creature’s form he chooses to take. That’s important because these figures take many forms, including birds, and there’s some striking POV Steadicam shots that reflect how they see the world. These shots predate a similar effect in Predator, and the opening tease sees Finney in their sights as a target; conspiracy theorists will note that this fiercely anti-capitalist film also views the World Trade Centre through the same Chroma-key and Stediacam filter.

Wolfen is a big, meaty studio film with lots to say about how the worship of money turns us against each other; it also reflects thoughtfully and sympathetically with the Native American community. And a sub-plot about using heat-photography to identify suspects lying lands unexpectedly, a scientific break-through mirroring the super-powers of the Wolfen, creating a nature vs science stand-off. With great support from Tom Noonan and Gregory Hines, lots of unexpected humour, and notably taut suspense, this is a great, neglected, intellectual horror film that should be a must on any fan’s wish-list.


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    • I like this early 80’s period of Finney, Shoot the Moon, Looker, he’s good in all of them…the environmental concerns make this one ahead of it’s time…

    • I will check that out, Wolfen and Communion we’re both a big deal when I was growing up and I’m probably even more interested now that I was then. Thanks for the tip!

  1. What an apropos choice for 2020…a police procedural that like a werewolf, morphs into something else, as did the writer W. Strieber, who switched to UFOs and compelling tales of childhood brainwashing and strange training at military base in TX. This was his first book, also liked The Hunger and subsequent movie, and his Cat Magic. The book offered more glimpses of the packs intelligence and social dynamics, and more of something I haven’t missed one bit,1970s misogynistic men. I suspect the film technique used to put you in the wolfs head were copied for Predator?
    Equally appropriate was setting film in S Bronx, giving appearance of wasteland or degenerative Wild West town where only option is to survive. There was an eco awakening message there too—and reminder that what you take/try to destroy can be reclaimed by stronger, more primordial forces. It’s as if Wolfen was the real ground zero—the question is did the wolfen prey on decay, or did they start the long howling process of reclaiming and restoring what was once verdant land? Ah wolves, one animal you never see in a zoo or circus! Thanks for reviving and reviewing this classic slasher gasher!

    • I found it a general shock that once the film-makers established the distorted POV shot that indicates the wolves have a target, the same distorted shot is used on the Twin Towers, which are a symbol of the progressive life-style this film sets itself against. Without touching on conspiracies, that contrast of rich Manhattan with the utterly desolute Bronx (the credits roll over a collapsing church) opens up a wider philosophical question about what the price of civilisation is. This line from your comment ‘an eco awakening message there too—and reminder that what you take/try to destroy can be reclaimed by stronger, more primordial forces…’ nails it; wish I’d written that! And yes, it’s arguable whether the Wolven have always been there to prey on us humans, or whether they gained purpose from the way that they’re treated…

  2. I finally saw this for the first time earlier this year and I loved it. Among the cast, Diane Venora is also to be commended. I really enjoyed her performance.

    • Absolutely, and she’s just part of a really game cast here. Glad to hear from others who dug this film, I think it would be worth a reboot…

  3. I see in your comment with Alex that you’ve read the book. Did the movie follow it pretty closely or did it go it’s own way? Strieber, while I’ve never actually read anything by him, never struck me as a political writer, but straight up horror.

    • I think in this instance the director has flexed his muscles to get his message across. The film feels more politically driven…

  4. I could not agree with you more on this one. This was a truly remarkable, and highly underrated gem of a movie. One that I enjoyed back in the day, and still do as it’s withstood the sands of time remarkably well. Didn’t even think about the pre-Predator effects, but now that I do, you are so right. It does have similarities to that. Terrific to you feature this one, and as always a very well written post!😀

    • So pleased to hear that I’m not on my own. This was good if unsatisfying to teenage me, but as a grown-up (?) I love how smart this movie is, and it’s gained in relevance in 40 years! Thanks!

  5. Still stands out as being unique. At least I can’t think of subsequent horror films that went in the same direction. And I guess I can see why. I don’t think it did that well, at least compared to the other blockbuster werewolf movies coming out at the same time. Wadleigh’s only dramatic film, and apparently the original cut was four hours long. Hard to say where his head was at, but the studio didn’t get what they thought they were going to get.

    • And the studio can’t have been thrilled when the next big horror movie turned out to be a bait and switch with a plea for Native American rights. But from 2020, this was a fantastic way to subvert expectations…would watch a four hour cut for sure, I even read the book!

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