‘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.