Burnt-out NYPD detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is called in after the badly mutilated remains of one of New York’s most prolific businessmen and socialites is found in Battery Park, alongside that of his wife and bodyguard. The deceased man’s name carried with it a lot of political and financial clout, so already the possible motives are rife – political assassination? Terrorism? Ransom? His investigation pulls in his friend who is a charismatic if unorthodox coroner (Gregory Hines) and a fresh-faced female psychologist (Diane Venora), but Wilson, it seems, has a nose for the “odd” cases, and this one soon takes a curious turn as more bodies (or rather parts) are discovered in the slum areas, belonging to down-and-outs. His line of questioning leads to a group of Native American workers, one in particular who is socially disgruntled (a young Edward James Olmos), and though the encounter provides answers, they’re not the ones he was expecting, something which draws him and his colleagues into real danger as they enter a world where the past and the present collide, where myths and truths are intertwined, where the natural and the supernatural may no longer be distinguishable, and each may be as deadly as the other.
1981 was certainly the year of the wolf, at least in the world of horror cinema if not in Chinese astrology. With their amazing effects (which are still impressive to this day) and sharp scripts, An American Werewolf in London and The Howling reinvigorated the werewolf flick, dragging it kicking and screaming into the present and out of the doldrums in which it had arguably languished since Universal released The Wolf Man back in 1941. It might come as a surprise to some to learn that the same year also heralded the release of another great wolf-laden horror film in Wolfen. It’s a shame that it didn’t get more recognition, for whilst it certainly has its faults, Wolfen has plenty to offer that makes it well worth seeking out, though with two titans like that stomping around the box office in the same year it’s perhaps easy to see why it became overlooked.
This relative obscurity might also be attributed to the fact that of these three wolf-themed movies, Wolfen is an altogether quieter affair, perhaps partly because it operates also as a detective thriller, though it must be stated that it’s no slouch in the scares department – it may be the more unassuming cub of 81′s litter, but that’s actually where the film’s strengths lie. It’s heavily atmospheric (rather than being full of flashy effects and gore, though there are some bloody and violent moments), something which compliments the slowburning nature of the narrative and revelation of the mystery at the movie’s heart, allowing the pace to build tension. Director Michael Wadleigh uses this atmosphere wisely, creating a surreal, often dreamlike landscape through a combination of fantastic locations (the desolate, demolished slum area and the burnt out church that sits in the middle are strangely post-apocalyptic) and stunning visual images with a subtle underlying symbolism that really elevate the picture above the humdrum, reminiscent of the visual panache of Dario Argento‘s movies, like Suspiria and Phenomena. One of the film’s most memorable “tricks” is a visual one, with Wadleigh using a special process that paints objects in almost thermographic colours (similar to how, in Predator the alien sees in different light spectra) whilst seeing through the killer’s eyes. The camera in these moments glides with fluidity (a little like the invisible entity that inhabits the woods in The Evil Dead), giving it an eerie life and vigour.
Then there’s the cast – Finney is great as the slightly scroungy, grouchy lead, and is well supported by the likes of Gregory Hines, Edward James Olmos and Tom Noonan, all of whom are solid, watchable presences that lend these characters their own individual energy and strength. The script also plays it smart, having some nice set-pieces, a streak of dark humour and it manages to have a social conscience whilst fitting the pieces of the puzzle together to get the movie to its thrilling climax. If there’s a problem with the film, this is where it lies – there’s a sense that it’s sometimes trying to juggle too many balls at once, and occasionally some elements suffer, the pace could have been picked up here and there and at other times there seem to be a few logical jumps by the characters, as if there are some smaller moments been excised through poor editing. There’s also now and then a feeling that Wadleigh wasn’t sure which direction to take the film, whether to stick more firmly with that which is a real-world threat or to follow the novel on which the script is based and go with more supernatural elements (some of which could be product of the alleged difficulties between the director and the studio – it’s maintained that the cut of the movie which is out there today and which played theatrically is still not Wadleigh’s preferred vision of the film, but there’s still no word of a director’s cut or extended version on the horizon.) And though this is likely to be down to individual tastes, for some there’s a chance that the “message” of the film might be a little too preachy (though personally I thought it managed to do it without being too heavy-handed). None of these are huge problems, though, and don’t really detract from the enjoyment of the film.
Overall, an underrated movie that really is distinct and memorable, and worth seeking out on DVD for anyone who fancies a well acted, well directed, stylishly shot horror picture, and you can’t say those come along every week, can you?