Another movie about werewolves, you say? Overdone, you say? Well, this is not your typical werewolf movie – dare I say, this isn’t even a werewolf movie at all. Here we get a fascinating study of an ancient Indian legend, about swapping souls with a wolf, being played out in the early 1980s in New York City. Interesting film techniques coupled with strong acting bring the story to full circle. Director Michael Wadleigh, whose previous exploits were limited to Woodstock documentaries, does a phenomenal job with ‘Wolfen.’ Prime casting, great effects, and a wonderful score all work together in a pleasing way.
The movie starts off with a bang by showing a couple and their driver out in Manhattan at night. During this scene, the camera switches to a different type of vision – night vision – to show us the scene from the antagonist’s point of view. This is actually the first ever film to use thermal vision, or thermography, in a first-person view form, setting the stage for ‘Predator’ and others to follow suit in the future. The camera races near the ground, stopping and starting in an erratic way, then attacks the unfortunate people. Gore hounds will delight in the disembodied hand that has fingers twitching around the gun trigger, and we hear that one body loses its head as it is taken away.
Cast perfectly as gritty, rough policeman Dewey Wilson is Albert Finney. He brings the appropriate edge and toughness the role needs. We are also quickly introduced to Whittington, a coroner played by Gregory Hines. His fast-paced character searches the victims’ wounds for any traces of metal, to identify the murder weapon. None can be found. Soon after, we meet Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), a pretty psychologist with previous experience in matters of the occult, who is assigned to team with Dewey to figure out who is behind the grisly murders.
This movie was filmed in the South Bronx, including the awesome, crumbling church which was built and burned just for this film. The church itself adds a creepy ambiance to the atmosphere and looks especially gripping through the night vision shots. There is the added element of symbolism with the stained glass window remnants in the church that is semi-explained by Dewey. Themes abound throughout the movie.
The magical element of the Indians and their legend make this movie a one of a kind. It’s not your usual story line, and having the paranormal-based plot, the movie is able to become a unique offering. Larger implications lie in the meaning behind the film, ones of a world damaged by man and nature fighting back. There is a spectacular scene where Dewey goes to speak with a young Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), a local Indian who may know more about the killings than it seems, at the top of a tall bridge. Dewey dons cables strapped to himself and the sides of the bridge for safety, while Eddie stands atop a platform, unassisted. The Indians in Manhattan are hired to work the high steel, and it seems they do a bang up job at it. There is also a controversial scene in which Eddie strips naked and prances around the beach at night while Dewey watches to see him shift into a wolf. This is done with taste and rules out the fact that the killer is one of them.
There are many red herrings in the story to try and steer us away from the paranormal aspect, but they are discounted, one by one. Everything builds into a showdown scene at the end.
Here is a movie that successfully balances a unique take on the supernatural with the added murder mystery element. The special “wolf vision” is wonderful, and conveys their point of view with precision and surprise. This is a murder mystery that dissolves into a mysterious underground world of mysticism and legend.
This story does not employ a tangible killer, however, and as such it doesn’t feel very realistic – unless the Wolfen really do exist, of course. As much as it would be fun to think so, I really doubt it. Murders do occur everyday, especially in a big city like New York City, but the culprits are usually going to be a human. Whitley Strieber, author of the story ‘The Wolfen’ that this film is based on, did a great job with his imaginary world and creatures, but they do not translate well to a realistic, everyday world.
The film gives viewers a strong story that incorporates many different whodunits to bring us to the end. We were able to see an image of a wolf that was previously unconsidered, one that delved into a different aspect. There was character depth and well-placed story arcs, leaving us with an intense, shocking ending. It is an often-overlooked horror movie that deserves a better rap.
Wadleigh had no prior experience in directing horror. Knowing this, he brought us a surprisingly good horror film full of suspense and terror. His ingenious use of the Wolfen’s point of view through the night vision effect made it possible to see the killings from the other side. In this way, there was little to no feelings for the victims, and instead, the desire to want to understand the motives behind the killer. The ruins of the Bronx added to the tone of the film, along with the subtle escalation of the ending.
When it’s all said and done, I implore you to give ‘Wolfen’ a chance, and please try to keep an open mind. This is not your typical horror movie and delivers both intellectual and supernatural spins. This movie is thought-provoking, and given that it was released at almost the same time as two other wolf-centric movies (‘The Howling’ and ‘An American Werewolf in London’), it sadly ran in their shadows. This film went down its own path, and for this alone I can heartily recommend a viewing.