WOLFEN (1981)

wolfen (1981)
A New York cop investigates a series of brutal deaths that resemble animal attacks.
4 out of 5 stars

Radical artist Joseph Beuys wrote the first guiding manifesto for the German Green Party, in 1978. The party then became the first internationally significant of the green parties after it was officially founded in 1980. It grew out of the anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1960s, built upon the increasing environmental awareness of the ’70s, and embodied early inklings that capitalism may not be the best way forward. On the contrary, it seemed likely that the obsession with rampant property development and economic growth (known as ‘Reaganomics’) would soon damage the world on a global scale.

That was the political backdrop at the time of Wolfen’s production and it really hits the environmental zeitgeist on the mark. Weirdly, though, werewolves were also making a mainstream comeback in 1981 (heralded by The Howling and An American Werewolf in London), and Wolfen got swept along with the craze. Though it may have initially benefitted by association, it also disappointed audiences because it isn’t a werewolf story, although it seems that’s where we’re heading. I think end up somewhere infinitely more interesting. Incidentally, werewolves are conspicuously absent from both my favourite ‘werewolf’ films of the ’80s, with Wolfen topping my personal chart, and Cat People (1982) bubbling under.

The film opens with two men doing something inexplicable that seems ritualist, involving feeding and releasing birds from the top of one of the Brooklyn Bridge towers. This is intercut with newsreel of property tycoon Christopher van der Veer (Max M. Brown) breaking ground on his ambitious new development that’ll clear the mass dereliction of the Bronx and replace it with a high-class business and residential area. On the way back from the ceremony, he and his wife (Anne Marie Pohtamo) are doing a little celebratory cocaine in the limo when they decide to stop off at a park that holds sentimental memories for them. It’s the sight where the first windmill in America was erected in 1625 by one of van der Veer’s ancestors, and where a replica now stands among other weathervanes, wind-chimes, and kinetic sculptures.

This moody scene subtly serves two important narrative purposes. It highlights a connection with the natural elements in the form of the wind that blows freely across the land, respecting no artificial borders. It also fills-in some pertinent character background, letting us know that the van der Veers have been changing the landscape and harnessing nature to serve industry as far back as the first settlers who would eventually displace the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. That’s a clue to the central premise of the story. The constantly moving shadows of the windmill’s canvas sails along with the squeaking weathervanes also provide a suitably spooky backdrop for the abrupt triple slaying of the van der Veers and their bodyguard, whose severed hand is found still clutching the pistol he didn’t have chance to fire.

The murder, which is described as involving “dismemberment, possible sexual assault, and maybe even cannibalism,” is bizarre enough to bring homicide detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) back from medical leave to investigate. He’s shadowed by criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora, in her big screen debut) and it’s unclear whether she’s there to help him with the case or assess his mental state. Their growing affection for each other is nicely observed and understated, at last it is until it culminates in a rushed romantic assignation that feels unnecessary, given the timescale of the story.

The first suspect to be suggested is Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos); a native American high-steel worker and ex-convict. We recognise him as one of the men on the Brooklyn Bridge and he was captured on CCTV the night the van der Veers drove across. It seems he and Wilson have history, but the detective doesn’t believe he’s responsible, or see how he could be. Another suggestion is some sort of terrorism, so the usual suspects are rounded up for questioning. Several radicals claim the crime, though none turn out to be credible.

The case takes a strange and sinister turn when quirky pathologist Whittington (Gregory Hines) makes a connection between the murders and the partly devoured corpse of a man found by a demolition crew clearing the Bronx area for van der Veers development. There were no tell-tale traces of metal that would’ve been left by any known blades in the wounds of the victims. However, distinctive hairs were found on all four bodies. So, what would connect two of the city’s rich glitterati, their bodyguard, and an unidentified vagrant?

The forensic laboratory cannot identify the hair type and conclude that it is not of human origin. So, Whittington calls upon his friend, Ferguson (Tom Noonan), a zoologist who’s just off-kilter and creepy enough to suggest himself as a possible suspect. He positively identifies the hair as being from a wolf, though seemingly a species as yet unknown to science. At this point the audience will be thinking werewolf! But Wilson thinks it may be some sort of ritual killing involving men dressed in wolfskins, which takes him back to Holt who had spoken of shapeshifting into bird or beast.

The mystical-magical ‘other’, depicted as a racial stereotype was already a tired trope well used in classic horror films of the 1930s and ’40s. H.P Lovecraft used it generously, Dennis Wheatley definitely misused it, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fell back on it to some extent. Here, though, it’s a more inventive take on First Nation mythology—an abundant seam that’s criminally neglected in mainstream horror. The Manitou (1978) springs to mind… but one struggles to name others. Sure, there are a handful of films that feature the terrifying Wendigo, but only as a standard bogyman-style monster, tenuously connected to actual folklore.

Wilson follows Holt to observe one of his shape-shifting rituals and here Olmos delivers an inspired, highly convincing, and terrifying performance. Finney does well as Wilson to stand his ground and maintain composure as a drug-crazed, naked, ex-con, murder suspect comes straight at him out of the darkness. One of the film’s more memorable moments that also firmly aligns it with the folk-horror subgenre.

The experience convinces Wilson of two things: that Holt isn’t the murderer but he knows something more about who, or what, the killer may be. Fearing a negative mental review, Wilson veers away from official lines and pursues his own investigation with the help of Whittington and Neff. The scenes centred around the ruins of a burnt-out church, still standing amidst the rubble of demolition, are beautifully handled and add a nice gothic flavour that helps build a more supernatural atmosphere as we are taken out of more familiar police procedural territory.

The finale, as the titular ‘wolfen’ (I’m not going to say exactly what they turn out to be) crashes through an elaborate Baschet Brothers sculpture and into the van der Veer penthouse to confront Wilson, is a dramatic collision of ancient and modern in so many ways. The film ends with a choice between a plausible or a poetic explanation, but that’s not left unclear for long as the mystical option asserts itself with definite physicality. The denouement is bloody, poetic, political, heartrending, and hauntingly beautiful. As Holt puts it, “you got your technology… but you lost your senses.”

Perhaps too ponderous for a mainstream horror audience and too fantastical for the arthouse crowd, Wolfen didn’t exactly flop, but it didn’t do great box office either. It may have been overshadowed by the more SFX-heavy horror films that delivered actual werewolves. But for those who allow themselves to be absorbed by its unique milieu and aren’t put off by the surprisingly effective fusion of police procedural, mystery, and supernatural thriller, it remains a powerful piece of cinema. Perhaps one of the more important and prescient pieces to come out of the eighties. Which is quite an achievement for a film that had such a problematic production right from the get-go…

With the backing of Orion Pictures, producers Rupert Hitzig and Alan King optioned the film rights to the novel by Whitley Strieber in 1978 and, the following year, with Warner Bros. aboard as distributor, pre-production got off to a stuttering start. Some sources quote initial interest from United Artists who reportedly offered Dustin Hoffman for the lead.

The first draft of a screenplay was progressed by Lawrence D. Cohen, who’d recently penned the excellent adaptation of Stephen King’s novel for Brian Palma’s Carrie (1976), but it wasn’t long before he was replaced by newcomer David Eyre who, with input from an uncredited Eric Roth, co-wrote the script with director Michael Wadleigh.

Streiber’s novel shared its narrative between the animal and human protagonists, which might lend itself to series format, but proved too complex for a standalone feature film. It was clear that the film would have to focus on just one of the book’s parallel strands and so it was decided to tell the story from the human side. The plot of the novel is also a bit more gung-ho, and its ending has an entirely different tone. Eyre and Wadleigh streamlined the storytelling, and either changed or amalgamated all the central characters. They maintain a poetic approach throughout to balance the rather visceral forensic details and introduced the beautifully poignant element to the finale.

What appears to have caused the most trouble were the ground-breaking SFX that, sadly, we never get to see. From the outset, producer Rupert Hirtzig wanted a startling rendering of how the world may look to the wolfen. He knew the creature reveal was held-back for the finale, so the point-of-view shots would be its only representation for most of the movie. These unique optical effects were to cause no end of trouble and devour a big chunk of time and budget.

Wolves can see into the ultraviolet and infrared ends of the spectrum. Their primary sense is smell which tells them where and when people have passed, even beyond visual barriers such as walls and doors. Their hearing range encompasses the infrasound of earth tremors to the high frequency of bat squeaks. So, they see their world through a combination of all these super-senses. The original point-of-view shots were captured using a combination of Louma crane, and superb Steadicam footage, operated by the rig’s inventor, Garrett Brown. He used a new, low-level camera fitting he’d only just invented for use on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

Early on, several competing effects houses were funded to experiment and innovate new SFX; the producers intending to hire the one that best captured the extra-sensory perception of a super-wolf. The first technique they trialled used some sort of computer process that translated images into well over 200 shades of greyscale, but apparently all contrast was lost and nothing could be discerned in the resulting murk!

So, Micheal Wadleigh brought in technical wizard Robert Blalack, a crucial member of the Academy Award-winning effects team on Star Wars (1977) that grew into Industrial Light and Magic. He devised an optical composite approach that was intended to represent ‘Smell-O-Vision’ and show the sensory ghosts of people who’d passed through a location. Each of these insubstantial monochrome figures would gradually fade away as the creature focussed on its victim who would become increasingly ‘solid’ and super-detailed, as if seen through a thermal imaging camera. These tests, which sounded great in theory, were rejected for being too confusing and Wadleigh believed audiences would just be baffled by being shown people that were no longer there.

Blalack continued to work on the super-detailed composite idea, separating colours, inverting, or replacing them and then recombining them using many passes through the optical printer. This version built upon the special optical effects he was developing in parallel for Ken Russell’s hallucinatory Altered States (1980). The results were described as ‘phenomenal’ but were rejected by studio executives at Orion for being too innovative and startling!

Apparently, they believed the effect (which Blalack described as ‘utopian-world-of-colour-vision’) would jar the audience so much they’d disengage. It’s thought that this bone of contention was, at least in part, what led the production being suspended in February 1980 as it ran over schedule and exceeded budget. Both Blalack and Wadleigh were removed from the project as soon as principal photography wrapped, even though he asserted there were still two essential scenes to be shot. At some point, Craig Safan’s music was also jettisoned, and James Horner was hired to re-score the soundtrack, which is really effective when combined with the sound design by Andrew London and Robert Grieve.

Test audience reactions had been poor, which isn’t surprising as they were being shown an unfinished movie with many of the essential FX shots missing. Nevertheless, the distributors pressed for things to be changed and brutal structural re-cutting was ordered, with four different editors pitching-in less than a fortnight ahead of general release!

The film as it stood then would’ve been quite different to the one that survives today. Michael Wadleigh had produced what he thought to be a ’thinking person’s horror film’ and his first director’s cut, submitted in July of 1980, had been around four hours long. He subsequently tightened that to 149-minutes, but also intended to shoot and add extra scenes! Editorial control had already been handed over the Richard Chew during the final few days before Waldeigh was ‘fired’.

John D. Hancock was brought in as an uncredited ‘completion director’ to oversee the problematic post-production. With just weeks before scheduled release, he found himself amidst chaos. The producers believed that viewers expecting a horror film would feel short-changed by the lack of bloody violence which, for the most part, remained implied. So, the gore quotient was upped with an additional on-screen dismemberment and decapitation being rushed through by Carl Fullerton in the final two days of shooting.

These old-school mechanical VFX actually look pretty good, though they don’t sit comfortably with the overall tone of the movie. Then again, visceral slayings shouldn’t really feel comfortable, should they? The detailed descriptions of autopsies are gruesome enough, but I found the short-sharp dismemberment shots disconcerting and suitably shocking in the context—especially when such things had only been alluded to for most of the film. Thankfully, some of the SFX using false torsos and puppet wolves weren’t convincing enough to make the final cut, which eventually clocked in at 115-minutes.

The wolf-vision SFX were completed by Blalack’s colleague, Beth Block, who simply applied the same technique he’d used in Altered States to existing footage. Ironically, the results aren’t too far from easily achieved video solarisation, indelibly associated with the eighties after being used prominently in David Bowie’s 1980 music video for Ashes to Ashes.

So, the effects already looked outdated on final release, which was pushed back several times due to actor’s strikes, and finally because Wadleigh appealed to be given final cut or have his name removed from the opening credits. The arbitration process remains the longest in Hollywood history to involve The Directors Guild of America and the outcome fell in favour of Wadleigh, ordering Orion to pay costs to the guild and additional compensation of $20,000 to the disgruntled director. However, they upheld Orion’s right to use his name in the titles. Embittered by the whole experience, Wadleigh returned to making documentaries and Wolfen remains his only feature film.

USA | 1981 | 115 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Michael Wadleigh.
writers: David M. Eyre Jr. & Michael Wadleigh (uncredited: Eric Roth; story by David M. Eyre, Jr. & Michael Wadleigh; based on the novel ‘The Wolfen’ by Whitley Strieber).
starring: Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines & Tom Noonan.

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