My friend Paul never looked at me the same way after I convinced him to see Wolfen rather than the latest James Bond adventure in the summer of 1981. I was planning my first trip to New York that fall and was utterly enthralled by the apocalyptic views of a burned-out South Bronx, looking like an exotic urban wilderness -- or Dresden after the fire bombings. I gloried in the long, gliding, low-angle Steadicam shots, enjoyed the tension generated, and tolerated the blood and guts on display. My soon to be ex-pal hunkered down in his seat, hating every second and throwing daggers at me with his eyes.
As the years have passed, I have nursed an untoward affection for Wolfen. Many horror fans have concluded that it is, at best, the weak cousin to the two other superior entries in the unofficial and unrelated "wolf vs. man" trilogy of 1981. Admittedly, An American Werewolf in London and The Howling rip Wolfen to shreds as far as style, pacing and dark entertainment value are concerned. Yet buried within the often lugubrious storytelling of Wolfen lies a gem of an idea and a radical approach to the traditional Hollywood fantasy of werewolves.
How did Michael Wadleigh, the director of 1969's landmark documentary Woodstock, come to direct his first fiction feature more than a decade later? And why adapt a novel by the notorious Whitley Strieber? One must first be disabused of the misconception that Wolfen is actually about werewolves or is a horror thriller; in a literal sense, it is more an environmental tract, a plea for man to live in harmony in nature, than it is any kind of supernatural fable.
At the same time, it is very much about the collision of man and wolf. As zoologist Dr. Ferguson (Tom Noonan) explains to NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) and psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), wolves were once plentiful on the North American continent. The arrival of Europeans and their eventual expansion into the natural hunting grounds of wolves -- and the systematic near-genocide of the species -- resulted in the wolves being reduced to a relative handful, huddled in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains.
The opening sequence introduces the core conflict. A wealthy developer presides over a ground-breaking ceremony in the South Bronx, then travels by limousine to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. He and his glittering companion indulge in a little nose candy. A mysterious man (Edward James Olmos) throws a bottle at the limo as it crosses a bridge. The developer and his lady friend take a walk under a full moon. Their Haitian driver stretches his legs. They are being tracked by someone or some thing -- heat-sensitive POV Steadicam shots lend an otherworldly air to the stalking. The driver is attacked, a dismembered hand goes flying, and very quickly the developer and the lady are reduced to bloody pulps.
Captain Dewey Wilson is called back into active duty by Warren (Dick O'Neill), his superior. Wilson has been on leave for some unspecified reason, but the wealthy developer is well-connected politically and a personal friend of the Mayor, and Dewey is, evidently, the best detective in the force. Every lead is investigated, including the possibility of a terrorist attack carried out upon a corporate leader. That's when Rebecca Neff is assigned to the case. She's an expert in terrorist psychology and accompanies Dewey as he makes his rounds.
Dewey's friend Whittington (Gregory Hines) informs him that no trace of a weapon could be found, suggesting an animal attack. Via strands of hair, forensics expert Baldy (James Tolkan) links the Battery Park murders to a similar case in the South Bronx. On their visit with Dr. Ferguson, he talks about the historic connection between wolves and Indians, prompting Dewey to track down Eddie Holt (AKA "the mystery man that threw a bottle at the limo," AKA Edward James Olmos).
Eddie was a radical member of the Native American Movement before he was busted by Dewey and served a term in prison. Eddie now does high altitude work on bridges, and the two have an odd "getting reacquainted" meeting on top of the Brooklyn Bridge. As Dewey and Rebecca continue their investigation, Dewey becomes more convinced that something not quite human is responsible for the growing number of chewed-up bodies.
As the film presently exists, it supports my reading of it as a plea for environmental tolerance. Director Wadleigh's intention, however, as explained in a 2004 interview, was to make a "serious political film." He views the film's plot as, basically, terrorism in New York: "American Indians killing rich people." He conceived of Dewey as someone who was upholding and defending a system that he begins to question. Wadleigh says that the film was re-cut, but feels his essential points remain, which is why he says it was successful overseas. He'd prefer that Wolfen not be sold as a horror film. His frustration with the Hollywood system led him to walk away from making movies.
I still think of it as a horror film, but the slow narrative pace -- not to mention the ridiculously unbelievable (in a literal sense) final sequence and a half dozen more fake scares than any horror fan can be expected to tolerate -- lend credence to the idea that this is a thinking man's political movie.
Whatever you what to call it, I'll always have a soft spot for Wolfen: for the cool POV shots, for the historic alien footage of a now-redeveloped South Bronx, for the swooping aerial views of the Lower Manhattan skyline dominated by the World Trade Center, and for introducing me to Diane Venora, Gregory Hines and Edward James Olmos. And for the idea that wolves may be stalking me as I write this.