When I think about Wolfen it always reminds me of Looker (1981). Albert Finney stars in both and they both premiered on cable around the same time. This is back around when we first got cable, when we only had HBO and Spotlight (pre-Showtime), and when Adelphia Cable was the big boy on the block. My very first memory of Wolfen, and Looker for that matter, was when they were advertised them as coming attractions for the next month. I can’t remember though for what channel I saw them on, HBO or Spotlight.
I knew nothing of what it was about, though, the trailer and the title gives you this werewolf vibe. I didn’t end up reading Whitley Strieber’s novel, The Wolfen (1978), until the late 90s and it’s just as good as the movie. Different, obviously, but just as good. Back in those early days of cable a particular movie used to get run countless times a day, though, I think, rated-R flicks were only run after 8 or 9pm, but anyway, I remember watching Wolfen twice in a row one night.
The next memory I equate the movie with is when I hurt my ankles swinging on the monkey bars. I landed too hard, I guess, and it was painful as hell to walk around afterwards and this happened during recess. I had to stay home the next day from school because I just couldn’t walk. Back then I was small enough to use the thick cardboard roll wrapping paper comes in as a makeshift crutch. Wolfen was on that afternoon and I watched it.
I ended up owning it on VHS at some point but have no memory of its purchase. I do remember getting it on DVD in the early days of the format; even remember the announcement of it in Fangoria.
My memory of Streiber’s novel is that the wolfen were a highly evolved species of wolf that developed alongside man. They were also the basis for the werewolf mythology because they could stand up on their hind legs and had a digit on their paw akin to a thumb. They were also as I recall “evil “ creatures. Michael Wadleigh’s movie version connected them more to Native American mythology, but in both versions these creatures hid on the fringes of society in many states feeding on poor people, the people who wouldn’t be missed and thus attention to their existence wouldn’t be noticed. In the novel they make the mistake of killing two cops who treaded unknowingly onto their hunting ground. In the movie it’s a wealthy industrialist they kill for the same reason. He was planning on renovating the slums they were hiding in, but the reason for this killing isn’t deduced till the final act.
Christopher (Max M. Brown) and Pauline Van De Veer (Anne Marie Pohtamo) and their bodyguard are all killed one night in Battery Park when they paid it a wedding anniversary visit. The next morning burned out detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is put back on the job and charged with finding out who might have wanted the wealthy couple killed.
Medical Examiner, Whittington (Gregory Hines), is also on the case and with Dewy on that bloody morning scene. Eventually, Wilson’s boss, Warren, (Dick O’Neil), partners him with criminal psychologist, Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), thinking this was some kind of political assassination. First mystery is the lacking of any trace of a weapon. No one’s thinking along the lines of an “animal attack” which is why it’s all a mystery, beside what animal could kill so cleanly, yet viciously, with signs of cannibalism (brain being eaten), and since it was the Van De Veers it’s natural for speculation to run towards assassination.
A visit to an abandoned church in the slums unnerves Neff and Wilson, and setting off Dews “weird–shit-a-meter.” You see something in the church tried to separate them, eager to kill Dew first. Though this motive is only understood in the novel. Wolves try to target and kill the weak when they hunt, and Dew being much older than Neff is sensed as being the weaker of the two, but they fail when he senses something afoot and pulls Neff off the stairs after hearing a baby crying. The wolfen can mimic the sound of a human infant, a lure they use to trap their human prey; again, this is something only understood in the novel. In the movie you think they were targeting Neff, but only upon reading the book can you understand the wolfen’s point of view in that scene.
Dew ends up paying ex-con Native American, Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), a visit. He was scene on the bridge the night of the murder throwing a bottle at the passing limo and it makes sense he would be a “person of interest.” Holt isn’t the murderer, but he knows of the wolfen and fucks with Dewy by making him think he and his friends can shape-shift into any animal they want. The scene on the beach at night with Eddie doing his “psychological shape-shifting” is a red herring. It makes you think this is all about Native American werewolves. The ending of the scene puts you and Dewy back to square one. Who, or what the fuck, killed the Van De Veers?
Soon Wihttington starts to see a pattern of homeless people disappearing around the country all with organs being torn out and partially eaten, but only the healthy organs being devoured not the diseased ones. It also helps that an animal hair was found on one of these bodies. This is where animal expert, Ferguson (Tom Noonan), comes into the picture and he reveals it’s a wolf hair, but there are none native to New York.
These revelations lead to Ferguson being offed by the wolves and Dewy being stalked around the city by things he’s pretty sure are wolves. Whittington and Dewy stake out that church again and this proves to be Whittington’s downfall. The wolfen get him. In the novel I seem to remember he was killed during a crime scene, or something where the wolves ambushed him in a car and tore him up. I may be wrong on this though.
Another visit to Eddie gets the skinny on the wolfen but still no answer to why they killed the Van De Veers. They’re after Dew because he knows about them, and in the final confrontation at the top floor on Van De Veer’s high-rise he and Neff are confronted by the entire pack. In the final confrontation in the novel I believe it’s also is in a high rise, but in Neff’s apartment and her husband is there too. Her husband was not written into the movie. As I said before the wolfen in the novel are not compassionate creatures, they are in the movie for they allow Dewy and Neff to live once Dew understands they’re hunting ground was going to be destroyed.
Warner Brothers first put this out on DVD way back in 2002. I remember when Fangoria got the scoop it was coming they announced it would have a commentary with the director, Finney and I think the late Gregory Hines. When I finally got it there was no such commentary included. Recently I asked Warner about it through their Warner Archives Facebook page and they told me they looked into and have no records of a commentary ever being recorded. If one had been planned, it never came to fruition.
On June 2nd Warner Brothers finally releases Wolfen on blu-ray through their sub-label, Warner Archives.
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 2.40:1 high definition widescreen—5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio—English subtitles only
The transfer on this looked absolutely gorgoues! If you’re a fan of this flick, it’s defintialty time for an upgrade. Audio was excellent too.
There are no extras but the movie’s trailer.
There’s currently a documentary in the works called, Uncovering Wolfen, which should be interesting. It’s well known that Wadleigh’s intial cut ran almost three hours long. Some of that cut footage can been seen in the trailer too.