Wolfen (1981) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for disturbing images, violence, some gore, and language
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines, Edward James Olmos, Tom Noonan, Dick O'Neill, Reginald VelJohnson, James Tolkan, Tom Waits (cameo)
Director: Michael Wadleigh
Screenplay: David Eyre, Michael Wadleigh (from the novel by Whitley Strieber)
Review published June 21, 2005
Although it has its share of creepy thrills and gory moments, Wolfen is a little more than a standard horror flick, with themes about urban decay and the diminished state of Native Americans, especially as they try to adjust to urban settings. As continued development produces more urbanization, nature struggles to exist, clutching desperately to survive even in new foreign environs. Where men used to live as one with the animals, even worshipping them, now man has come to kill them off for proposed buildings and shopping malls for profit. While the subject matter that Wolfen explores is more than that, Wadleigh's interpretation of Whitley Strieber's book takes on a political context that is both unusual and refreshing for what might otherwise be another "nature attacks" scare-fest.
Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich, Big Fish) stars as Dewey Wilson, a retired New York City detective brought back to crack the mystery behind a series of mysteriously gruesome killings in the area, with the latest ones being the obscenely wealthy couple, Christopher and Pauline van der Veer. Due to the complex nature of the killings, Wilson hires on some experts to assist him in the form of a terrorism specialist (Venora, Heat), a morgue technician (Hines, History of the World Part I), and an eccentric zoologist (Noonan, What Happened Was...).
Wolfen is a thriller that doesn't quite fit easily into a defined genre. It plays primarily as horror, but as the mystery as to what is behind the killings unravels, thriller and fantasy elements begin to take over. It's an uneven experience, but does have its rewards, and the quirky nature of it can probably be attributed to the previous directorial experience of counter-culture director Michael Wadley, whose previous work includes putting together the highly influential documentary, Woodstock.
Although the goriness of the film isn't excessive, mostly generated by graphic descriptions of the events, this does have the effect of making the movie a little more unnerving. There are a few shots of dismembered bodies and the like, but the more these are shown, the less convincing they become. In fact, that can be said of the film as a whole, which retains more interest as a mystery than after all the cards are shown, but by the time it all clicks together, enough thrills and chills have been had to make it a worthwhile viewing experience for those looking for that kind of entertainment.
With nice performances all around and interesting point of view special effects shots (very reminiscent of the ones used later in Predator), Wolfen is an altogether different sort of horror-thriller that will probably please viewers tired of derivative schlock shock. Not essential viewing by any means, but a welcome departure.
©2005 Vince Leo