Whitley Strieber is an interesting cat. I remember at around the time his 1987 book "Communion" came out it was a huge deal that went on to sell millions of copies as well as become a target of much speculation, because it was a purported non-fiction work in which he claimed to have been abducted from his cabin in upstate New York by some alien beings. Two years later it was made into a passable flick by Howling 2/3 director Philippe Mora starring Christopher Walken and then all but forgotten about. This is really all I can recall about Streiber's output so it was a surprise that when watching Wolfen I discovered it was based on his novel. As one of the three werewolf movies to be released in 1981 (the others being An American Werewolf in London and The Howling) there's no denying that this has fallen by the wayside and is not mentioned much - with good reason? Let's find out...
Things couldn't kick off on a much more 80s vibe than it does here as we see a wealthy land developer and his wife taking a private limo ride and snorting cocaine. They end up in a rundown neighbourhood on the outskirts of New York City in order to see a statue placed there by his ancestors. Not long afterwards they, along with their bodyguard, are bloodily attacked and killed by a vicious creature - which is stylishly staged with quick bursts of crimson and using POV shots using negative colouring that's pretty frigging cool.
Into the picture comes rough-at-the-edges detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) who is brought in to investigate the murders with the help of coroner Wittington (Gregory Hines) and being teamed-up with criminal psychologist Rebecca (Diane Venora). The case is a big deal to the Mayor and a high powered company called Executive Security who believes it to be the work of terrorists. Dewey doesn't believe it and soon finds himself caught between the burnt out Bronx and upscale Manhattan as he learns it may be the work of some form of wolf, runs into conflict with Native American militant Eddie (Edward James Olmos) who he suspects has something to do with it, and learns things really aren't what they seem. This leads up to a finale that draws interesting parallels between animal and man, has decent suspense moments, and a nice gore scene to chew on.
In the lead Finney (Tom Jones, Erin Brockovich) just nails the sarcastic, beaten down city detective. You know you like him instantly just because of his sardonic wit but he also portrays Dewey as a driven person who won't stop until he gets to the bottom of things. Venora, unfortunately, does play a partial love interest though her interplay with Finney plays out well. Hines, who I absolutely love in the 1986 buddy cop flick Running Scared with Billy Crystal, sports one Hell of a dangly earring and afro while being possibly the coolest coroner ever seen in the movies. If anyone gives Finney a run for his money, it's Olmos. He's such a menacing dude here. Those more familiar with his more modern work like the 2000s "Battlestar Galactica" reboot will be surprised at the vitriol his character spews here. He'd appear the following year in Blade Runner and, in my eyes, is one of the best Latino actors around.
I'm hesitant to even call Wolfen a werewolf movie. It doesn't follow the traditional, expected, paths and nobody ever transforms from man-to-wolf. It does play to some of the sub-genre's tropes like placing an importance on the full moon but it felt more like a crime thriller mixed with pieces of eco-horror and nature run amuck - which is probably why I find it the most interesting of the '81 trio. This was way more intelligent than I was expecting going in and while it does have some mild comic relief courtesy of Hines things are played completely straight. Its solid performances and smart script (adapted by David Eyre and director Michael Wadleigh) elevate this to a level rarely seen amongst (were) wolves. I loved the way Wadleigh staged the wolf perspective (yes, it does feel like Predator - six years beforehand) and he's made a decidedly adult take on the sub-genre - which is why it's surprising that this would be his only fictional film. His only other credit is the time capsule 1970 documentary Woodstock, which is also pretty great. (Chris Hartley, 2/16/15)
Directed By: Michael Wadleigh.
Written By: David Eyre, Michael Wadleigh.
Starring: Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines.