I admit it, growing up I was a huge fraidy cat. I was a believer of the Boogeyman, things that go bump in the night, and stayed away from any seemingly “scary” film. Eventually, I grew up and realized that many of the so-called “scary” films were usually over-hyped and cliché-ridden. I then became obsessed with finding the actual “good” horror, the kind of films that were skillfully crafted, knew how to build tension and made the genre worthwhile.
Sadly, one of the movies I was afraid to watch as a youth was 1981’s Wolfen. Thankfully, I have recently rectified that oversight and can empathetically state that it holds up. In case you missed it, Wolfen tells the haunting tale of a series of grisly murders in an upscale NYC neighborhood. Albert Finney plays the cop assigned to the case and is quickly skeptical with no witnesses nor apparent murder weapon. He is joined in his investigation by Diane Venora, as a fellow cop, and Gregory Hines, as a medical examiner. Hard to believe but this was the late Mr. Hines feature film debut.
As Finney’s investigation progresses, he encounters a group of Native American high-rise steel workers, led by Edward James Olmos. Thankfully, the film doesn’t explicitly spell anything out as we learn about a peripheral connection between these figures and the mysterious wolves. The attacks turn out to be the wolves merely protecting their indigenous territory. The film looks to end violently and yet finds a way to conclude with a sense of mutual understanding between man and creature.
The film was directed by Michael Wadleigh. Unfortunately, it was his only feature film following an early career as an award-winning documentarian best known for 1970’s Woodstock. Story has it that he clashed with United Artists, who wanted a gorier, more exploitative flick. Wadleigh would leave the shoot early but not before putting a plenty of his creative stamp on the finished product.
The movie is best known for the use of thermographic visual photography for the wolves POV. The audience gets a surprising taste of these creatures’ senses as they stalk their prey. It may seem like a gimmick, but this technology was ahead of its time and on recent viewing it still works. Additionally, the cinematography of Gerry Fisher is gorgeously crisp, capturing both the dark nights of animalistic hunting and stark aftermath in the cold light of day.
Finney is effective in the lead, bringing the right amount of cynicism that slowly transforms into supernatural belief and acceptance. And Gregory Hines is a welcome presence as always. Hines almost suspends disbelief when Finney uses his character, a medical examiner, as backup on an ill-fated stakeout.
For a film that is perceived as merely violent and grisly, Wolfen is surprisingly philosophical. It takes the classic horror trope of the wronged who seek revenge, or in this case those who were wronged and just want to be left alone and makes it both suspenseful and tangible. In a sense, I am glad I discovered this film late in life since seven-year-old me would have missed all of the cultural and class subtext, you know, since I would have been cowering behind my own hands. You live, you learn.