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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An almost forgotten gem. I really liked the eery atmosphere in this
one; great actors, great music - and really outstanding cinematography.
I've never seen New York portrayed as grim and terrifying - and yet as
beautiful - as in this film. I wouldn't call this a werewolf movie and
it's certainly not your usual horror film either; although it does have
many characteristics of a genre movie (even some pre-Predator style
distorted camera effects), it is very much its own beast. There are no
fancy transformations, no groundbreaking visual effects from the likes
of Rick Baker, Rob Bottin or Stan Winston - but there are superb
visuals of another kind. And there's tension, suspense and a
fascinating story that gripped me right from the start. There are also
some very graphic, gory moments, but they are few and far between.
Director Michael Wadleigh has an interesting background: he was the
dude who made history in 1969 by making Woodstock happen. He took
Strieber's werewolf novel and brought something personal to it. Call it
a mythical eco-horror thriller if you will, it's certainly something
special. 7 out of 10 from me.
Favorite films: http://www.IMDb.com/list/mkjOKvqlSBs/
Lesser-known Masterpieces: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls070242495/
Fun B-flicks/low budget films: http://www.imdb.com/list/YV1Lxq7WLkU/
Favorite TV-Shows reviewed: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls075552387/
"They can hear a cloud pass overhead, the rhythm of your blood. They can track you by yesterday's shadow. And they can tear the scream from your throat. There is no defense." I love it when you can tell a movie is gonna be great just from it's tagline. Wolfen is one of the most thoroughly underrated films of the 80's if not film history. From moment one with it's dreamy, monochromatic, animalistic tracking shots Wolfen sets itself up as a different kind of werewolf film. With Wolfen you get three movies in one a Dirty Harry-esquire cop investigation movie with Albert Finney and Gregory Harrison turning in fine performances as the ones investigating. A graphically intense horror film, with a menacingly sadistic, creepily cool performance from Edward James Olmos and of course the barely there "Wolfen" creatures. Lastly you get a statement on environmental issues and the hierarchy of society. Tom Noonan in his pre-Manhunter existence gives the movie a touch of class as an animal lover who wants to study the "Wolfen." If you're expecting a comedic werewolf movie such as "The Howling" or "An American Werewolf in London" this film isn't for you. But if you want a great suspense mystery, with dazzling visuals and one of the greatest endings in history check Wolfen out.
1981 was a good year for werewolf movies. American Werewolf In London (one of my all time favorite movies), The Howling, and this, Wolfen. Wolfen came out last, and well, they sure didn't save the best for last, did they? Wolfen stars Albert Finney, with the most scariest looking mullet in screen history he plays a pudgy cop who is investigating a series of bizarre deaths in the Battery Park area of New York City. Bit by bit, as the story unfolds, he finds out that the attacks aren't made by a human, and more strangely, there's a connection between them! Despite it's interesting cinematography, the whole story thing is ridiculous, and hardly holds up. Albert Finney embarrasses himself (again) and the rest of the cast try in vain to raise themselves above the cheesy script.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I won't spend time arguing about the merits of whether "Wolfen" is
going to be an "effective" or "gee-whiz" entertainment for you and the
kids next Saturday night. What I will argue is how the craftsmanship
that went into this film far exceeds the multitudes of celluloid treats
that have been shot in the last decade.
Director Michael Wadleigh truly understood how to embrace the two sensory communicators that movies deliver to an audience, that of sight and sound, and wove a tapestry of motifs that help elevate a mere "super-wolves-preying-on-humans-in-NY" tale into something that "feels" like it's so much more.
So many contemporary directors of popular features, notably those who churn out horror flicks, frame scenes and trim shots down to movements and moments that simply, and I mean, VERY simply, propel the plot points. Period. Sure, there's quirky camera angles out windows, across streets, and up drain pipes, as well as amped up door slams and sudden weird little-girl yowls, to give it a "cool," slick MTV style feature film look. But it's all to service the plot point at that very moment in the narrative. If it's a piece of business that will be used again in the film, it will be hamhandedly shoved in our faces at first so we definitely WON'T forget it a half hour later. Very little thought is put into motifs -- things that aren't overt, but instead are picked up by the subconscious.
So, what were some of the things Wadleigh did? Take a look at the opening 10 minutes of this film. Sure, Christopher and Pauline Van De Veer get snuffed in Battery Park by mysterious wolfen. Dewey Wilson copters in from Staten Island, back on a case after a long absence. And at the morgue, no residual traces of a weapon are found on the bodies. All routine, yet key plot points. Now look and hear what Wadleigh spent time doing with his film-making craft to give the movie subtextual resonance.
Pauline Van De Veer cradles her pearl necklace in her mouth while riding in her limo. Dewey arrives at Battery Park munching on donuts. He stands at the morgue, eating a cookie, whole. A few moments later, Dewey is at his desk, smoking a big cigar. Why did Wadleigh choose to have these very specific scenes of business in the movie? To layer his film with motifs of "the mouth." The wolfen survive and attack with their mouths, and the humans subtly and continuously remind us of this, whether it's the sloppy sounds of Finney and Venora's passionate kissing or Hine's potato chip crescendo-crunches while surveilling the wolfen.
This film is packed with linking symbolism and subtext like this that aren't overt, but give it that extra weight, which makes it more than just an average horror flick. The wind chimes in Battery Park jingle exactly like the mirrored vertical shades in the Van De Veer penthouse, and with both of Dewey's visits to that domicile, we're cued audibly by those shimmering curtains, perhaps subconsciously, back to those precursor windchimes in Battery Park as a harbinger of the first attack. The visual cues of a Native American on horseback on the Battery Park windmill, a shadowy figure of ancient evil cast across the windmill's sails, the Haitian voodoo ring on the bodyguard's finger, a shaman necklace a derelict trades for some hallucinoginic pills, and the decrepit centerpiece, that of a crumbling, abandoned Christian church, are all somewhat subtle subtext images that enforce underlying belief systems and mystical notions that coincide with the fanciful existence of the centuries-old wolfen in our midst.
What about the wolfen's keen visual senses? Wadleigh shrewdly counterpoints that "dated effect" of the wolfen (as some of you dismissively characterize it) by focusing a spotlight on our limited human visual senses throughout this picture. And again, it's not huge plot points. It's simply subtextual to lend the film more weight. Whether it's Dewey not quite able to see the wolfen at the top of the church stairs, to his not quite seeing them beyond his car hood in the rain, to the derelict's altered point of view stumbling around the Bronx under the influence of drugs, to the need of humans to enhance their visual capabilities with computers (as in the case of the heat color-coded detection device used by Van De Veer's security chief), to finally, the absolute breakdown in human visual acuity...the mystical "vanishing" of the wolfen from everyone's sight in the penthouse at the film's finale.
There are literally a dozen more motifs running in this film. I only have a 1,000 words I can print. But this movie is truly a prime example of what lacks in film-making today. Craft, pure and simple. Care and thought put into each scene, each shot. Other layers of meaning beneath the simple plot line. Give "Wolfen" another look. I guarantee you will see and hear things that weren't apparent to you before. Will it be a better horror flick to you? Probably not. But you will appreciate a time when directors knew what to do with a camera, what to do with images, and how to make audio cues signal subtle, and subconscious, recognition bursts that, when woven together, all gave a film more gravity and impact. Oh, how I wish Wadleigh had directed more movies.
Wolfen is something different to the many monster films floating around.
you watch this film expecting to see the usual mix of no brain slash and
gore then you will perhaps be disappointed or as was in my case pleasantly
surprised. Reading from other comments on this film it is easy to see that
it has been widely misunderstood.
Wolfen is not a Werewolf/Horror film although at times it does attempt to be so, which is where the confusion arises for the viewer. On one side we have the Wolfen portrayed as highly evolved beings merely protecting their environment yet on the other side they shown to be remorseless killers as and where the plot dictates. However do not let this paradox put you off a film that is both scary and genuinely thought provoking.
The scenes set in and around areas of urban decay, particularly that of the church, are chilling and suspenseful. Whilst the Wolfen POV camera work is groundbreaking and still effective by today's standards. Wolfen on the whole is a well made film, excellent use of music (or lack of it)to generate suspense and quality actors and acting help bring you into the story behind the Wolfen.
For those that wish to critisise the beach scene when Edward James Olmos dances naked across the sand as demeaning to Indians, well I think they're rather missing the point. Surely the film is trying to show the prejudices of Albert Finney's character rather than belittle any Indian custom.
In summary a film with a message that chooses to show intelligence and reason in its horrors.
I loved the visuals and couldn't stand the voodoo-type theology, which
was so typical of movies since the early 1970s. Here, the explanation
of this whole story is just that: some secular Indian superstitious
baloney that is given total credence. Well, we've seen that a number of
times on films in recent decades, being part of the PC culture.
The unique cinematography, seeing as the wolf sees, with psychedelic-like negative images as he prowls the streets of New York City, is very cool. It's also very suspenseful, especially with the creepy sound-effects at times.
The first half hour of this film is very bloody and has a ton of verbal blasphemes. Acting-wise, Edward James Olmos' role was a confusing one, a tough character to figure out. Gregory Hines, with his big Afro haircut, looked straight out of the '70s. A young Diane Venora looked good and lot less hard-looking than she did a decade later on film.
In summary, this could have been a great horror movie had they stuck to horror and not inserted all the "theology."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spoilers. There isn't anything particularly new about this production.
Even the ecological aspect has been used before. And the director uses
suspense-heightening techniques that were honed to perfection back in the
early 50s by people like Jack Arnold. There is either creepy music or utter
silence and the character is alone and senses danger. Suddenly a hand
reaches into the frame and taps the character's shoulder. The character
jumps but it's a friend's hand. I didn't count the number of times this
hoary device is used in one or another of its incarnations. A character
sitting alone in the darkness suddenly has a wolf's hide flung over him (by
a friend). A woman investigating a suspicious noise in her own apartment is
shocked when she spins around and sees a shadow figure -- but it's only her
reflection in a mirror. The director has also used an irritating
photographic technique to signal the presence of wolves. We have learned
from Fergie (the expert lupologist) that wolves have an enormous range in
their visible spectrum of light, from ultra violet through infra red. For
much of the movie we are looking at events from the wolves' point of view.
To render this enhanced visibility the director has chosen to overhue the
images or to make them suddenly flash. It's truly a distraction, especially
coupled with the use of a shakey hand-held camera whose movements are
accelerated. Something similar happens with the wolves' hearing. They can
detect sounds from "earth tremors" to about 100,000 cycles per second.
(Ours runs from about 20 cps to 20,000 cps, tops.) The enhanced hearing is
suggested by making the sound of a man crunching Fritos audible from across
the street, but also by overlapping the same sounds slightly out of synch.
If that were actually the way wolves heard noises, they wouldn't be around
The story doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense either, when you come right down to it. Let us skip over the fakery of the mysticism attributed to Indians who work the high steel in New York City -- mostly Mohawks in real life. As a cultural anthropologist I've lived with and studied Chippewa, Tlingit, Cheyenne and Blackfeet. They are religious in a way that goes beyond our concept of visiting church on Sundays. They may use peyote too, but they are serious about it. Among the Cheyenne the ceremony is preceded by a very long fast, lasts for 24 hours, and takes place in a social context, accompanied by drums and songs. Here, Eddie gobbles some kind of psychedelic substance after coming out of a bar, tears off his clothes, and runs growling and croaking alone through the night. Don't American Indians have enough to contend with? Must we do this to their image too?
The wolves' roles should have been more carefully thought out too. They feed off the sick, the abandoned, in their own quiet Darwinian way. But then why did they attack Van der Whatever and his wife and eat their brains? The guy was an alpha male, so eating him doesn't exactly prune the herd of misfits. And sometimes the wolves can recognize a friend when they see and smell him -- they let Finney and Venora go after cornering them in an office. And sometimes they don't. Fergie, the expert, weeps with pity and love for wolves, but it doesn't matter. They eat him too.
So is there any reason to watch this film? I think so. The reason such tried and true formulae like these survive is because they work. (This is known as cinematic Darwinism.) This one would do better without the dazzling and bewildering photographic business, but it works pretty well as a scifi/monster movie centered about locations in the South Bronx, which here looks a lot like Frankfurt, Germany, did in 1945. The acting is quite good as well. Gregory Hines is more than a simple sidekick, although how he gets from pathology to being a street sniper is brushed over without explanation. Albert Finney does well by his American accent. His drollery -- the script is occasionally pretty witty -- is casual and offhand. And Diane Venora -- wow! She's a beautiful woman to begin with. And she's given a flattering do and just the right amount of Hollywood makeup. Not much is asked of her in the role of Finney's new partner, drawn into the case because of her knowledge of cults and symbols. She is, more or less, to Finney what Joan Weldon was to James Arness in "Them." There is a love scene between them, but we see it through the eyes of the wolves who have followed them home to an apartment and evidently climbed the walls in order to peek through the windows on an upper story. Blast! Both the images and sounds are distorted beyond anything other than minimal recognition. Well, I suppose it's a novel way to show lovemaking, although no "Hiroshima mon Amour." Largely because of the performances and the occasional bright spot in the script, and because of the relatively new locations, I rather enjoy it. It's worth spending time on. And I agree with Fergie. We should stop killing wolves. There are too many of us and too few of them.
I read Whitley Striber's novel THE WOLFEN in the early 1980s and though
not being much of a horror fan was mildly impressed with it and found
out a couple of years later that a movie version starring Albert Finney
had been released and I tried to find the movie on video but with no
luck and it was several years later until I saw WOLFEN when it was
broadcast on channel 4 one night and I was disappointed with it
Director Michael Wardleigh directed the classic Hippy concert movie WOODSTOCK and this adaptation has " Hippy anti corporate giant eco warrior " written all over it . In the book the wolfen are Darwian in concept - Nature is cruel so the wolfen are cruel . This is ignored for the most part in the film which often descends into smacking the audience around the head as to what a terrible thing industrialized societies are . Remember how conservationists and environmentalists put red Indians on a pedestal in the 1960s and 70s ? Well much of the narrative centres around mystic legends of the Native American Indians . Very noble sentiments I'm sure but much of this doesn't really go anywhere . Neither does the subplot about possible eco terrorists being involved in the murder of a powerful capitalist and his wife . We know who killed them at the start of the movie so why drag up people opposed to corporate economics into the story ? Strangely enough this might help WOLFEN become a sort of cult classic amongst anti globalisation protesters but for a mainstream audience who were expecting a horror film it's a turn off and what really spoils the movie is the ridiculous ending where we're told that it's all the fault of the human race and the Wolfen are really the good guys only protecting themselves from humanity . Sounds like this movie contributed to the movie career of Steven Segal . Reason enough to dislike it
To be fair to Wardleigh he has managed to capture some of the atmosphere and gore of Strieber's novel . One scene I recall from the book is something that doesn't appear in the film version per se is where a detective investigating the case is killed and when the paramedics pick up his body he spills in half ! Nasty . In the movie the nearest equivalent is when a detective has his hand bitten off and then his head - Which is lying on the pavement trying to say something . The director also manages to make New York come across as a cold , impersonal bleak place and when Wardleigh does this he succeeds . It's just a pity he didn't concentrate on these aspects more rather than cramming new age thinking and Indian legends down the audience throats
I can understand why horror fans would be disappointed in this film? But who cares? There are enough stupid horror movies around to satisfy those who need gore and screams. Wolfen tackles some very heavy concepts all within the context of a police procedural, and I never really felt the movie was stereotyping Indians. There is just a lot of material to cover and I thought the scenes with the Indians were amazingly focused and powerful. The acting is absolutely phenomenal--I wish Finney and Hines worked together in other movies...the atmosphere in this film really conveys the desolation of the burned out slums, and there is a feeling of like, "Wow, what the hell ARE we doing with the earth." But it never got preachy and I think Finney portrayed the more subtle realizations brought forth by this great film. Scott in Boca Raton, FL
Albert Finney makes a great drunken cop up to his eyeballs in something strange, who manages to piece together the obvious and realizes why apparently unconnected events have meaning. His delivery is entirely appropriate to the subject matter.
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