#21: Wolfen (1981)
Someone or something is out stalking the beautiful people of New York City and burnt-out, big city detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney in fine rumpled form) isn't quite sure of what exactly it is he's been charged with apprehending. Is he hunting a crazed, cannibalistic serial killer, an actual wolf, or a Wolfen -- a spirit being conjured up by the Indians who work the high steel of Manhattan's bridges and skyscrapers and remain angry over losing their land to the Whites. Whatever it is, over the course of this thoroughly engrossing and original horror/procedural, the following warning from the menacingly cool Eddie (a very young Edward James Olmos), one of those militant steelworkers, proves to be something more than just spiritual mumbo jumbo:
"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."
"Wolfen" is an overlooked gem I discovered late one night on HBO and have tried to champion at every opportunity ever since. Some might find this surprising due to the fact that this is a horror film with a HUGE social conscience and much to say about class distinctions and man's effect on nature. The messaging, however, isn't political, it's thematic, original, imaginative, and not only adds considerably to the story, but is necessary in order to tell the story.
No one who's seen "Wolfen" ever forgets the use of the stunning photography used to create the long, continuous, low-angle tracking shots (enhanced with chilling sound effects) that represent the point-of-view of our killer(s). Just a few years later, "Predator" would, uhm, pay tribute to "Wolfen" with a similar effect for its own version of a people hunter. Thirty years on, though, this is still a marvel to watch. Without the crutch of today's digital technology, the ingenuity of the filmmakers in creating this effect still makes you wonder how they pulled it off.
You also get to enjoy a lovely tour of the city, from the high rise penthouses of the super-rich to the burnt-out, urban wastelands that shelter the forgotten.
For all the social messaging and violence, thanks mainly to Finney's dry wit and Gregory Hines' charming and energetic work as a street-smart coroner pulled into the proceedings, the film has an easy-going sense of humor about itself, but also a nice, quiet vibe and deliberate pace that only serves to enhance the many truly frightening (and gory) moments. Diane Venora as Finney's new partner and love interest isn't given enough to do but a pre-"Manhunter" Tom Noonan is perfectly cast as an off-beat academic (and suspect?) enraged and obsessed by man's treatment of wolves.
The film's anchor, however, is Finney who's quietly marvelous as the sad sack and functionally alcoholic detective with more than one ghost in his past. He's exhausted and damaged but just too damn good at his job -- the thing that causes most of his personal pain -- to ever escape it.