It kind of takes your breath away to look back on just how much the world has changed since director Michael Wadleigh’s procedural-horror film “Wolfen” arrived in the summer of 1981. There was no streaming, no home computers, no mainstream video stores. VCR’s were fairly new and the tapes cost $25 a pop. All you really had was HBO, and what a revelation HBO was.
It used to be you could see a movie only two ways: 1) As it was meant to be seen in the theater. 2) On a very small television screen, chopped up every 15 minutes by commercials, edited to meet broadcast decency standards, and lopped off at the either side to fit your box.
Although HBO didn’t solve all those problems, you could at least see movies in an unedited, uninterrupted format. Best of all, you could see all kinds of movies you never would have otherwise, and see them again and again (HBO was famous for endlessly repeating certain titles). I grew up in the sticks. We had one local theater with just two screens. Once HBO arrived, many a leisurely weekend was spent with friends catching up on what we missed.
That’s how I came across “Wolfen,” and it has remained a favorite ever since. After 15 or 20 viewings, thanks to the Warner Archives, for the first time I was able to see it projected in high-def widescreen — about as close as you can get at home to the intended theatrical experience. What a treat. The transfer is impeccable, including the 5.1 surround sound. This is crucial with “Wolfen.” Although not at the expense of story, sound and image are of major importance to this highly original and intelligent urban tale.
A rumpled Albert Finney is perfectly cast as Dewey Wilson, a NYPD captain on leave after family issues and drink got the best of him. The bizarre and bloody murder of a very well-connected real estate magnate and his wife have the city’s powerful rattled to the core. Wilson’s brought back and almost immediately we understand why. While everyone else is focused on urban left-wing terrorists like the Weather Underground, Wilson’s instincts tell him something else is going on.
A second, seemingly unrelated murder takes the life of a homeless drug addict in the rubble of the South Bronx. What connects the two is a single hair — a wolf’s hair. Using science, forensics, plenty of shoe leather, a touch of hunch and a bit of American Indian mysticism, Dewey puts together the pieces of a mystery that is the wonderful stuff of urban legends.
“Wolfen” is more of a seventies than eighties movie. The pre-Giuliani urban decay is of major importance to the story, and there’s a dark and delicious streak of anti-humanism that is crucial, not just to the story, but to the film’s noirish atmosphere. It’s the overall “feel” of “Wolfen” that keeps me coming back. James Horner’s score manages to be both eerie and mystical. Gerry Fisher’s cinematography makes all of New York look like one big haunted house.
Wilson is the unruffled calm at the center of an eccentric world. He’s seen it all, or thinks he has, and watching him nonchalantly eat a cookie during an autopsy remains one of my all-time favorite character moments. Surrounding him are well-defined oddballs who add both flavor and plenty of clues and revelations. Gregory Hines is a stand-out as the spirited morgue-attendant ying to Wilson’s brooding yang. A very young Edward James Olmos leaves a mark as an intensely angry Indian activist.
“Wolfen” is scary, engrossing, atmospheric, and, like its protagonist, brooding, darkly funny, bitter, and contradictory. We’re asked to be appalled at the condition of the South Bronx and just as appalled at plans to revitalize it. We’re asked to sympathize with the motivations behind the murders even when one of the victims is an innocent sympathetic to the cause. The Olmos character is angry over Indian stereotypes about drinking, even though he spends his off-hours in a dive bar.
Mankind built The World Trade Center (a powerful symbol throughout), but except for a very few, most of us (in 1981) are living in its shadow — a shadow that protects a Wolfen picking us off one by one. And in that shadow, one way or another, we are going to die in a mess of our own making.
Much is explained, which is not the same as having answers. The message is that there are no answers. Humanity blew it hundreds of years ago. It’s too late. The consequence and comeuppance is a Wolfen that’s been waiting patiently for us to destroy ourselves, to weaken to a point where it could reclaim what never belonged to us.
“Wolfen” is like a top-notch Democrat campaign commercial. You don’t have to buy the message to appreciate the craftsmanship. To make such a concept believable is in and of itself a minor miracle.
‘Wolfen” is currently available for sale on Bluray at the indispensible Warner Archives.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC