Wolfen (1981)
By: Dr. Obrero on September 9, 2002  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Warner Home Video (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0, French DD Mono. English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Subtitles 115 minutes
The Movie
Director: Michael Wadleigh
Starring: Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, Dick O'Neill, Dehl Berti, Peter Michael Goetz, Sam Gray, Ralph Bell, Max M. Brown, Anne Marie Pohtamo, Sarah Felder
Screenplay: David Eyre, Michael Wadleigh
Tagline: Their hunting ground - New York City. Their prey - the people
Country: USA
Marvellous contemporary reinvention of the classic werewolf myth; taken initially from an excellent source novel by Whitley Streiber, though it's clear that director Wadleigh and co-screenwriter David Eyre took a degree of creative license - retaining only about 50% of the source novella and managed to inject a whole new series of themes (there was no Indian and the Wolfen were not wolves, but werewolves) - and creating a gripping tale all of its own.

A big-shot property developer is murdered in New York's Battery Park and burnt out NYPD detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) lands the case, which it transpires is linked to a bizarre series of violent murders across several cities over many years where it appears that the victims were killed by animals. Soon he's teamed up with a psychologist (Diane Venora) and an unorthodox coroner (Gregory Hines - sporting an eye-popping 'Seventies' afro, guaranteed to date the movie) and aided by a bunch of local American Indians, primary amongst their number being Edward James Olmos, and an oddball zoo curator, Tom Noonan. In his pursuit he learns of what might or might not be simply an Indian legend about wolf spirits, Wilson begins to learn about a "far older, more 'complete' being" who may be responsible for the slayings. These are "Wolfen", an intelligent wolf-breed who co-existed harmoniously with the native (Indian) Americans until driven underground by the coming of the white man and the attendant slaughter followed by an increasing urban sprawl. Now the "Wolfen" live underground in all the big American cities, amongst the vast square miles of abandoned tenement blocks, living off mankind's "garbage" - derelicts, the homeless, the abandoned - waste products, the refuge of today's ruthless society.

What set's Wolfen apart from all its werewolf picture cohorts is the allegorical tale at its centre, the fate of the "Wolfen", once the masters of their eminent domain, now reduced to living in squalor as the victims of the white-man's urban decay, is paralleled with that of the Native American (Indian), driven out and down in a Caucasian dominated society - and much of this intuitive element is down to a clever script by David Eyre and Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh. The linear plotting contains much that is relatively standard fare, police procedural elements, the cliché 'growing attraction/relationship' between male and female lead, and the by now de-rigueur 'unorthodox coroner' who demonstrates complete indifference to the more ghoulish or even the more reverential aspects of his job, but in drawing in the deeper observations on show, Wolfen is elevated beyond the mere status of 'supernatural/creature-feature thriller. Oddly enough, when director Michael Wadleigh delivered his first cut of Wolfen to the execs at Warner Brothers back in 1981, they took one look and recoiled in horror; "Oh My God(!)-A horror movie with a social conscience", and promptly unleashed a battery of editors upon it. This resulted in a version with no Indians, one with no wolves and one with no terrorists (urban terrorists also feature within the film's scenario), until commonsense prevailed and Wadleigh's original version was allowed out onto general release, whereupon it promptly went belly-up in the States, obviously containing too much in the way of taxing cerebral requirement for the average American theatre-goer to ingest at a single sitting.

A beautifully lensed picture, Wolfen captures the look and feel of New York circa late 70's/early '80's in a way few other films have ever managed, and the effective camera-trickery that gives us "Wolfen-Vision" is almost dream-like and effective in sustaining the atmospherics of the attack sequences. Wolfen is refreshingly subtle in its depiction of the titular character and intelligently restrained in its depiction of the attacks themselves. The film carries too much intelligence to be undermined it might've been had it been allowed to degenerate into a bloodbath during the attacks and their aftermath. The playing is perfectly adequate, the script literate and sharp, whilst Wadleigh's direction is stylish and assured. Easily the best of its subgeneric strand, only Landis' wonderful, but totally different An American Werewolf in London comes even close, Wolfen is an essential choice for those who enjoy intelligent thrillers as opposed to blood-splattering slice and dice and braindead horror films.
Unless you had the privilege to enjoy either the previous laserdisc edition, or even WHV's excellent letterboxed UK VHS, you have simply not seen the same film as is reviewed here. Wolfen looks an absolute mess when this beautifully lensed and composed 2.35:1 film is cropped to fit a pan & scam transfer. Presented here in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and correctly framed, it's a reasonable transfer given that Wolfen is now well over 20-years old. However, I was not as pleasantly surprised as I'd hoped to be. There is considerable grain present in many scenes, especially opening credit sequence, plus many of the interior and night shots remain disappointingly murky. Brighter shots by contrast are excellent with deep blacks, bright whites and rich colours. Shadow detail is mediocre, the image lacks sharpness and there is more than a hint of edge enhancement in way too many shots. Moiré patterning adds to the disappointing feel of this transfer. Perhaps I was expecting too much, this is the best I have ever seen this film look but it was one of the best looking VHS editions I have ever seen and somehow I just expected more from this DVD. Nonetheless, Wolfen is at it's best on DVD in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and does at least sport natural flesh tones.
Wolfen is presented in English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, along with a French Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono option. The 2.0 soundtrack English soundtrack is very average at best, though clear and free and of background hiss or distortion, but severely undermined by one major flaw. Dialogue is firmly anchored in the centre channel but has been recorded dreadfully, far far too low leaving the viewer straining to hear what the characters are saying without having to constantly alter the centre channel volume. Frequency response is decidedly limited, there are some directional effects in the front channels, whilst the surround channel is used sparingly, but occasionally quite effectively primarily for ambient sounds. The less said about the French Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono option the better and English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Korean, Chinese, and Basaha subtitle options are offered.
Extra Features
A half-decent theatrical trailer is the only extra worth mentioning, though the disc also offers some cast and crew info and a short text history of werewolves in Hollywood movies. One supplement originally slated for this release was a commentary track by Albert Finney, Diane Venora and Edward James Olmos, however this was excluded at the last minute, god knows why! A very great shame and indefensible. Almost a Vipco move there by WHV and several black marks as a result.
The Verdict
Although the excision of the planned commentary is both disgraceful and lamentable, the visual mediocre and the audio poor, for a list price of only $19.98 (and considerably less online), Wolfen is highly recommended. The film alone makes for an essential purchase.
Movie Score
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