Wolfen (1981), dir. Michael Wadleigh
While watching Wolfen the thought that kept running through my head was, ‘my, how dated this film is!’ This was probably because there really isn’t much going on for most it, and so you find yourself with little else to do but to make note of the little things: peoples’ hairstyles, the rotten shape New York City was in at that time, the film’s musical score, and so on. Of course any film that is aged more than a decade could feel dated, but notice how we never say that about a great film. That being said, Wolfen is not a great film.
Directed by Michael Wadeigh, of Woodstock documentary fame, Wolfen is about a New York homicide detective, played by Albert Finney, who is investigating a strange group of murders that appears to have been done by a wild animal of some sort. I had occasioned to read a few reviews of film written around the time of its release, all of which were positive, and was genuinely surprised after having viewed it myself. The general consensus was that Wolfen is an intelligently made horror film. If you placed Wolfen in the context of the time in which it was released, that’s probably a very fair statement, given that in the early ‘80s Hollywood was inundated with misogynist mad slasher films, most of which were deplorably bad. As intelligent as it may be, Wolfen simply isn’t scary—not by today’s standards, or by the standards of thirty years ago. This is regrettable, because by and large I find the horror genre to have been far more effective in achieving overall scariness thirty years ago than it is capable of doing today. This is more of an aside, but I find that today’s horror films are far too over-produced, rendering them unable to create any sense of realism that allows the audience to relate to what it’s seeing. In the horror genre, without realism, there’s no scaring anyone. Wolfen, given when it was produced, has the advantage there; the cinematography is done entirely without effect (with the exception to the first-person camera shots from the killers’ perspectives), and the actors look like real, everyday people—they are not glossy models like the actors who populate today’s horror films. Wolfen unfortunately has terrible pacing. The story unfolds very slowly, with all of the murders being seen from the killers’ eyes, who incidentally are not human; therefore some very antiquated optical effects are used to illustrate this, along with sped-up tracking camera shots. It all amounts to a very dizzying effect that creates very little impact, if any at all.
Eighty minutes go by before we get our first glimpse of the murderous beasts responsible. This I feel was the film’s largest blunder. With such a significant delay the film needs to be padded with a few interesting plot points to compensate, but there aren’t any really. There is a brief love affair between Albert Finney’s character and the female lead, but it is wholly uninspired and leads nowhere. And Edward James Olmos is introduced as a possible suspect, but is eliminated as such with one of the most utterly humiliating scenes I can recollect ever having seen an actor endure in film. It involves him entirely disrobing by the shore of what may be the East River in New York and having a manic werewolf moment. It’s laughably bad, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that scene continues to haunt him to this day.
There is a final showdown toward the end of the film that is somewhat riveting. But it really only serves to illustrate how much better the film could have been had a scene such as that been introduced earlier on.
I’m relatively new to the horror genre, but have seen a fair amount of both notable and obscure films in the past few years. If it were up to me I wouldn’t categorize Wolfen in the horror genre at all. It’s a thriller at best, but a vapid one. If you’re looking for a good scare, then let me recommend one I saw about a month ago. I embarrassed that it eluded me for so long, but it’s John Carpenter’s 1978 film, Halloween. It scared the pants off me.