Monday, October 17, 2011

October 15th: Wolfen (1981)

Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is a veteran of the New York Police Department; burnt out and hardened by his years on the force, Dewey has been enjoying time off due to assorted family and psychological problems until his superior Warren (Dick O'Neil) puts him back on active duty to investigate the bizarre murders of industrialist Christopher Van Der Veer (Max M. Brown), his wife Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo) and their driver/bodyguard (John McCurry).
Warren pairs Dewey with Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), a psychologist working for Van Der Veer's security firm. Lacking evidence and motive, Dewey and Rebecca seek advice from an eclectic group of experts: Whittington (Gregory Hines), a colorful coroner; Ferguson (Tom Noonan), a zoologist; and Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), an ex-con and former member of the Native American Movement.
When a South Bronx vagrant (David Connell) turns up dead, Whittington find hairs on the corpse that are identical to hairs found on the Van Der Veers. Ferguson identifies the hair as belonging to a Wolf, but maintains that Wolves have been driven to extinction in the East and wouldn't be capable of committing these murders. Sensing that they're onto something, Dewey, Neff and Whittington turn their attention to the ruined areas of the South Bronx, but soon discover that they're up against something much more ferocious than a pack of Wolves.
Based on the 1978 Whitley Strieber novel of the same name, Wolfen is a fascinating, yet strange blend of supernatural horror, crime thriller and psychological character study with an environmental subtext that has largely been forgotten for obvious reasons. It doesn't fit into any clear genre, there's not much in the way of horror for most of the film and director Michael Wadleigh seems more interested in exploring the psychology of Dewey Wilson and environmental issues than telling a scary/suspenseful story.
By and large, '80s horror was all about death and violence. It was the decade of the slashers, with Friday The 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and all the other Halloween clones raking in big profits. Films like Wolfen had a hard time fitting in, given that they weren't pure horror films and were more based in psychological horror, something that wouldn't take off until The Silence of The Lambs in 1991. In the 1980s, horror films had to be gruesome and shocking to make money.
That's not to say Wolfen isn't gruesome; the death scenes show plenty of hands being bitten off, throats being torn open and heads being cut off. But that's not the driving force behind this film; Wadleigh, who co-wrote the film with David Eyre and an uncredited Eric Roth, are clearly not horror filmmakers. It's crystal clear that their interest lies in the psychological profile of Dewey Wilson and his eclectic group of friends and enemies.
In that case, Dewey's story feels somewhat muted. It's brought up that Dewey had psychological and family problems that forced him to take time off, but not much is done with it once it's established. His family is never mentioned, nor does he show any signs of psychosis or difficulty slipping back into police work. In fact, you pretty much forget that Dewey was disturbed. The farthest they go with it is just showing Dewey to be tired and burned out, described by Eddie Holt as having the eyes of the dead.
Being that the script's treatment of Dewey is half-hearted, I'm giving massive, massive props to Albert Finney for making this character work. A two-time Oscar nominee at this point for his performances in Tom Jones and Murder on The Orient Express, the British actor seemed like an odd choice for this film, yet Finney is pitch-perfect as Dewey Wilson. Finney's gruff demeanor perfectly conveys the character's exhaustion and every time I lose interest in this film, it's always Finney who pulls me back in.
Finney's supporting cast make the most of their roles; Diane Venora, best known for her critically acclaimed performances as Chan Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird and Justine Hanna in Michael Mann's Heat, made her film debut as Rebecca Neff and she's an effective match for Finney, but doesn't have as many scenes together as they should, not to mention the romantic subplot goes nowhere. Other notable performances include Gregory Hines, whose Whittington has some great character moments with Dewey, Tom Noonan, finally getting a chance to play a normal character in Ferguson, and Edward James Olmos, whose Eddie Holt explains the Wolfen to the audience with intense line readings and facial expressions.
Even with this great cast, I was losing interest in Wolfen far too often. The problem is that the mixture of genres is uneven; there's a lot of crime thriller and psychological character study going on, but the horror elements are lacking. Furthermore, it's obvious this script was based off a book; the pacing is slow and the script is overstuffed with secondary characters and needless forensics. I'm not opposed to a film taking its time; The Exorcist is similarly slower-paced, but that film balanced the crime procedural and character development with nightmarish horror scenes. Wolfen just doesn't have enough horror to balance it out.
Wadleigh has made his career off of documentaries, not horror films. I get he's more interested in his characters and that's wonderful. Nevertheless, this is a horror movie and it must have tension and atmosphere. Wadleigh reportedly turned in a four hour and four minute cut of Wolfen, with 36 "missing scene" cards in place of scenes he hadn't shot yet; I'm willing to bet those 36 missing scenes were all the horror scenes, which producer Rupert HitzigWadleigh was fired. By no means am I saying Wadleigh is a bad director; his visuals are actually pretty good. He just wasn't the right person to direct this film and his lack of pacing really hurts Wolfen.
What of the actual horror scenes? They're effective for the most part, highlighted by the bizarre Wolfen vision created by Hitzig and Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam. This thermovision, similar to the Predator vision in John McTiernan's Predator six years later, is stunning to look at, even 30 years later, and gives the Wolfen, unseen for the first hour, an eerie presence. The actual Wolfen attacks are impressive as well; shocking, sudden and gruesome, they almost make the slow pace worth it. Almost.
As for the Wolfen themselves, it's time to clarify this film for people who haven't seen it. Since its release, Wolfen has been mistakenly defined as a Werewolf movie, primarily because of the poster art and the fact that Wolfen came out in July 1981, three months after The Howling and one month before An American Werewolf In London. The Wolfen are not Werewolves, but rather an advanced, highly intelligent species descended from Wolves and worshipped by the Native Americans as Gods. The concept is great and the Wolfen definitely make creepy monsters, but they are not Lycanthropes in any way.
On paper, Wolfen should be a great film. The performances are stellar, the Wolfen are unique movie monsters, the visuals are stunning, and the overall mystery is intriguing. So what bogs this down? Slow pacing, uneven tone and stuffy script. It's frustrating, because what is a perfectly good, enjoyable film could have and should have been a beloved classic. As is, it's just a good '80s horror film and nothing more. 3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 16th: The Phantom of The Opera (1962)

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