**½/**** Image A- Sound B-
starring Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan
screenplay by David Eyre and Michael Wadleigh, based on the novel by Whitley Strieber
directed by Michael Wadleigh
by Bill Chambers Wolfen goes through the paces of a typical detective thriller, but it's far from conventional. I crave to understand this picture's somewhat literal bleeding heart better and thought the DVD would be of more assistance--unfortunately, the advertised commentary track with actors Gregory Hines and Edward James Olmos and director/co-writer Michael Wadleigh is AWOL. My mother calls Wolfen "a werewolf movie from the werewolf's point of view," and that's not a bad take on it, since the homicidal title creatures are in essence the good guys of the piece. Certainly, the film's preponderance of "wolf P.O.V." shots make it less than figuratively so.
Wadleigh does not limit the P.O.V. (point-of-view) gimmick to Wolfen's ostensible villains. We see through the eyes of a pill-popper--in a trippy sequence that juxtaposes the drug blur with the Louma crane-assisted solarized vision of a wolf pack--and through a night-vision telescope, and one of the film's key sets is an FBI interrogation suite equipped with a hi-tech bank of spy monitors upon which Wadleigh likes to train his lens. There is an urgent moment wherein the NYPD captain, nicely played by Albert Finney, must get into a woman's apartment to save her, and we watch it unfold from the building's security camera. Wolfen is obviously making a point about voyeurism, but the point itself is inscrutable, thanks perhaps to the nascent Orion Pictures' purported tampering.
Finney's Dewey Wilson has the requisite complicated (though rarely spoken-of) past that gives police psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) the jitters; the two are brought together by the brutal slaying of a land developer, the killer of whom goes on to dismember a homeless smack addict. Wilson's nose leads him separately to a demolition project in the Bronx and to a Native American ex-con (Edward James Olmos) he's willing to believe can shape-shift into inhuman forms.
Although Wadleigh is a documentarian, Wolfen, his narrative debut, does not have the loose, spontaneous rhythms we might expect: there is an unmistakable calculation to the technique of it from the opening frames. Where his roots betray him is in the picture's social-studies asides; Wadleigh made Woodstock, and Wolfen is similarly and explicitly anti-Establishment while forgoing the joy of that landmark concert film. The director cries crocodile tears for the hippies who sold out to become the coke-sniffing materialists he leads to slaughter in the film's prologue. Finney, meanwhile, cuts a good Gary Cooper figure, explaining sincerely why an Indian might hold a grudge against White America to people who can't distinguish between political activism and terrorism, isolating himself in battle in the process.
Wolfen's frequent shifts to the subjective camera also speak to Wadleigh's filmmaking background, meta-voyeurism that seems a shorthand for the documentary instinct of covering the opposition. Wadleigh uses the wolf P.O.V. effect a bit too much in the early scare scenes (it's more frightening to be with the victim than with the killer, after all), and that's hardly Wolfen's worst offense (in addition to Venora's laughably underdeveloped character, I doubted the decision of the wolfen to sacrifice the street-person and a few others who would be innately sympathetic to their agenda), yet I view the picture as a marginal success. There's food for thought here.
Warner's Wolfen DVD presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Surround audio. The transfer looks plain terrific--no need for the qualifier "for a 1981 release," although shadow detail could be stronger (the same criticism does not apply to black level), and there are sporadic print aberrations pertaining to the film's age. Far more dated than the image is the soundtrack, which is not robust enough to punctuate the visceral climax of the film especially. What's disappointing is that a 5.1 track exists, prepared for Wolfen's 70mm engagements as well as a limited Sensurround run; why the powers that be chose to exclude it here is baffling. I would advise Warner to correct the commentary listing on the back cover ASAP; actual extras include cast and crew filmographies, Wolfen's decent theatrical trailer, and a text overview of werewolf cinema filed under "Howl'ywood." (Groan.) Originally published: August 8, 2002.