Wolfen (1981)

Director: Michael Wadleigh Starring: Albert Finnery, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, Peter Michael Goetz. USA. 1h 55m Based on: Wolfen by Whitley Strieber

The 80’s harboured an ever changing landscape for horror, most notably a huge rash on creature features, especially wolf horrors. With creatives like Rob Botin and Rick Baker making elaborate transformation scenes and special effect crews wetting themselves over making films bigger, netter and more gory, there seemed to be no end to the possibilities. But on the other hand, we have Wolfen, based on A novel by Whitley Strieber of the same name. The twisted movie managed to pull itself away from all the hype and presents detailed and elaborate folk horror, which much like modern day horrors seems to fixate itself on Native American ethereal entities as much as its painful history.

The movies charm works around its lead actor, a hard and city cop Dewey Wilson, played by the masterful Albert Finney, he’s hard to love but easy to like, strolling around doing his own thing, often eating a snack and rubbing people up the wrong way, bit of a hard ass, but he gets the right results! Nothing seems to phase him as he eats his sub in the mortuary, but he’s hitting a wall with this latest series of grisly murders that seem to have some kind of animal connection.

Detective Wilson bands together a small group of confidants, mortuary assistant Whittington (Hines), a criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Venora), and a zoologist Ferguson (Noonan) the few of many who are able to think outside the box and comprend a crazy notion of a possible Wolfen interaction. It’s no major surprise what the Wolfen are but it’s how the characters are presented and dealt with that makes the movie sit differently with the horror audience and at times there’s a lot to get the gray matter around.

You’ve seen them, haven’t you? You don’t have the eyes of the Hunger. You have the eyes of the dead.

-Eddie Holt

Wolfen has a brilliant concept firmly grounded in the “real” world. No where can the story hide behind full moon occultists and magical transformations. Despite all the variations from the book, Wadleigh keeps a visceral edge to a story which talks as much about why we used to fear the dark as it does highlight the plight of indegiou people and their struggle to survive in big urban centres. Wadleigh also managed to spring a few camera tricks on his audience, and Wolfen is the first movie to use thermo photography as the creatures stalk their prey at night.

Silent, unseen, the creates live among us.. and hunt.

More of a thriller than horror, the gory joy of Wolfen comes from watching Albert Finney have to swallow his pride and admit that the impossible is indeed very possible, then he has to admit that there’s nothing he can really do about it apart from be afraid of the night again, much like his ancestors. Wolfen is definitely for the thinking purveyor of movies more than the gore gorgers, but with its solid cult following it remains a strong contender in a series of native folklore thrillers that don’t get caught up in fancy glamour but gives it’s audience a exhilitarting cop story with very serious predators to consider.

Rating: 6/10

Related: The Howling (1981), The Company of Wolves (1984), Late Phases (2014), Silver Bullet (1985), Dog Soldiers (2002),

Lists: A-Z of Werewolf Flicks, Great movies from 1981 Still Worth Talking About

Spotlight: Albert Finney

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One thought on “Wolfen (1981)”

  1. What’s interesting to me is that this was a time when “Friday the 13th”, “Halloween” and “Terror Train” were the latest style of horror, so a “monster” was a bit out of step…I remember this as you review it – OK, good perhaps but that’s about it. Great review as always!

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