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June 20, 2011

Wolfen

(1981, Dir. by Michael Wadleigh.)

First things first - I soooo want that movie poster.  From the ominous taglines to the creepy eye to the bloody title font, it's 100% amazing. 

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about Wolfen the movie.  It seems like I've known about Wolfen all my life, but I only just saw it for the first time this week.  There was a time, years ago, when I was totally excited to see Wolfen - I mean, it was alleged to be a werewolf movie from the '80s starring Albert Finney! - but a chorus of folks who had seen it all told me not to bother because the film was boring and stupid and too long and such.  Now, I've never been one to listen to people when they're clearly drinking Hater-ade, but for some reason I took their bait and avoided Wolfen.  But I knew that, someday, I would have to see for myself - because Wolfen certainly is a film that seems to good to be true on paper.

Finney, whom I've always loved and who makes me cry like a baby in Big Fish (soooo not ashamed), stars as a mentally unstable detective, and is joined on the cast list by a "who's who" of cool folks.  Heat co-star Diane Venora plays his partner/romantic interest, a young Gregory Hines also is featured as an inquisitive medical examiner, and an even younger Edward James Olmos gives a primally charged performance as a young Native American man who is involved in the plot's twists.  As if that's not enough, Tom Noonan (one of my favorite dudes ever!) has a key role and James "Mr. Strickland from Back to the Future" Tolkan and Reginald "I ate twinkies with Bruce and cheese with Urkel!" Vel Johnson show up in bit parts.  As you can see, Wolfen features one of the coolest casts ever put in a horror film.

Oh, and it has a plot too.  Said plot involves the murder of a political heavyweight who - along with his bodyguard and his lady friend - appears to have been mauled by a vicious animal.  Finney, Venora, and Hines are on the case, and Finney's Dewey Wilson quickly becomes wrapped up in the case.  It's a lot like that famous Sherlock Holmes quote about "eliminating the impossible", except that Dewey recognizes that what has happened and the things he learns along the way certainly come from the list of things he once deemed impossible.  The character becomes very interesting as the film dives into philosophical discussions and supernatural spiritual diatribes, and the early section of the film does a good job of creating a fog of intrigue around the mystery at hand.  Olmos also chews up scenery, sporting a look that feels like it came right out of The Warriors while spouting out cryptic ramblings about the hunters and the hunted.

It's when the mystery becomes more - or maybe it's less? - clear that I started to lose interest in Wolfen.  Look, I'm all for horror movies taking a "road less taken" and coming up with their own unique story, but Wolfen - well, I'll just say that Wolfen takes a really radical turn about an hour into the film; a turn that took me out of the film a bit.  Perhaps it was confusion over the film's incredibly abstract revelations, or perhaps it was confusion over Olmos dancing around with his little Edward James flopping in the camera's face, or perhaps it was something else.  Did I want a traditional story from Wolfen? I don't think I did, but I can't help feeling a little bit cheated by how drastically non-traditional the story turns.  I can't tell you what the film settles on, of course, but you can be assured that it is a) not a werewolf story and b) not like many things you've ever seen before.  And when mixed with some poor pacing - this film certainly is too long - and some dated special effects that would work better six years later in Predator, Wolfen loses a lot of the momentum it built up in its first hour.

In the end, I still found myself digging Wolfen despite being put off by some of the plot's turns.  Writer/director Michael Wadleigh - who was most famous for documenting Woodstock for Warner Brothers - keeps the film kind of poetic throughout, and I found myself more interested in what comes next than I was annoyed by the special effects or confused by the spirit animal talk.  I'm not left thinking that this is something I should have gone out of my way to see, but I am glad I finally gave it a spin.  And there's even a part of me that kind of wants to give Wolfen another go, just to see if it makes more sense to me now that I know where the plot is going. 

So basically, you need to see Wolfen to see if it's for you.  (It is on YouTube, apparently!) And maybe you need to see it twice.  Dammit Albert Finney, couldn't you have just dealt with normal werewolves?  This got weird.

4 comments:

Chris Hallock said...

I was in the same boat. Wolfen was always just kinda there, but I never quite got around to watching it until a month or so ago. I was pleasantly surprised, and actually loved the non-traditional storyline.

I'd agree that it's a bit overlong, but I don't remember getting particularly bored with it. I actually thought the dated effects of the "wolf vision" was cool and eerie. I could definitely come up with a handful of complaints, but all in all I enjoyed it. Those burnt out and decaying scenes of the Bronx were pretty great and otherwordly feeling.

p.s. I also cried like a baby during Big Fish

great review, man!

The Mike said...

Y'know, I meant to mention that the wolf vision did grow on me as the film went on, but it must have gotten lost in the shuffle.

I keep thinking I should like this more than my review ended up saying, and I am still struggling with how "traditional" I wanted it to be. I'll probably give it another view in the future to try and remedy this, because this was certainly more up my alley than I expected it to be.

Marvin the Macabre said...

I too have known about Wolfen practically my entire life without ever having seen it. A long while back someone mentioned that it wasn't actually a werewolf film, which made me lose interest. But now your write-up kind of makes me want to see it to find out just what the hell it is about.

ZedWord said...

I too didn't come to Wolfen until recently, but I loved this film from the minute I saw it.

The film doesn't seem to take too drastic of a turn unless you go into it EXPECTING something. I think the turn is fully supported by the mythology within the story, but it seems like a drastic turn if you had expectations toward something else.

Fangoria recently had a really great two-part interview with the director as well.