Review: Wolfen (1981)

Wolfen stars Albert Finney as a detective assigned to figure out why a rich developer gentrifying the Bronx got mutilated and spread over an acre of Battery Park. Set at the turn of the 1980s, it was the first movie with a clear vision of what should be done with Donald Trump.

Starting out as a gritty urban-wasteland slasher flick, it unfolds over blighted neighborhoods and under gray skies, slowly evolving into something far weirder. The coroner finds canine hair on a corpse, but it isn't from a known species. Political pressure to blame anticapitalist terrorists hinders the investigation. Further victims show no obvious connection to one another.

Dewey learns that a cabal of Wolfen—intelligent creatures that may be psychically connected to clued-in humans—are defending their turf. Unraveling their motives, he is first told by Native Americans that they are powerful beyond his understanding, but finally realizes that they are something like himself, like the city, overwhelming yet fragile and unsure of how to accommodate themselves to the inevitable.

Directed by Michael Wadleigh, this exceptionally odd and ingenious movie approaches greatness. It's too slow and bloated to get there, but it lives beyond its limitations and is completely shameless. It loves an idea of nature, but it loves New York, too. Perhaps this is why it's so ambivalent and appealing. Consider the many "let's look at Wolfen again" articles like this one, each with a somewhat different take (some of them very smart), all because the historical context that gave it meaning in the first place was gone in a flash.

James Horner's music is great, and contains phrases later perfected in the Aliens score. Lancashire lad Finney sometimes bothers to put on a decent American accent. The city looks grossly decrepid and depopulated, but unlike other films of the era, Wolfen knows the money is coming back. The supporting cast works hard; there's a bad romance subplot.

Here you can see Predator-vision in its prototype incarnation, right down to the synthesized "fwoosh!" noise that plays when you get snapped into it. Predator's execution offers the viewer a gripping voyeuristic tension. But in Wolfen, where seeing the action from the hunter's viewpoint suggests a spiritual connection, it means something more.1

The movie doesn't spare the well-meaning humans who identify with wolves. They get eaten too. Wolfen is an unsentimental movie, at least when it comes to us. At a glance it might seem a paradoxically New Age survival-of-the-fittest parable. But it's not. It's saying: nature does not care if you idealize or identify with it. It just needs to eat.

I saw this at 12 on an awful VHS copy, so Wolfen is one of my lightening bolts — among the things that turned me on to the weird and (very broadly speaking) the queer. As Olmos's Native American activist tells Dewey in the dénouement scene: "You got your technology but you lost your senses". And maybe he means souls, too… and maybe he's looking, too.

What I didn't get as a kid is how political Wolfen is, how lefty. This seems very on-topic right now. The anti-capitalist message is as strong and trenchant as Robocop's, though nowhere near as funny. But Wolfen arrived as its brand of radical politics was collapsing, years before a new one formed.

Native Americans are the key to Dewey's education, but their portrayal will be a stumbling block to modern viewers. They are wise yet poor. They drink at a bar called "The Wigwam". Representation of spiritual beliefs hovers in an uncomfortable place between othering and idealization. Wadleigh cast multiple native actors in prominent, speaking roles, though, and white people's hearts end up in the right place: torn out.

The relationship between Wolfen and Native Americans is a central enigma of the movie, and it is left this way: the script suggests that the Wolfen are a species higher on the food and soul chain, but even after it deals with the detective's suspicion that Native characters are literally werewolves, the camera can't quite let go of that imagery.

Wadleigh says he should have adhered more to Whitley Streiber's novel, where native characters are themselves predated by Wolfen, and that he wanted less of the Wolfen seen in the first place. But he was overruled by producers, so it may be that the imposition of a rougher creative vision forced these ambiguities upon his film. The scenes where you see "Wolfen" snarling or howling, for example, were inserted in post-production by John Hancock, hired to make the film more commercially appealing.

Worse is the sluggish pace and editing. It invites you to hate it. Roger Ebert's perceptive review ("it's not about werewolves, it's about souls") noted this and tried to justify it artistically, but 30 years of hindsight make the cutting-room ineptitude obvious. Wadleigh yearns to make a director's cut that restores its political and dramatic clarity. 2

So there's my problem with Wolfen: It doesn't go far enough. The movie invites you to see things from the Wolfen point of view, but isn't quite sure what to let you know of it. Wolfen are posed as metaphors for both ecological harmony ("In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes," says an old man) and capitalist voracity. It'd be tough work making sense of that, and the movie shrinks from it entirely in favor being a mysterious supernatural slasher flick.

Take the big showdown, between Dewey and the boss Wolfen. It builds well: there's accommodation and unresolved tension. There's man and nature, wary of one another, irreconcilable even at the moment of understanding, when he sees himself through their eyes.

But by then making the South Bronx redevelopment stuff the final dramatic theme—Finney smashes a model of skyscrapers and the Wolfen vanish—everything is reduced to a concession so simple a planning official could have made it.

It shows the Wolfen as awake to human business, yet open to rational compromise. It provides a neat ending that lets us retreat back to the human point of view and regard the Wolfen as a faction to be negotiated with rather than manifestations of an ecological yet spiritual imperative of which we are ourselves another intrinsic expression.

In terms of story, this sells us short. It's pessimistic, too: the Wolfen become a neighborhood anti-gentrification committee with attitude.

Still, though, what an attitude!

I'm not saying this movie centers on Donald Trump or how his class set out to revive and devour New York in the 70s, or the sort of people he didn't want living in his developments, or why he thinks "Pocahontas" is such a hilarious insult, though it is about all those things.

I'm just saying we should think, maybe, about why a movie from 35 years ago had a stand-in for him ripped up under the Battery Park windmill by nature's last secret, to stop him becoming a politician.

Wolfen [Amazon]



1. With a few decades' familiarity with CG technology under our belts, Wolfen-sight has drifted from an alien viewpoint to one signifying machine vision. This was surely not intended in 1982, but it sharpens a metaphor that was intended: when cops interrogate a suspected terrorist with a fancy digital polygraph, the failure of science to recapture a lost instinct is made clearer.

2. Could Wolfen be remade? Sure. It's who remakes it that matters. If we do remake it, the wolfen-sight should be beautiful infrared dreams, as in these photos by J.C Reyes and others.