Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wolfen (1981)

Reviewed By: Billy

Starring the extremely bizarre quartet of Albert Finney, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, and Tom Noonan, Wolfen is one of a few modern movies that has somehow managed to attain “classic” status in the werewolf subgenre. Personally, I’d consider this to be a little unfair; it’s like saying JM and are I amongst the most successful graduates of our Indiana high school. This may be a true statement, but really anyone without a meth habit and a police record would be more successful than three-fourths of our high school peers. So…yes, Wolfen may be considered a seminal werewolf film, but it’s hard to fail when your toughest competition includes the increasingly insane Howling series and the Jack Nicholson disaster Wolf.

Set on the streets of New York City in the early 80s (which means lots of headbands and jean jackets), Wolfen opens with the murders of a wealthy businessman, his cokehead wife, and their driver. I think we’re supposed to assume some kind of animal kills them, but I’m actually banking on a shroom-eating hippie, based on the fact that the killer’s point-of-view is filmed like this:
Anyway, these initial deaths are satisfyingly gory and kind of creepy, and lead to the even scarier scenes of New York’s finest, led by Finney as a detective and Hines as a medical examiner. And when I say scary, I mean in terms of their appearance.  Now I’ll give you Finney – looking a little like Ellen Burstyn after a speedy ride in a convertible – as a heavily British-accented New York cop…but I’m sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around Gregory as anything other than a tap dancer. I mean, come on…I dare you to look at Gregory Hines in scrubs and not imagine him in a Radio City tribute to “ER”:
As Finney wastes time awkwardly flirting with a psychologist brought in to help him (seriously – the lack of sexual tension rivals even the leading duo in this movie), someone else is brutally murdered; this time, a homeless man is killed in the wasteland that is South Bronx. Now, I can’t say I’ve ever been to the Bronx…but this movie sure makes it look like the setting of the most depressing Mad Max movie ever. During their investigation of an abandoned church, Finney rescues the shrink from a close call with a lurking wolf, leading both to tumble down the stairs, and also displaying perhaps the worst-wigged stuntman in history. Really…this guy is supposed to be our heroic detective, but is seemingly wearing a wig modeled on a “Laugh-In”-era Goldie Hawn, which he actually appears to reach up and hold onto it during the fall!
And just in case you need a closer look at that masterpiece of actor-to-wig matching:
Anyway, before long everyone realizes the attacks are “not human” – and animal expert Tom Noonan makes the brilliant proclamation that what they’re looking for is “a carnivore – a meat eater.” Well no sh*t Sherlock…I’d forgotten that human hearts weren’t a vegetable. Noonan also leads police to the bizarre connection that since the hairs found on victims come from a wolf that maybe Native Americans are involved, since wolves and Native Americans are so similar.


Well, naturally this takes Finney straight to the only Native American he apparently knows, an ex-con he once busted played by Edward James Olmos. Lucky for him, New York is apparently a very small city with only one Native American because ta da…he soon spies Edward James stripping down naked on the banks of the Hudson and lapping from puddles of water (in a scene, by the way, that I personally believe paved the path for Halle Berry in Catwoman):
Still, rather than arrest Eddy for public nudity, indecency, or…well…acting like a wolf while clearly under the influence of something, police just keep running around in circles, staking out the old abandoned church in hopes of shooting a wolf. At least, I think that’s what they’re doing. Instead, Gregory Hines is attacked and killed by one. And finally we, the audience, get a glimpse of the wolf…which unfortunately is not played by a big man in a hairy costume:
Anyway…blah blah blah…turns out the Wolfen are an underground society that have been surviving for hundreds of years, most recently in the slums of big cities. Frankly, by the time we learn this information, the movie has been running for more than an hour and a half, which we all know means it’s way too long for a horror movie. However, things definitely pick up during the awesome climax, where our leads are surrounded by a pack of wolves. And I gotta give this movie credit – it gives us a great scene where a decapitated head is still trying to talk – something Dario Argento would use to grosser effect years later in Trauma
So, there you have it.  I'm not a fan of werewolf movies (well...except for this one, a bona-fide Tower Farm classic), so I can't say I loved it.  And it's hard to take anything seriously that comes from the mind of author Whitley Stieber -- a man I once heard on a radio show say he understood what female rape victims feel like because he'd been anally probed by aliens (no...I'm not making this up).  However, I do have a soft spot for movies that take respectable actors and place them in situations involving decapitation and psychadelic camera effects.  Plus, how can you not recommend a movie in which the leading man's hair could well be a character unto itself?



  1. I still haven't seen this one yet but was planing on it soon. I have to say that your review had me sold until "Edward James Olmos stripping down naked". Yeah, no thanks. Hilarious review though. I always get a kick out of seeing blatantly mismatching stuntmen in movies. One of my favorites was the stuntman for the main character (a little boy) in PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, but you can clearly see that the stuntman is in fact a woman.

  2. About all I remember of this is Hines declaring in his best "Let's put on a show!" voice, "It's a goddamn CANIS LUPUS hair!", and the decapitated but still-conscious head you mention. In fact, I could have given the Kindertrauma guys a traumafession on that image...I was totally freaked out by the idea in my youth, of looking back and seeing your body and realizing what just happened...*shudder.*

    The rest I blacked out, probably b/c of the Edward James Olmos lupine nudity. :P

  3. Wolfen is definitely a film of the "you'll never see the likes of this again" variety with its adult cast that mixes the irascible Finney with the quirky likes of Tom Noonan, Hines and Olmos, its potpourri of intriguing but half-baked ideas, and a depiction of a NYC that has since been lost to time and world events. It's something of a cracked offering but I can't help liking it. Wish all the rumored lost footage would surface one of these days.

  4. Hmmm I wonder why I never heard of this movie. Oh then I read your review & the lightbulb came on. hehe. Alred Finney in a horror movie?? Yikes. I'm not big into werewolf movies either because I always want to scream at the TV "Duh" when they figure out its not human caused wounds. There is always going to be a secret society of these things too in these movies. I'm going to pass dears. I agree on Cursed tho. It was okay!

  5. wow i never heard of this either,your review has peaked my interest tho,hmmmm will have to look for it.

  6. I'm a fan of this film, mainly for the photography and score. BUT I have a soft spot for the very obscure... erm "Important Horror FILM" Sub-Genre of the 70's/80's, which this film definitely falls into. There's a certain level of cheese that gets added to a Horror film when it tries to be "meaningful", "introspective", "A-List" or "environmental." (See also Prophecy, Nightwing, etc.)

    If you want to see Finney in a more Tower Farm like film check out the movie "Looker." It's from the same year, written and directed by Michael Crichton. Finney plays a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who has to track down the murderer of his patients... There's also a weird "sonic freeze gun", a nice slow motion fight scene, an uber-80's theme song that WILL get stuck in your head and a laugh-out-loud, yet still cool finale set in what looks like the holodeck from Next Gen.

    Also, I think it's just me... But as a boy I found Olmos's nudiness in Wolfen to be kinda hot. At least it's nice to get some full frontal male nudity in a sorta "mainstream" flick.

  7. How about that WTF love scene that came out of NOWHERE!?!

  8. Toughest competition is Wolf and The Howling? Sounds like someone hasn't seen American Werewolf in London.