Monsters! Wolfen

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Detective Dewey Wilson is charged with solving the bizarre, mysterious murder of Big Deal Guy Christopher Van DerVeer. Was it a political assassination? Was it terrorists? Was it angry Native Americans? Or was it — evil?free stats

WHO ARE THE MONSTERS? You’d never guess it from the title, but it turns out the monsters are wolves. Or is it Americans who are the monsters?

WHAT IS THE WARNING? Wolves, Wolfen informs us, help out American cities by devouring their sick and providing a check on gentrification. We must not destroy rotting slums and build new apartment blocks — it will anger the wolves.

Wow! 1981 was a big year for werewolves at the movies. This, American Werewolf and The Howling all came out at once. Of the three, Wolfen has the biggest budget, is by far the most nicely photographed, and, technically at least, has the best script.

Detective Dewey Wilson belongs to a tradition of gritty 1970s New York detectives — you can tell that, back in the day, he hung out with Serpico and Klute and Popeye Doyle and Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. He’s cranky, idiosyncratic and compromised. He doesn’t play by the rules. (One day, just for a change of pace, I’d very much like to see a movie about a detective who does play by the rules.) He drinks, he’s jaded and cynical, he goes to church, he eats cookies in the morgue.

Albert Finney, looking like a lady trucker in his 70s haircut, brings all the detail he can muster to his portrayal of Detective Wilson. That’s too bad, because Wolfen isn’t a character piece. Wilson pursues his mysterious killers, and we keep waiting for his past to catch up to him, or for his drinking to affect his work, or for his prejudices to cause him to make poor deductions, or for his fear of heights to prevent him from chasing a suspect up a church bell tower. But Wolfen isn’t a character piece, it’s a detective thriller with a gimmick: the killers are wolves.

Because the movie is called Wolfen, the viewer knows before the movie even starts, before the studio logo even comes up, that the killers are wolves. So we sit and sigh and tap our feet while Detective Wilson takes the better part of two acts to come to the conclusion that something unusual is going on here. During that time, there are some small pleasures to be found. Most of the smaller roles are very well cast and played, and the movie makes extensive use of real New York locations. Gregory Hines is funny and energetic as a city employee whose job seems to encompass being a detective, a medical examiner and a sniper, Diane Venora is, I think, the FBI lady assigned to work with Wilson (and soothe his ragged nerves with sex), James Tolkan shows up as a guy who, apparently, examines hairs for a living, and Tom Noonan appears as a zoo employee who loves wolves. Best of all, Edward James Olmos is prime werewolf-suspect Eddie (another werewolf named Eddie!). His role requires him to mouth phony-baloney Native American wisdom, take off his clothes, scamper around on a beach nude, howl at the moon and drink from a puddle of water, and he manages to not only retain his dignity but to infuse his performance with grace, wit and charm — he "Olmos" makes the movie worth watching (sorry).

After American Werewolf and The Howling, a viewer may be forgiven for anticipating a super-cool, big-budget werewolf-transformation scene. Sorry guys — Wolfen craps out. The killers hunting the homeless and the wealthy in Wolfen aren’t werewolves, they’re just plain-old wolves. Smart wolves, sure, magic wolves, absolutely, but still wolves. They shoot magic hypno-beams out of their eyes, they can jump in the windows of skyscrapers and they can disappear into nothingness at will, but no amount of actors pretending to be terrified can compensate for the fact that they just aren’t that scary.

Wolfen does try to do a number of things right — it sticks with its detective protagonist, it details a not-unconvincing portrait of a sick society falling apart and tosses in a false-lead terrorist group.  What it does not do is gel into a coherent thriller narrative.  Wolf attacks happen on a schedule dictated not by the narrative but by the number of screen-minutes that have gone by without a wolf attack, there is no ticking clock (Wison does not need to find the killer before the next full moon or anything) and the wolves seem to attack anybody for any reason — the poor who inhabit the slums, the rich who are trying to gentrify the slums, the detectives trying to catch them and even the kindly wolf-loving zookeeper.

At the end of Act II, Detective Wilson tracks down prime-suspect Eddie and Eddie fakes him out — a dead end. He repairs to Comely FBI Agent’s apartment for tea and sympathy and resumes his quest in the morning. With no leads, he sits around and thinks about wolves for a while — not a good start for the third act of a detective thriller. Eventually, Wilson and Multi-Talented City Employee stake out a spooky church, MTCE is killed and Wilson is attacked. Dazed and shaken, Wilson summons all the detective skills in his possession, goes to a Native American bar (called The Wigwam — yeesh) sits down and looks like he’s about to cry. With no further prompt, Eddie and a bunch of other Native Americans go ahead and simply tell Wilson the story of the Wolfen and their position in urban development. Good detective work, Wilson, why didn’t you get attacked, go to a bar, sit down and pout 45 minutes earlier, you could have saved yourself a lot of time.

So what is the story of the Wolfen? Let me see if I’ve got this straight: White people are evil for pushing the Native Americans off their land, the Wolfen are somehow spiritually linked to the Native Americans because the Native Americans, being noble savages, existed in perfect harmony with nature, except now they live in American cities, "above it all," spending their time literally at the tops of bridges, while the Wolfen patrol the slums, clearing the urban herd of the sick and weak like good wolves, and also targeting real-estate developers who are planning to infringe on the Wolfen’s hunting grounds by building shiny new skyscrapers. So: new cities bad, rotting cities good, killing the weak good, real estate development bad. It’s all part of the balance of nature, you see — the Wolfen don’t want us here, but now that we’re here we’d better not take away their food supply or else they’ll get mad. Wolfen would like to be, I think, a modern Chinatown with a surreal twist, but it ends up collapsing into confused morals and heart-on-its sleeve sloganeering.


34 Responses to “Monsters! Wolfen”
  1. curt_holman says:

    I read the novel ‘Wolfen’ before the film came out, and in my memory, it implied that the Wolfen didn’t look like regular old wolves. I don’t remember how they were described, but I imagined they looked like man-wolves a la The Howling, although the could have looked like the “Wargs” from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The fact that they were just regular ol’ wolves was letdown.

    I did really like the wolfen POV scenes, both the photography and the music/sound effects.

    One of the problematic conventions of killer-monster-in-urban/modern-environment stories is that the hero or heroes has to eliminate natural/human causes before pursuing supernatural ones. The audience is usually ahead of Mulder and Scully on “The X-Files” or Darren McGavin on “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” because we usually see the monster before the investigators do. Of course, an hour-long TV series will compress this process a lot more quickly than movies usually do.

    • Todd says:

      The “wolf-eye” photography effect looks cheap to me now, but the sound was effective enough that it was lifted wholesale for Predator.

    • jwz says:

      Well, that was actually one of the things that worked about X Files: Mulder always jumped to the wacky conclusion first thing, without any evidence at all, so he was right there with the audience while Scully played catch-up.

    • swan_tower says:

      Not so much ahead of Mulder, who usually leapfrogs over the natural/human explanations and makes a beeline for the freaky one. (Which was fun when they had him be wrong, wrong, wrongitty wrong.)

      But yeah. It’s a standard trope of the genre that you can’t always get around: if the supernatural stuff is a hidden part of society and your protagonist is a normal person, you must go through a certain amount of disbelief before you get to belief. We’ve had a certain number of stories where the protagonist is a monster movie geek or whatever and jumps right on the supernatural bandwagon, but that’s usually played for parody effect.

      • Todd says:

        It’s interesting, because Det Wilson doesn’t believe or disbelieve, he’s just following leads. If the clues lead to a terrorist organization he’s fine, if they lead to a giggling Native American romping naked on a beach he’s fine with that too. The wolves in Wolfen show up too late for him to have his belief/non-belief opinion register, although he does destroy a building model in order to appease their virulent anti-gentrification wolf-sense.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I re-watched Wolfen a few months ago and was less disappointed in it this time than I was the first time I saw it, largely because I knew not to expect any actual wolf-man action on screen.

    The film, incidentally, was directed by Michael Wadleigh, whose only previous credit was Woodstock, which probably accounts for its muddled politics. For a while I thought it was trying to make a statement about the privatization of law enforcement or something of that nature, but that’s just one of many strands that Wadleigh picks up and almost immediately abandons.

    • Todd says:

      If law enforcement in NY was ever privatized, detective-medical examiner-sniper Gregory Hines will be in great demand and be able to pull down an impressive salary.

      • craigjclark says:

        Thinking back, this movie also reminds me a lot of Deer Woman, which John Landis directed for the Masters of Horror series a few years back. In it, a ground-down detective is called in to investigate a series of bizarre animal attacks. It takes him a while to piece things together, but we know right from the start that they’re the work of a Deer Woman because, well, that’s the title of the episode. There’s even a scene where the detective and his partner have the legend of the Deer Woman explained to them by a helpful American Indian bartender.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    I’m starting to wonder if there ever has been a outright good werewolf/wolfman/magic wolf/wolf-related movie. Well, maybe “good” is a bit too strong of a word. “Reasonably satisfying in narrative and visuals”, maybe?

    It does sound like “Wolfen” at least manages to have a decent idea of what it’s about, as opposed to “The Howling” which sounds as though it has very little idea where its focus lies either in character or theme. It’s unfortunate; it seems like “Wolfen” could have been a really fun movie all the way through had the Wolfen’s motivation been a little less eyeroll inducing.

    • swan_tower says:

      Werewolves just haven’t gotten much quality love. Even in fiction, they tend to play second fiddle to vampires and other critters.

      • craigjclark says:

        I just finished reading a collection of short stories called The Literary Werewolf, which spans centuries of werewolf fiction. There’s some good stuff out there (like Angela Carter’s wolf stories, which she helped adapt into the film The Company of Wolves), but I have yet to encounter a full-blown werewolf novel that compelled me. (Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf doesn’t count because it’s barely a novella.)

    • I liked Dog Soldiers well enough, and Ginger Snaps.

      • craigjclark says:

        I just saw Ginger Snaps this week and can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to it. It’s not Shakespeare, but as werewolf movies go you can do a lot, lot worse.

    • drshoggoth says:

      I was satisfied with Brotherhood of the Wolf, which isn’t a werewolf movie, but is certainly wolf-related.

      I have neither seen Wolfen or read the book it was based on, but Wayne Douglas Barlowe did a fantastic illustration of one of the wolfen man-wolves in his “Guide to Fantasy”. I’m afraid to read it for fear of disappointment; I know I’d be disappointed in the film adaptation.

    • curt_holman says:

      The Wolf Man

      Well, how does Lon Chaney Jr.’s ‘The Wolf Man’ hold up? It’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I can’t really remember one way or another. I definitely remember loving it when I was a kid, and obviously the makeup qualifies it as one of Universal’s classic monsters.

    • outright good werewolf/wolfman/magic wolf/wolf-related movie

      Never Cry Wolf?

      Didn’t like Mike Nichols’ Wolf, but others seem to.

  4. chrispiers says:

    If you’re still asking us about monster movies, I like the Gremlins movies, even though they aren’t very scary. I also kinda like the Godzilla: Final Wars movie with a couple dozen monsters. If you’re only looking for scary stuff, I apologize. I like the more is more approach to monsters sometimes.

    • Todd says:

      The Gremlins movies are plenty scary enough for my 7-year-old son — he saw them months ago and still hasn’t stopped talking about them.

      My mandate here is not scariness but originality in approach, if that helps you any.

  5. Since you are on a werewolf kick, may I recommend WOLF, wherein, after being bitten, a sad-sack book editor, under the light of the full moon turns into Jack Nicholson. Definitely plays up the metaphors of alpha-males and predatory instincts needed to survive the business world. Decent flick.

    And I definitely second GINGER SNAPS.

    • craigjclark says:

      Wolf is decent, but overlong. It could easily lose a half hour, although I couldn’t tell you which because I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hot Fuzz is a great film about a cop that plays by the rules.

  7. curt_holman says:

    Tetsuo: The Iron Man

    If you’re looking for ‘originality in approach’ in your monster movies, you should definitely consider Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s a black-and-white Japanese film from 1989 that I believe is less than 70 minutes long, and is the most deeply strange movies of any kind I’ve ever seen. Stylistically, it’s reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard and Eraserhead-era David Lynch. And if you’re interested in transformation themes along the lines of The Fly and the werewolf movies, it definitely qualifies.

    BTW, I tried several times to post this and kept having mysterious problems, so if suddenly three versions of this post turn up, it wasn’t intentional.

  8. Anonymous says:

    So is this the movie where someone informs the main character that a decapitated head stays alive for a couple minutes, then later we see some guy get his head ripped off, and we get a close-up of the head CONTINUING TO BABBLE SILENTLY WITH BLOOD POURING OUT OF ITS MOUTH? Because that freaked me out from approximately the ages of 9 to 33.

    — Kent M. Beeson