Released in 1981, in the middle of the early 80s horror boom, Wolfen was lumped in with the same year's two big werewolf pictures, An American Werewolf In London and The Howling, and was regarded as the runt of the lupine litter but that isn't really accurate or fair. For a start, it's not about werewolves - the wolfen of the title are something else entirely - and while John Landis and Joe Dante both took a semi-comic approach, Wolfen is an ambitious and seriously intended film.
There was a brief fad in the late 70s and early 80s for respected directors not usually associated with the horror genre to make monster movies with an environmental theme, other examples being John Frankenheimer's Prophecy (which was about a mutant bear) and Arthur Hiller's Nightwing (which featured a flock of killer bats). Wolfen was directed by Michael Wadleigh, who made the acclaimed concert documentary Woodstock and, like Prophecy and Nightwing, it sees its monsters as nature's payback for man's environmental irresponsibility. It also touches on the mistreatment of American Indians, which was a political hot potato in America at the time. All three movies respect the unbreakable Hollywood rule that Indians are repositories of wisdom and more in tune with nature than the silly white-eyes.
The film's based on a novel by Whitley Streiber, who's best known for claiming to have been abducted by aliens in Communion but who also wrote the books that inspired 1983's The Hunger and Roland Emmerich's forthcoming global disaster movie Tomorrow. The story opens with world-weary New York detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney, a nice, offbeat bit of casting) being assigned to investigate the grisly murders of an industrialist, his wife and chauffeur. As the husband had his fingers in a lot of international pies, terrorism is suspected and Wilson is teamed with a psychologist (Diane Venora) who's an expert on violent political groups. But there are further killings, which appear to have no motive and the coroner (Gregory Hines) turns up evidence suggesting animal attacks. Interviews with a zoologist (Tom Noonan) and a former Indian activist (Edward James Olmos) convince Wilson that an intelligent breed of wolves may be responsible.
A fascinating and atmospheric tale, effectively set in the bombed-out bowels of New York, its only major flaw is overlength. It's only in the last half hour that we discover the true nature and purpose of the wolfen and, this being a 114 minute film, the build-up feels padded out. Also the film-makers' serious intentions don't always sit comfortably with the obligatory monster attacks, which come complete with false scares and over-the-top gore, though it must be said that Wadleigh does a much better job with the horror material than John Frankenheimer or Arthur Hiller. It helps that he's not saddled with the silly-looking rubber monsters of their films - the bat attacks in Nightwing are just laughable. Wadleigh's wolves are mostly real animals, well trained and effectively directed.
Although Wolfen's not very well-known, having been a box office disaster in the summer of 1981, it appears to have had some influence on future films. The shots from the wolves' perspectives have a very similar look to the alien's viewpoint in 1987's Predator, using bright primal colours and heightened sounds to suggest the creatures' more advanced senses. And James Horner's music sounds not at all unlike his famous score for Aliens which he wrote five years later, especially in the suspense sequences.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic picture is very good. It's crisp and clear even in the many night scenes and does full justice to Gerry Fisher's cinematography, which makes great use of the dingiest New York locations imaginable. There's only an occasional hint of print damage.
The sound is where the disc lets itself down. The Dolby Stereo soundtrack is murkier than we're used to - I had to turn my amp up to hear all the dialogue - and, more damagingly, there's also a slight sync problem. It's only a split second out and is usually obscured by Michael Wadleigh's directing style, but it's noticable every so often when you can clearly see a character's lips moving or a car door slamming and the soundtrack is ever so slightly late. It doesn't spoil the film but it's annoying that an otherwise impressive transfer is marred in this way.
Extras are a trailer, a one-page summary of the main cast and crew and a short text essay on werewolf movies. Menus are static and there are 32 chapters.
This is an interesting film worth seeing if you enjoy thoughtful horror movies and don't mind a bit of gore. There are no extras to speak of but the widescreen picture is impressive. Sadly the package is let down a little by a weak, slightly out of sync soundtrack. At a very afforable price, it's not a bad buy.