REtro REview: Wolfen (1981) | A Worthwhile Trip Down Memory Lane

The phrase ‘You can’t go home again,’ apparently came from a Thomas Wolfe novel of the same name – which is news to me and while I suspect that it was never intended to apply to movies, it works because who hasn’t recalled seeing something at an earlier point in their lives that they don’t revisit out of fear it won’t quite hold up to scrutiny?

That’s how I felt about Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, before I rewatched it after having first seen it decades ago, which honestly leaves me a bit confused because while the movie never quite comes together the power of its ideas remain potent.

Things open with two or three steelworkers moving about the support structure of on the Brooklyn Bridge (or is it the George Washington Bridge? I’m not entirely sure) though eventually leaves them to follow a powerful, politically-connected New York developer and his wife, who end up being violently murdered.

This worries some really powerful people, such as the Mayor of the city.

The NYPD (New York Police Department) is stumped as to why – and to a degree how – the crime was committed, though that doesn’t stop them from believing that it’s the work of AIM – that’s the American Indian Movement, not ‘Advanced Idea Mechanics‘ – so they get their best man (something we have to take on faith because the movie gives us no real reason why that happens to be the case, which gets even more confusing when we learn that the reason he wasn’t on the force was due to a mental breakdown).

Wilson suspects that it’s not terrorism but something entirely different, and comes to suspect Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), one of the steelworkers we meet at the beginning of the movie, of having something to do with it.

Eventually Holt tells Wilson of the Wolfen, an unknown species of wolf that has the intelligence of Man and senses that surpass ours.

These creatures survive in the ghettos and live in the ruins of our cities, preying upon the forgotten and the lost.

This is a great idea, though the film turns these creatures, visually speaking, into ordinary wolves. The certainly don’t act like regular wolves, though it would have been better if they somehow looked distinctive as well.

As I discuss in my review, what would have made the movie better would have been for the Wolfen to have been the Native Americans we meet in the film, creatures that could have been the basis of the werewolf myth as it existed thought the centuries.

These OG werewolves would have – hopefully – been realized in the vein of An American Werewolf in London (1981) or Dog Soldiers (2002), if only because I’ve also seen An American Werewolf in Paris (1997) and how the CGI path would have been the wrong one to take.

Another problem with the movie arises when meet Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) who’s a fine actress but has little in the way of chemistry with Albert Finney though it does highlight what appears to be director Michael Wadleigh’s reluctance to deal not only with depictions of violence, but physical intimacy (sex).

Could this have something to do with Wolfen being Wadleigh’s only feature film (he’s primarily a director of documentaries)? Studio interference?

I have no idea but that Wolfen comes out in the end not only watchable, but pretty engaging is the stuff of minor miracles.

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