To recommend a flick I usually have to give it seven out of ten. And yet the cinema is so vast there’s plenty of stuff rating 5.5 to 6.9 that’s certainly worth a watch. Guess you can call such movies interesting… almost. Or, er, not quite. For example, they might be built on a fantastic idea or have become hugely influential. Maybe they boast an eye-catching lead performance, great special effects or a terrific first hour.
You get the idea.
First up is the New York-set box-office dud, Wolfen. Lumped in with werewolf flicks out of convenience, it feels more like eco-horror instead of a straightforward genre piece. Whatever the case, it’s more thoughtful, offbeat and ambitious than its hairy 1981 counterparts, The Howling and American Werewolf.
That doesn’t mean it’s as good.
The story: People are getting ripped to bits in the city. It’s up to Detective Dewey Wilson (Finney) to stop drinking and work out what’s going on. He’s paired with a criminal psychologist (Venora) to unravel the gruesome mystery, although he’s also aided by a bizarrely hands-on coroner (Hines).
Why it works: First and foremost, because of the sterling work of Wadleigh. Having won raves for his groundbreaking doco, Woodstock, it took the director more than a decade to release his first (and only) feature film. Like De Palma, this guy knows how to move a camera. Wolfen’s visuals are often beautiful and lovingly composed. Wadleigh is always looking for different angles and textures, utilizing everything from security cam footage to night vision scopes. I still have no idea how he manages to make the camera zoom over the uneven terrain of large patches of waste ground. Then there’s his cool use of the prowling wolves’ POV, a mash-up of computer graphics, animation and infrared that popped up six years before a jungle-bound Schwarzenegger felt the weight of the Predator’s eyeballs. Keeping the fanged culprits hidden for more than half the movie is another welcome touch.
Now I’m used to the Big Apple of the late seventies/early eighties being shown as a hellhole (as demonstrated by the likes of Death Wish, The Exterminator and Maniac) but Wolfen is perhaps the film to capture the extent of its decline. Wadleigh manages to make the South Bronx look like a post-bomb Hiroshima. I believe the technical term is urban decay, although I prefer to call it fucked. And so, we get vast expanses of rubble, empty buildings on the verge of collapse, routine demolitions, and hobos camped on weed-infested pavements warming their hands on braziers. New York resembles a ghost town rather than a major American metropolis on the East Coast. Despite Wolfen being nearly two hours long, there are no busy streets or crowd scenes. It provides a fascinating snapshot of the city and is easily the movie’s most memorable aspect.
Its opening hours unfold nicely. We begin with a night-time triple slaughter of a beautiful, coked-up rich chick, her businessman hubby, and their hulking limo driver in a Manhattan park. It’s a classy start complete with wind chimes, a replica windmill, a wary pet dog, and a twitching, gun-holding severed hand. In other words, it’s both a restrained and graphic depiction of open-air slaughter. Wolfen continues to intrigue, offering a pair of glowing eyes in the darkened ruins of a church, a python consuming a rat, and the gradual introduction of its environmental concerns.
The dialogue’s not bad, either.
What works against it: The performances aren’t the best. Finney is a decent-enough actor, but doesn’t get a handle on his cop character. He features in some odd scenes, especially one on a beach when he blankly watches another man getting nude, howling at a blood-red moon and pretending to be a wolf. Overall Finney strolls through Wolfen not saying a lot nor showing much emotion about anything that’s placed in his way, including a half-baked love interest.
Elsewhere, Hines plays a hip, earring-adorned, ass-baring, too young coroner. I wasn’t aware coroners actively investigated homicides, but that’s what he does here. The gangly Tom Noonan adds another strange performance as a moped-riding, deeply committed zoologist who likes to torture himself by watching real-life footage of wolf culls. He gets the occasional good line, though, such as: “Nature works. We don’t.” Then again, perhaps Wolfen’s anti-technology, man-is-the-real-beast message is a bit too on the nose.
I doubt Wolfen’s patient build-up is to everyone’s taste, although its languid pacing is offset by some suspenseful sequences, the constant directorial inventiveness and its moments of gore. Still, I’d have to say its biggest disappointment is that Wadleigh (who was in his late thirties in 1981) never directed again.
Verdict: I‘ve watched this movie three times and still don’t know if its vaguely confused narrative works. Chances are, it’ll get a fourth viewing. That must mean something.