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Wolfen Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    Wolfen Review
    “They can see two looks away. They can hear a cloud pass overhead.”

    Director Michael Wadleigh had already established amazingly hip liberal credentials after making his documentary, Woodstock, so the ecological message he phased into this movie adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s great, though admittedly pulp, horror yarn, The Wolfen (from 1978) should really have come as no surprise to anybody. However, due a misleading advertising campaign that played up a werewolf theme that is ultimately exposed as a red-herring and coming out in the same year (1981) as such man-into-beast fx-romps as The Howling and An American Werewolf In London, it confounded audiences and sank most unsatisfyingly without a trace. And this is a terrible shame because Wolfen is, in my opinion, a fabulous horror film in its own right. I adore the original novel, too. It saw me through a week off school with bronchitis when I was about eleven – and I have returned to Streiber’s dark tale several times since. The best elements of the book have made it into the film and, miraculously, the film even adds to the premise of the book.

    “See? No-one thinks about the head.”

    Starring Albert Finney as dogged, world-weary New York detective Dewey Wilson, and the lovely Diane Venora as his police psychologist partner Rebecca Neff, the film charts the macabre investigation into the horrific discovery of diseased body parts found in the slums of a desolate part of the Bronx, and the existence of a cunning, almost supernatural species of predator – the Wolfen - that is preying on society’s lost and forgotten – the outcasts and the down-and-outs. Living off the waste of our own greed and decadence, it seems. “Those who will not be missed,” a wise old Native American informs us later. However, they appear to make one big mistake that will bring their “older, more complete” world into direct conflict with our own. They brutally slay wealthy and influential land developer Christopher Van Der Veer, his wife Pauline, and their formidable bodyguard (“He didn’t even get a shot off. How’s that for fast ? ”) in the film’s gloriously mysterious opening, set in the eerie pre-dawn at Battery Park. Unfortunately for them, there’s no way that this potential president will be missed. Almost immediately, Wadleigh allows us a frightening introduction to the instinct-ruled world of these super-intelligent predators with intense Wolfen-eye views, a soundtrack that enhances every sound - every breath, voice and footfall - and some devastatingly clever Louma-crane tracking shots that has us stalking victims right alongside them. Check out the beautiful singing of the wind-chimes. The contrast of such a soothing sound with the savagery that follows is a key to the thematic drive of the entire movie. Beauty, hand in hand with brutality. Just Mother Nature, in other words, going about her business.

    “You know, you could do with a haircut … you wanna lie down?”

    “Not till it’s my turn.”

    Finney’s weather-beaten cop is an outcast, too. He’s not quite the conventional haunted hero, but he is definitely a loner. Cynical, edgy and sarcastic, he nevertheless gets results. When we meet him, he has just been recalled from an unexplained sojourn to take this case – “Police work piled up on him … he’s a good man, you’ll like him.” And, it is to Finney’s credit that we do, indeed, like him. Despite his dishevelled and slobbish appearance, we can sense that he’s been round the block a few times, and at least, we know that if a little tiny dog can trust him, we can too. Finney does pretty well with that Brooklyn accent, as well. Venora, too, fleshes out her role into something much more than just the token female. A specialist in terrorist-profiling, she is assigned to the investigation by the shadowy security organisation that was supposed to be looking after the Van Der Veers. Listen out for the squirm-inducing fun she injects into a veritable shopping list of terrorist atrocities for the reluctant edification of a hotdog-guzzling Dewey. It’s telling, though, that after a decent enough start, her character seems slightly coaxed into more stereotypical territory. In the original book, Becky Neff was a real tough cookie, but, screenwriter David Eyre seems to bottle out of having her as resourceful as that.

    “The Devil on one shoulder … and the angel on the other. Let’s get out of here.”

    In a classic scene, lifted from the book, the two detectives search the windswept wasteland of derelict buildings in the South Bronx, an area that was scheduled for demolition in line with the Van Der Veer’s huge new real estate project. They enter a decrepit old church and probe around the ruins when Neff hears what she believes to be a baby crying. Set in bright broad daylight, this entire sequence ominously cranks up the tension as she instinctively seeks to find and protect the child, creeping up a rickety old staircase towards something that we just know is not a baby. This is one of two incredible scenes, both set in the same location, that simply raise the hairs on the neck with deceptive, and raw, primal ease. Wadleigh instils such a sinister atmosphere that even watching the film for the umpteenth time – and knowing exactly what’s up there – does little to allay the fears. The knowledge of something terrible waiting in the darkness is spine-tinglingly well handled. And it is Wadleigh’s expert direction that has the second such sequence, this time under the petrifying cloak of night and featuring a heavily armed Dewey Wilson making the climb up the same stairs, a terrifyingly bravura set-piece and not just a darker retread of similar material. The setting is marvellous, too. The slums recall a bombed-out Dresden and really do look like a dangerous place, in which any number of beasts might be lurking.

    “Makes a bombing seem like child’s play.”

    Another great character brought into service is the police pathologist, Whittington, played with stylish gusto by Gregory Hines. That Dewey is able to coerce the comical ghoul from his morgue for the doomed stakeout provides some blessed light relief in what is, essentially, a very serious and downbeat movie. His great speech about the guillotined heads of the French Revolution still being able to live without oxygen for over a minute provides two wonderful payoffs. Listen out for the sickening thud of Pauline Van Der Veer’s head, as clumsy Keystone cops try to move her body – a wonderfully sly touch that caps off what started out as a very haunting moment. And, as for the other delicious payoff … well, just wait and see. Wolfen is not a particularly gory movie though. There’s a great severed hand gag, and the mortuary scene is very unpleasant as the camera prowls around tables of cadavers in various unsavoury states, but in the main, it is fairly restrained. But Wadleigh certainly understands how to wring a cloying sense of unease and trepidation – the sound of a drill cutting through bone, the scraping of dead fingernails across a metal slab and a lightning-quick cut of a maggot-riddled noggin. He seems tremendously adept at teasing all the senses – amazingly lensed visuals, an unusual and disturbing sound design and, metaphorically, he even covers taste and smell within the context of the many Wolfen POV shots. In fact, for someone so attuned to what film can do, it is surprising that he didn’t go on to make any more after this. And a great pity, too.

    “You got your technology, but you lost. You lost your senses.”

    Of course, the biggest and most radical, alteration that Wadleigh – who also co-wrote the screenplay – made, was the addition of the spiritual beliefs of the Native American Indians, personified mainly by the strange, but mesmerising performance from Edward James Olmos, as activist and bridge-worker Eddie Holt. Their pretence at being able to shape-shift their bodies into whatever animal they want, and the mock transformation that Eddie performs for a frightened Dewey (kudos to Olmos for doing it nude – it must have been absolutely freezing on that beach), hint heavily at a symbiotic relationship with the Wolfen. This socio-eco plot thread, revolving around their delicate co-existence, was lost on many viewers, who seemed unable to find the harmony, nor the emotional core of the film’s message. Even the addition of Tom (Manhunter) Noonan, as crackpot zoologist Ferguson, seems to play into the hands of the film’s detractors, proving to be a bit of a misstep. And, confession time here, folks – there’s a scene of Ferguson, a devout defender of all things lupine – watching vintage footage of airborne hunters killing a wolf for real that, apart from the very first time I saw this movie, I have not, and will not, witness again. I understand the thematic reason for its inclusion, and its context, but I simply cannot watch it. Yep, for my sins, my heart, like Fergie’s, resides with the wolves. Afterall, “Man kills for less.” And that, by far, is the cleverest, and most engaging trick that Wadleigh – and even Streiber in his book – makes. Come the end of the film, and in spite of the numerous killings that have taken place, it is hardly surprising just whose side we are on.

    “Territory ... terrorists … terror.”

    In keeping with this new-age philosophy, the film contains a wonderful scene of quiet revelation as a bloodied, and traumatised Dewey sits in with the Indians he once suspected, as they weave the heartbreaking history of the Wolfen – their spiritual blood-brothers. It is such a touching and tranquil respite from the tension of the stakeout scene that precedes it – the old father uttering those two remarkable lines that I quoted at the start of this review, that rank, as possibly, the most eloquent and beautiful that I have ever heard said in a horror film – that the movie shifts its themes around you, comforting you as much as it chills you. Of the Wolfen, he says, “They can see two looks away. They can hear a cloud pass overhead.” Those words, combined with James Horner’s soft lament, the hushed reverence of the gathering and the harrowing sight of Finney’s scratched face as his harried cop slowly begins to comprehend, are a magical marriage of such evocative power that the movie takes on a distinctly more emotional, and heightened resonance from this point on. Dewey’s full realisation of the pack’s motives is revealed in an equally spell-binding moment as he watches footage of the Van Der Veer ground breaking ceremony in the desolate ruins of the Bronx slums. “They kill to protect their hunting ground …” Unfortunately, this blending of ecological warning with the more distinct horror/thriller format left most audiences perplexed and unfulfilled. After the grotesque and fantastic transformations of the two other wolfish offerings that year, they wanted their villains to be just as monstrous and gratuitous. Wadleigh, however, sidestepped all that and went for the jugular in a more cerebral way. But, trust me, Wolfen still has plenty of bite.

    “In the end, it is all … the hunting ground.”

    There are some failings along the way. There is a woeful sex scene shoehorned-in, and one sympathetic character’s demise is dealt with in a wholly baffling manner, suggesting some creative differences between the writers and the studio. But the great moments far outweigh these niggles. The whole terrorism angle with the group Gotterdammerung (“Their terrorist motto, ‘The end of the world, by wolves,') is a great equation to mankind devouring itself. The incredible stand-off against the ferocious pack at the end, and the magical way in which they arrive outside the high penthouse suite is as breathtaking as it is disturbing. I love the way Dewey keeps thinking that he’s found crucial clues – a dropped pearl, for instance – and then his growing concern that the enemy is now hunting himself, and Neff. Look at that awesome half-dreamt instant when Dewey’s lone vigil outside his partner’s apartment block reveals two gigantic beasts perched atop a wall, illuminated, for a micro-second, by his headlights. The moment when he catches a glimpse of the wolves’ breath through the nightscope of his rifle – “They’re here” he mutters, pre-empting Spielberg’s Poltergeist by a year – and his courageous exploration of their lair. The poetic early score from James Horner that he later utilised elements from for Star Trek 2 and Aliens – lilting, eerie and full of dark menace. The mournful wailing over the end titles purposefully imitating the howling of the Wolfen, and the pensive final notes reflecting the fragile stalemate between the pack and Mankind. And, best of all, the simply fantastic shot of a wolf actually grinning at his potential victims. It’s in a screen-grab here, folks.

    “I don’t know – this one is very strange and very weird. Just like you.”

    One important thing I feel I must mention is that this version, like all DVD and video prints of the film, is missing a couple of scenes. After the spooky moment when the pack almost manages to lure Becky Neff up the stairs, she and Dewey find themselves in a bar discussing the day’s frightening events. Due to licensing problems Tom Waites, who plays the piano-crooner in the bar, cannot be shown singing. Now, this is quite unfortunate, as it actually serves to remove some interesting conversation between the two main characters, also. There are, as well, a couple of scenes to do with the arrest of terrorist suspects (Wadleigh, himself, appears as one) that have been shortened. The only version I know of that contains all of these scenes is the print that has been shown on Channel 4 a couple of times.

    “In arrogance, Man knows nothing of what exists. There exists on this Earth such as we dare not imagine. Life as certain as our death. Life that will prey on us … as we prey on this Earth.”

    It’s not often that a horror film steps out from the flock and actually dares to say something important. It’s even rarer that it manages to be entertaining, and moving. Wolfen’s bloody scary, too. And I’m on their side!