Wolfen - The Unused Score Soundtrack Review
“They can see two looks away. They can hear a cloud pass overhead.”
I have comprehensively covered the R1 DVD of Michael Wadleigh’s awesome 1981 chiller Wolfen, and gone extensively through James Horner’s incredible score for it with Intrada’s outstanding CD release. While I had believed – and hoped – that the next time I visited the urban hunting ground of this eco-flavoured adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s powerful novel for this site it would be to review the film on Blu-ray … I am extremely pleased, and a little surprised to discover I now have the opportunity to stalk the same blood-stained territory incognito, as it were, with a journey through the fabled unused score that Craig Safan originally composed for the film, only to have it jettisoned as the budget and creative differences in the production sent the spiritual predators in a different direction.
Again coming courtesy of possibly the best soundtrack label in the business, Intrada, this is the complete score that Safan wrote and conducted back in May 1981, and it makes for a fascinating pack-mate to the well-known, highly regarded and quite influential score that eventually ran with the wolves. Whereas th e promo release that many fans have was culled from Safan’s own personal ¼” tape and was slightly trimmed, Intrada have used the complete multi-track masters that were in the Warner vault, so this runs roughly two minutes longer over assorted cues, and has much cleaner, far more dynamic and detailed stereo.
A pack of super-intelligent wolves – the Wolfen – have been stalking the Dresden-like wasteland of the South Bronx in Manhattan, picking off the sick and the homeless, the derelicts of modern society, those who will not be missed. But when wealthy land-developer Christopher Van Der Veer commences building work on their area, their home and their hunting ground become threatened. In an act of savage desperation, the pack slays him and his wife and his bodyguard, and inadvertently launches a police investigation that could just as easily spell doom for their existence. Albert Finney and Diane Venora play the two mismatched detectives on the case, with Gregory Hines and Tom Noonan providing excellent support as, respectively, a police pathologist with a flair for sniper-rifles, and a zoologist who sympathises with the plight of wolves in general … and suspects that this pack may well be something special and worth preserving. The Wolfen, in the meantime, realise the danger they are in from exposure and begin to hunt the detectives.
Unlike Strieber’s pant-wettingly scary book, which took the supposition that the ancient Wolfen were the truth behind the myth of werewolfry around the world, the animals here are not monsters, but blood-brothers to the Native Americans – their sad plight amongst the technology and arrogance of modern man a symbiotic pathway to extinction exactly the same as that which has befallen the red man. The film, itself, although thoughtful and provocative and concerned with ecological issues and the sense of a collective morality, is still a Horror Film that genuinely terrifies and thrills, but one that also, ultimately, moves and asks questions that linger in the mind.
I read Strieber’s pulpish thriller when I was nine years old and recovering from a bout of bronchitis, and it is one of the few books that I still return to even now and get just as much of a thrill from. The film adaptation has been one of my all-time favourites since I first saw it back on home-video a couple of years later, and from that point on, I have become quite obsessive about the curious saga of nature’s commando assault on so-called civilisation.
Woodstock’s Michael Wadleigh was the original ideas-driven director of the film and, alongside screenwriter David Eyre, added the whole Native Indian subplot and tribal metaphor that Strieber’s book did not contain, but once his movie spiralled to a cut that was four-and-a-half hours long, stuffed with 36 “Scene Missing” cards and became “bogged-down” with a serious message about conservation and Man’s primitive absolutism that couldn’t be neatly shook off even when the running time was dropped by over a half, he was removed from the Orion Pictures production, along with his loyal editor Richard Chew. With damage limitation in mind, producer Rupert Hitzig (who had bid on the rights to Streiber’s book after reading an advance copy that his agent wife passed him) quickly took over the directing for thirty days of reshoots, instigating many of the film’s audacious Wolfen-vision optical effects. Then director John Hancock was swiftly brought in to cut the film down even further, supervise the dialogue-looping and to add some shock footage of the wolves (real wolves, folks, no dressed German Shepherds or CG creations in this movie) snarling and growling in close-up to provide the audience with some tangible monsters to recoil from. This was to the film’s benefit – there has never been footage of wolves in any film that reveals them as being so beautiful, as so gut-shrivellingly scary or as incalculably intelligent. I’ve gone on at length about the sadistic grin that one of them does after a dramatic killing, and I believe that we have John Hancock to thank for this incredible shot. Of course, collateral damage caused by this changing-of-hands and the drastic alteration of the film – many scenes were lost, including more murders – meant that Safan’s score possibly no longer fit the picture. Arguably, his atonal, aleaortic style didn’t go down too well with producers who were after a more crowd-rousing approach. So, with time running out, the suits from Orion drafted-in the young James Horner to provide a new score from scratch.
Clearly, though, Horner heard some of this material from Safan because there are some very similar phrases, sounds and tones being struck. Horner’s is inarguably the better of the two works, and this is not just because his is the most recognisable and popular – but because he places more emphasis upon melody and applies a lot more warmth to it, finding the elegiac heart and soul of the Wolfen as well as illustrating their profound capacity to cause utter terror and carnage. Safan’s music, which is also incredible, is much colder, more sterile and, for its time, quite boldly experimental. It contains more high tension and tingling suspense, and is much less forgiving than Horner’s interpretation … and, therefore, less accessible as a consequence.
Whereas the longer cut of the movie wanted to make the wolves sympathetic creatures that had every right, perhaps even more right than mankind, to exist in freedom, Safan’s music did not seem to convey that. Thus, his score may well have been excised as much for painting a stance of the predators that the story, ultimately, didn’t support.
But in the absence of the longer (though still radically modified) cut that he actually scored – which Wadleigh recently said he had no real hopes of ever being able to restore because the footage has long gone (never say never, Michael – look at Metropolis and the ongoing restorations of the Hammer classics) – this is the only way in which we can imagine those differing scenes and feel something of the atmosphere that was originally intended for the picture.
Safan went all-out to create a score that was like having bone-marrow extracted without any anaesthetic. He wanted to have you looking over your shoulder all the time and to take you to a place that offered absolutely no sanctuary.
He succeeds admirably.
This was Craig Safan’s biggest project to date. He was daunted by, but relished the size and scale of the undertaking with an orchestra of over a hundred players at his disposal (unsurprisingly, Horner’s was streamlined to seventy-six, with many of the same players working on both scores, albeit in different recording studios) and a director, in Wadleigh, who was expressive and creatively liberal and actively agreed with the composer’s revolutionary concept of using sound as a psychological extension of the film’s imagery. Safan had sat-in with John Corigliano whilst he worked on the clangourous and deliciously weird music for Ken Russell’s bizarrely brilliant (and undeniably pretentious) physio-philosophical transformation movie, Altered States, that appeared in cinemas the same year as Wolfen – and, more pertinently, at the same time as The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, with 1981 being the great year of the on-screen transformation – and found something similar in his avant-garde approach to what he, himself, intended to do for Wadleigh.
He terms his style for Wolfen as being the creation of “sonic events” rather than traditional notes specifically written as music. I have yet to match up the film to his score, but I think, with some understandable give and take, it will make for a uniquely disquieting experience. His approach is sometimes reminiscent of early Howard Shore (The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome) and Wendy Carlos (The Shining) in terms of off-kilter instrumentation and unsettling sound design, but also of Krzystof Penderecki (whose music is also heard in The Shining) and especially his opera, The Devils of Loudun. He went as far as to create his own Native American bullroarers to affect that incredibly lethargic, wind-thrumming, whirring vibration that can travel huge distances, like a sound-wave moving up and down in pitch as the player twirls a thin wooden blade, or slat, at the end of a length of twine or cord in a large circle through the air around himself. Wadleigh was so enamoured by the sound and the look of these things that he placed one in the movie. We see Edward James Olmos, as the suspicious Indian high-steel worker Eddie Holt, swinging one of these around above his head as he stands atop the Manhattan Bridge, and its primal cadence, not unlike that of an aboriginal didgeridoo, is heard in Safan’s score. The cord works first in one direction, and then in the other, and can be used in either the horizontal or vertical planes. It has a distinctively tribal, but an inordinately eerie sound, like the moaning of some giant bee, and can be heard in Tracks 7 and 13.
Whilst his score does actually have some of the same basic motifs that would go on to form the backbone of Horner’s music – glacial strings, metallic percussion and anvil, lilting chimes, and that unmistakable affinity with the Native American via ethnic percussion, whistles and flutes and the Bullroarer – I feel that there is a similar sort of unnerving, offbeat and angular sound to that of the great architect of the musically jarring, Leonard Rosenman (Race With The Devil, The Car, Bakshi’s animated take on The Lord of the Rings, and the not unrelated mutant-bear movie Prophecy which also dealt with Native Indians and Man’s disruption of the fragile ecology). You cannot relax with this score for a second. It is raw, uncompromising and forever on the move, with next to no themes to latch onto.
Be careful … this one bites.
The score, as heard on this album, is presented in better chronological film order than Horner’s, with track titles that tell us pretty clearly what sequence they are for, and this means that it is quite easy and tantalising to compare and contrast how Safan interpreted things differently from, or even similar to Horner’s approach. In the enclosed booklet that accompanies the release we can see the original cue assembly, and from this we can ascertain roughly when the infamous killing of The Fisherman took place within the cut of the movie that Safan was working towards.
Like Horner, Safan commences his score with power and icy aggression, opening the film with an epic set-piece that covers the Main Title And First Killings. In Safan’s case, there are five alarming cues that make up the first track, creating a huge nine-and-a-half minute suite that is ominous and fear-drenched. We have the Orion logo and then Safan’s Main Title, which slides and weaves like tendons hauled over broken glass, the violins aching with dread and the cello slowly cutting back and forth. With bass surges and skittering strings like bat-wings or maybe even a swarm of flies ousted from a freshly gutted corpse, and the odd punctuation from metal percussion this immediately sets the grim and shivery tone for what will follow throughout the score. His main motif is comprised of three notes that then repeat, heard here in the strings, but this evolves considerably throughout the score into something more complex and engrossing. Nothing in this score remains unchanged … and there is no reassuring rock to cling to. A huge heavy axe-fall from brass hovers with wavering malice as strings are nervously groped and teased. A real sense of leaving normality and entering someplace terrible and deadly is manifested. In the film it is juxtaposed with shots of the shadowy, neon-speckled metropolis and the interior of a luxurious limo, the point being that the haves and the have-nots are about to be brought into fierce conflict, the class struggle depicted in literal terms as the sidelined and shunned underdogs rise up, tooth and claw to fight for what is theirs.
We move with the Van Der Veers from the groundbreaking ceremony that the Wolfen have witnessed across the Manhattan Bridge, encountering the Indian activist Eddie Holt, who hurls a bottle at the passing limousine, until they arrive at Battery Park so that Christopher Van Der Veer can proudly reflect upon his growing empire with the spirits of his ancestors the Dutch pioneers who founded the first Windmill in New York, under the full moon. The Wolfen have followed them. A sombre refrain for the Native American theme from ethnic flute wavers on the air, delicate, wind-borne and vast. We hear taps from the woodblock, a gentle phrase from the piano and a muted variation of the main theme. There is a vague familiarity to this. James Horner would perhaps rework this into his own main theme, but rather more acutely when Albert Finney’s tormented cop, Dewey Wilson, sits in the Van Der Veer penthouse ruminating over the dreadful developments that have occurred. It is one of my favourite pieces of musical scoring and to hear how it possibly came to be is very rewarding and special indeed.
Safan supplies lots of little suspenseful crescendos as the Wolfen close the trap on their would-be persecutors, first taking out the tough Haitian bodyguard so quickly that he can’t even get a shot off, and then moving in on the Van Der Veers as they listen to the mesmerising sound of the wind-chimes and the groaning of the sails in the ceremonial statue. As Horner would do, Safan uses the chimes of the orchestra to fantastic effect, only in his score Safan utilises them in-conjunction with the ones seen during this particular sequence. Cello, harp, caterwauling woodwinds and a furry sound from the synth add further animalistic touches. Anvils clang, high tight and gleaming metal percussion makes the teeth scream. Safan has the brass and woodwind sections play their instruments in unusual ways – using multiphonics, which means playing more than one note at the same time, and removing their mouthpieces. He has two grand pianos tuned a quarter tone apart, and the inside of the keys being played. For the string sections he has each of the forty members playing a different note, and then has them move to each other’s notes within a specific time-frame. The warped effect of these strange tactics is to create the sound of a “low growl”, a “strangled animal” or some bestial “babbling” taking place. The discord is intensely quirky and often deeply disturbing.
In The Body, we are presumably in the company of the shocked cops as they ponder the remains of the massacre in the damp light of a cold New York dawn, with the track, just like Horner’s own cue (Van Der Veer’s Remains) focussing primarily upon the tragic discovery of Pauline Van Der Veer’s almost decapitated body. Both composers recognise the bizarre beauty of the ferociously precise slaying, and the almost surreal presentation of her corpse, slumped against a wind-sail, decorative in white and splashed with crimson. Michael Wadleigh, his cast of grim faced cops, his composers and, of course, us, all become smitten with the dead Pauline Van Der Veer – none of us knowing exactly why. The scene is something of a dark angel. A dreamscape made all the more poignant and powerful with the music of both Safan and then Horner. And Wadleigh even turns it on its head, so to speak, when the clumsy coroner’s attendants accidently allow the woman’s head to fall from her shoulders (offscreen, although we hear the comical thud as the pretty noggin hits the ground), and this splatstick only adds to the haunting atmosphere of the scene.
In Track 3’s The Morgue in which, presumably, Dewey discusses the strange wounds found on the bodies of the Van Der Veers and their bodyguard with his pathologist buddy, the eminently cool Whittington (Hines), Safan produces all manner of screwed-up, oddball and viciously uncomfortable effects from his orchestra. We are in a world of silver sterility, metal surfaces, scalpels, dead flesh and crushed dreams. Snuffed-out lives. I’ve never seen a mortuary sequence quite like this one. It hits home. French Horn warbles out the beginning strain of what would become Horner’s main theme, and then strange hoots and grunts like the sound of some bloated alien beast adrift in the fog pummel the opening of the cue – not ancient, not primal …just other. Then there are chimes, throbbing pulses from deep, deep register brass, rattles and shakers, trilling, unpredictable blurts from the trombone, melancholy, lost and lonely tones from the horns and edgy interjections from the strings to keep us on our toes and shifting about in distinct unease. Percussion and tuba suddenly rocket in, skin-drum and triangle flanked by scissoring violins, a wacky and wonderful stinger that I can’t quite see fitting in with the film as we know it. Perhaps this was to denote a cut from the morgue to the Wolfen going about their daily business in the longer version, another dropped scene, perhaps. Either way, the track is demented and sick and perfectly evocative of a place I don’t want to find myself in … “Not until it’s my turn,” as Dewey balefully tells Whittington.
Once they are paired up on the case, Dewey and Rebecca Neff (Vemora), a police psychologist specialising in counter-terrorism (the authorities believe that the Van Der Veers were assassinated by some political group), take a trip out to the derelict South Bronx in which the groundbreaking ceremony took place. More body-parts have turned up in the area, and Dewey can smell something. In one of several of the film’s blood-sappingly spooky sequences, the two detectives enter the dilapidated ruins of an old church – the very lair that the Wolfen will kill to protect. The next two tracks seem to cover this extended set-piece in which the wolves mimic the cry of a human baby in order to lure Neff up the stairs and separate her from her partner, and Wilson, with some hunter’s intuition, realises that a trap is about to be sprung and hauls the woman back to safety just in the nick of time. The first track, Run to Church, may even capture the scene when workmen uncover the body of a drug-addled bum that the Wolfen had attacked earlier, and the pack return to the church to avoid being seen, their flight shown from their own wondrous, thermal-enhanced point-of-view. If this is the case, then this was originally a much longer scene. After a wondrously scintillating tickling of the chimes, a cluster of woods, strings and muted trumpet are met with sharp anvil clangs, worried jabs of brass and schizophrenic keyboard playing. Before long, a sudden rush engorges the track. Prepared piano with a Jaws-like motif for brass and strings then tumbles into a jarring maelstrom of chaos. The track drifts out on the tapping of wooden percussion. This cue perfectly encapsulates the musical mayhem and total abandonment that Safan invigorates the whole score with. You simply don’t know what is just around the corner – and, at first, it doesn’t seem to conform to any strict sense of formal structure. But when you listen again, and a little bit closer, there are myriad things going on, and lots of crazy details that have been painstakingly woven into what comes across as a scream of panic.
In the second track, entitled Run From Church, we clearly have the frightening near-encounter between the detectives and the Wolfen. Commencing with an oddly woozy suspense cue that trembles in the mid-range like someone is waggling a piece of card off the edge of a roof, this slowly slides under the skin with a gradually sharpening sense of unease. Safan doesn’t go overboard this time. He punctuates the shivering tension with plateaus of hushed anticipation, allowing the madness to dissipate for a spell before applying the thumbscrews once again and driving forward into squirrelly and unearthly dread once again. Strings maintain a perma-frost, whilst little tick-tocks from percussion, mewling lines from cello and groans from brass mark time as Neff climbs the stairs. In the film, Dewey actually hears what is clearly an animal’s howl in-amidst the sound of the baby crying and he deduces that the whole thing is an ambush. In this track, there is an instance when an effect very like the subdued sound of a corrupted cry – both human and animal, but all predatory – and this a great little touch. Glissandi are buffeted by lurching drums before finally fading out the track.
Wilson And Pearl is not a liaison that Finney’s character has with a club-singer (unless you count the crooning Tom Waites in the extended UK TV print of the film), but rather this would seem to be regarding a moment of contemplation when Dewey toys with a pearl that he retrieved from the ripped necklace of Pauline Van Der Veer. Except that the track is not nearly so tranquil. I have a feeling that this cue covers the Wolfen waiting for nightfall to then pick up the escaped detectives’ trail and track them into the city. Woodwinds take on a ghostly variation of that three-note initial main theme, also reminding us of the Native Indian angle. But there’s still evidence of that clanging anvil, some twisted glissandi, gentle but creepy notes from the piano, and a marching monster stomp that bludgeons its way across the orchestra with strong belches from raucous brass. And then we hear some hideously weird mewling from the woods or a flute that really catches you off-guard and makes your stomach churn as though seasick. Strings climb to a long-drawn sustain that is not unlike those that Ennio Morricone would achieve in his alienating score for The Thing the following year.
There are three cues that make up Track 7’s Thinking of the Kill, the third of which is for the notorious lost killing of The Fisherman. But the track starts out deceptively quiet with a little phrase for woodwinds, the Bullroarer and lingering strings. Things turn more sinister with the arrival of that taunting, bilious mewling from the flute. I’m reminded of the crazy stuff that Krzysztof Komeda did with his memorable score for Rosemary’s Baby (see review) – this drunken, wandering motif has the same demonic sneer. The Wolfen have already casually tossed a late-shift welder off the bridge, and I think that this overall track possibly has them stalking and killing the fisherman in frustration at not being able to get to the two detectives. Piano, harp and xylophone create ethereal unease before a growling from the low brass recoils from five savagely psychotic metal-chiming bashes that just come out of nowhere. The next passage is very like Howard Shore, with a gradually rising wall of ice forming in the string section, undercut with murmurs from bass. This climbs to a pitch that can probably only be heard by Wolfen, and then it cascades into a series of fluttering, kicking, scampering motifs that worry away at the nerves, disturbing in their incessant and dexterous vigour, yet beautiful in the return of the harp and the xylophone that, perhaps, give us a clue as to how delicately the predators can move when stalking prey. You can imagine the fisherman finally sensing something and looking about into the shadows, the music swelling in earnest as the kill is about to be made. Bass drums sound off, high strings finally slide and yawn in what is almost an exultant rhapsody of the natural order of things – Safan finally bringing sense and symmetry out of the cycle of the hunter and the hunted.
God, I long to see this scene!
In Shapeshifting, Dewey is duped into thinking that Eddie Holt might actually be a werewolf. After keeping him under surveillance, he tails the Indian down to the beach and observes him strip naked and commence with some sort of ritual beneath the full moon. Eddie howls at the silver orb and frolics in the water … and then spies Dewey observing him. Suddenly he begins to stalk the detective, finally cornering him under the boardwalk of the pier. Pretending to lunge at him, Eddie then comes clean about this whole shapeshifting malarkey. “Dewey, man, I told you … it’s all in the head.” Safan scores this sequence with lots of dissonance, a handful of jangling notes scattered about, some rattles and woodblock, drums and cymbals and throaty squalls from the brass. In all honesty, until he changes tack just after midway through the cue, this all seems quite over-the-top for the scene in question. Too yammering and clamouring, and eventually overpowering for its own good. When he calms things down, presumably for when Eddie is confessing that bodily transformations are all just “Indian jive”, as one of his buddies terms it, the track makes more sense tonally. Perhaps here you can see where Safan’s interpretation was becoming too intense and freakish for the jittery boys from Orion.
Tom Noonan’s affable zoology nerd, Dr. Ferguson, is the next to go in one of the film’s admittedly most perplexingly handled sequences. The Wolfen realise that he possibly knows too much about them, even if heis on their side … and they lure him out of his office to his death after he has been working late. He rides his scooter out into the park in the hope of meeting the creatures, and Safan employs lots of edgy suspense and high strings. When Ferguson pulls up to greet the animals, who remain unseen, the strings envelope him, urging him to see sense, before things turn nasty with low murmurs from the brass, jittery notes from the piano and prodding from brass and bass. Listen out for the wistful little bleat from the violin, informing us that this cannot end well but that there may still be a chance if he gets away now. But then the snuffling and snorting sounds that Fergy took to be signs of a welcome change into growls and snarls that unnervingly encircle him. He guns his pathetic scooter and makes off down the path, but a huge hairy paw soon swipes him off it … and the poor dumb likeable oaf is never seen again.
Parked-up outside Neff’s apartment building, Dewey is keeping guard. As he drifts off, he begins to have semi-dreams and visions about the trap that he and Neff almost fell into. He sees eyes burning in the dark, and suddenly he thinks, for a second, that he can see huge, hulking wolf monsters poised on the wall just ahead of his car. When he flips on the headlights, the creatures are gone. But Dewey knows that he hasn’t just been imagining it, and he hotfoots it Neff’s apartment to provide her with, ahem, a little closer protection. Safan scores all of this The Dream And Love Scene. Another spellbinding, high-string laced passage smothers the half-asleep reverie, which then morphs into a growing suspense cue with a fantastic voice-like recurring gasp that urges Dewey to come to his senses. As he reaches for the lights, we see the Wolfen looming large on the wall, their breath steaming in the cold night air, and the opening cue culminates in a crescendo of blurting trumpet, percussion and random drumming and anvil clashes. With the beasts gone for the time being, the track then turns perhaps the softest that it has been since it began. The tired and shell-shocked Dewey finds solace in Rebecca’s bed, and things slide downward to an uneasy calm. Yeah, right. Neither the Wolfen nor Safan can allow such a state of affairs to continue for long. Wadleigh’s film has the pack spying on these two humans in-rut, and we see them in Wolfen-vision. Therefore, the soft and fragile intimacy of the scene and the musical track is intercut between the two opposing forces. Clamour and discord encroaching upon whatever meagre solace the humans can find. The three-note motif makes a mournful return on woodwind as the track closes.
The electrifying set-piece when Dewey and Whittington go and stake out the church in the South Bronx, lying in wait for the Wolfen to come out on the hunt is next in the superbly chilling Whittington Gets Snuffed.
Safan is brilliantly inventive here. Right at the very start, he employs some bizarre sounds that possibly hail from the tapped strings inside a piano, or from a pinched harp or even the strings flicked on a banjo or mandolin. There is certainly a somewhat oriental mood evoked by this, rich and exotic and delightfully strange. Combined with the image of the bombed-out church, it makes for an insanely skin-crawling passage. But listen to those notes from the other grand piano (he’s got two on the go, remember?) that slowly and steadily echo with a deep dark dread beneath all the other sounds that trickle and spike their way across the roof of the growing nightmare. Pluckings and tappings carry on, like nervous beads of sweat dripping from clammy brows. Flanking the church, both men are in contact via radio and infra-red sight. Dewey sees breath rising from behind a wall and he breaks cover to go and investigate. This is one of the most petrifying deeds I have ever seen committed in a film, other than hairy little Hooper going down in that shark-cage in Jaws. I struggle to watch this scene alone … and even just hearing its musical depiction is giving me the creeps right now. Both Safan and Horner nail the icy dread and pure primal fear of the situation, though both attack it from different angles. A harp and chime flourish makes the moment even more shivery, a frisson that travels up and down the spine. A snare drum taps, and ethnic shakers shimmy like fur brushing against a crumbling stone wall. The xylophone makes the sweat keep on dripping with a sound like knuckle-bones that have been picked clean gently knocked together.
Dewey climbs all the way up to the top of the church but finds nothing. He begins to make his descent back down again. All the while, something is creeping up behind Whittington. The violins sound distant and muted, almost like hushed breathing. And then things get bloody. Percussion ignites and a trumpet snorts and one of the meanest-looking wolves on God’s good earth goes for Whittington’s throat. Dewey hears the terrible screams over the radio and runs to the building where he left his friend. Safan keeps the suspense burning with violent symphonics rushing in and then receding, leaving little gaps in the fury for fear to seep back into the blood. The score reacts with a frenzied hullabaloo when Dewey spies a shaggy shape on the floor above him and unleashes a hail of high-velocity rounds. Safan has brass, percussion, horns and strings hitting out at one another in a deranged bout of swipe and counter-swipe. Trumpets squeal and choke. The anvil takes a knock from a little xylophone stick. Everything is odd and played out of whack, as though the orchestra has been turned upside down. My wife does not like this piece of music. She doesn’t think that it is music. At the end of it, Whittington lies dead, his throat a ragged hole. Dewey has lost this round.
In despair and the need for answers, he enters the Indian Bar. Safan makes this sound as though Dewey has entered the smoke-filled joint like he is spoiling for a fight. There is deep weight and a sense of impending violence to the opening, but then this settles down into a dark and coldly troubling passage for glacial strings, a forlorn susurration for horns, and a confused jumble of cellar-drawn cello, tinkling xylophone, anguished woods and reeds, a frightened tuba and other disparate instruments that are flung together in a regretful, angry, embittered rage of futility. Safan has wonderfully tapped into the shocked mindset of Dewey Wilson – the music, like his wits, is all over the place. Eddie Holt and the wise old Indian he works with then proceed to inform the detective of the age-old existence of the Wolfen on the fringe of society, their hunting of Man’s weakened and destitute, and their noble wisdom and ancient pact with the Native American. These guys have known about them all along, and lived in cahoots with them. Where James Horner made all of this magical and beatific, a sequence of reverence and slow-dawning realisation, Safan keeps things imbalanced, and infused with danger and deceit. In his version, this is not necessarily a moment in which Dewey is being accepted into the confidence of the Indians and respected by them … he is enforcing the notion that the white man is still very definitely an outsider, and has brought all of this upon himself. Cymbals clash with a sense of finality, but not closure.
Still in shock and trying to make sense of it all, Dewey retreats back the Van Der Veer penthouse. In the film, and with James Horner’s soothing, revelatory cue, this sequence is one of my favourites. Dewey sits and toys with the glass-chime executive toy, and Horner elaborates upon this with achingly beautiful chimes of his own. Safan still won’t let go of the angst and the horror building up inside Dewey. Everything is still dark and cruel and sharply edged. Low piano throbs, strings claw at the roof of your skull, discord weaves all around. The harp and piano delightfully fold in at one point, just out of the blue, a quixotic combination, and then vanish again – almost as though they melted in the feverish anger that is forever bubbling-up. We hear the Bullroarer softly, weirdly vibrating. Dewey almost seems cursed by the Indians for his terrible knowledge. We are in a reverie, all right, but it has none of the spectral lilt of Horner’s take. Safan just can’t let us off the hook even for a minute.
The arrival of Neff and police chief Warren (Dick O’ Neill) brings with them the information that a terrorist cell, to which Christopher Van Der Veer’s niece belonged, has been targeted and arrested after a big shootout, and that the case is seemingly now closed. Once they leave the building, however, and venture out onto a deserted Wall Street, the true killers finally come out of the shadows and confront their human enemies. In a beautifully grisly moment of symmetrical-slaying, Warren loses his gun-hand just like the Haitian bodyguard and then his head just like Pauline Van Der Veer – his stunned mouth still trying to speak, reflecting a ghoulish fact that Whittington earlier relayed about severed heads during the French Revolution. Dewey shoots the gas tank of Warren’s car and the explosion buys time for him and Neff to retreat back to the Van Der Veer penthouse.
But in the most symbolic and magical moment of the film, the Wolfen somehow follow them all the way up and launch a scintillating final assault through the windows.
All of this comes together in the barnstorming climactic track, Wall Street And Wolfen Finale. Perhaps for the only time throughout the score, Safan actually allows something approaching a traditionally heroic motif to emerge. Although even here, amid rising scurries on the rat-scampered piano and a bold statement of the three-note motif, the sound is much more akin to the disturbing valour of Alex North’s Dragonslayer than anything more typically rousing or defiant. In fact, this affinity with North’s angular, brassy and stabbing vernacular has been running throughout the entire score, Safan clearly determined to go down a very unusual route with so much arranged in his bag of tricks that has been clinically designed to unhinge the listener and make them squirm. And yet, the whole thing is so captivating at the same time. It is hypnotic and dislocating. For the entire duration that you are listening to this score, you are removed from happy thoughts and harmony, and placed in a realm of violence and terror.
This final track hurls everything at us. The anvil, the shakers, the two grand pianos, the amassed strings and bass, furious horns, snares and shuddering percussion collide in a head-on rush. Trumpets bleat and the bass drum pounds. We smart from searing brass and scything strings. What we lack though is a sense of proper thematic finality. Dewey puts down his gun and destroys the model of Van Der Veer’s new housing project, signifying in an electrifying, hyper-real moment that he is not the enemy of the Wolfen and that he will defend their secret. Once again, magically, the Wolfen turn and vanish, leaving Dewey and Neff to pick up their reeling senses and pass the whole thing off as being a final act of terrorist retribution. James Horner turned his score full circle with this glorious set-piece and then indulged us in his luxurious Epilogue and End Credits. We don’t get that from Safan, and his score actually seems to drift away on the wind without proper closure, almost as though his wild discourse and vast swell of orchestral agitation is still locked in relentless combat somewhere in the ether.
This, if anything, is why the film as we know it could never be scored with Safan’s music. As tremendous and thunderous and exciting as it is, it is perhaps too random and too abstract and too surreal for a story that does have the need for fully developed themes and for periods of downtime. With Horner’s music we go on a journey and we arrive somewhere new at the end of it. With Safan’s, we embark on a dangerous, crazed voyage that simply doesn’t seem to come to an end. As an album, I find this concept fantastic and utterly beguiling … but as a score to a film with so much going on … well, I can appreciate why the suits got all jittery. Certainly, some of this matches up with the movie as we know it, but the tone is very definitely shunted out of position by a good few degrees.
Yet this remains a dazzling experience and a really tantalising what could have been. For me, Horner's is unmistakably the superior score, but this still earns itself a strong 8 out of 10.
In many ways, Safan’s score is the primitive relative of Horner’s. Very much like the film Altered States, in which William Hurt regresses to a primal state via drugs and an isolation tank, the music of which Safan had a keen interest in, this could be viewed as Horner’s score having, itself, regressed. Orchestrally complex and incredibly intricate in its writing, this remains a bold and vital experiment in the manufacturing of fear. Stripped of humanity and of the lyricism that Horner brought to it, this is scoring on a purely instinctual level – a freeform exploration of the black pockets of terror that exist between the synapses.
As an album experience, this is not as welcoming as Horner’s. But it couldn’t be. This score has been devised as an aural stimulus to accompany and accentuate the visuals and not, as Horner would tend to do, as a symphonic piece that could stand up on its own and tell its own story just as magnificently as when placed over the images. But there is wild invention here, dark creativity and a sense of skin-prickling dread that is utterly splendid to behold. Safan would go on to provide the jubilant and brightly exciting score for The Last Starfighter, as well as that for the awesome TV miniseries about Custer’s Last Stand, Son of the Morning Star, adapted from the mesmerising book by Evan S. Connell, creating a lushly doomed romance for the brazen cavalryman and a fantastic and epic set-piece of alarming action for the battle of the Little Bighorn, itself. He would also score the fun Fred Ward actioner, Remo Williams Unarmed and Dangerous, and lend some moody eloquence to the otherwise poor “celluloid” chiller of Fade to Black.
With fabulous cover-art that sits gorgeously right alongside the James Horner release, we also get a 16-page illustrated booklet with excellent notes from Scott Bettencourt, and even a reflective word from Craig Safan, himself.
This is a wonderful score that acts almost as its own infernally shaped concert piece. Deliciously dark and spectrally elusive, this is the musical equivalent of the shadows on the ceiling that keep you awake on a stormy night. It is a glorious alternative to the classic score from James Horner, and one in which you can clearly hear the genesis of what became the music for the final release. Playing the two back-to-back in a dark room makes for an incredible marathon of blood-chilling proportions, but the experience is also one of intricate invention and profoundly primal beauty, and it also provides an emotional insight into the creativity of two wonderful composers with hugely different viewpoints tackling the same story with equal gusto.
If you have the James Horner disc, then you owe it to yourself to pair it up with Craig Safan’s.
Full Track Listing
01. Main Title And First Killings 9:26
02. The Body 2:23
03. The Morgue 4:11
04. Run To Church 2:21
05. Run From Church 5:25
06. Wilson And Pearl 2:10
07. Thinking Of The Kill 4:50
08. Shape Shifting 2:14
09. At The Zoo 3:50
10. The Dream And Love Scene 3:55
11. Whittington Gets Snuffed 6:13
12. Indian Bar 4:17
13. Discovery And Penthouse 3:45
14. Wall Street And Wolfen Finale 5:21
Total Disc Time: 60:42
This is the perfect companion-piece, or pack-mate to James Horner’s exquisite score for the final release version of Michael Wadleigh’s dazzling eco-horror, Wolfen. Craig Safan has always been philosophical about the loss of his score, but through various bootlegs and a promo release his terrifying music had managed to find an audience, and now, courtesy of Intrada, his complete unused symphony of spine-tingling atonal fury can be savoured in fantastic quality and properly appreciated for the tremendous work of blood ‘n’ terror that it is.
Icy, skin-crawling and exhaustingly nerve-jangling, this brings in a larger orchestra than Horner had to work with, although the sound is actually more minimal, abstract and discordant. Crazy writing pulls no punches and a dedicated ensemble of players who must all have drunk loopy-juice from the paw-print of a wolf make this a musical adventure that will leave you with scratches.
Together with a great accompanying booklet and boasting awesome cover-art, this is a dark and scary delight that sounds phenomenal. Surely this is a major treat for fans of Wadleigh’s classic 1981 chiller, and an intriguing insight into the crazy goings-on behind the scenes of a complex and troubled, yet cult-cherished production. This is a chance to walk the same chilly and deserted Manhattan streets and to venture, foolishly, into that haunted old church in the South Bronx again … just with a different guide leading the way. A musical madman.
This release comes very highly recommended.
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