The Tomb of Terror – Wolfen (1981)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Last week, in my review of The Howling, I noted that 1981 has been unofficially labeled “the year of the werewolf” by horror fans. During the summer months of that year, we saw the release of arguably the two greatest werewolf films ever made: The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. But there was another werewolf film released that year that isn’t as well remembered as those 80s classics. Coming out in between those celebrated releases was Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen. One look at the behind-the-scenes talent of the film indicates that something different is afoot with this particular werewolf tale. It’s the only narrative feature from the director of celebrated documentary Woodstock, and is based on a novel by self-confessed alien abductee Whitley Strieber (Communion). Inspired by last week’s rewatch of The Howling, I decided to finally watch Wolfen and complete my viewing of the 1981 werewolf trifecta.
As the film opens, we see wealthy heir Christopher Van Der Veer taking part in a groundbreaking ceremony in the middle of a despondent ghetto in Brooklyn. Politicians and other lookers-on clap and celebrate, but no one seems to notice that something else is watching the ceremony. We then see a shot from the POV of the uninvited guest. Low to the ground and seeing not color, but heat, this spectator spies on Van Der Veer as he and his wife get in a limo and drive away. As they drives across the Brooklyn Bridge, a trio of Native Americans led by Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos, Blade Runner) throws beer bottles at their vehicle. A romantic stop in the park doesn’t end the night on a high note. As the couple joke around, they and their bodyguard are savaged by an unseen killer whose heat-tinted POV we view the slayings from.
The next morning, Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express) is called to the scene of the crime. Dewey isn’t your average cop. He recently went through some family troubles, which led to him hitting the bottle a little too hard. We aren’t told exactly what problems his family had. Seemingly important character background like that isn’t important in this movie. We do get a sense of his off-kilter world view when he shows up at the crime scene scarfing down junk food and struggling to keep his shaggy hair out of his eyes. He continues to eat when he accompanies the bodies to the morgue, where his friend Whittington (the late Gregory Hines, History of the World: Part I) is a mortician. Dewey spends much of the film going over the case with Whittington. They are old friends and have banter like you might see in a buddy cop film. This makes it seem odd when the script assigns him with a partner, Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora, Michael Mann’s Heat). The two aren’t on screen together as much as Dewey and Whittington, so Rebecca never evolves above anything more than being “the girl” in the film.
As the investigation progresses, Whittington discovers that the attacker who killed the Van Der Veers and their bodyguard wasn’t using a weapon of any kind. No metal residue was found on the bodies which would point to a knife or similar object being used. The friends make their way to the zoo, where they inquire about the wounds with Dr. Ferguson (Tom Noonan, The Monster Squad). Since he’s played by Tom Noonan, Ferguson is a weird guy who seems absolutely enthralled by the animals he cares for. He also has a hefty taxidermy collection in his office, which you would think he’d be against since his profession is keeping animals healthy. It’s an interesting character, one against type for Noonan, who usually plays the heavy (like he did memorably in Manhunter and Last Action Hero). Ferguson discovers that the flesh has been ripped, which leads him to guess that the people were killed by an animal. Most likely a wolf.
If this was all there was to the story, things would be pretty straight ahead for the werewolf subgenre. The story is coming from a more police procedural perspective, but the beats it hits are familiar. What sets Wolfen apart is that co-writer/director Wadleigh is making a socio-political statement with his film. That’s right, Wolfen is a horror movie with a message, a la Prophecy (1979). Part of Dewey’s investigation leads him to the group of Native Americans who we saw chuck a beer bottle at Van Der Veers’ limo in the opening sequence. The first time he confronts the group, it’s as they work high on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s quite a sight seeing Finney and Olmos exchange dialogue with all of Manhattan in the background. You can feel every delicate step Finney takes in this sequence, making it just as suspenseful as the random wolf attack scenes. In this scene, Eddie mentions to Dewey that it’s possible for his people to turn into animals. Later in the film, Dewey finds himself in an Indian bar, and he’s told about a secret society called The Wolfen. These powerful beings have kept themselves hidden for centuries, but have suffered the same tragedies as the Native Americans.