By Scott Ross
I owe my affection for this underrated (and sadly under-seen) exercise in urban horror to, of all people, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, neither of whose opinions tended to sway me one way or the other. Tuning in to the Saturday afternoon edition of their then-popular PBS series Sneak Previews, I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiastic recommendation of a movie that had somehow eluded my personal radar. I grabbed a newspaper, checked the listings, saw that I could still make a matinee, and headed out. I’ve seldom seen a more gratifying movie of its kind… although just what that kind might be remains itself a tantalizing mystery. Thriller? Horror film? Supernatural fantasy? Ecological warning? “All of the above” would seem the correct answer. And that is a large part of its effectiveness. Wolfen (1981) defies easy categorization. Which may also be why it under-performed at the box-office. ’80s movies were becoming increasingly genre-defined, and that rare entry that couldn’t be pigeon-holed risked instant red ink.
Although I have been unable to unearth a budget for the movie, its total U.S. receipts were $10 million, and I seem to recall reading later that year that Wolfen cost over $20 million. Its director, Michael Wadleigh, known primarily for Woodstock (and for a pair of Woodstock-related documentaries on Joplin and Hendrix) was reportedly removed from the project after it went over-budget and he delivered a 4-and a half hour rough cut. That of course means little. Many filmmakers work from a lengthy first edit, paring their movies down to acceptable length between the end of filming and release into the theatres. Hence all those stories, now (alas) accepted as fact, of Stroheim screening a 9-hour version of Greed to MGM executives. Whatever his excesses, Stroheim would certainly not have expected to release a film of that length; the tragedy is that he was never allowed to shape the material he had in hand to something acceptable that also reflected his vision. (That four editors are listed for Wolfen is a tip-off that something unusual went on behind the scenes.) What Wadleigh might or might not have added to, or subtracted from, his picture, is something we’ll never know. The trailer for Wolfen, available on the DVD, contains longer shots and some dialogue — such as Albert Finney’s police detective suggesting to Diane Venora’s terrorism expert, “You were being lured, we were being separated” by something in a crumbling South Bronx church* — but whether entire sequences, or the narrative arc, would have evolved differently is anyone’s guess.
Wolfen was based, rather loosely, on a fair-to-middling Whitley Streiber horror novel which, whatever its relative virtues, was most decidedly not ecologically benign. At its climax, the characters who inspired the Finney-Venora pairing in the movie shoot it out with the non-supernatural beings, killing several and leaving the reader with the sense that humans will soon hunt down and obliterate the predators. Wadleigh’s adaptation (written by the director and David M. Eyre, Jr., with an un-credited assist from Eric Roth) presents a more enlightened, conciliatory ending — a kind of unofficial truce, in which humanity in the person of the Finney character makes a separate peace, accepting the presence of (and perhaps, the need for) what he alone fully comprehends. But whatever its ecological bona fides, Wolfen is in no way preachy… or at least, until its final moments, when Finney’s voice is heard in sober voice-over observing, “In his 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 surely as we prey on this earth.” Yet even that statement does not seem, despite its loftiness, sententious, or even essentially debatable.
Wolfen achieves its enveloping tension in a leisurely fashion, its opening sequence teasing out an increasing sense of dread. The movie’s first shots, of the lead-up to an abandoned South Bronx building being imploded, the cuts timed to the off-screen voice of the demolitions expert’s count-down, fix the milieu, one we saw often in those years: Of a New York degraded — bordered by hideous poverty, dangerous — frightening. A lunar landscape where only the brave or the desperate go out in the daylight, let alone in darkness. It’s the geography of misery which later in 1981 would be immortalized by Daniel Petrie in the gritty, disturbing Fort Apache — The Bronx. The violent, inexplicable deaths of a wealthy developer, his wife and their chauffeur/bodyguard come with shocking rapidity, but only after we sense they are being stalked by an unseen force, one whose contours will remain mysterious for some time to come. It is here too that Wadleigh and the movie’s extraordinary cinematographer Gerry Fisher first weave their compelling spell, aided by the then-recent Steadicam and an in-camera effect similar to thermography we will come to realize are the wolfen’s point-of-view. Finally, Lon Bender’s sound design, dropping ambient noise away and heightening the sounds of the creatures’ prey, especially their heartbeats, places us securely in a world beyond the normative. We are in the hands of people who understand not only that distinctive immersion into the preternatural requires for its fullest weight every device in the modern filmmaker’s tool-kit, but that to achieve a total effect its usage must be sparing.
The fulsome wide-screen look Wadleigh and his gifted collaborators designed for Wolfen almost make one weep for the loss to American movies of his nearly unerring eye. While the city is seen largely in autumnal cloudiness (except at night, of course, wherein the terrors reside) the images have a sharpness and clarity that throb and sing. That the song is a dirge in no way lessens one’s admiration.
Albert Finney, who returned to the movie fold that year after a lengthy absence with no fewer than three films, portrays Captain Dewey Wilson with little hint, until the third act, of the emotional problems that have temporarily side-lined the detective’s career. Some of the character’s fragile psychology may have been lost when Wadleigh was taken off the movie, but what we sense is that Wilson is not a man too easily spooked, which makes his eventual fragmentation all the more effecting. Despite his somewhat sloppy, lived-in appearance, Wilson is exceptionally intelligent, and it suits the casting; Finney (like Peter O’Toole) is at his best and most believable playing men with bright interior lives. Wadleigh and his co-scenarists give Wilson an easy, bantering aspect that is best represented in his early scenes with Venora:
Finney: You wanna a shot?
Venora: Have you got any ice?
Finney: Only in my heart.
Venora: Why are you a cop?
Finney: Oh, I like to kill. It’s a habit I picked up and it’s… it’s hard to shake.
As Wilson’s distaff counterpart, Diane Venora likewise brings intelligence and a light gravitas to her role. With her long hair and serious face, she’s apt to remind you slightly of a more beautiful Genevieve Bujold, and if the role of Rebecca is not as vividly defined as that of Dewey Wilson, she’s no less absorbing than Finney. Venora is a fascinating case: She’s always interesting, projecting a rare intelligence and sang-froid to go with her striking features. Whether she desired stardom or eschewed it (she took off acting for five years in the late 1980s to raise a daughter, and for a movie actress, being out of sight — and worse, aging — is akin to dropping off the face of the earth) she managed to appear in three of the most interesting movies of the ’80s and ’90s: This one, Bird (in which she was a fine very Chan Parker) and Heat, as Pacino’s complicated wife. A lot of performers have earned immortality on a great deal less.
The supporting cast is likewise impeccable: Gregory Hines as the smart, joking pathologist Wittington, whom we are genuinely sorry to see sacrificed to narrative inevitability. (Why didn’t anyone warn him that the Black Guy always dies?); Tom Noonan as the oddball zoologist Ferguson; the venerable Dick O’Neill, his forelocks always seeming to proceed him, as Dewey’s pragmatic boss Warren; Dehl Berti as the sage “Old Indian” (as the credits name him) and who seems lit from within by something we can neither grasp nor aspire to; and, especially, Edward James Olmos, looking, despite that pitted face, astonishingly beautiful as the cynical, mocking Native American Eddie Holt, who may or may not be a genuine danger. The smaller roles are nearly as juicily cast: Reginald VelJohnson has a funny bit as a cheerfully blasé morgue attendant, and the then-ubiquitous James Tolkan contributes a vivid cameo as a lab technician.
As screenwriters, Wadleigh and Eyre proved canny and adept, their dialogue not merely serving their story but providing little mental cues along the way that pay off in surprising ways, such as the exchange between Wilson and Wittington over the nearly-severed head of a corpse:
Wilson: It was instantaneous?
Wittington: Instantaneous? You seen a chicken run around with its head cut off? Hey, nobody ever thinks about the head. During the French Revolution, when they chopped heads off… they’d pick them out the basket and look them in the face. Most went out right away, in shock. Every fifth head or so was alive. Wide awake… eyes blinking, mouth trying to say something. […] The brain can live without oxygen for more than a minute. That’s a long time, buddy boy. How’d you like to see your own body and know you’re dead?
Or this, in the Indians’ dive bar, where Dewey goes after a deadly encounter with the wolfen:
Eddie: For 20,000 years, Wilson — ten times your fucking Christian era — the ‘skins and wolves, the great hunting nations, lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came. The smartest ones, they went underground into a new wilderness: Your cities. You have your technology but you lost. You lost your senses
Old Indian: In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes.
Eddie: No need for detectives.
Old Indian: In their eyes, you are the savage.
Dewey: They kill to protect family?
Old Indian: In the end, it’s all for the hunting ground.
Dewey: They kill…
Old Indian: The sick. The abandoned. Those who will not be missed.
Dewey: More than that.
Old Indian: They kill to survive. They kill to protect.
Old Indian: Man kills for less. But in the end, it is all for the hunting ground.
In a lesser movie, these sentiments might carry with them a tinge of The Noble Savage. Here, however, they bear an almost crushing weight. Dewey has no cogent arguments, no can he; the proof of what he’s being told is all around him, disintegrating before his eyes. More, it is what provides his paycheck. Wolfen, coming at the very beginning of the Reagan Administration, was, despite its fantastic trappings, a warning. We ignored it, and others like it, at our peril. We live the result of that intransigence.
But Wolfen is not merely a “message movie,” however urgent that message was. It’s designed to intrigue, and to frighten, and it does so masterfully. If you heed its environmentalism, so much the better. But these imperatives are tucked into a film whose makers know how to scare you… and how to offer you beauty in the hunt. Its images are the kind that illustrate why seeing a movie at home, even on the widest plasma screen, cannot begin to replicate the experience of having a film like this wash over you in a theatre. On the DVD, you can barely see the red eyes that shoot forward in the old church, a moment that in the theatre shoved you against the back of your seat. And the lyricism of those rushing, hallucinatory Louma-crane-and Steadicam shots from the wolfen’s’ point of view (such as the moment when one marauding beast leaps over a fence) lose their breathtaking magic on anything smaller than a full Panavision theatre-screen. Even the thermographic effects are less, although they still carry weight, as when we see the great white wolf though Dewey’s eyes, and recognize that he, at least, has gained back at least some small aspect of the sense Eddie had in mind.
Seeing Wolfen again, in the 21st century, one is struck by its concerns, not merely with ecology but with the growing surveillance state and the concomitant fixation on security from human terror as its raison d’être. While this is not hammered home, it exists, on the movie’s periphery. Post-NSA ascendancy, we are reminded again of yet another of the movie’s warnings that went un-heeded.
Wolfen features an early score by James Horner that is eerily effective, without bombast. Hearing it anew, you’ll catch motives and entire swatches of melody the composer later stole for his more well-known Aliens score. (Horner was a last-minute replacement for Craig Safan, whose initial score for Wolfen was rejected.) Well, at least Horner was ripping himself off then and not, as was his later wont, lifting from others.
A final note: When a movie one has seen, and loved, in youth, is later seen exhibited in a truncated, or censored, fashion, it can be a deeply frustrating and disorienting experience. In the case of Wolfen, music rights issues necessitated the trimming, in current prints (including home video), of Tom Waits’ cameo in a Bronx dive; as his sudden, un-heralded appearance, singing “Jitterbug Boy,” was one of the signal pleasures of the original, having him quite literally dropped out of the picture disturbs one’s sense of time as well as enjoyment. In effect, a loss like this is a wrenching theft of memory. It’s a violation.
*Alert viewers will note that the voice-over on the trailer’s soundtrack does not seem to be Finney’s. But the loss of that dialogue is an asset; we can see Venora being lured, and not putting too fine a point on what we’ve just seen, and allowing the viewer to make that association for him-or-herself is, or ought to be, Lesson Number 1 in the Screenwriter’s Primer.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross