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Wolfen: A Very Different Type of Werewolf

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

The werewolf is now considered to be one of the creature cornerstones of horror. Probably just behind the vampire and zombie, the werewolf has been popularised countless times in literature, television and the silver screen. Everyone who is anyone has seen the ‘The Wolf Man’, or at least heard of it, or at least is aware of the creature’s existence. Its origins are unknown but some believe that the creature first appeared in the oldest prose known to Western civilisation, The ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ and according to the History Channel Greek Mythology has a huge part to play in the werewolf’s birth with the ‘Legend of Lycaon’. Zeus, the God of the Sky, turned Lycaon into a wolf after he served him a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy. This is thought to be where the word lycan of lycanthrope (a type of werewolf) originated, which was made famous in the Kate Beckinsale led ‘Underworld’ franchise.

Such is the popularity of the creature, cinema history has probably forgotten about more werewolf movies than most of us have seen. One werewolf film that has managed to slip under the radar of the wider audience is 1981's ‘Wolfen’.

Based on the 1978 debut novel ‘The Wolfen’ by American author Whitley Strieber, this Michael Wadleigh directed classic (don’t you dare call it anything else) was crucially let down at the box office in 1981 largely due to Joe Dante’s ‘The Howling’ (which was released just a few months prior) and the fact that it lacked commercial appeal. As supposed to it’s upcoming counterpart ‘An American Werewolf In London’ (released a few months after) which was directed by the man who helmed ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’ Mr John Landis. ‘Wolfen’ was always going to live in the shadows. Three very different werewolf films released within a few months of each other.

‘Wolfen’ certainly lacked the allure that production companies so desperately seek but it offers an entirely new spectrum of understanding towards the creature. It’s a film steeped in political messages that didn’t quite connect to its audience. Or maybe it did and that’s why so many people prefer the other two. ‘Wolfen’ has issues, there’s no denying that. Albert Finney, as revered as he would become, was still cutting his chops here and at times struggled with the accent and the responsibilities of being the leading man, but he plays the part very well. How ‘Wolfen’ deals with the creature is considered another misstep by some. Wadleigh’s original cut of the film barely even revealed the creature but studio executives had to intervene in post production and show at least some of it’s animalistic tendencies.

It’s hardly shocking to assume that Michael Wadleigh, a documentary filmmaker, would want to approach this in an entirely different fashion. Wadleigh wasn’t a conventional hire. He was still living off his ‘Woodstock’ fame but his work was considered too political for mainstream studios. Wadleigh had no desire to make a standard horror film.

“What interested me about Wolfen was the opportunity to use the horror genre as a departure point. I like the fact that while we could entertain audiences and satisfy their ghoulish fantasies, we could also get some interesting points across that might enrich their lives.”
- Michael Wadleigh

Beyond the severed limbs and decapitations, much of the horror in ‘Wolfen’ clearly lies within its depiction of modern US capitalism. Surveillance from global corporations is the terrifying reality and the rich prosper whilst the underprivileged fade away. The sterile confrontations and dynamics of power between the old and the new. It's a brutally honest dissection of how society has become disenfranchised from nature and why sometimes it's necessary for nature to fight back.

Set mostly within the broken down urban borders of the South Bronx, ‘Wolfen’ follows dishevelled detective Dewey Wilson and his newly appointed partner as they attempt to solve various mysterious and violent deaths in the city. The first victims are millionaire businessman Van der Veer, his wife and their bodyguard, whose body parts are found in the Battery Park area of Manhattan. The only evidence links to non-human involvement, something that obviously baffles the duo initially so they seek the help of a charismatic coroner and zoologist played perfectly by Gregory Hines and Tom Noonan.

The climax to the film is a tad disappointing, even after the lore of the Wolfen creatures are explained with the inclusion of Edward James Olmos' character Eddie Holt. Their plight is given gravitas through the exploration of the Native American genocide.

"It's not wolves, it's Wolfen. For 20,000 years the skins and wolves...lived together. Nature in balance. Then the slaughter came."
- Eddie Holt WOLFEN

These definitely aren't creatures who live their lives by the turn of the moon.

One of the highlights of the film is the gorgeous cinematography by Gerry Fisher (who also shot ‘Highlander’ and ‘The Exorcist III’) His unique use of infrared "heat vision" indicating the creatures POV was a work of genius and would later be used to greater effect by John McTiernan and David McAlpine on ‘Predator’. As much as we love ‘Predator’, it's a shame that Fisher's clever filming technique takes a backseat and is almost always associated with the jungle alien hunter rather than the hybrid wolf. The sequel to the 1987 Schwarzenegger action flick would also borrow some of Fisher’s aesthetics regarding the urban settings and the film certainly inspired a lot of the premise, in terms of how it was set up. An ancient hunter out for blood in a compromised inner city landscape. Some of the urban decay influences can also be seen in Bernard Rose's 'Candyman' which was released 11 years later. Rose chose to move the location from Liverpool (where the original short story was based) to the poverty stricken Cabrini Green public housing project in Chicago.

‘Wolfen’ will likely never really get the accolades it deserves but its message will remain resolute. As Dewey Wilson admits at the end of the film "In arrogance man knows nothing of what exists…" Let's hope more people discover its existence sooner rather than later.

- Gavin Logan

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