Format: DVD from Cordova District Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.
Of all of the classic Universal monsters, the Wolf Man is the most tragic. Our poor human never did anything to bring the curse down on him. It just happened to him, and no matter how much he doesn’t want to change into a wolf, he does. It’s kind of sad, but it’s also possibly what stopped werewolves from being cool for a really long time. For some reason, the idea never really caught on like Dracula and Frankenstein. Werewolves wouldn’t be cool or interesting or fun for a really long time. Wolfen, released in 1981, might have been a step in that direction, but it’s not entirely clear that this is a werewolf movie when you come right down to it.
In fact, I’d be willing to say that Wolfen runs a lot closer to myths like the Wendigo than anything else. While we have some moments where it appears we might get some lycanthropy, ultimately, it’s something very different. Things start with the grisly murder of a developer named Christopher Van der Veer (Max M. Brown) and his wife Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo) as well as their bodyguard. The murder is not a normal one both in terms of its ferocity and what appears to be a lack of weapons. That the bodyguard was a practitioner of Haitian Voodoo is brought up as possibly important. To handle the case, former NYPD captain Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is brought in to investigate.
Dewey immediately feels pressure to solve the case from his superior, Warren (Dick O’Neill). He teams up with criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) to produce something like a profile on the killer or killers (and because this is a movie and he is a good decade and a half age difference between them, they’re eventually going to be partnered off). Also helping out is Wittington (Gregory Hines), the coroner. Since he’s black and not the main character, his eventual fate isn’t that hard to figure out, either.
Using information delivered by zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan), Wilson and Neff start looking into the possibility of animal attacks being at least a part of what is going on. Wilson also thinks there might be a connection to some Natives in New York, specifically from ex-con Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), who works high-steel construction. Of course there are a number of political implications going on here as well, and plenty of people think what’s going on is going in the city.
And that might well be the biggest issue of Wolfen, a movie that has real aspirations and doesn’t really live up to most of them. It tries really hard, though. It wants to be a good movie without ever really getting there. There’s simply too much going on here. I appreciate this in the sense that it feels like a real nod toward verisimilitude. There are a lot of loose ends here and a lot of red herrings. I get that. In the real world that kind of thing happens all the time. It makes real sense. It just doesn’t always work that well for a movie. Things feel unfinished and flabby when there are so many loose ends left hanging. It’s an impressive effort, but there’s far too much of it here.
A bigger issue is that it doesn’t quite make sense, even with all of the effort to ground it in the real world and real experiences as possible. We’re never really sure what the Wolfen are. The Natives in the city, those who seem to guide Eddie Holt and those he runs with, talk about the Wolfen as a sort of spirit that cleanses its own hunting ground, keeping other predators away from where it likes to operate. That’s completely fair and perhaps a great place to start for a story, but Wolfen doesn’t take that idea anywhere. Aside from a building development, we get no idea why they’re suddenly more active now or if they have been active all long but somehow better at choosing low-profile targets.
That’s really my issue--Wolfen ends up not making a great deal of sense when you get to the ending. It’s almost as if the filmmakers needed it to get to somewhere and realized that they’d already had most of two hours in the can and just needed to cobble together some mystical bullshit and some smoke and mirrors to get us to the ending with at least a couple of characters still trying to figure out what happened.
Wolfen really wants to be good, and while it has aspirations and pretensions of class, it can’t quite get there. I like it a little in spite of itself, really.
Why to watch Wolfen: A fun take on werewolf ideas.
Why not to watch: For a good premise, it ends up not going much of anywhere.