In New York City, the slums are being cleared away to make room for some expensive housing developments, and one of the main players behind this operation is Christopher van der Veer, a very rich and influential man who tonight is taking a chauffeur-driven scout around the area, with his wife in the back seat alongside him. When they reach a park, they all get out, including the couple's dog, and take a playful look around, with van der Veer creeping around jokily - that is until they become aware they are being stalked by someone, or something. Suddenly the unseen assailants strike and tear the three of them to shreds... but what has done this?
In 1981, the two duelling werewolf movies of any importance to the general public were An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, you could prefer one or the other yet the debate about the best effects-packed lycanthropy flick pretty much began and ended with those. To some extent it still does, but there were other genre movies on that subject, and Wolfen was the other one from that year which should have been a contender, but never quite made the grade, partly thanks to behind the scenes turmoil yet perhaps because when you got down to it, this wasn't really a werewolf yarn at all. Certainly the menace here was a strain of intelligent wolves, but they never turned into humans at any point.
This started life as a pulpy horror novel from debuting author Whitley Streiber, a real pageturner but not one which revealed the reason the film version went off on the tangents it did. Streiber's bold claims about getting abducted by aliens tended to overshadow his fiction, especially when he posited he was drawn to horror and science fiction by the influence of those space visitors, but once upon a time he wasn't infamous for his anal probe and was a bright star in the horror paperback's heyday of the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, so The Wolfen was an obvious choice for big screen adaptation, losing the definite article in the process. However, it was not long before the stormclouds of a troubled production gathered.
The director was Michael Wadleigh, whose best known film, and indeed only other film, was the classic music documentary Woodstock from about ten years before Wolfen, so there were influences of his hippy leanings throughout the movie which had not been in the novel. For example, now the plot had a real preoccupation with the plight of the American Indian, and a fair bit of it was caught up with the leading character, a detective played by Albert Finney, trying to work out if New York's population of Indians were actually shapeshifting their way into taking revenge on the settlers hundreds of years after their first arrival. Finney's Dewey Wilson, one of a clutch of roles he took after nearly five years away from cinema at the start of the eighties, did have other characters to team up with including a memorably wacky Gregory Hines and a very naked Edward James Olmos, but got a little lost in the narrative's issue-making.
Basically Wilson was present to be scared by the Wolfen, yet ultimately prove futile in waking up the rest of humanity to the dangers of clever wolves, while just about everyone around him was bumped off in spectacularly violent ways - say this for the movie, no matter how much it had to be re-edited and whatnot, the effects were among the best of the era. Placing it very much in that period was a credit in the opening titles for a Steadicam operator, and they undoubtedly had their money's worth out of him as not ten minutes went by but we were getting a roving point of view shot from one of the beasts, treated with a solarisation technique to look otherworldly. Indeed, the cinematography was excellent throughout, with Wadleigh taking full advantage of the widescreen compositions, which was all very well but remained creaking under the weight of the director's right-on messages. Plenty found much to resist about Wolfen at the time, not least the studio, but over the years its idiosyncrasies have brought it a well-deserved interest. Music by James Horner.