1981 was "The Great Werewolf Year," when three major films heralded a revival of the legendary monster. "The Howling" and "An American Werewolf in London" have both become classics, while the third, "Wolfen," remains an oddity. It is definitely the strangest of the three and makes unusual changes to the werewolf mythology to the point that it might not be about werewolves at all. The usual standards of the genre -- silver bullets, wolfsbane, transformations, curses -- are nowhere to be seen, although there are hints of spiritual powers and cunning intelligence beyond the natural world. And while "American Werewolf in London" and "The Howling" contained extensive comedy and many genre-references along with their horror, "Wolfen" plays its story straight and dead serious. It has social issues mixed into its thrills 'n' chills premise: a police detective (Albert Finney) investigating murders in New York City that point toward a wolf-like killer, or possibly a whole pack of them. Director Michael Wadleigh (his only other film is the classic concert documentary "Woodstock") uses the horror movie backdrop as a venue for commentary on class, environmentalism, industrialization, and Native American politics.
This is an ambitious bill to fill, and "Wolfen" doesn't quite manage to pull it off. You can appreciate Wadleigh's goals, but he often trips over trying to do too much. The political grandstanding makes for a thoughtful horror movie, but it also slows the film down and overbalances it. Sometimes, you just want action and scares, and "Wolfen" frequently drags. It would have rocked at ninety-minutes, but at nearly two hours, it goes on for too long. The open moves rapidly, and the ending delivers the right amount of apocalyptic violence you expect, but in the center the spaces between the wolf attacks start feeling longer and longer.
Some of various elements never fit together, and a few plot points just left on the ground. The mystery surrounding the creatures is, however, appropriate -- sometimes it's better for a horror film to avoid spelling out everything for you.
Where "Wolfen" works best is in Wadleigh's superb visual style and the realistic performances. The use of a polarization effect and a steadicam to represent the wolves' POV is quite stunning and eerie. Wadleigh also expertly films New York City and its run-down slums. The film absolutely breathes with a battered, decayed atmosphere. Wadleigh really goes all out with unusual visua; approaches, and it gives the film a polished and inventive feel. Albert Finney and Diane Venora are both good in their roles; Finney especially projects a wonderful world-weariness that matches the setting around him. The film thankfully doesn't load him down with excess psychological baggage. We don't need to have his troubles explained to us; we can SEE them in the world in which he lives. Edward James Olmos is also memorable as a Native American who draws Finney's suspicions early in the movie. Gregory Hines, however, is too exaggerated in his semi-comic role (the only comedy in the film) of the coroner working with Finney. The movie also has an excellent early score from James Horner (composer of "Titanic" and "Aliens").
The DVD has an extremely good transfer, which is surprising considering the film's age. The print looks almost pristine and is gorgeously formatted in widescreen. Warner Bros. usually doesn't put this much effort into back catalog movies like this. The Dolby Surround Stereo is adequate (I occasionally noticed some synch problems) and a bit low in volume. The extras are skimpy: the trailer, a page listing the cast and crew, and a few screens of text on the history of werewolf movies. (An earlier edition advertised audio commentary on the back of the snap case, but this was a misprint.)
"Wolfen" is worth a look for horror fans, or people who want some social commentary and intelligence with their thrills. If you can make it through the slower sections, you'll find it a rewarding viewing experience.