Wolfen

Decapitation and Gregory Hines

Main Cast: Albert Finney, Gregory Hines

Director: Michael Wadleigh

For a long time I wondered if the film adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s novel The Wolfen (shortened to just Wolfen for the movie version) deserved the criticism it got. After all, the one shot of it that I remember from my first and only viewing–when I was probably 10 or 11, a year or two after the movie was released–was of Dick O’Neill’s severed head trying to speak. That made an impact. Surely the movie with that shot couldn’t be that bad, right?

So I decided to see it again, this time with adult eyes. Yeah, it probably does deserve the criticism, although I don’t think it deserves it for the reasons it gets.

The story centers around Detective Dewie Wilson (Albert Finney), a NYC cop investigating the murder of a rich land developer, which then becomes the murder of the rich land developer plus several vagrants. Wounds point toward something animal, but resident specialist Ferguson (a much-appreciated appearance by Tom Noonan) insists wolves wouldn’t do what’s been done to these people. Suspicion leans toward a terrorist group, but evidence still comes back to wolves.

Dewie and his partner Rebecca (Diane Venora, “Chicago Hope”) and coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines, from being Gregory friggin’ Hines) seek the real answers. Unfortunately, what the find is the thing that’s caused this movie to be so disliked. It’s not wolves. It’s *spoiler*: ghost wolves. Or rather Native American wolf gods.

The land developer threatened their hunting ground with a new project, sparking their anger, so they retaliated. Now, yeah, it’s a goofy premise, Native American wolf gods in the middle of New York City. But I could overlook that, because I’ve read enough of Strieber’s fiction to know wolves are a pretty common theme in his work, so this was no surprise to me. What I think DOES earn this movie the criticism is the pacing.

Apparently, director Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) originally turned in a 4 ½ HOUR cut of the movie before being removed from the project and replaced. As it is, the 113-minute version I saw was still too long by a good thirty minutes. Wadleigh lingers on each and every scene as if it’s the most important one in the film. It’s NOT. Let’s pick it up and keep it moving here, so what happened NEXT?

Finney is weird in this movie, but I can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad one. He definitely seems to immerse himself into the character, but he moves around the set as if he’s got all the time in the world and no reason to get there. Hines was a bright spot, bringing an energy to his scenes and a charm that Finney was only able to match in curmudgeonry.

Edward James Olmos appears as Eddie Holt, a Native American ex-con whom Dewey previously arrested and whom he questions about shape shifters–real or imagined–in Native American folklore. Olmos was another bright spot for me, right up until the scene he got naked. But that’s just me.

Wolfen was released in 1981, and it feels like it. The film quality isn’t the best, and the POV shots were unimpressive (by 2014 standards, though. Back in the day it was probably pretty cool) but the severed limb special effects were noteworthy, and the wolves looked great.

I think there’s the bones of a great movie buried in here, but it’s deep deep deep under a load of extraneous crap that adds nothing to the characters, the tension, or the mystery of the plot. I assume what Wadleigh was going for was atmosphere, but he simply lingered way too long every time and eventually it shoves the movie out of “atmospheric and tense” and into “totally friggin boring.”

On that note, Wolfen isn’t a terrible movie, not as terrible as the press I’ve read about it over the years. If nothing else, it’s an original idea, and there’s still that decapitation scene that stuck with me for over 20 years. Recommended? Umm…I’ll say it’s not completely crap, that’s about as good as it’s going to get. It’s definitely a chore, that’s for sure, but I think there are enough moments of greatness sprinkled throughout to make as least one viewing worthwhile.

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