Wolfen (1981)

I won’t spend time arguing about the merits of whether “Wolfen” is going to be an “effective” or “gee-whiz” entertainment for you and the kids next Saturday night. What I will argue is how the craftsmanship that went into this film far exceeds the multitudes of celluloid treats that have been shot in the last decade.

Director Michael Wadleigh truly understood how to embrace the two sensory communicators that movies deliver to an audience, that of sight and sound, and wove a tapestry of motifs that help elevate a mere “super-wolves-preying-on-humans-in-NY” tale into something that “feels” like it’s so much more.

So many contemporary directors of popular features, notably those who churn out horror flicks, frame scenes and trim shots down to movements and moments that simply, and I mean, VERY simply, propel the plot points. Period. Sure, there’s quirky camera angles out windows, across streets, and up drain pipes, as well as amped up door slams and sudden weird little-girl yowls, to give it a “cool,” slick MTV style feature film look. But it’s all to service the plot point at that very moment in the narrative. If it’s a piece of business that will be used again in the film, it will be hamhandedly shoved in our faces at first so we definitely WON’T forget it a half hour later. Very little thought is put into motifs — things that aren’t overt, but instead are picked up by the subconscious.

So, what were some of the things Wadleigh did? Take a look at the opening 10 minutes of this film. Sure, Christopher and Pauline Van De Veer get snuffed in Battery Park by mysterious wolfen. Dewey Wilson copters in from Staten Island, back on a case after a long absence. And at the morgue, no residual traces of a weapon are found on the bodies. All routine, yet key plot points. Now look and hear what Wadleigh spent time doing with his film-making craft to give the movie subtextual resonance.

Pauline Van De Veer cradles her pearl necklace in her mouth while riding in her limo. Dewey arrives at Battery Park munching on donuts. He stands at the morgue, eating a cookie, whole. A few moments later, Dewey is at his desk, smoking a big cigar. Why did Wadleigh choose to have these very specific scenes of business in the movie? To layer his film with motifs of “the mouth.” The wolfen survive and attack with their mouths, and the humans subtly and continuously remind us of this, whether it’s the sloppy sounds of Finney and Venora’s passionate kissing or Hine’s potato chip crescendo-crunches while surveilling the wolfen.

This film is packed with linking symbolism and subtext like this that aren’t overt, but give it that extra weight, which makes it more than just an average horror flick. The wind chimes in Battery Park jingle exactly like the mirrored vertical shades in the Van De Veer penthouse, and with both of Dewey’s visits to that domicile, we’re cued audibly by those shimmering curtains, perhaps subconsciously, back to those precursor windchimes in Battery Park as a harbinger of the first attack. The visual cues of a Native American on horseback on the Battery Park windmill, a shadowy figure of ancient evil cast across the windmill’s sails, the Haitian voodoo ring on the bodyguard’s finger, a shaman necklace a derelict trades for some hallucinoginic pills, and the decrepit centerpiece, that of a crumbling, abandoned Christian church, are all somewhat subtle subtext images that enforce underlying belief systems and mystical notions that coincide with the fanciful existence of the centuries-old wolfen in our midst.

What about the wolfen’s keen visual senses? Wadleigh shrewdly counterpoints that “dated effect” of the wolfen (as some of you dismissively characterize it) by focusing a spotlight on our limited human visual senses throughout this picture. And again, it’s not huge plot points. It’s simply subtextual to lend the film more weight. Whether it’s Dewey not quite able to see the wolfen at the top of the church stairs, to his not quite seeing them beyond his car hood in the rain, to the derelict’s altered point of view stumbling around the Bronx under the influence of drugs, to the need of humans to enhance their visual capabilities with computers (as in the case of the heat color-coded detection device used by Van De Veer’s security chief), to finally, the absolute breakdown in human visual acuity…the mystical “vanishing” of the wolfen from everyone’s sight in the penthouse at the film’s finale.

There are literally a dozen more motifs running in this film. I only have a 1,000 words I can print. But this movie is truly a prime example of what lacks in film-making today. Craft, pure and simple. Care and thought put into each scene, each shot. Other layers of meaning beneath the simple plot line. Give “Wolfen” another look. I guarantee you will see and hear things that weren’t apparent to you before. Will it be a better horror flick to you? Probably not. But you will appreciate a time when directors knew what to do with a camera, what to do with images, and how to make audio cues signal subtle, and subconscious, recognition bursts that, when woven together, all gave a film more gravity and impact. Oh, how I wish Wadleigh had directed more movies.

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