Wolfen opens with a grisly attack on a wealthy New York City couple, a real estate developer, Christopher van der Veer (Max M. Brown), and his wife, Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo), as they take a post-party, early morning stroll in Battery Park under the watchful eye of their bodyguard. Wadleigh slowly builds tension, using a low-angled Steadicam, specially treated film stock, and audio distortion for the POV (an idea that both looks back at John Carpenter's Halloween and forward to John McTiernan's Predator) of the unseen creatures stalking the van der Veers. Neither the bodyguard, who dies first, nor the van der Veers, see the attackers before its too late.
Under pressure from the mayor (Sam Gray) and the police commissioner (Ralph Bell), an NYPD homicide captain, Warren (Dick O'Neill), brings in a retired detective, Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney, rumpled, exhausted-looking, shaggy-haired), and a terrorism expert (a.k.a., the romantic interest), Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), to investigate the gruesome murders. Wilson and Neff's superiors suspect an eco-terrorist faction, Gotterdammerung ("Twilight of the Gods" in case you're unfamiliar with the German phrase or composer Richard Wagner). Wilson turns to the hip-talking medical examiner, Whittington (Gregory Hines), and an eccentric zoologist, Ferguson (Tom Noonan), for help. The trail leads to Native Americans working the "high-steel," the bridges that connect the boroughs to Manhattan. One name, Eddie Holt (a pre-Blade Runner, pre-Miami Vice Edward James Olmos), comes up repeatedly. Holt, a Native American activist and agitator, was seen near Battery Park on the night of the murders.
Wadleigh introduces multiple red herrings (e.g., eco-terrorists, Native-Americans, supernatural shapeshifters [ideas not present in Strieber's novel]) to keep us engaged over Wolfen's two-hour running time, before settling on what we already knew from seeing the trailer, reading the plot synopsis online, or reading the book: the killers aren't human, they're super-intelligent predators who've evolved alongside humans, emerging from hiding to hunt their preferred prey (us), culling the weak and infirm, or protecting their territory (in this case, the South Bronx). When Wadleigh finally reveals the Wolfen (CG was still more than a decade away), they're nothing less than disappointing. They look like normal-sized wolves.
As for the "scenes we love" (okay, "scene I love"), Wadleigh includes several well-choreographed set pieces, one set in a park tunnel, another in an abandoned building, and the climax, which features a mirrored blinds and wind chimes (echoing chimes heard in the first scene), but none are effective for creating dread, shock, and fear than the Battery Park scene, a scene aided by James Horner's surprisingly non-derivative score. Unfortunately, that means Wadleigh saved (if saved is the right word) the best scene for first, rather than last. Wadleigh understood, at least initially, that tapping into primeval fears of the dark, of what we don't and can't see, can hurt us (or worse). Wadleigh, however, overuses this technique, diminishing their usefulness in creating the emotions necessary for a successful horror film.
Here's Wolfen's first, best scene (post-opening credits montage):
For all its flaws, Wolfen deserves credit for trying to take the horror genre seriously and using an innovative Steadicam-film stock combination for the POV of the super-wolves. Strieber's novel alternated chapters between the detectives and the super-wolves, giving readers insight into their alien thought processes, a plot device impossible to translate to a predominantly visual medium like film, but points to Wadleigh for trying. Unfortunately, Wolfen remains Michael Wadleigh only non-documentary, narrative film.
Have you seen Wolfen? If so, what did you think? Yay, nay, or indifferent? If not, has this article convinced you to give it a shot?