A Movie A Day: WOLFEN (1981) You don’t have the eyes of the hunter. You have the eyes of the dead.
Published at: Oct. 17, 2009, 7:52 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day. At the end of each standard AMAD I’m going to include a recommendation of a genre film that is either one of my personal favorites or too good of a double feature with the AMAD title to pass up a mention.]
One’s life is filled with little surprises. I think it’s these surprises that keep us going, that feeling of chance at work. I live a very contented life, a very happy life, but the unexpected always gives me a little boost of joy. You can’t predict it, you can’t plan for it, you just have to roll with it when it comes to you.
Like tonight, for instance. The last thing expected when I woke up today was to see Edward James Olmos’ cock flopping about and see it I did. Ah, the joys diving into vintage film!
WOLFEN has long been a movie I’ve been interested in watching, but a little scared of. I didn’t have a fear of the movie being too intense, but that I wasn’t going to like it. I’ve talked to so many people that were disappointed that the movie doesn’t live up to the premise, that the evil monsters are just wolves, not some crazy supernatural horror, and that the ultimate result just wasn’t satisfying.
I can’t tell you if my enjoyment of the film is a result of lower expectations, but enjoy it I did. A lot, actually.
The director, Michael Wadleigh, had been a cinematographer and directed one film before this one, the concert movie WOODSTOCK. It’s a damn shame he didn’t do more because the look of this movie is fantastic. You can tell he played with a ton of different lenses and looks to capture the living entity that is New York City in the early ‘80s. He also had a great eye for casting.
Albert Finney and his flowing mane share the role of Dewey Wilson, a troubled cop coming out of a rough patch in his life. Dewey is brought in to look into the murder of a prominent businessman and finds he’s not dealing with your usual killer. He’s stepping into a world of old and vengeful gods.
Along for the ride is the lovely Diane Venora (HEAT, F/X) and Gregory Hines. Hines is so awesome in this flick, sporting a huge afro and the perfect innocent wise-ass persona. He plays a mortician helping Dewey figure out what the fuck is killing these people.
The aforementioned Edward James Olmos (and his schlong) show up in the role of Eddie Holt, a Native American that might know a lot more about these things than he lets on. Olmos plays the hell out of this role, injecting the right amount of mystique and pride into the character. And dances around naked while foaming at the mouth. Don’t forget that part.
Speaking of foaming at the mouth, we can’t forget Tom Noonan who does dependably good work in this movie as the animal expert who sympathizes with the wolves more than the people. It’s like the role was made for him… weird, but with a soft side. I love watching Tom Noonan work.
WOLFEN isn’t about werewolves or shapeshifters or a pack of ordinary dogs with a kill-boner. It’s a bit deeper than that without sacrificing the entertainment factor. No sir. When these wolves kill Wadleigh doesn’t hold back. It might not make much sense how a wolf can slice off a dude’s hand, but I don’t care. It looks rad and if I can buy that these wolves are really gods of some sort then I can buy their ability to fuck people up more than the average wolf.
The photography of the film (by Gerry Fisher of EXORCIST III and HIGHLANDER) is really beautiful as should be suspected in a film directed by an ex-cinematographer. The look they go for with the wolf POV is a predecessor to PREDATOR-vision, using infrared photography to show the heat signatures of the victims. There’s beauty to the way Gerry Fisher shot this material, choosing to film it in a day for night style that heightens the reality. Really pretty stuff here.
Also of note is the score by James Horner. Call him a self-cannibalizing composer if you want (you might not be wrong), but it’s fascinating listening to his score for this movie and hearing queues from his later scores. There are moments when his score kicks in that you expect the shot to cut from Albert Finney to Ricardo Montalban as Khan or a street chase to end up at LV-426 as Ripley is racing against the clock to rescue Newt.
Now, the ending of the movie puzzles me a little bit. I’m going to talk about it below, so beware of spoilers.
So, we’re told that this godlike tribe of wolves went underground during the slaughter of the Native Americans and wolves when the white man came and now they exist above-ground in the slums of our cities feeding upon the weakness of our society, the sick and diseased poor. They attacked the well to do businessman because he’s tearing down a slum and is going to enrich the area that is their hunting ground.
Okay. So basically the end of the movie Albert Finney realizes that these wolves aren’t evil, but a necessary component to the survival of society. That had me scratching my head a bit… I mean, it feels very close to saying “It’s okay they killed the rich white guy because they usually only kill poor black people and if we just let them keep doing that we middle class and higher whites don’t have anything to worry about!”
I’m not one to call racism on anything and I still don’t think that’s the intention of the film, but I’m just saying that’s how it came across to me.
The original novel by Whitley Strieber (who also wrote the book THE HUNGER was based on) is supposed to be pretty kick-ass, actually getting into the thought process of the wolves themselves. I’m going to have to track it down. The movie has me curious.
Final Thoughts: I wouldn’t say that Wolfen would be in my top tier favorite horror flicks, but I think it’s quite a good movie, definitely better than its reputation. Albert Finney classes it up considerably and doesn’t phone in his performance just because it’s a genre film. Tom Noonan is delightful, as always. Olmos is also quite good as is the great character actor Dick O’Neill who has probably the most honest reaction in the history of a disbeliever seeing the evidence of the supernatural right in front of him. “God-fucking-damn!” Wolfen is a classy horror flick that isn’t afraid to strike that balance between taking itself seriously as a motion picture, but also delivering some quality moments of horror and gore. I was quite happy with the movie.
I saw someone recommend Neil Jordan’s THE COMPANY OF WOLVES as my recommendation title on the Wolfen review, but I don’t know if I’m the best person to write that one up. I always thought the poster for THE COMPANY OF WOLVES was better than the movie.
Instead my mind wandered over the key points of Wolfen… killer dogs, based on a book that everyone says is better… Aha! Got it!
Never one to pass up the chance to talk Stephen King, I couldn’t help but go for Cujo. It’s not as classy as WOLFEN, but it’s just as effective.
Cujo means a lot to me as a story. King is one of my favorite authors and it all began with me reading Cujo in the 6th grade. It was a perfect introduction to adult reading. I had seen the movie, so I already had a handle on the plot. It was all about discovering a good novelist’s ability to pull you into the heads of the characters in the story. Having seen the movie was almost like training wheels.
But you can imagine my shock when I got to the end of the book and little Tad Trenton doesn’t make it. The movie pussed out, but that worked out for me in a way. I was genuinely surprised and shocked at how King chose to end the book.
I love that King is healthy and enjoying a great life, but a very sadistic and selfish part of me wishes he’d go back on the coke and we could get a few more genuinely fucked up stories like we did in his drug-haze heyday. Although if that means I have to suffer through another Tommyknockers maybe he should tighten that seatbelt on the wagon and keep enjoying his sobriety.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story it’s a perfectly simple horror story. A mother and her 6 year old son are trapped in a car by a rabid St Bernard. Yep, that’s it, on the surface, at least.
Digging a little deeper we see it’s quite a morality play, with punishment being dealt out to some unscrupulous characters. Even the mother, played by the ‘80s mom of choice Dee Wallace Stone, isn’t clean, having cheated on her husband.
In fact, there are only two purely innocent characters: Tad and Cujo. Cujo?!? you say? Yes, Cujo. It’s easy to point at the six year old kid as an innocent party, but Cujo is just as innocent.
When we meet the dog he’s a lovable, happy family dog. It’s only after being bitten by a bat that he starts going crazy. Cujo becomes the monster, but kind of like Frankenstein’s Monster he’s not at fault. He didn’t make the decision to start eating the shit out of the townspeople of Castle Rock just as Frankenstein’s Monster didn’t ask to be cobbled together and feared by the townspeople.
As a kid I was scared by the dog, but I always sympathized with him.
Directed by Lewis Teague, who directed another movie that I considered to pair with Wolfen… another monster in New York flick, the great ALLIGATOR starring Robert Forster, the film has a very grimy feel to it. Teague has a good creative eye, always moving the camera, keeping things visually interesting in a movie that essentially spends half of its runtime in a car.
I really like the flick, especially the pre-trapped-in-a-car monster in the closet that torments young Danny Pintauro, foreshadowing the real nightmare to come. So there you go. The flick hits Blu-Ray next month. Hopefully the transfer is great as I am definitely going to be adding it to the shelf.
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Saturday, October 17th: MADHOUSE (1981)
Sunday, October 18th: THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS (1976)
Monday, October 19th: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945)
Tuesday, October 20th: DEMON SEED (1977)
Wednesday, October 21th: STAGEFRIGHT (1987)
Thursday, October 22th: DEAD OF NIGHT (1977)
Friday, October 23th: THE SERPENT’S EGG (1978)
Tomorrow we move to a loony bin horror flick called MADHOUSE. See you tomorrow… well, later today… for that one!
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