WOLFEN - 1981 Theatrical trailer
... And the 1981 cinema-going audience was thus ushered into the world of the WOLFEN, a society of super intelligent wolf-like creatures which have lived alongside humankind for centuries in not only the forests and mountains but within man's cities and suburbs. Always careful to stay just out of sight and not draw attention to themselves or their way of life, they’ve clung to the periphery of man’s psyche, occasionally spotted briefly in the shadows of his nightmares or discussed in the hushed whispers of his legends. Surviving via heightened sound, vision and olfactory prowess, they’ve hunted and fed upon the dregs of human society - on the sick and homeless, on those who’s disappearance wouldn't arouse suspicion. But tonight is different. They’re in the open … and YOU could be their next victim.
Dir. Michael Wadleigh
OCCUPY WALL STREET
Director Michael Wadleigh's WOLFEN roared from cinema screens in the summer of 1981, seized the jugular of a nation in the midst of a more conservative political turn, and reminded it that, even as the economy appeared to be in an upswing after the 1970's recession, there were still many Americans falling through the cracks and now being used as stepping stones that a smaller percentage of the privileged might gain wealth and prosperity. The film would couch it's treatise in an historical reminiscence of how the U.S. had done the same thing years earlier to it's indigenous Native American population, then would realize it's lofty cinema-sociological ambitions via the sly delivery medium of being a bonafied old fashioned chiller diller thriller designed to tickle the bones of the average creature-feature aficionado while simultaneously (and uncomfortably) tapping the conscience of the current political intelligentsia. A
clever "mash-up" of CSI crime procedural and old fashioned horror yarn
(what in today's industry parlance would surely be dubbed "high concept"), WOLFEN follows the investigation of NYPD Homicide Detective Dewey Wilson (the wonderfully chameleon-like Albert Finney) as he attempts to unravel the mystery behind the twin slasher murders of a Donald Trump-esque real estate magnate and his wife - the killings of which appear to have larger political and/or terroristic ramifications for the entire (pre 9/11) city of New York.
A "new" breed of terrorist stalks the streets of New York
Timing (intentional and otherwise) can often be the primary factor in whether or not a film arrives with the force of a socio-political shotgun blast, or is simply remembered as "a nifty genre exercise". And the timing of WOLFEN's debut couldn't have been more apropos. Arriving at the tail-end of a decade of (mostly schlocky if socially aware) "nature strikes back" flicks (FOOD OF THE GODS, THE SWARM, SQUIRM, WILLARD ... and even the occasional gem like Robert Wise's THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN or Saul Bass' PHASE IV) WOLFEN would emerge as the last and arguably best of the cycle, a true “political animal” which would violently and rebelliously rip the genre from it's low budget, sensationalist roots into the realm of intelligent social allegory, perhaps for the only time ever. This was always the stated intent of director Wadleigh, who envisioned his dark procedural as “… a thriller about a detective investigating activists who are killing off very rich people, and have a political and social agenda”.
In some respects he succeeded more than anticipated, as WOLFEN caught EVERYone off guard. Among those it’s own producers and studio: the recently formed Orion Pictures - in the early 1980s still on wobbly newborn financial legs, in need of a hit, and to the director’s dismay, desirous to sell the film as a straight-up low brow genre flick. Also thrown for an unexpected loop was the film going audience of 1981 (accustomed to lighter cinematic fare that year with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, DRAGONSLAYER, CLASH OF THE TITANS and two other more traditional “wolf” themed entries - THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON). And lastly but not least, a cadre of critics and political journalists who, in the early days of the Ronald Regan era's more conservative ideology, accused Wadleigh’s film of being inflammatory, anti-American … and in some cases downright socialist.
It would take a hell of a film to engender that much emotional debate. But the forgotten gem that is WOLFEN is one helluva film. If you’ve seen it, we invite you to take a fresh look at a classic. If you’ve never before visited the lair, then take our hand and travel into a territory both dark and darkly exciting, into the making of a one-of-a-kind film which managed to be both a politically trenchant lightning rod of a thriller as well as a technical tour de force which would send into hyper drive the careers of a team of cinema artists who’s work from that point would forever change the way we'd watch and hear the modern motion picture.
play WOLFEN - "Main Title" (J. Horner)
CUTTING IT’S TEETH
WOLFEN began life as the first novel (originally titled THE WOLFEN) from the pen of horror scribe Whitley Strieber. Published in 1978 it cleverly turned the “werewolf” genre on it’s pointed ear by transplanting marauding lupine beings from the period world of the turn-of-the-century English moors to the gritty FRENCH CONNECTION-era setting of contemporary New York. In the original book two detectives seek to unravel the truth behind the almost cannibalistic mutilations of two policemen found in a junk yard, the crime as it turns out perpetrated by the titular beings.
More than the transplanted setting however, one of the most distinguishing characteristics setting Strieber’s narrative apart from the “pack” of werewolf thrillers (both literary and celluloid) which had come before, was the conceit of the story being told not just from the perspective of the investigators, but also from the POV of the Wolfen themselves, who, while not human, are intelligent and possessed of a society with it’s own laws, traditions, and even an ideological “generation gap” between elder and younger citizenry - a rift which ultimately sets the novel’s main narrative in motion. Three years later Strieber would similarly modernize the vampire genre with THE HUNGER. Also later adapted into a film (the first big screen feature of director Tony Scott - starring Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie), both THE WOLFEN and THE HUNGER would emerge as seminal works later influencing everything from Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT series of novels to the UNDERWORLD film franchise.
producer Alan King
Producers Alan King and Rupert Hitzig wanted THE WOLFEN, and brought the project to the recently minted Orion film company. Native New Yorker King had already established an estimable reputation as one of the most popular “Borscht Belt” comedians of all time (his brand of domestic humor would later influence acts such as Joan Rivers, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby) as well as being a respected actor for his numerous dramatic turns in fare such as Sidney Lumet’s BYE, BYE BRAVERMAN (1968) and THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971). He became a TV producer in the late 1960s/early 70s, and it wasn’t long before he crossed paths with Hitzig, also a TV producer - who’s best known theatrical foray at the time was the Robert Blake motorcycle cop thriller ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (1973) The two joined forces and together would produce a slew of TV movies and specials until becoming a full-fledged feature production entity with WOLFEN and the critically acclaimed “girl’s western”, CATTLE ANNIE & LITTLE BRITCHES, both in 1981.
producer Rupert Hitzig
still a “start up company”, Orion at the time boasted an impressive
pedigree. Founded by five disgruntled former executives of United
Artists (Arthur Krim, Eric Pleskow, Mike Medavoy, William Bernstein and
Robert Benjamin) the “new kid on the block” production house hit the
ground running with a $100 million line of credit, a distribution deal
with Warner Bros., a financing and distribution deal with British giant
EMI, and a production slate of 15 “green lit” films in it’s first year alone.
Within the studio's relatively short life span (1978 - '92) it would produce an impressive list of Hollywood classics, including four Best Picture Oscar winners (AMADEUS - '84, PLATOON - '86, DANCES WITH WOLVES - '90, and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS - '91). But more expenditure over profit lead to bankruptcy in 1991. The expenditure began early as from it's very beginning Orion became known for scooping up novels at exorbitant prices
before publication - two of the biggest at the time being the
Egyptian archeologists thriller SPHINX (doling out $1 million to author Robin Cook) and Strieber’s THE WOLFEN on behalf of King and
As was WOLFEN the novel atypical of it‘s genre, so did King and
Hitzig want the same for their film. Desirous to eschew a “just out of
film school” slickness, they wanted a real-world, “this just happened last night but you missed it on the news”
verisimilitude - similar to how William Friedkin had recently taken the
police procedural and horror films away from stylized classicism and
given them contemporary “in ‘yo face” docu-drama-like immediacy
with both THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE EXORCIST (1973). To this
end they chose to lead WOLFEN’s pack an actual documentary filmmaker.
Wadleigh's WOODSTOCK (1970)
Hailing from Akron, Ohio, Michael Wadleigh cut his teeth in his early twenties as cinematographer on gritty independent projects such as DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY (1967) - arguably the first “mock-u-mentary” ever made (take that SPINAL TAP!), Martin Scorcese’s first feature WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (orig. title I CALL FIRST - ‘67) and various documentaries (MINGUS - ‘67, NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLED ME NIGGER - ‘68 , MY GIRLFRIEND’S WEDDING - ‘69) until stunning the world with WOODSTOCK (1970) - the epic detailing of the legendary Bethel, New York music festival of August 1969. Cited today as “the benchmark of concert movies and one of the most entertaining documentaries ever made”, it’s near 120 miles of celluloid footage was shot by Wadleigh then edited down (by the director along with future film making icons Martin Scorcese, Brian dePalma and Thelma Schoonmaker) into a three hour counter-culture feast for the eyes and ears which managed to score not only that year’s Best Documentary Academy Award, but also over $50 million for Warner Bros. on a paltry $600,000 budget. Eager for a non-traditional take on what was considered genre material, King, Hitzig, Orion & Medavoy, et al were originally thrilled when Wadleigh came aboard, bringing with him a socio-political agenda born of his 1960s-era film making roots.
Wadleigh (bottom left; shirtless) edits his magnum opus - WOODSTOCK
Neff (Diane Venora) and Wilson, stalking and stalked on Wall St.
Streiber’s novel begins with the deaths of two New York police officers, but Wadleigh’s film version (co-written by the director and David Eyre) with the mutilations of mega-millionaire Christopher Van der Veer, his wife, and their chauffeur/bodyguard one early A.M. while visiting an ancestral monument site in Battery Park. Van der Veer had earlier taken part in the ceremonial groundbreaking of a reclamation project in the South Bronx - which in the early 1980s resembled Dresden after the infamous bombings. And as the real estate magnate with political aspirations was involved in other such projects around the globe (many of them unpopular with the indigenous populations), the
“terrorists revenge” angle quickly becomes the primary focus of the police in partnership with Van der Veer’s high tech
personal security firm.
Gregory Hines (right) makes an auspicious screen debut as the sharp witted forensics ME, Wittington
Adding to the already macabre and grisly nature of the murders, the "ripper" has also removed selected organs from the victims - a popular "symbolic message" action practiced by numerous real life terrorist groups of the day. Because of his years of experience and almost animal-like investigative prowess, Detective Wilson (Finney) is pulled from “sick leave” (a leave mandated by an earlier mental/emotional breakdown and descent into alcoholism) and partnered with young Dr. Rebecca Neff (stage actress Diane Venora in her first film role) who is an expert in the psychology of violent political extremists. Aiding and abetting Wilson in his increasingly unorthodox investigation is the brilliant (and brilliantly funny) medical examiner Wittington, portrayed by stage star Gregory Hines, also in his film debut.
Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) works the "high steel"
Wilson’s investigation eventually diverges from that of the NYPD and
takes him on a trail after Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos - fresh off
his success in the stage and film versions of ZOOT SUIT). Holt is a
local New York Native American activist and former member of the
fictitious “NAM” (Native American Movement) - a group which in the past
attempted the bombing of a federal building which housed the famed “$24.00
Deed” with which the early Dutch settlers (Van der Veer’s ancestors)
proved their purchase/ownership of the isle of Manhattan - at the time
dubbed “New Amsterdam“. Wadleigh’s and Eyre’s screenplay would combine
subtle and not-so-subtle references to 70s/80s political action
incidents and groups (or terrorists depending on one's POV) such as the
Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Baader-Meinhoff gang and the PLO. But no
reference in the film is more blatant than it’s analogy to the real life
“AIM” (American Indian Movement) and it’s controversial figure