Wolfen (1981) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

The latest episode of The Black Sheep video series looks back at the largely forgotten 1981 werewolf film Wolfen

The Wolfen episode of The Black Sheep was Written and Narrated by Andrew Hatfield, Edited by Brandon Nally, Produced by Lance Vlcek and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

A black sheep doesn’t have to be considered bad to have that loving title and distinction. I mean, some of them are considered quite bad and need the layers peeled down to show off the good inside. There are other cases though. A movie can also be a black sheep if it was buried by a more popular outing like The Last Broadcast being utterly forgotten after the behemoth The Blair Witch Project made its appearance. Sometimes, like Last Broadcast, it can just be buried withing its own genre, decade, year, or as in today’s title, all 3. I’ve seen more than a few comments for this one so let’s take a look at werewolves in 1981. No, not that one, the other one. No, not that one either, the other, OTHER wolf movie of 1981, Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (watch it HERE).

I would imagine that most, if not all, of us watching this video grew up with 1 or 2 of the werewolf movies in 1981. Most people probably enjoy both An American Werewolf in London and The Howling but have a preference of make and model. For me, its An American Werewolf in London. I enjoy The Howling – especially now, over 20 years after I first watched it with my older brothers, who were and still are something of gurus for me in the world of pop culture. I remember finding out about and watching The Howling in Tempe, Arizona and wondering how I’d never seen this movie but also not enjoying it as much as I should. It was the same as London but different. Of course, now, especially after writing our 80s Horror Memories episode on the two and revisiting both, I see how similar they actually are in development and behind the scenes stories but also how beautifully different they are.

There is another, however. A third wolf movie of that very year that may lack the historical attention and star power behind the camera but packs a really nice punch. I say wolf movie because it’s not a traditional werewolf flick. While An American Werewolf in London is very traditional in terms of its monster rules and The Howling at least adheres to the wolf man mythos even if it plays fast and loose with the rules. Wolfen has much more pathos and meaning that it mixes with its pulp. While it is also based on a novel like the howling, it sticks much closer to its source material and is as much a cop drama, environmental message, and sociological message movie as it is horror. It’s admittedly a slower, drier affair than either of the other two movies in it’s pack but it’s well worth tracking down and gives you a completely different experience.

Wolfen The Black Sheep

The movie starts off with a rich couple on their way home from an upscale party and decide to stop in Battery Park. Yeah, I think that may be the hardest part to swallow of this movie over 40 years later. They are slain by something with a fun, early version of predator vision and even their large driver/bodyguard is taken out with relative ease. A former captain of the NYPD is brought in to help solve the murders as the yuppy couple was very high profile and the Mayor along with the Van De Veer family’s private security believe it to be work of terrorists. The former and now brought back current Captain Dewey is played by Albert Finney. Finney plays the role wonderfully with part sarcastic pessimism and part willing to believe skeptic as the events unfold. Finney may be one of the most underrated great actors of all time as the 5-time Oscar nominated thespian would play some large than life roles including Ebenezer Scrooge, Hercule Poirot in the star-studded Murder on the Orient Express from 74 and would end his career in a James Bond movie. For horror, this is about it and even this is almost horror adjacent enough for an actor to not consider it in the genre. He was also in the very underseen sci-fi movie Looker that is a smarter movie today than even 42 years ago.

The politicians also assign a criminal expert Rebecca Neff played by Diane Venora. Venora is much less known than Finney as the co-lead and in fact WAS much less known as this was her first feature film. She would go on to appear in things like Heat, F/X, and The Insider. The rest of the cast is a fun mix of character actors and stars from other walks of life. The coroner, Whittington, is played by Gregory Hines, our lead suspect is the legendary Edward James Olmos, Tom Noonan plays the helpful zoo employee, and Dick O’Neil is Dewey’s boss. We even get small appearances from James Tolken and Reginald VelJohnson. While Hines is really only in this and an episode of Amazing Stories for genre film, Noonan is a damn legend in the biz with Robocop 2, the creepy villain of Last Action Hero, Manhunter, House of the Devil, and a few more. Behind the camera is the opposite effect. The director is Michael Wadleigh who again is not a household name, and his only other major movie is Woodstock. The guy directed Woodstock. He also wrote the screenplay with David Eyre who has only a handful of writing projects to his name.

The book its based off of, yet another adaptation I didn’t know about until rewatching the movie, was written by Whitley Strieber who also happened to write The Hunger and the book that The Day After Tomorrow was partially based on. The only screenplay that he wrote was for the adaptation of his own book The Communion, which is another fun and zany Christopher Walken role. Back to the movie and another person is killed by an unseen creature in an old building that is set for demolition. Dewey and Diane go to investigate, and Diane is almost lured to her death by the sound of a baby when Dewey saves her only to hear howling and see the eyes of a wolf. Another man is slain, and Whitington discovers that the weapon isn’t consistent with anything that they’ve seen before, and he also finds several hairs on all of the victims. This is when we are introduced to Noonan’s Zoologist who says the hair and bites are without uncertainty from a wolf. He also makes a comment comparing wolves in general to Native Americans and Dewey has a wild hair that sends him after a Native American he arrested back in the day who was also part of a radical political movement.

He talks to him on the top of a bridge where Eddie Holt alludes to Dewey that he can shape shift like many of them can and Dewey decides to tail him. Doing his own investigating, Zoologist Ferguson looks for wolves in central park and is killed for his trouble. Dewey gets permission from his superior to do a stake out at the abandoned building that Neff almost died at and while there is nothing in the actual building anymore, Whitington is killed after a surprise attack from a wolf and Dewey is unable to save him in time. He heads to the bar where Eddie Holt and his friends are, where they tell him the legend of The Wolfen. The Wolfen are spirit gods and cannot be stopped by normal men and women. Eddie tells Dewey that fighting is pointless as he isn’t on the same level as the wolfen. The wolfen are hunters and Dewey is merely the future dead. The spirits aren’t on the prowl for random killings either. They will kill for and defend their hunting grounds even if that means venturing out and killing the van de veers of the world who look to take more of their land from them.

Wolfen The Black Sheep

It’s here where everything comes together for this movie. The characters feel more real and lived in than the other two movies. Dewey is flawed but realistic. The writers explore things like unfortunate alcoholism within native Americans, yuppie rich culture, and terrorism. The wolves aren’t make-up laden man wolves who rip apart everyone like a hot knife through butter. They aren’t objectively evil and are aware of what they are doing. Dewey decides he wants off the case but he, his boss, and Neff are surrounded by the wolves who kill off Warren really quickly and really brutally. The gore in this movie is not on par with its Lycan contemporaries but severed hands, severed heads, and the right blood splatter at the right time deliver on the horror aspect of the movie.

Our surviving heroes get corned in the now vacant penthouse of the recently deceased Van Der Veers and as they get surrounded, Dewey puts down his gun and takes out the miniature plans that would build on the spirits hunting grounds. He chooses not to fight them just like he was warned and sure enough, they walk away. The rest of the police arrive, and Dewey decides to go with the narrative of the terrorism angle that the private security and Mayor are pushing. Not only would he probably not be believed if he told them what really happened, but it would put the community and land in further danger. A voice over explains that the cycle will continue both with human class warfare and the wolfen being the higher predator on the food chain. Eddie and his pack look out at the city while on the bridge.

Wolfen is a special combination of things that makes it essential viewing for horror fans. Like its source material cousin in The Hunger being the outcast or, ahem, Black Sheep of the Vampire subgenre, Wolfen is the same for wolf related horror. It’s not that it’s better or worse than the two heavy hitters of 1981 but it’s just so damn different. It rarely even gets lumped into the horror realm because it’s not exactly werewolves and it’s also not exactly the tried-and-true formula that Howling and London follow. While it may not have the legacy that it deserves, it has the talent, originality, and entertainment that make it required viewing. Its original theatrical run was unfortunately a huge failure with it only garnering 10 million on its 17-million-dollar budget, but that failure shouldn’t dictate how it’s seen today. It comes on a 4 pack DVD with some other underappreciated movies like Coma, Bad Moon, and the 90’s remake of Body Snatchers but also has its own solo Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection. Hopefully one of our physical fiends at Scream or Arrow will do the right thing soon. Give Wolfen a chance with an open mind and a respect for the spirits. You’ll be glad you did.

A couple of the previous episodes of The Black Sheep can be seen below. To see more, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of JoBlo.com, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.