Released in the midst of the 1981 werewolf movie boom that yielded Full Moon High, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London in quick succession, Wolfen is often lumped in with them in spite of the fact that its supernatural wolf creatures are emphatically not shapeshifters. The first of three Whitley Strieber books adapted for the screen (the other two being the modern-day vampire tale The Hunger in 1983 and the alien abduction trip Communion in 1989), Wolfen was co-written and directed by Michael Wadleigh, then most famous for making the documentary Woodstock. Not the most obvious proving ground for a horror filmmaker, but his background does lend the film a sense of realism that it shares with such contemporary urban fare as Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, and William Friedkin’s Cruising, to name a few.
With key scenes filmed in the shadow of the World Trade Center and in sight of the Statue of Liberty, Wolfen announces itself as a New York movie through and through. But just as Wadleigh was an unconventional choice for director, so too was his choice of leading man: British-born Albert Finney, who is nevertheless convincing as semi-retired police detective Dewey Wilson, who’s called in to investigate a puzzling triple homicide involving a super-rich real estate developer. (It’s never stated precisely why Dewey is on leave, but he’s told the reason his captain wants him on the case is because “It’s very weird and it’s very strange, just like you.”)
In the early going, Wadleigh keeps much of the gruesomeness off-screen. True, the developer’s Haitian bodyguard gets disarmed in the most literal fashion, but we’re spared the sight of his trophy wife’s head falling off when the police are taking in the crime scene the following morning. Later on, when a junkie picks the wrong spot to “get straight,” we actually get to see his throat torn out and heart unceremoniously dropped on the ground, but because Wadleigh is unable to reveal who or what is responsible for these acts, it’s impossible for them to register as anything other than quick shocks. In fact, the most effective jump scare in the film was manufactured in the editing room by zooming out from a blowup of Dewey looking out on what he doesn’t realize is the Wolfen’s hunting grounds. That can’t necessarily be attributed to Wadleigh, though, because he isn’t responsible for the final shape of the film, which was worked on by no fewer than four editors, some of whom came onto the project after he was unceremoniously kicked off it.
Supporting the late Finney is a uniformly great cast including Gregory Hines as a coroner who throws Dewey a curve by ruling out metal weapons and introducing him to eccentric zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan), who identifies the hairs found on the victims as being from the species canis lupus. Ferguson also makes the first connection between wolves and Native Americans, which leads Dewey to Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), a militant high-steel worker who casually tells Dewey he can “shift with the best of them.” “Shift?” Dewey asks. “Shapeshift,” Eddie clarifies. “We do it for kicks.” In short order, Dewey watches as Eddie undergoes an esoteric ritual where he accepts a ceremonial necklace, goes to the beach to strip, makes paw prints in the sand with his knuckles, and howls at the moon. He doesn’t physically change, though, which surely disappointed anybody expecting a Rick Baker or Rob Bottin-style transformation. “It’s all in the head!” he shouts in Dewey’s face, leaving an impression on the hard-nosed cop nonetheless.
When Wadleigh finally gets around to showing the Wolfen, the big reveal is somewhat underwhelming since they’re played by ordinary wolves (albeit spookily lit ones). The other area where Wolfen comes up short is the domestic terrorism subplot that takes up too much time for something that turns out to be a red herring. Its only benefit is giving Dewey a foil in psychologist Rebecca Neff (Broadway actress Diane Venora making her screen debut), who’s working for the security company that dropped the ball at the beginning of the film. Even she turns out to be largely superfluous, though, disappearing for long stretches without really being missed. It’s possible Venora had a lot more scenes that got lost in the editorial shuffle, but at least she’s around for the climactic standoff between Dewey and the Wolfen, which made sure Hines and Noonan couldn’t say the same.