Monday, May 6, 2019

Albert Finney Hunts Wolfen in NYC

Albert Finney and friend.
For years, I felt an irresistible impulse to indulge in Albert Finney's two 1980 horror/sci fi films whenever they were available. I finally got over the urge to watch Looker after reviewing it for this blog a few years ago. It's a terrible movie and I think that documenting that in writing "cured" me. That brings us to Finney's other 1980 film, Wolfen, which I recently discovered on Vudu...and ended up watching, of course.

The film opens with the vicious early morning murders of a rich industrialist, his wife, and their chauffeur in a New York City park. A high tech security firm and the police suspect that it's the work of a terrorist group. However, detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is puzzled by the nature of the savage wounds, missing body organs, and a hair from an unidentified animal. When a similar hair is found on the body of a dead bum in the slums, Dewey concludes that the two crimes must somehow be related.

A rundown church is the setting for one of the best scenes.
Wolfen unravels effectively for most of its 113 minute running time as Dewey gradually connects the pieces of the puzzle. There are plenty of red herrings along the way, including a group of Native Americans suggesting that shape-shifters may be at work. But make no mistake, Wolfen is not about werewolves. To its credit, it has loftier ambitions--even if it ultimately fails to achieve them.

The film's biggest challenge is its gaps in narrative structure. This is not surprising considering that director Michael Wadleigh delivered a 4 1/2 hour cut of Wolfen and was promptly removed from the post-production process. It may explain why we never learn the destiny of a dog that accompanied the couple in the opening scene or why Dewey goes to a bar to have Edward James Olmos painstakingly explain the film's premise to him. The latter is especially awkward; I felt ripped off being given the answer after spending so much of Wolfen trying to figure out what was going on. Still, things like that are bound happen when you leave over two hours of edited footage on the cutting room floor.

Gregory Hines.
Finney and his co-star Diane Venora never flesh out their characters and their one-night stand is superfluous to the plot. Perhaps, the blame can once again be attributed to the lost footage and not the actors. Gregory Hines, on the other hand, is excellent as a potato chip-eating medical examiner whose decision to help Finney's detective results in more bloodshed. Incidentally, one of the first victims is played by Anne Marie Pohtamo, who won the the Miss Universe title in 1975 (she was Miss Finland). She only appeared in one other film role.

Director Wadleigh avoids showing the Wolfen for most of the film. Instead, he relies on the old trick of showing us what the creatures see. To inject some additional visual interest, he uses a process similar to thermal imaging. It's an effective technique at first, but wears thin about the fifth time he employs it. To Wadleigh's credit, though, when we finally see the Wolfen (after about 80 minutes), it's a tense scene and the creatures are impressive-looking.

Anne Marie Pohtamo.
The screenplay was loosely based on Whitley Streiber's 1978 debut novel The Wolfen. Streiber's story is more streamlined (no terrorist plot) and I suspect it works better than the ambitious, but flawed, film adaptation.

Wolfen is the the only fictional film directed by Michael Wadleigh. His other films are documentaries, though one is pretty famous. It's called Woodstock.

9 comments:

  1. I don't think I like Wolfen. Not the movie, because I haven't seen it yet, but the creature sounds unreasonable. Loftier ambitions? Streiber? I think I know where that creature is from.

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  2. Did I hear correctly: Whitley Streiber says he was abducted by aliens?

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    1. He wrote two books about it, one of which was a bestseller.

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  3. I remember seeing this in the theater. I had been very excited to see it, because the trailers looked great to me.
    I was extremely disappointed and bored by the time it ended. Finney is very charismatic, and i wanted him to do ...something. he literally does nothing in this film. The wolves have a better character arc than he gets. This movie came out a couple of months after "The Howling", and tried desperately to appeal to that audience.
    I didn't hate it, it just left me sad that i had spent my allowance on this movie.

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    1. It is disappointing, but still better than LOOKER!

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  4. I hate when Hollywood trashes a perfectly good story to go off on some crazy jag. Streiber's book was great. The movie is a horror, and the mis-casting monumental.

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    1. Finney was meant to play Tom Jones, Under the Volcano, and The Green Man. This was not his finest hour (Churchill reference inferred).

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    2. I can’t disagree with you, Ron.

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  5. I will always have a negative association with Wolfen because I first watched it (on TV) while coming down with a horrific case of the flu. So, naturally, whenever I think of the movie, which I don't remember very well, I remember being extremely ill and delirious. I believe I ended up in the ER. Who knows what watching Looker might've brought on!

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