Wolfen isn’t a werewolf movie. I should make that clear from the start. In fact, Wolfen has more in common with the monster animal genre of films so popular in the 1970’s like Willard, The Food of the Gods, and Night of the Lepus.
And like those movies (and their many nuclear predecessors like Them!, Black Scorpion, Tarantula, and other atomic creatures) Wolfen was, and remains, a movie about predation by things that are bigger, badder and more intelligent than we are. Except that the Wolfen were not created by mad science, atomic explosions or toxic waste. Rather, they evolved alongside human beings. They kill like animals, but they think like humans. And humans are, in fact, their meat animals. They haven’t come to the ghettos because they were pushed out of their environment by some manmade factor, so forget that “going green” message. Rather, the Wolfen follow human migration. Without humans, they couldn’t exist.
NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson (played in a brilliantly detached and alcoholic fugue by Albert Finney) is assigned a bizarre string of violent murders with no seeming connection. A high-profile building magnate, a bodyguard, various homeless people and a scattering of cops are all either missing or found with their throats ripped out by some enormously powerful beast. Wilson partners with criminal psychologist Becky Neff to solve the murders, and the two investigate everything from terrorism and voodoo to the idea that something both less and more human is out there slaughtering people in a secretive yet discernible and intelligent pattern, if they can only find it.
Wolfen is part horror movie and part police investigation, but in many ways it’s also a psychological thriller as the Wolfen pack play a very dangerous game of cat and mouse with Wilson and Neff, a game that eventually culminates in a confrontation that shakes and displaces everything that Wilson knows and nearly everything he’s ever believed in.
Wolfen has often been ragged on in the past, mostly because so many people who watch it insist on comparing it to the Whitley Strieber novel that inspired it. I love the book, but the truth is I love the movie more. I love its despondent and nearly post-apocalyptic visuals and harrowing music. I love its gut-churning build-up of mysteries leading to horrors that lead to yet more mysteries, some of which can never really be solved—at least not to the satisfaction of Dewey Wilson. Wilson’s life has been falling apart for years before the story even begins, but he clings stubbornly to resolving mysteries like an alcoholic clings to his last bottle. He’s naturally a man who finds order in chaos. Now, for the first time, he’s out of his element and with nary a lonely English moor or horror set in site. The horror has hit close to home. The horror is home, in the urban decay all about him.
I love Wolfen because at one point in Wilson’s investigation, he seeks the advice of a group of Native Americans, themselves outsiders to the New York they’re helping to reconstruct, and their leader tells him, “They might be gods,” after which Wilson develops the “eyes of the dead” rather than the “eyes of the hunter.” And therein lies the true horror of the Wolfen: that once our own fabricated veneer of the world we think we know is torn away, we really aren’t prepared to face the truth. What we perceive as evil might in fact be divine. What we assume is good and true might be our own self-induced fugue that we, much like Wilson, use to navigate through a completely alien landscape.
I also love Wolfen for its atmosphere, its mindless and almost joyous decay, its ruthless attempt to display the shit and squalor of a decaying civilization so awful it manages to transcend the hideous and become something close to art. The Wolfen, and the victims they pursue, move through orchards of shattered buildings, mine fields of broken church glass, and hills of human debris as if to state that yes, this is the end of the road, the new Eden, and the meek shall inherit the earth. Only the meek won’t be us. The meek won’t be human at all. Because the Wolfen, like the Native Americans who revere them, know just how badly humankind is trashing their world.
They only need to wait. And watch.
5 pentacles out of 5
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This blog is part of “The Werewolf Run” to help promote the release of my own werewolf novel, A Werewolf in Time (Mrs. McGillicuddy #2). Please visit Amazon and Barnes & Noble online for information on ordering a copy of the book for your Kindle or Nook. To see where I’ll be in the next month, visit the official Karen Koehler website!
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