Thursday, September 17, 2015

WOLFEN (1981)

WOLFEN (1981) 

Label: Warner Archive
Region Code: A
Duration: 114 Minutes
Rating: R
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1 with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.40:1)
Director: Michael Wadleigh
Cast: Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, Dick O'Neill

It's been a decade or so since I last watched Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen (1981), I remember watching it late one night on cable TV as a youth, and to be honest not exactly loving it. The opening scenes with the violent deaths of NYC real estate magnate Christopher Van der Veer, his wife, and their bodyguard in Battery Park starts off on a high note. We have some cool thermal-vision POV shots as they are stalked through the park, the deaths are violent and bloody. The cops initially attribute the deaths to a terrorist group known as Götterdämmerung but  NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) thinks differently, after noting that the bodyguard wore a voodoo-themed ring he thinks there might be something more to the deaths than just politics and radical agendas. 

He's not alone in his thinking, when Coroner Whittington (Gregory Hines, Deal of the Century) cannot match a weapon to the massive wounds inflicted on the victims he thinks outside the box, perhaps an animal could be the culprit, but what sort of animal can slice of a hand and nearly decapitate someone? The notion confirmed by local zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan, Manhunter), who verifies that hairs found at the crime scenes belong to a member of the wolf family. Adding an ancient mysticism to the mix is a Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) a Native American activist whom is suspected of having been involved in the gruesome murders. Olmos is crazy young here, this was before his turn in Ridley scott's Blade Runner (1982), and his performance is a bit of the deep end at times. After he is questioned by Wilson (Finney) about the murders ge reveals his ability to shape-shift, and a few scenes later we find him naked on the shore of the ocean howling away at the moon, it's wild stuff. 

Finney's character has just been called back into active duty following a mental-health fueled leave of absence, and he does seem a bit detached but also very sarcastic. He's partnered up with an attractive NYPD criminal psychologist named Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), who at first attributes the murders to the radical terrorist group, but comes around to the theory of wolves when she finds herself face to face with them. Neff brings a serious tone to the role, professionally detached in her own way, and of ourse she becomes a love interest for the older Finney, and thankfully the over-long love scene is shot with some amount of obscurity, preventing a full-on shot of Finney's aged ass, which I think we can all appreciate. 

Wolfen came out the same year as several other noted wold-movies, Joe Dante's The Howling and the John Landis' classic An American werewolf in London, which might have hurt it a bit. As a kid I thought I was coming into an urban-werewolf movie, which was a failure of expectation on my part, once I firmly knew that there would be no actual werewolves I was bummed, what I wanted I did not get, but watching it now years later I am quite impressed by the movie and how well it has stood the test of time. I love the inner-city South Bronx setting, the urban decay captured on film is just a great setting and the socio-political commentary you can read into this is impressive on many levels and as sadly relevant today as it was thirty years ago. 

While we do not get a lycanthropic menace of the werewolf lore we do get a bit of the Native American shape-shifting mysticism introduced into the story, and the wolves certainly do seem supernatural in nature at various points. This might not have the most satisfying conclusion if you come into it expecting traditional werewolf movie in an urban setting, but I applaud it for bringing something new to the table, and something that sets it apart from any other movie of the time. 

The relationship between the snarky Wilson and the offbeat coroner is a lot of fun, the two have a chemistry and near the end of the film they both head into the South Bronx with sniper rifles and night vision lenses to hunt the Wolfen menace, with the coroner cracking wise throughout, the way things pan out for the coroner is a bit of a heart breaker, I loved that character a bunch, and you hate to see him go. 

The Wolfen are kept hidden away in the shadows till near the very end of the movie, which I think was a wise choice, the use of the thermal wolf-vision is in use from the very beginning, the shots are effective, and when I was a kid I was so sure we were gonna get a werewolf right up until be catch a proper glimpse of the Wolfen. I was disappointed in my youth but now I can appreciate the fear and dread the cinematography and thermal-vision brought to the movie, it's creepy stuff. The attacks are violent, a bit short of gory, but certainly visceral and bloody. In earlier seen of the Wolfen's glowing red eyes as seen in a dilapidated church in pretty effective stuff, proving that some minimal scares are hugely effective. 

Audio/Video: Wolfen (1981) comes to Blu-ray from Warner Archive as a MOD (Manufactured- On-Demand) option, the image looks quite nice with a healthy layer of film grain present, there's some modest depth and fine detail present, colors and skin tones look natural. Audio gets a nice bump over the previous snappercase DVD with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Sound presentation, the DVD was stereo, so this is a nice upgrade from which to enjoy the powerful James Horner score, which heightens the dread, this one has a great sound design, very effective stuff. 

Unfortunately the only extra on the disc is a standard-def trailer (2 Mins) for the movie, which is a bit of a shame, this is a movie with a somewhat storied production with director Michael Wadleigh having been yanked-off the picture during the post-production phase, having never completed his own director's cut of the movie, would have loved some insight into that but I guess most studio aren't exactly chomping at the bit to highlight tumultuous movie projects. 

Wolfen (1981) is a damn good variation on werewolf movies without actually being a werewolf movie, which might be problematic for some viewers, it certainly proved so for me in my youth, but it holds up extremely well. A top-notch nail-biter with with an awesome cast, glad to see this come to Blu-ray with a nice A/V presentation from Warner Archive. I am hoping Warner Archive get around to releasing a few '80s slashers on Blu-ray in the near future, would love to see Nightschool and Killer Party in HD. 3/5