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Wolfen (1981)

March 19th, 2008 · 9 Comments

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After attending the groundbreaking of a real estate development he’s building in the impoverished South Bronx, industrialist Christopher Van Der Veer stops off with his wife in Battery Park, where Van Der Veer’s ancestors built the first windmill in New York. Stalked by an unseen predator with four legs and highly acute senses, the couple are quickly attacked and killed. Their driver has his hand severed before he’s able to get off a shot.

Haggard detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) receives a page from his commanding officer (Dick O’Neill) and is dispatched to the crime scene: “It’s very weird and it’s very strange, just like you.” A coroner named Whittington (Gregory Hines) – full of grisly facts, like how long a severed head can remain conscious – finds no trace of metal on the victims’ wounds. The high-tech security firm protecting Van Der Veer pairs Dewey with their own expert, psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora).

Counterterrorism tactics fails to net a suspect, but when the predator attacks a vagrant in the South Bronx, hairs found at both crime scenes indicate the killer is the same. Dewey and Rebecca visit a zoologist named Ferguson (Tom Noonan) who reveals the hairs belong to “canis lupis.” A wolf. Dewey’s suspicions lead him to Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), former member of the Native American Movement. Holt spends his time on top of bridges and claims to be able to shape shift into different animals.


Ferguson maintains that wolves were wiped out in the east a century ago, along with the buffalo and Indians. “Wolves and Indians evolved and were destroyed simultaneously. They’re both tribal, they look out for their own, they don’t overpopulate and they’re both superb hunters.” It becomes obvious that something out there is preying on New Yorkers. Dewey and Whittington arm themselves with night vision and go hunting in the South Bronx, but discover they’re up against something more than a pack of wolves.

Production history
The Wolfen was the 1978 debut novel by Whitley Streiber. The book opened with the deaths of two police officers and focused on the efforts of cranky detective George Wilson and his young partner Becky Neff to track down the killers. They discover a pack of highly intelligent wolves preying on the castoffs of society. The wolves are also willing to kill to keep their existence secret. Streiber’s agent showed her husband – producer Rupert Hitzig – an advance copy of the book, which Hitzig bid on and won the screen rights to.

With the property set up at Orion Pictures, Hitzig offered the directing job to Michael Wadleigh, a talented documentary filmmaker best known for Woodstock. To adapt a screenplay, the studio was interested in Oliver Stone. When Hitzig and Wadleigh met with the Academy Award winning screenwriter in Rome, Stone didn’t care for the environmental approach they wanted to take with the story. David Eyre was brought in to write the script with Wadleigh instead.


Over the course of shooting, Wadleigh fell behind as many as six weeks. Notified by the studio that he had five days to finish, Wadleigh submitted a four hour and four minute assemblage with thirty six “scene missing” cards inserted. He was fired. Hitzig assumed directing duties for thirty days of reshoots, including the solarized “Wolfen vision” shots with Steadicam creator Garrett Brown operating the camera. John Hancock was brought in to finish the movie due to DGA regulations. Wadleigh never directed a feature film again.

Wolfen was released in July 1981 between The Howling and An American Werewolf In London, but it’s a testament to the strength of the finished film that not only is it as great as those two genre classics, but it spins the werewolf movie off in completely innovative and exciting directions. Seen today, it plays like a big budget season finale of The X-Files, establishing strong performances from its cast, some ghoulish autopsy scenes, a weird mystery and incredibly vivid atmosphere.

Instead of reducing itself to a creature feature, serial killer thriller or cop procedural, the script is an artful combination of all three, layering a deeper message about man’s precarious relationship with the environment. Wolfen has a bold visual sheen and breathtaking production value as well, with key sequences shot atop the George Washington Bridge and in the ruins of South Bronx. The cast shines, particularly Gregory Hines in his screen debut. A 27-year-old composer named James Horner replaced Craig Safan on short notice and produced a rousing musical score.

I’d like to thank Rupert Hitzig at Bizazz Media for taking the time to discuss the making of Wolfen. So little behind the scenes information exists on this film that this article wouldn’t have been possible without his participation. Thanks, Rupert!


Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “Wolfen is a thriller that doesn’t quite fit easily into a defined genre. It plays primarily as horror, but as the mystery as to what is behind the killings unravels, thriller and fantasy elements begin to take over. It’s an uneven experience, but does have its rewards, and the quirky nature of it can probably be attributed to the previous directorial experience of counter-culture director Michael Wadley.”

Wolfen goes through the paces of a typical detective thriller, but I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything like it … My mother calls Wolfen ‘a werewolf movie from the werewolf’s point of view,’ and that’s not a bad take on it, since the homicidal title creatures are in essence the good guys of the piece,” writes Bill Chambers at Film Freak Central.

Dr. Obrero at Digital Retribution writes, “A beautifully lensed picture, Wolfen captures the look and feel of New York circa late 70’s/early ’80’s in a way few other films have ever managed, and the effective camera-trickery that gives us ‘Wolfen-Vision’ is almost dream-like and effective in sustaining the atmospherics of the attack sequences … Wolfen is an essential choice for those who enjoy intelligent thrillers as opposed to blood-splattering slice and dice and braindead horror films.”

“They can sense the rhythm of your blood. Hear clouds pass overhead. See where you are blind. A force so deadly it will tear the scream from your throat.” View the 1981 theatrical trailer for Wolfen.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Beasts and monsters · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Murder mystery · Woman in jeopardy

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam R // Mar 20, 2008 at 6:26 am

    Wow, Wadleigh’s tenure on the film sure sounds like a disaster. I’m not holding my breath for the 244-minute “director’s cut” to show up on DVD!

  • 2 sir jorge // Mar 20, 2008 at 10:34 am

    I like it, it looks cool, I must see it again.

  • 3 Pat Evans // Mar 20, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    This is my third attempt — somebody up there doesn’t like me! This movie is something special with its wolf-view scenes. Finney and Hines aren’t too shabby either…

  • 4 christian // Mar 21, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    I watched WOLFEN every single time it was on HBO in the 80’s. A strange amazing film. My favorite oddball scene?


    When the detective gets his head bit off and the disembodied head actually silently talks in reference to an earlier conversation…

  • 5 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Mar 22, 2008 at 10:20 am

    I’m confused about why the word “werewolves” was used in your article and in your comments. The definition of werewolves does not apply to the creatures in this film. I remember enjoying this thriller very much when I saw it in the theater. Since that was so many year ago, I think I need to add it to my queue. Thanks for the interesting background on the movie.

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Mar 22, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Adam: Wadleigh’s luck hasn’t been the best. He helped set up a low frequency community radio station in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 2000, but a wood stove burned the building down three years later. He wasn’t insured. The station was affiliated the Gritty Organization, a New Hampshire non-profit agency Wadleigh devotes to global media production and education.

    Jorge: I liked Wolfen even more at 35 years of age than I did at 15.

    Patricia: AOL is the personal domain of Satan. I should know, I was a member for eight years. Your network problems are not of a heavenly nature, I assure you. I truly dig the “Wolfen vision” too. The solarization effects are much more dreamlike than the metallic infared used in Predator.

    Christian: I read a review from a blogger who called Wolfen “an episode of CSI with werewolves.” While it’s not quite that extensive when it comes to either forensics investigations or werewolves, it sort of sums up my feelings for the flick. Strange and amazing is what I aim for here. Thanks for commenting!

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: Since the wolves possess intelligence at least equal to humans, I find it easy to classify them as werewolves. Maybe “wolfen” was the term from Streiber’s text but I find it a bit silly to use. Maybe “super wolf” would be the more accurate term, but that sounds funny to me as well. Maybe we should hold a contest so the nice wolves in this movie will have a proper name. Thanks for reading and commenting, as always!

  • 7 Christopher Chouinard // Feb 27, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Wolfen is one of those rare hidden gems I;ve loved since my youth, when I first saw it. I read the book, and was confused when the film was so radically different. Lost in the misdt of shape shifter movies, and in the wake of E.T. , WOLFEN deserves a second chance. The Horner score is one of his best, the cinematography stunning, and the TONE – wow….and don’t overlook Finney as Dewey Wilson . His performance , along with Tom Noonan of MANHUNTER, and Hines places this right up there with WOLF as an ADULT re-examination of lycanthropy. I’d KILL for a great audio commmentary, the laser had none, nor do the DVDS. The Soundtrack however CAN be found for fans of the movie, rather easily online.

  • 8 Carlos // Nov 9, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Where can I find the wolfen screenplay or transcript?

  • 9 Dr. Doom // Jan 23, 2014 at 1:41 am

    It was in the target theater in Colorado, I was eight year old, I and a former brother and cousin were watching escape from new York, when the movie was over and exit out theater, we saw a huge crowd lined up, so we snucked while we were just coming out with the crowd, not knowing what movie we were going to see, man I tell you not was I only terrified but amazed of visuals of this horror story, I was amazed of negative affect that looked like predator, the move freaked out when the two detective were at the church and one can hear a baby crying and the other was the wolf, best terrifying free show, but then later on that year seeing heavy metal and American wolf of London (sob) was I scared to go out in the night LOL. Good times at that age when you are a child.

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