The Tomb of Terror – Wolfen (1981)
I don’t care if a film has an agenda or wants to make a statement. What I don’t like is when a film becomes preachy and stops telling its story to get on a soapbox. That’s exactly what happens with Wolfen. It isn’t until the end of the film, but the final voice over from Dewey is groan-inducing in its bluntness. There are things that the film does very well. We see every attack scene from the POV of the killer. These shots look great and are enhanced with a heat effect, an early version of what we’d later see in Predator. But looking good can only help a film so much when it has as many script problems as Wolfen does. There are several subplots which go nowhere and drag the running out to a much too long two hours. The worst offender is the character of Rebecca. She isn’t given any personality beyond the fact that she invented a new kind of lie detector device (which ends up having no effect on the plot). A romance is tried at between her and Dewey, but is done in a very half-assed way. After sharing about two scenes together, Dewey shows up at her apartment. He’s freaked after seeing some wolves and brandishing his gun about. So what’s a girl to do if a guy she doesn’t know very well shows up out of the blue freaking out? Sleep with him of course. This love affair adds zero to the film because we don’t know enough about the characters to be invested in their relationship. Oh, there’s also a subplot about terrorists being investigated for the Van Der Veers’ murders that is just there to take up more time.
The acting doesn’t help the slow pace of the film. Many of the actors seem to sleepwalk through their roles and not give much in the way of personality to their characters. Albert Finney is a great actor who has won many awards, but he doesn’t shine in this lead role. When Dewey is first introduced, the quirkiness of his character draws us in. Howeve,r once these introductory scenes are out of the way, we realize that we aren’t going to get much in the way of depth with this performance. Finney isn’t bad, but he never feels like he’s invested in the performance or film. His best scenes are the ones he shares with Gregory Hines. Hines’ performance as the mortician is the highlight of the film. It’s so good that you wish the script allowed him and Finney to be the partners investigating the murders as opposed to sharing those duties with Rebecca. Edward James Olmos goes a decent job, but is forced to speak most of the script’s worst dialogue and take part in its most ridiculous scenes. The rest of the cast do well in their small roles, with only Tom Noonan as the doctor really shining.
You’ve probably noticed that throughout this review I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about werewolves. That’s because Wolfen doesn’t spend a whole lot of time with the werewolves. In fact, the monsters in this film might not even be werewolves at all. Due to some storytelling confusion, we’re never sure if we are dealing with Native American shapeshifters or magical wolves. The fact that the beasts are represented by real wolves just adds to the confusion of what we’re seeing. The werewolves (if that’s what they even are) are probably the most disappointing aspect of the film. Coming out the same year as the groundbreaking Howling and American Werewolf, you’d expect Wolfen to up the makeup effects ante like those films did. Instead, we just get a pack of wolves running around. Although, to be fair, there is a pretty excellent decapitation near the climax. If there had been more shocking moments like that or more time given to the characters, Wolfen might have been able to stand toe to toe with its werewolf brethren. Instead, it ends up being the one werewolf disappointment from the class of 1981.
Final Grade: C
Wolfen first came to DVD in 2002 from Warner Bros. It was packaged in an unfortunate cardboard snapper case that WB and New Line used to package their films in during the early days of the format. Included was a good anamorphic widescreen transfer, but not much in terms of bonus content. All you got was a trailer, some useless cast & crew listings (no bios or anything, just literally the opening credits on one page), and some production notes about the history of werewolves on film under the very lame title “’Howl’-ywood.” When the disc was first pressed, the packaging promised a commentary from actors Albert Finney, Diana Verona, and Edward James Olmos. For some unknown reason, this commentary has never appeared on any release of the film.
In 2007, the film was re-released as part of WB’s “Horror: 4 Film Favorites” collection. This two disc set also included the superior werewolf film Bad Moon, the underrated remake Body Snatchers, and the Michael Crichton-directed Coma. The discs were the same as their previously released editions, but now with one film on each side of a flipper disc. Bad Moon and Coma come with a trailer ,while Body Snatchers contains no extras. This is the best place to get Wolfen on disc as it comes with three other movies for about $20.