Wolfen – USA, 1981 – reviews

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‘There is no defence.’

Wolfen is a 1981 American supernatural horror feature film directed by Michael Wadleigh from a screenplay co-written with David Eyre and [uncredited] Eric Roth. It is an adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s 1978 novel The Wolfen. It was co-produced by Wadleith [uncredited] and Rupert Hitzig (Jaws 3-D). The movie stars Albert Finney (Night Must Fall), Diane Venora, Gregory Hines and Edward James Olmos.

The film’s soundtrack score was composed by James Horner (Humanoids from the DeepDeadly Blessing; Aliens). The special effect makeup  was provided by Carl Fullerton.


A disused church in the Bronx proves to be central to a string of savage murders in the area, which seem to be the work of a huge pack of wolves.

Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is assigned to track down the urban lycanthropes. Wilson enlists the help of a criminal psychologist (Diane Verona) and the city’s coroner (Gregory Hines) and together they discover that an ancient Native American legend, about a satanic group of changelings known as the Wolfen, is in fact true…

Reviews [click links to read more]:

“As a whole, the film is damn solid, with a unique take on the werewolf concept, but I could easily see horror fans growing tired of the procedural-like plot and/or not quite digging the not-quite-werewolf schtick.  It’s well worth a watch if wolves are your bag or you like the darker crime thrillers out there.” Kyle Saubert, Allusions of Grandeur

Wolfen is definitely an interesting horror movie with a different perspective.  The horror builds nicely and the movie is very tense.  You might be expecting a true werewolf movie when you see the title, but with Wolfen, you get something entirely unexpected.” JP Roscoe, Basement Rejects

“After seeing it on first release, Wolfen has remained a memorable and repeatable experience. As much for the gritty approach (the matter-of-fact pathology lab scene is full of edgy moments) as the locations and ideas. Like a leftover eco-thriller from the 70s, a Soylent Green set in modern day.” Mark Hodgson, Black Hole

“Marvellous contemporary reinvention of the classic werewolf myth; taken initially from an excellent source novel by Whitley Streiber, though it’s clear that director Wadleigh and co-screenwriter David Eyre took a degree of creative license – retaining only about 50% of the source novella and managed to inject a whole new series of themes…” Digital Retibution

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.” Bill Chambers, Film Freak Central.

“…a case of a director’s pretensions toward making a big message overbearing an idea to the point of ludicrousness. Certainly, Wadleigh creates an often haunted atmosphere, suggesting animals constantly lurking and creeping through the shadows. The solarised and Steadicam shots supposedly from the wolves’ point-of-view were novel at the time the film was made.” Richard Scheib, Moria

“The performers are all fine, but it’s the film’s otherworldly look and sound that give Wolfen the frequently stunning effect it has. Not since Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Back has there been such a beautifully mounted and designed scare movie […] Wolfen is so good-looking that one tends to ignore a certain but very real inner vacuity.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times

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…” Vince Leo,  QWipster’s Movie Reviews

” …the releasing studio, United Artists, which would have preferred a sleazy exploitation picture (and is releasing Wolfen as if it were one). That’s a shame. Love, thought, care and craftsmanship have gone into this film, which is now, so to speak, being thrown to the wolves.” Roger Ebert

” …the cinematography was excellent throughout, with Wadleigh taking full advantage of the widescreen compositions, which was all very well but remained creaking under the weight of the director’s right-on messages. Plenty found much to resist about Wolfen at the time, not least the studio, but over the years its idiosyncrasies have brought it a well-deserved interest.” Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

“Maximizing the harshness of the urban ghetto that serves as its backdrop – and dotting it with creatures who only attack because they’re protecting their turf – Wolfen forgoes a dramatic ‘transformation scene’ in favor of a well-handled socio-political message. But gorehounds, don’t be disheartened: there’s plenty of red stuff afoot here…” Terror Trap

“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…” This Distracted Globe

“From a cinematography viewpoint, Wolfen has some impressive scenes, particularly those of the Manhattan landscape. For a city that doesn’t sleep, the streets as they’re filmed here are barren, with lots of shadows […] I also love seeing New York City in the early 80’s, where most of the Bronx and Brooklyn looked like war zones.” Leonard Wilson, Through the Shattered Lens

“The setting is two New Yorks: that of the multinational, politically-amoral corporations, and that of the slum wastelands, both with the same landlords. The camera’s vision is a fresh one, and though the wolf’s eye view sequences threaten at first to become a nuisance, they are soon justified as a dramatic device, and ultimately as essential to the plot.” Time Out

Wolfen is an intelligent, insightful, and visually creative twist on the werewolf legend. Although occasionally preachy, it is a fascinating horror tale that is as engrossing as it is horrifying. The visual effects are sensational, introducing to the screen a previously unseen “Wolfen vision” that, through a variety of optical printing techniques, conveys the wolves’ heightened awareness of heat, smell, movement, and texture.” TV Guide

“Wadleigh creates a surreal point-of-view for the killers that works effectively, accented by handy digital sound. Overall, Paul Sylbert’s production design is also a major plus. Add to that a splendid performance by Finney and a solid film debut for Diane Venora as his psychologist sidekick.” Variety

“This was way more intelligent than I was expecting going in and while it does have some mild comic relief courtesy of Hines things are played completely straight. Its solid performances and smart script […] elevate this to a level rarely seen amongst (were) wolves. I loved the way Wadleigh staged the wolf perspective (yes, it does feel like Predator – six years beforehand)…” The Video Graveyard

“It plays on the typical werewolf movie and adds its own distinctive twist, it uses stunningly ugly locales to create a near fantasy realm in New York City, and it even manages to decapitate nearly every single actor in the film. All of those help make up for the mistakes you’ll encounter throughout the film, because while Wolfen will take you on an incredible journey…” Matt Gamble, Where the Long Tail Ends


Buy: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com

“There are small problems as well, such as overuse of solarised effects to signify “wolf view”, obvious gratuitous gore, and clichéd false alarms that turn out to be cats or birds. Michael Wadleigh is a competent director, and particularly good at spotting dynamic “found” images, but his virtues cannot overcome the screenplay’s built-in flaws.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers

Cast and characters:

  • Albert Finney … Dewey Wilson
  • Diane Venora … Rebecca Neff
  • Edward James Olmos … Eddie Holt
  • Gregory Hines …Whittington
  • Tom Noonan … Ferguson
  • Dick O’Neill … Warren
  • Dehl Berti … Old Indian
  • Peter Michael Goetz … Ross
  • Reginald VelJohnson … Morgue Attendant
  • James Tolkan … Baldy
  • Donald Symington … Lawyer
  • Tom Waits … Drunken Bar Owner [uncredited]

wolfen whitley streiber


Some image credits: Basement RejectsBlack Hole

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