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1981 proved to be big hitters for wolf kind with three notable films leaning into the subject in their own unique way.
While most people will have heard of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London for its broad strokes of horror blended with comedy and creature fx, or Joe Dante’s The Howling for its pulpy investigative tale of lycanthropy, but the third feature among the group, Wolfen starring Albert Finney may not readily spring to mind.

Possibly this is because the nature of the film doesn’t play with the true mythology surrounding werewolves, but rather that of an American Indian legend based on wolf spirits.

The film also plays with the ‘whodunnit’ detective story, following Finney’s Detective Dewey Wilson, who is called back into the police force when a high profile murder warrants a guru to put a final stop to the murders that have been taking place throughout New York. The victims who have the common traits of supposed animal attacks at its core. 

Wilson is teamed up with criminal psychologist, Detective Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) in a partnership that has all the hallmarks of an early Mulder and Scully vibe. Neff’s insights into the science and animalistic behaviour evidenced at the muder scene, helps to solidify their enquiry.

Early on in the piece, the pair are attacked by an unseen creature, barely surviving their ordeal at an abandoned church, which forms a tighter bond and highlights that their investigations have something more paranormal in origin.

The remainder of the film plays with the spiritual side of nature, suggesting that despite the hallmarks of a potential terrorist activity behind the murders, that there is a pack of God-like beings with wolf traits known as spirits or shapeshifters are the true cause. It is this angle that definitely sets it apart from AAWIL and The Howling, and possibly why it didn’t manage to make its mark in comparison. It’s a shame because the psychological component that is played with as a humanity versus nature, and our base animalistic behaviour that is drawn upon for survival is one that is deeply compelling and told in an engaging way, supported by the strong performances on show by Finney. Detective Dewey is a great character and one that Dustin Hoffman had his eyes on at one stage, which says a lot to his appeal and strength. As is the other cast members, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, all of whom provide compelling characters to support the narrative.

It also boasted at the time a refreshing approach to the killer’s perspective using a thermography technique, now closely associated with films like Predator

Sure it doesn’t have the same fanfare as the other werewolf flicks that year, but it had a strong, mature approach to its storytelling that shouldn’t be neglected.

  • Saul Muerte