My friend Paul never looked at me the same way after I convinced him to see Wolfen rather than the latest James Bond adventure in the summer of 1981. I was planning my first trip to New York that fall and was utterly enthralled by the apocalyptic views of a burned-out South Bronx, looking like an exotic urban wilderness -- or Dresden after the fire bombings. I gloried in the long, gliding, low-angle Steadicam shots, enjoyed the tension generated, and tolerated the blood and guts on display. My soon to be ex-pal hunkered down in his seat, hating every second and throwing daggers at me with his eyes.
As the years have passed, I have nursed an untoward affection for Wolfen. Many horror fans have concluded that it is, at best, the weak cousin to the two other superior entries in the unofficial and unrelated "wolf vs. man" trilogy of 1981. Admittedly, An American Werewolf in London and The Howling rip Wolfen to shreds as far as style, pacing and dark entertainment value are concerned. Yet buried within the often lugubrious storytelling of Wolfen lies a gem of an idea and a radical approach to the traditional Hollywood fantasy of werewolves.
How did Michael Wadleigh, the director of 1969's landmark documentary Woodstock, come to direct his first fiction feature more than a decade later? And why adapt a novel by the notorious Whitley Strieber? One must first be disabused of the misconception that Wolfen is actually about werewolves or is a horror thriller; in a literal sense, it is more an environmental tract, a plea for man to live in harmony in nature, than it is any kind of supernatural fable.