A unique allegorical fiasco, the new horror melodrama "Wolfen" may prove irresistible to moviegoers who cherish genuine crackpot classics. Given sufficient encouragement and a little more practice, director Michael Wadleigh could evolve into the American answer to John Boorman.
Wadleigh's belfry is certianly as hospitable to batty conceits. On the plus side, his sense of movie composition is ocassionally impressive. Now that Wadleigh has identified with a savage, supernaturally powerful wolf pack that stalks New York from headquarters in a gutted South Brox cathdral, I can scarcely wait for him to spring to the defense of the misunderstood Medfly. It could produce the greatest insect spectacle since Boorman launched his locust armada in "Exorcist II."
Before "Wolfen" opened, I received a friendly call from the director himself, urging me to be on the alert for profounder levels of meaning than the ads called attention to. Looking at the movie, you understand why he'd fret about people overlooking his deeper meanings. You can't overlook them! The film itself is compromised by his need to keep pointing out the deeper meanings, to express them in so many explicit, excruciating words.
Indeed, he's such an anxious ideologue that the narrative, an account of a murder investigation prompted by a series of grisly homocides, rarely has a chance to function allegorically. The dubious protagonist, a scowling, alcoholic slob of a homicide cop played by Albert Finney (whose thickened, crumbling face is really the scariest aspect of the show), soaks up lessons in natural history and moral philosophy from a hippie zookeeper and an Indian construction worker once clues point in the direction of The Unthinkable, an urban wolf pack. "They might be gods," Finney is told. "We wiped them out around the turn of the century. They went the way of the Indian and the buffalo -- the genocide express. Maybe they want Manhattan back. . . . Their smartest ones went underground. Their greatest hunters became your scavengers. In their eyes you are the savage. You have the technology, but you have lost your senses. . . ."
When Wadleigh waxes profound a lot of heavy stuff goes down, man. Finney proves so strangely suspectible to this evangilism that he ultimately appeases the snarling wolves by convincing them, through a dynamic symbolic gesture, that the ravaged section of the South Bronx can remain their habitat. Supposedly, it was the prospect of a new development that riled the admirable beasts in the first place, inspiring them to massacre a prominent developer along with hsi fashionable wife and faithful bodyguard.
Wadleigh and his cowriter, David Eyre, have put their source material, a novel by Whitley Strieber, through some wierd changes. Presumably inspired by "Watership Down," Strieber occassionally described events from the point of view of the wolf pack, ascribing a peculiar consciousness to the animals without softening their wild nature. However, Strieber never required the authorities to see things from the wolfen standpoint and make a special effort to be accommodating. That madcap leap of faith demanded a Wadleigh.
The wolfen-Indian connection is also an invention of the filmmakers. Wadleigh exploits this mystic affinity shamelessly, fabricating a big red-herring sequence in which it appears an Indian is turning into a werewolf. Some put-on. Vague affinities are also implied with a terrorist organization. Gotterdammerung, an echo of the Sybionese Liberation Army, recalled directly in film clips of their unlamented closing engagement.
The splashiest feature of the production is stylized infrared photograhy used to suggest wolfen eysight. At the same time, the sound is manipulated abstractly. The combination of flaring color and clanging sound is diverting up to apoint, but Wadleigh make the mistake of prolonging the primitive subjectivity until it approaches the valley of tedium and the attacks themselves are defused.
Paul Sylbert's sets, including that ruined cathedral in the South Bronx, are often wonderfully evocative. Gregory Hines, cast as a personable young pathologist, confirms the likable impression he made earlier this summer in Mel Brooks "History of the World Part I."
Ironically, the solemn "Wolfen" doesn't have nearly as much bite as "The Howling" and "Alligator," the satiric horror thrillers written by John Sayles. The lesson may be lost on Wadleigh, but the comparison suggests that a funny social parable may be the most effective social parable.