Wolfen (1981)

Wolfen is a 1981 American crime horror film directed by Michael Wadleigh and starring Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines and Edward James Olmos. It is an adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s 1978 novel The Wolfen. The film follows a city cop who has been assigned to uncover what is behind a series of vicious murders. Originally, it was believed these murders were animal attacks, until the cop discovers an ancient Indian legend about wolf spirits. It was nominated three times at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, USA for Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Writing. The film won an award at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival for the Special Jury Award and won another award at the Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA for Best Sound Editing/Effects.

Former NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson is brought back to the force and assigned to solve a bizarre string of violent murders after high-profile magnate Christopher Van der Veer, his wife and his bodyguard are slain in Battery Park. Executive Security, the private firm employed by Van der Veer, prefers to blame the murders on terrorists, but knowing that the victim’s bodyguard was a 300-pound Haitian with voodoo ties makes Wilson skeptical. At the crime scene, Wilson meets with Warren, his superior. With pressure to solve the case coming from both the Police Commissioner and the Mayor, Warren partners Wilson with criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff.

A homeless man goes exploring an abandoned church in Charlotte Street, South Bronx, scheduled to be demolished by Van der Veer (along with the rest of the ruined buildings in the area) to build apartment complexes. He is killed by an unseen monstrous being. Wilson and Neff investigate his murder. At the church, apparent sounds of a baby crying lure Neff up to the bell tower. Wilson follows her but does not hear the crying; once Neff is separated from him, he hears a wolf howl. He goes up after Neff and drags her to safety.

That night, a bridge worker is apparently murdered by the same creature.

Coroner Whittington discovers non-human hairs on several victims and consults zoologist Ferguson. Ferguson identifies the hairs as belonging to Canis lupus and explains that there are 40 subspecies and that these particular hairs do not belong to any of them. Ferguson compares wolves to Indians, giving Wilson his first real inspiration.

Wilson finds Eddie Holt, a militant Native activist he arrested some years ago for killing an “apple” (pejorative term for a disloyal indigenous person), working in construction. While Wilson interrogates Holt on top of the Manhattan Bridge, Holt claims to be a shapeshifter, which implicates him as the killer. Wilson opts to leave Holt alone and tail him that night.

Following animal clues, Ferguson goes to Central Park, where the killer ambushes him in a tunnel. Wilson spends the remainder of his night with Neff where they have sex. The following morning, a man in a jogging suit rides Ferguson’s motorcycle past Wilson as he leaves Neff’s apartment.

Whittington and Wilson stake out the church, armed with sniper rifles and sound equipment; after Whittington almost blows his ears out by opening a beer can near a parabolic microphone, an animal that appears to be a wolf kills him. Meanwhile, Executive Security apprehends a “Götterdämmerung” terrorist cell in connection with the Van der Veer slaying.

A traumatized Wilson escapes the church and finds himself at the nearby Wigwam Bar, where Holt and his friends are drinking. The group of Natives reveal the true nature of the killer as “Wolfen”, the wolf spirit. They explain that the Wolfen have extraordinary abilities and “might be gods”. Holt tells Wilson that he cannot fight the Wolfen, stating: “You don’t have the eyes of the hunter, you have the eyes of the dead”. The leader of the group, the Old Indian, informs Wilson that Wolfen kill to protect their hunting ground. Wilson resolves to end his involvement in the Van der Veer case but he, Neff and Warren are cornered on Wall Street by the Wolfen pack. Warren is decapitated while Wilson and Neff flee.

Wilson and Neff are cornered in Van der Veer’s penthouse by the Wolfen pack led by its white alpha male. Wilson smashes the model of the construction project that threatened their hunting ground, trying to communicate that the threat no longer exists and that he and Neff are not enemies. The Wolfen vanish just as the police barge in. Wilson claims the attack was made by terrorists. In a voiceover, Wilson explains that Wolfen will continue preying on weak and isolated members of the human herd as humans do to each other through class conflict. Wolfen will continue being invisible to humanity because of their nature; not that of spirits but predators, who are higher on the food chain than humans.


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

The film is known for its early use of an in-camera effect to portray the subjective point of view of a wolf. Similar to thermography, the technique was later adopted by other horror films such as the Predator film series. The setting for the transient home of the wolves was shot in the South Bronx (intersection of Louis Nine Boulevard and Boston Road). The church seen in the opening panorama shot was located at the intersection of E 172nd Street and Seabury Place. The shot of this neighbourhood is from the north looking roughly south-south-east. The decrepit site of ruined buildings was no special effect. The church was built and burned exclusively for the film. Urban decay in the South Bronx in the early 1980s was so widespread that it was the ideal production setting.

Dustin Hoffman was interested in portraying the role of Dewey Wilson but Wadleigh insisted on Albert Finney. According to Roger Ebert, the film was originally to have been distributed by United Artists.

Wolfen was released theatrically in the United States by Orion Pictures through Warner Bros. on July 24, 1981. The film grossed $10,626,725 at the box office and received negative reviews from film critics for its frightening content.

Selected premiere engagements of Wolfen were presented in Megasound, a high-impact surround sound system similar to Sensurround. Director Wadleigh was unsatisfied with the final cut.

Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 73%, based on 22 reviews, with a rating average of 5.8/10. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half out of a possible four stars, calling it, “an uncommonly intelligent treatment of a theme that is usually just exploited.” There was some disagreement if Wolfen is about werewolves. Time Out called it a “werewolf movie,” but Roger Ebert asserted Wolfen “is not about werewolves but is about the possibility that Indians and wolves can exchange souls.”

The film was released on DVD in the United States by Warner Home Video in 2002.

On June 2, 2015, Wolfen received a Blu-ray release from Warner Archives. As with the original DVD, there were not any special features (beyond the trailer) included. The Blu-ray release featured a brand new high definition transfer of the film.

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