Wolfen’s most notable contribution to cinema is the thermography imaged POV shots of the wolf stalking its prey. This technique would be used famously in John McTiernan’s 1987 sci-fi action film Predator. But like that film’s sequel, director Michael Wadleigh over relies on the technique to the point it quickly lessens suspense; and be cautious, it could easily become a dangerous drinking game. Wadleigh, who made his name in documentary filmmaking, including the concert film Woodstock, does a good job of using the real decay of its early 1980’s Bronx locales with their crumbling apartment complexes long since destroyed for insurance money serving as a metaphorical modern urban jungle. In fact Wadleigh’s film could serve as a judgment on architecture in general as he very distinctly contrasts the sleek Manhattan condominiums to the fallen bureau. Also, eerily, and perhaps this is due to events not related to anything in the actual film, the World Trade Center seems to always be shot dead center in every background shot of the city landscape.
Sadly, everything else is kind of half assed and unsatisfying. Finney is sleepwalking through his performance and is saddled with more bad one-liners than your typical CSI episode, and the final sequence just kind of limps to a close without any real excitement or sense of dread. The central mythology behind the attacks is interesting, but I wish we spent more time with Olmos’ and the Native Americans who pay umbrage to the wolf rather than one clunky exposition scene in a bar. If you only see one wolf based movie released in 1981, see American Werewolf in London. However, if you see two, see American Werewolf and the Howling, then if you still need another one, go ahead and give Wolfen a try.