Part 2: critical analysis
Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen (1981) begins with the murder of a New York City developer after the groundbreaking ceremony of an urban revitalization project. Point of view camera work, filtered lenses, and meaningful shots of the full moon (along with, of course, the title) lead us to suspect that the culprit is a werewolf. Police detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is assigned to the case. Believing that the murder might be the work of political radicals, the police department also assigns young, attractive psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), who specializes in the pathology of violent revolutionaries.
From here, all the familiar narrative tropes spin forward:
We've seen this movie, many times. We will see it many times in the future (those of us who watch these sorts of things.) We understand how it unfolds. The wolf stalks humans and is stalked by the detective. Minor characters are devoured. The detective ends up victorious, yet also profoundly changed. The ending leaves open the possibility that this fearsome creature may still be out there.
Wadleigh's only other major directorial effort was the documentary Woodstock, which attempted to capture something of both the joy and faint naïveté of that festival,[open endnotes in new window] and Wolfen has a similar political orientation. At base, it's a cautionary horror film, one that wants to warn us of the dangers of human development as it trammels the natural world, and separates us from that world. It is not, however, an entirely simplistic presentation of environmentalist beliefs, and it is aware of the complexities involved in the idealization of nature. Additionally, it is a visually sophisticated film. It plays with the idea of perception by repeatedly breaking the frame with objects in the foreground. It also establishes a pattern of moving back and forth between the monster's vision (the colorized point of view shots established in the opening sequence) and human vision as filtered by various devices—televisions, closed circuit cameras, rifle scopes. Finally, it's a movie with an occasional sense of humor, both visually and in terms of its construction. All of which is to say that while it is not a great film and often not a very good one, it is neither stupid nor without its ambitions.
But inside its attempt at critique, or beneath it, lies something perhaps more interesting: a certain understanding—at points intentionally displayed, and at points unintentionally—of the social structuring and imagining of race in the United States. Much of the action takes place in a post-apocalyptic-looking South Bronx. In the film's eye, this is not an inner city with a complex, poverty-ridden social structure, it is a ghetto presented as a nearly uninhabited desolation. Shots of bombed-out buildings and bleak streetscapes abound. Some of the action takes place in the almost medieval ruins of a church. Stray drug addicts stagger here and there through piles of fallen bricks like wanderers far from civilization.
It is through this wilderness that our monster stalks. And the notion of wilderness here is key: the werewolf, traditionally conceived, is a creature of the European forest or the Scottish moor. It is a creature that arises from a time when the wilderness was a threat, when to step outside of the palisades of one's village was to chance being torn to pieces by the natural forces lurking beyond human society. And yet the werewolf is at once both a thing of the wild and a human actor. Its basic terror does not come from its alien savagery, but from the comingling of that savagery with our human nature, from our fear that we might be contaminated by the wilderness outside the walls.
Much of the intended force of Wolfen arises from this tension between human and the wild being mapped onto the geography of the U.S. urban setting. Wilderness, the film implies visually, and states openly through dialogue, is no longer on the other side of the palisade. It is the inner city. Here is where the monsters now reside.
The decay of New York City during 1970s and early 80s held a deep fascination for the (particularly white) U.S. movie-going public. In film after film, the city was portrayed as a kind of contemporary urban gladiator pit. Consider Death Wish (1974), in which an architect is driven to a kind of righteous homicidal madness by the incessant crime of the city; or The Warriors (1979), in which the entire city suffers from a seething undercurrent of gang violence; or Escape From New York (1981), in which in which the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison from which there is no return. Even less campy films, such as The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973), Mean Streets (1973), and Taxi Driver (1976) played on this fascination.
While this was often the general presentation of the city, the South Bronx and other traditionally African American neighborhoods seem to have had a particularly strong hold on the imagination of the time. And it is here that we move from a vision of the city as a whole as violently demented to a vision of the specific racial element of the degeneracy. In Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), for example, white police officers in predominantly black neighborhoods feel like settlers in a savage "Indian county," as indicated by the allusive title. The genre of "blaxploitation" films kicked off by Shaft (1971) featured black protagonists, and were originally marketed to black audiences, and yet soon came to be popular with white audiences due to their sensationalistic presentation of crime in the city as linked to black life.
This imagining of the poor African American neighborhood as the deepest heart of the wildest wilderness can be felt far beyond the boundaries of films set in New York. Thus the neat summation by the writers of Apocalypse Now (1976): we are told that the poor white sailor on the Naval Patrol Boat is from New Orleans, the blond kid is a surfer from California, and of the black kid we hear that "Mr. Clean came out of some South Bronx shithole, and I think the light and space of 'Nam put a zap on his head." Some thirty years later, in a review of a book on hip-hop, Dan Chiasson notes that, as a white kid growing up in Vermont, "If given the choice between traveling Transylvania to visit Dracula, or walking through the South Bronx, I would absolutely have chosen the former."
In Wolfen what gives this racial imagination a particular pungency is the presence of a third leg of triangulation: the Native American. Here we have the character of Eddie Holt, played by Edward James Olmos, an AIM-style activist who has given up his radical ways and found a proper job. He now works on a crew with other Native Americans, repairing the city's bridges. (The credit sequence of the film shows Holt and his partner atop one of the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, the modern urbanity of the city spread before them, Holt rhythmically swinging a bullroarer.) When Wilson's detective approaches Holt to ask whether he knows any political radicals who might have committed the film's initial murder, the subject of the animalistic arises, and a racially loaded argument ensues. Holt ends up taunting the detective by claiming that he can change shapes. Later we see him engaged in some sort of vaguely "Native American" ritual, in which Holt seems to believe he has transformed himself into a wolf. He snarls and leaps and goes on all fours to lap water out of a puddle.
Finally, after a traumatic encounter with the monster, Wilson goes to find Holt at an "Native American Bar." (I am not being sarcastic in my titling: this is a bar, named the "Wigwam," filled with Native Americans.) Here, our detective confronts Holt and learns the shocking truth of the movie: the killers are not werewolves at all.
The story told by the Native Americans of the bar is that, a long time ago, before the arrival of the white man, the Native Americans and the wolves lived in harmony with nature. (As if to reinforce the deep truth of this, we are actually told it twice during the movie, the first time by the white biologist.) Then the white man came. He destroyed the Native American culture and decimated the wolves. Decimated them, that is, except for the most strongest and cunning: the Wolfen. These super-wolves survived the white onslaught, and continued to live, unbeknownst to us, in our urban wildernesses, preying on the sick (or the homeless and drug-addicted who populate the wilderness of the South Bronx), prowling the night and taking their living off of us. "In their eyes," says one of the wise old Native Americans, "YOU are the savages." Adds Eddie Holt, "They might be gods."
One does not have to be particularly perceptive to see here much of the traditional U.S. fever-dream of race.
The South Bronx, with its black population, is the wilderness. It has fallen out of civilization, reverted to a forest filled with predatory wolves. It is scary, yes, but also pitiable—the blacks are poor and addicted to drugs. And what is the solution? Well, from white filmmaker to white audience the initial answer is clear: White largesse. A white police detective, a white biologist, a white psychologist, and the ultimately noble workings of the modern economic machine: the urban renewal project planned by the rich white guy killed in the first scene.
And the Native Americans? They are shamanistic, spiritual beings, closer to nature than we. Degraded, yes, but also admirable. And tragic figures, because of the destruction that was wreaked on them by us. This is an old portrayal, filled with guilt, piousness and false adoration. It began long before the original Fort Apache (1948), and has continued on in various shades through such exercises as Dances With Wolves (1990) and its sequel, Avatar (2009). As a habit of white thought in The United States, this is as deeply ingrained as it gets. As Richard Slotkin notes in his foundational book Regeneration Through Violence, to Puritan eyes the Native American was both a resident of Eden and a minion of Hell; he was wild in a way that bespoke a return to the original state, and yet was close to the horror of untamed nature in a way that could only be understood as demonic. This is a conflicted and deeply powerful response, and it seems clear that the intensity of emotion it generated led to the savagery with which the native population was treated for the four and a half centuries or so after the arrival of the Europeans.
This is also exactly the attitude that helped shape the reactions of Colonial America to the slave population, and has continued to help shape the relationship of white culture in The United States to black culture. From the familiar stock character of the "Magic Negro" (the black character who pops up in U.S. films to aid the white characters with his earthy wisdom), to cultural terror fantasies about the rape of white women by black men, to contemporary reactions towards the U.S. Presidency of Barack Obama, we can see the imprint of the Puritans' initial response to the racial other: fear and fascination. The fear of fascination, or of the possibility of being fascinated. The violence of the response. The masking of that violence through attempts at paternalism, at pity, at separate but equal,  at guilt fraught with bitterness.