PULLING THE PACK'S TEETH
Having dove into the industry as a major player with a slew of costly projects on it’s first year docket alone, Orion had to show profit quickly. And in early 1980, WOLFEN ran into cost overruns which led the studio to shut down production while it assessed what it had up to this point. After viewing a 4 ½ hour work print of the film, then later after allowing Wadleigh to film more “pick up” footage in November, the studio removed him as director. While Wadleigh had filmed the script originally approved by the Orion brass, they felt the resultant footage was a bit more “esoteric” (and possibly more politically minded) than originally thought. The corporate consensus now was that the film’s best chance for commercial survival was to fashion then promote it more as a straight-ahead horror outing than as the “new twist political thriller” to which Wadleigh was thematically slanting it.
Director John Hancock (LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY) was brought in to shoot new footage … including new inserts of the title creatures bearing fangs and growling, footage which now made them more “animalistic“ and less “hyper-real“ and with “human-like” intelligence. In Wadleigh’s work print the creatures never bear fangs, growl or howl. They suddenly appear to stare their victim down before attacking, which (left to the imagination of each individual audience member) lends them not only super intelligent, but quite possibly even supernatural attributes. A few more “traditional shock scares” and gore effects were added, as well as the slimming of the film’s narrative and quickening of it’s pace.
Wilson receives a lesson in American history at the "Indian Bar"
While Horner’s score at this juncture was to replace Safan’s more “esoteric” effort with one the audience could psychologically and emotionally “digest” more readily, he still managed an extremely innovative musical mélange of his own. Pulling together a 67 piece orchestra, the young composer accented it with a broad array of percussion including tam tams, plastic pipe, water phone, rub rods, wind machine, song bells, Indian rattles and bull roar, as well as echoplexed tape loops, and the “blaster beam” of musician/inventor Craig Huxley - it’s “electro-swoosh” effect recently used memorably in scores such as STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and THE BLACK HOLE.
play WOLFEN - "Indian Bar" (J. Horner)
Alternating between dark & brooding and primitively percussive & elegantly introspective (the gorgeously plaintive “Indian Bar” scene where Wilson is told the history of the link between the Wolfen and their native American “spirit kin”), Horner’s score would impress producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer enough to want a similar sound for their revamping of the STAR TREK canon with 1982’s STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. As with the groundbreaking Steadicam work of Garrett Brown, the “surround sound” audio design of Andrew London, and the “smash cut" editing of Marshall Borden, Chris Lebenzon and STAR WARS’ Richard Chew (who voluntarily left the project when Wadleigh was dismissed), so would Horner's score become a much imitated template influencing the way films (genre and otherwise) would be made for the next twenty years.
WOLFEN - International Theatrical Poster (1981)
After a series of limited premiere engagements using a high impact audio presentation dubbed “MegaSound” (similar to the theater shaking Sensurround system used on EARTHQUAKE, MIDWAY and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), the revised version of WOLFEN - running 115 minutes, was unleashed upon the world on July 24th, 1981. While not the financial success Orion had hoped (and needed), most critics responded favorably to the film’s heady mix of visceral thrills and thought-provoking socio-political commentary - most of which remarkably still survived. Looking back on the finished result with the dispassionate benefit of time, Wadleigh today admit’s the film still has it’s teeth:
“As it stands, I directed every scene in WOLFEN except for the inserts they did. I think it’s a matter of record that the additional photography they did to get the wolves growling and a few other things were a relatively small part of the movie. So in terms of writing and directing - and even, as you know, I did some cinematography - there IS a lot of Michael Wadleigh in there, right? Everybody agrees with that. So how can I complain about it? Movies are a collective effort, and the set designer and the cinematographer and so many people contributed tremendous amounts to it”.
In nearly every actual film review
of the day, WOLFEN’s technical merits received equal consideration with
it’s thematic/artistic ones. Among them, Stanley Kaufman of THE NEW
REPUBLIC saying how he could “see why these people wanted to get out
of bed in the morning: they had real challenges, both to skill and
imagination, and they had the gifts to meet them”.
journalistic examinations of the film were as laudatory however. And in
the new more nationally conservative era of the early 1980s, some found
the film‘s more left leaning political view uncomfortably out of synch
with the new national vibe. In the Aug. 11th 1981 edition of SOHO NEWS,
Jonathan Rosenbaum offered a fair assessment of WOLFEN’s context of the
“According to the current state of received ideas, rightwing formalism in movies (e.g., ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) is “good clean fun,” not politics at all, while leftwing formalism (e.g., NUMERO DEUX) is supposed to be pleasureless politics, no fun at all. The incredible thing about WOLFEN — a spectacular, metaphysical mystery-horror fantasy about New York that’s visceral and leftist in about equal doses, often at the same time — is that it builds its exciting, unfashionable politics largely through pungent sounds and images. Some stunning uses of visual and aural subjectivity suggest what the world (specifically, lower Manhattan and the south Bronx) looks and sounds like to wolves, who are poetically linked to members of other vanishing and territorial dispossessed species, like Indians. Not everything in this visionary metaphor pans out politically or logically –- it’s not clear why blacks are frequent victims while, say, Indians are not –- but on a gut poetic level, it conceivably says as much as Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” does in WOODSTOCK”.
WOLFEN would receive a VHS release via Warner Home Video in late 1981 (remember those huge plastic “clam shell” cases?). While a “pan & scan” version, and with monoural sound, it was still an impressively pristine transfer both visually and sonically - especially for those who pumped it through their home stereo audio systems. Based on this release, as well as on scattered screenings over the years on cable television and in revival houses, WOLFEN’s popularity would continue to grow with critics, die hard cineastes and horror buffs, but strangely enough not so much with general audiences: the film today garnering a respectable 73% “Fresh” Rotten Tomatoes.com rating with critics but a mere 44% with audiences.
Perhaps it’s a generational gap between “over 30” and “under 30” audiences. Perhaps the film is indeed uncomfortably too political and disturbing for some to watch … especially in the Post 9/11 era. Or maybe Orion was right in the first place, and it would have enjoyed much broader appeal as a straight ahead “werewolf flick” as did 1981’s two other lupine themed genre outings - THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, both of which were much more humorous and “retro” in their presentations as “rightwing formalistic good clean fun”. In time film franchises borrowing from WOLFEN (chief among them THE TWILIGHT SAGA and the UNDERWORLD series) would keep things much more “old fashioned retro” and sans political to great popular success. In the end however, this would have been a horrible fate to befall WOLFEN, to rip out it’s political teeth and neuter it into a “nifty” fanboy, family friendly “Lucas / Spielberg”, PG-13- genre fest. To turn WOLFEN into GREMLINS, ARACHNOPHOBIA or even THE HOWLING (as enjoyable as all those films are), would have been a travesty of the most tragic variety.
2002 Warner Home Video DVD
In 2002 Warner Home Video gave WOLFEN a digitally remastered widescreen 2:40 aspect ratio DVD release - gorgeously capturing Gerry Fisher’s nocturnal cityscapes and the near IMAX-like experience of Garrett Brown’s “low mode” Alienvision Steadicam photography. And even though the stereo mix is 2.0, when viewed on a surround sound system it’s audio is nicely re-channeled into a satisfying synthesized approximation of 3:1, helping recreate the Megasound theatrical experience. In recent days the film has also been made available for instant streaming via iTunes, YouTube, Amazon and other outlets.
THE PACK SCATTERS
After WOLFEN, producers Alan King and Rupert Hitzig would eventually go their separate ways. King would produce the big screen comedy/drama MEMORIES OF ME (1988) starring himself and Billy Crystal before returning to acting roles as well as to producing mostly television projects. And Hitzig would continue theatrically, producing films such as JAWS 3 (’83), the popular THE LAST DRAGON (’85), and the Michael Keaton comedy/thriller THE SQUEEZE (‘87). Orion Pictures would produce a number of critically acclaimed films over it’s 20 year existence (including HANNAH AND HER SISTERS and those aforementioned Best Picture Oscar winners - AMADEUS, PLATOON, DANCES WITH WOLVES and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), but because of continued high expenditure (acquiring the Filmways Television catalog, a costly legal battle over THE COTTON CLUB) coupled with a string of costly failures (TAI-PAN, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE, STATE OF GRACE, VALMONT EVE OF DESTRUCTION), the company would never become the profitable major it’s former UA executives had hoped. Orion filed for bankruptcy in 1992/’93, then engaged in a series of “distribution” deals until finally being absorbed into MGM/UA in 1998.
Michael Wadleigh (2011) lectures on sustainability at I.E. University, Spain
In spite of WOLFEN‘s lack of box office, it’s technical and critical successes made director Michael Wadleigh a wanted Hollywood commodity for sometime time thereafter. Offered mostly horror projects, one by Stephen King - a huge fan of WOLFEN, and another amazingly by Orion head Mike Medavoy, Wadleigh chose to return to documentaries. In 1994, twenty-four years after it’s original debut, he released a 228 minute “Directors Cut” version of WOODSTOCK. Then in 1999 he thematically returned to upstate New York for JIMI HENDRIX: LIVE AT WOODSTOCK. To date WOLFEN is his only non-documentary feature. When asked if he’d welcome the opportunity to release a “Director’s Cut” of WOLFEN, Wadleigh is artistically pragmatic. During a recent interview he laughed then responded:
“I wouldn’t know how to do it. It was so long ago I don’t think it can be done. I would welcome a re-release as it is right now, because I think, as I gather you do, that it’s a hell of a film, no matter whether it was recut or not. It’s got a lot of innovative stuff in it, and beautiful photography and thrills and chills, and I think that people might be amazed at the success it could have”.
CEJ - April 2012