WOLFEN (1981) Blu-ray
Director: Michael Wadleigh
Warner Archive Collection

The WOLFEN howl in high definition and original six-track Megasound on Warner Archive's new Blu-ray release.

When the brutally mutilated bodies of old money real estate tycoon Christopher Van Der Veer (Max M. Brown), his wife Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo), and their expertly-trained chauffeur/bodyguard are discovered in Battery Park, the list of suspects include terrorists on every country on the globe where the family business interests. Police Captain Warren (Dick O'Neil, PRETTY POISON) calls alcoholic detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney, NIGHT MUST FALL) back from leave after his breakdown to investigate due to his penchant for the "very weird" and "very strange." He is paired with criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora, THE COTTON CLUB) who works for the high tech executive security company that was protecting the Van Der Veers to narrow down the suspects. The evidence (or lack thereof) turned up by medical examiner Whittington (Gregory Hines, WHITE NIGHTS) reveals the savage yet precise removal of vital organs without any trace of a weapon. When zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan, MANHUNTER) identifies a sole non-human hair found on one of the bodies as “Canis lupis”, Dewey starts to share Whittington's suspicious that something in New York is "eating people" while Rebecca focuses on the terrorist angle and a faction whose motto is "the end of the world by wolves." When corpses with similar wounds and wolf hairs are discovered in the derelict, burned out areas of the South Bronx, Dewey goes on the hunt without realizing that he is already the prey.

Differing considerably from Whitley Streiber's wonderfully suspenseful novel – so much so that scipters' Wadleigh and David Eyre get a "screen story" credit as well as a screenplay one – the book opened up with the slaughter of a pair of cops in a junkyard while the film instead makes its inciting victims a wealthy businessman and his wife and incorporates the expected suspects of business rivals, politics, and terrorism (although the film does have Whittington note that hundreds of people disappear every day but no one notices until it happens to a rich person). So much of the film is suspenseful (with a cat gag that actually succeeds in jolting the viewer) and so much incident packed into just under two hours that the added ecological angle, Native American spiritualism – characterized by former Native American activist turned high steel worker Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos, BLADE RUNNER) – and the "symbolic gesture" ending all seem naïve in retrospect (and perhaps unintentionally condescending). By situating the mystery in partially in the world of the wealthy and influential, however, allows director Michael Wadleigh (WOODSTOCK) more opportunities to exploit some of New York's most striking architecture and locations – as beautifully lensed in Panavision by Gerry Fisher (EXORCIST III) – and for production designer Paul Sylbert (CHINATOWN) to create some luxurious settings like the Van Der Veer penthouse full of glass, chimes, and mirrored surfaces. Also created by Sylbert within the burned out South Bronx is the massive derelict church full façade and interior. The scoring of James Horner (TITANIC) – replacing Craig Safan (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER) – is full of familiar orchestral and electronic elements that he would also use in HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP the same year but more vibrant in Dolby Stereo. The film's proficient make-up effects were the work of Carl Fullerton (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) while the Wolfen vision optical effects were the work of Robert Blalack, who would do similar work for Irena's night vision in CAT PEOPLE the following year. Wadleigh delivered a four hour workprint but would be removed from the production. LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH's John Hancock was hired to shoot new inserts including fiercer close-ups of the wolves and additional gore.

Released theatrically by Orion Pictures through Warner Bros., the film was shown in both 35mm with a very active Dolby Stereo soundtrack and – to fewer venues – in 70mm with six-channel Megasound. Released on panned-and-scanned VHS during the early days of the format, WOLFEN received its first widescreen release on laserdisc in 1991 with Dolby Surround digital and analog tracks. Their 2002 DVD featured a great for the time 16:9 anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio, but the promised audio commentary track with Albert Finney and Diane Venora did not turn up. The transfer also did not restore Tom Waits' visual and vocal appearance which was removed from the home video release due to music rights. For the new HD master, Warner went back to the film's six-channel audio, and the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is like watching (and hearing) the film anew.

The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC BD50 encode features wonderful depth and true blacks, as well as stunning detail (which is particularly evident in the striking close-ups of the wolves during the climax where every hair is distinct). Besides the obvious increased depth in the sound design (with the Wolfens' ability to imitate human vocalizations like baby cries truly unnerving), one is also drawn to throwaway dialogue from extras, little sound effects that enhance the environment (the creeks and clangs of the morgue), some of the film's black humor (the subtle thud and dialogue of the offscreen attendants in the "careful with her… head" scene), and even the vocal nuances of the performers (particularly the once seemingly neutral Venora). Optional English SDH subtitles are included and mostly accurate, although early on they transcribe the line "Gotterdamerung Faction" as "Got a demo run faction" (although the group is correctly identified later on in the subtitles when mentioned again). If Warner ever did record a commentary track for the film, they did not include it here nor seemingly seek any input from Wadleigh. A documentary on the film was produced this year and it was hoped that it would be included in the release, but the sole extra is the film's theatrical trailer (2:17); which actually makes it all the more incredible that Warner Archive did a BD50 encode. (Eric Cotenas)