I was struggling a bit to find some sort of unifying theme for this installment of “Night Terrors”, as after I watched “Wolfen” which REALLY isn’t a werewolf film in any way or form – even though it seems to always get stacked in that genre-slot – I didn’t have any wolf-related films on the “to-watch” stack at the time anyway if I had chosen to make the same genre-decision. I gotta give a shoutout to our Fearless Leader Abe for suggesting that I used another film adapted from the same novelists’ work. So here we go. Two films based on books written by Whitley Strieber, a novelist whose work is completely unknown to me, so I’m keeping the talk completely film-related again.
Directed by: Michael Wadleigh
Written by: David M. Eyre, Jr. and Michael Wadleigh
“Wolfen”, based on Whitley Striebers’ 1978 novel “The Wolfen” is the only non-documentary film directed by Michael Wadleigh. His most known work is the classic documentary “Woodstock”(1970), in it’s various length versions as well as a few other Woodstock-related documentary programs. He is certainly an off-beat choice as a director for a supernatural horror film, one has to admit.And I’m sure Orion Pictures, who produced the film, had some similar thoughts during the production(and especially the post-production) of this film, due to some problems I’ll point out later on. So – as I said: this is not a film about werewolves. I guess the reason behind that fairly common assumption is that it came out during the same year as two great classics of that genre: John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” and Joe Dante’s “The Howling”. But “Wolfen” is something of a different animal(see what I did there?) altogether.
The story begins with a filthy rich real-estate magnate Christopher Van der Veer performing a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of his latest building project. Van der Meer and his wife leave the party, slightly drunk, even doing some cocaine in their car(it IS the 80’s after all). They decide to take a detour to Battery Park, where an unseen assailant kills them after killing their driver – actually severing his hand before he can fire his sidearm. An NYPD Captain, Dewey Wilson(Albert Finney), is called back form suspension(presumably). He’s had some problems with drinking, but apparently the forces behind NYPD brass believe he’s the best man for the job. Those forces would be something called “Executive Security”, a bizarre Big Brother-like company that seems to operate above ALL the law enforcement branches. Wilson is paired up with a criminal psychologist, Rebecca Neff(Diane Venora). And they are both pressured to find a link between the murder and some radical terrorist cell, of which there seem to be aplenty – some based on real ones, some fictional. But as the two investigate the case, Coroner Whittington(Gregory Hines) finds some non-human hair on the victims, eventually diagnosed to belong to Canis Lupus aka. Gray Wolf.
A visit to an eccentric zoologist Ferguson(Tom Noonan) gives Wilson the idea to investigate a group of high-rise working Native Americans(who we saw attack Van de Meer’s car in the beginning). The leader of the group is Eddie Holt(Edward James Olmos), a former Militant native activist, who at first talks about himself as a shape-shifter, is later proven to not being that LITERALLY. Meanwhile, the murders continue and the traces seem to lead into an abandoned church in South Bronx, in an area condemned for demolition from the way of Van dee Meer’s next building complex. Are the killers wolves? Shape-shifters? Can they even be caught? As the Native Americans tell Wilson their legend of ancient hunter spirits who took the forms of wolves and as their hunting grounds were built on took to roaming the urban wastelands instead, he must decide in between believing his common cop sense or believing in legends.
“Wolfen” is a visual trip, for sure. Wadleigh sure has managed to create an eerie unsettling aura to the picture; shooting in real locations in New York – and especially in South Bronx, which was in the process of being completely demolished and replaced with new buildings and looks VERY much like almost a post-apocalyptic landscape here(and several post-apocalyptic films were actually shot there, like Enzo G. Castellari’s films “The Bronx Warriors 1-2” from which I recognized some same locations that this film used). Another neat visual trick are the creatures’ point-of-views, which were shot with the then fairly new Steadicam by it’s inventor Garrett Brown. These scenes were also filtered via a technique that made them look almost like thermovision. Add to that the distorted sound played in those sequences, and one very obvious thought comes to mind: the filmmakers that made “Predator” must’ve seen this film – because the similarities of the p.o.v’s of Wolfen AND the Predator are uncanny. James Horner’s score – which he wrote in 12 days after replacing the original composer Craig Safan – works well, even if it’s basically either recycling his earlier themes as well as was recycled many, many times afterwards.
Now – the story of the film is a bit all over the place. I believe the prime reason for this has to do with the fact, that Wadleigh’s first cut that he delivered to the studio was apparently FOUR AND A HALF HOURS long. So basically – Wadleigh was moved aside from the post-production and at least four credited editors worked to compress that cut into four hours. Some re-shoots were supervised by director John D. Hancock. This may explain some discrepancies in the story, like the whole “Executive Security”-branch that oversees everything and gives an almost dystopian sci-fi feel to the film, but it’s never really explained. Or even addressed in any way. It just is. Of course, some story points are just pure 80’s cheese; for example the obligatory love scene between Finney and Venora comes completely out of left field and is just plain bizarre; sure, your partner who is double your age and barges into your apartment clearly being paranoid and in stress and waves a gun around – well of course you sleep with him! Yeah, that’s what always happens. I wonder what was being smoked in the writer’s room. Also – if you go to stakeout a church that has a group of possible mass-murderers in it, why in the hell do you take a coroner with you? Because that character has to be killed to add to the sense of dread, probably.
The Native American angle of the story is done well, though. There’s a good mystical vibe in those scenes, and Edward James Olmos absolutely steals his scenes – once again(and you know, if a film has a scene where a naked Edward James Olmos is running on a beach at night, pretending to be a wolf, it’s definitely saying: we’re in a pretty weird place right now). There’s also a strange political undertone in the film, juxtaposing the Wolfen and them defending their hunting turf with radical terrorist groups attacking the government. And the whole idea of the faceless government branch running a war against terrorists is eerily mirroring the events that have been happening in the world since. But even if all the storylines do not completely gel with one another, it actually enhances the sense of unease that looms over this film.
Albert Finney is great(and really, when isn’t he?), delivering a damn fine american accent and giving a certain world-weariness to Wilson. Diane Venora did her first acting job on a feature film here, and she’s perfectly fine in it, despite some strange character beats which I mentioned before. Olmos totally kills it, and Tom Noonan basically started his long string of oddball characters here. Funnily enough, both Venora and Noonan worked in the same films a couple of times later on: in “F/X” and “Heat”. A little Finnish curiosity from this film also: the wife of Van der Meer, Pauline, is played by Miss Finland/Miss Universe of 1975 Anne Pohtamo. Probably her highest profile role in her short acting career. Gregory Hines is very good as the Coroner. He has a great rapport with Finney, and this was apparently due to Finney actually wanting to spend a few weeks with Hines before filming to get that sense of familiarity. The wolves do some damn fine acting as well(even though some bits must’ve been the result of some puppet work), as much as real wolves CAN act, and there’s a damn real sense of danger whenever they appear to be in the same space with the actors. Apparently there were some massive security measures put in motion in order for those scenes to get filmed. This was pre-CGI after all.
“Wolfen” is a nice curiosity of the 80’s. It has an abundance of plot holes and some strange character motivations, but it manages to rise beyond those with a truly mystical atmosphere, some effective suspense-scenes and pretty gory effects.
THE HUNGER (1983)
Directed by: Tony Scott
Written by: Ivan Davis
The late Tony Scott(1944-2012) started his career in his older brother Ridley’s commercial company, Ridley Scott Associates(RSA), directing television commercials and taking his brother’s place as overseeing production, as Ridley started his feature film career. After the success of Ridley, as well as an emergence of several other British commercial directors in to Hollywood(the likes of Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker), Tony decided that it was his turn. Trying to get his foot in the industry he was, in fact, one of the first people actively trying to adapt Anne Rice’s book “Interview With a Vampire” into a feature film. After that backfired, he was offered another vampire-related project by MGM. This was “The Hunger”, based on Whitley Strieber’s novel of the same name.
The movie begins in a decadent nightclub, where Miriam Blaylock(Cathereine Deneuve) and her companion John(David Bowie) are prowling for conquests. They pick up a young couple, take them to their home and drain their blood. All of this is intercut with a live performance of the post-punk band Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. All seems to be well, they live out their(slightly bored) lives playing music with a young protege and endulgeing on the rich and privleged lifestyle until John begins to suffer from insomnia and show symptoms of rapid aging. Apparently Miriam’s companions come with an expiration date and John’s time is up. She has roamed the earth for thousands of years but anyone she turns into her kind does not last past a few hundred years. In desperation, he turns to Dr. Sarah Roberts(Susan Sarandon), a gerontologist who studies the effects of rapid ageing in primates, trying to find the key to slow down or stop ageing altogether(at least I think so). Sarah snubs John, thinking he’s a crackpot, but after John ages about 50-60 years while sitting in a waiting room for two hours in one of the most memorable sequences in the movie, she realizes something is up. John returns home and in his desparation to cure himself he feeds on the young musician protege, but to no avail. He collapses. Miriam carries him to the attic and puts him in a coffin. We now realize that the attic is FILLED with coffins – all of Miriam’s former lovers are there, forced to live forever as dried up corpses(“on the next episode of ‘Hoarders’, meet Miriam, 6000 years old, who has a problem; she collects her exes in boxes and the attic is slowly filling up…”).
Sarah arrives to the apartment as she tries to find out more of what’s happened to John. Miriam tells that John is a clinic somewhere in Switzerland, and as she’s too bored to live the eternity alone and John killed the young girl she was grooming to be her next partner, she takes a liking to Sarah. After offering her a drink – that’s either wine or blood – the two end up in bed together. Later at home, Sarah becomes violently ill. Her boyfriend Tom(Cliff De Young), who’s in the same science team, discovers that there are now two separate strands of blood in her system, fighting for dominance. Sarah puts two and two together and confronts Miriam, who very coldly states that Sarah is “now her’s”. Sarah storms out, but Miriam just states that she’ll be back when the hunger grows more than she can withstand. Which happens of course. So in the end it’s a question of whether Tom can find a cure for Sarah or will Sarah become the latest doomed partner of the ancient creature…?
Tony Scott stated in many interviews that “The Hunger” was an “artsy fartsy, esoteric vampire movie that was so disliked by everyone, that I couldn’t even get arrested in Hollywood for 3 years…“. But yet – all of the ingredients that would be seen in all of his body of work, are all there. Stylistic photography, smoky interiors, filtered scenic shots of sunrises/sunsets, back-lit scenes, big closeups, curtains blowing in the wind, fast editing – it’s all there. If there’s one kind of unique thing here, it’s that besides the use of Bauhaus’ song in the beginning there is no notable usage of contemporary pop songs. Most of the film is in fact scored with classical music, with the help of Howard Blake(who worked with Ridley Scott on “The Duellists), and the juxtaposing of classical songs with the glossy images – photographed by Stephen Goldblatt, who would later work on movies such as “Lethal Weapon 1-2” and “Batman Forever” – makes for an interesting combination. You could say that it makes the movie seem more artistic than it actually is. One of the songs, “Lakme” by Leo Delibes, Scott actually used later – very memorably – in his career; as underscore in the “Sicilian scene” in “True Romance”. On occasion, Scott tries to create tension with distorted images and sounds, but that method really doesn’t fit his images, at least the way he did them at that time – he managed that much better during his later “experimental phase”; during the making of “Man on Fire” and “Domino”.
I guess the love scenes between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve(Sarandon has stated that this was the first love scene of her career and she was extremely happy that it was with Deneuve) raised some eyebrows back in the day, but if you look at stuff that we have nowadays seen on TELEVISION; for example in “True Blood”, the scenes in this film are pretty tame in comparison. I guess you could say that Scott was actually ahead of his time with portraying bisexual relationships of a vampire. Ah – there’s another thing; the word “vampire” is never actually uttered in the film. Nor are there any sharp fangs shown in any image. For feeding, these creatures use very special little daggers, hidden inside the ankh medallions they carry on their necks. Some “rules” for the vampirism are given by Miriam later on in the film, but they are pretty simple “sleep 6 hours in every 24, feed once every seven days“. And the sunlight seems to have absolutely no effect on them here, except forcing them to wear sunglasses(another Tony Scott-trope; characters wearing sunglasses. A lot). Makeup legend Dick Smith did the few supernatural effects in the film, mainly the aging of David Bowie. And it’s another tour de force from Smith; you absolutely believe that this man ages from 30 to about 120 years in the course of one day. And Smith also created all the other ghoulish former companions of Miriam for a scene at the end where they all rise up against her. These are all extremely well-made creature makeups, and there is something extremely haunting about that entire sequence…something that kinda makes you wish that Tony Scott had returned to the horror genre at some point. But that’s sadly not possible.
There is something regal, otherworldly, almost alien-like about Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie – at least at that age that they were in when this was filmed – that you can absolutely buy the fact that these two have lived two lifetimes together, staying forever young. As we see in the flashbacks, the two met sometime during the Victorian era. But there is also a sense of….boredom – you know; after 200 years together, what’s there to do or talk about anymore? I guess that is the tragedy of immortality. That same thing was pretty much addressed in “Interview With a Vampire” as well – it’s interesting that both books came out around the same time and cover many similar themes. And as a sidenote: there probably isn’t a character in cinema history who can look so cool while smoking than Deneuve in this film. Susan Sarandon is good, but her and her entire science team must be the most stylized team in the history of movie scientists. Also, it never really is explained what the hell are they actually trying to do or study in their lab? I guess it’s to stop ageing, but that’s never really clearly established. Cliff De Young, playing her colleague & boyfriend, mainly comes across as a massive douche. So his later efforts of trying to help her come across as a bit of a stretch. Dan Hedaya plays a police detective character who is investigating the disappearance of the young musician that played with the Blaylock’s, but his character and plotline have probably mostly ended on the cutting room floor and his two scenes really add nothing to the film. A funny casting bit is a pair of young punks who harass Sarah at a phone booth; these are played by Willem Dafoe and John Pankow, who of course both starred in “To Live and Die in L.A” two years later.
The film is very esoteric, Scott was right about that – and the ending doesn’t really make any sense. In fact, the very last scene of the film was apparently a studio-mandated scene that was meant as sequel-bait(the film was a massive flop so that never came to be). But what works here is the notion that being immortal and forever young(“forever and ever”) may not be everything it’s made out to be. It makes one cold, alienated – and eventually bored. That is something that’s been covered in the genre several times after this. And yes: I admit that there is a “style over substance” in effect here(which seems to be the case with many of the RSA commercial directors; Adrian Lyne’s “Flashdance” came out the same year and you really can’t argue that there’s any substance there, can you?), but hey – what a STYLE!
Tony Scott returned to the topic later on, producing a cable TV-series “The Hunger” for Showtime, which ran for two seasons.