Directed by Michael Wadleigh
Friday, October 26, 11:59pm, 35mm, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Midnight Movies series
Heroes and villains are defined by points of view. As American power structures have consistently demonized the poor, American movies have responded with depictions of crime as the result of social conditions. The great gangster movies Warner Brothers released in the 1930s showed immigrants and first-generation boys robbing and killing for their row-home family’s sake. Whenever Hollywood has leaned towards the side of something like Dirty Harry’s law and order, low-budget studio work (Badlands) and independent productions (Wanda, Super Fly, Last Chants for a Slow Dance) have shown individual alienation and a sense of having no place to go resulting, naturally, in violence.
It’s often fallen on disreputable film genres—whether B-movies (The Phoenix City Story), action (First Blood), exploitation (White Dog), or science fiction (They Live)—to best represent the struggles of American society’s disreputable people. The American horror film in particular has helped audiences identify with those whom society sees as monsters. Wolfen is an unusual blending of horror and crime films that begins by seeing the world through a potentially monstrous killer’s eyes. An unknown creature stalks a New York park at night in hunt of a millionaire, his wife, and his bodyguard. We view everything in bright greens and infrared; as isolated elements pick up on the soundtrack—a gust of wind, the clomp of a shoe—our hearing grows keenly in tune. Well after the people have been torn to bits, what registers more than terror is the sheer curiosity of wanting to know who or what we’ve identified with.
In time (without giving too much away) the killer’s revealed to be someone targeting either those most expendable or most harmful to society. It also only attacks when attacked. This information enters the duller eyes and more blunted ears of a tough and weathered detective (played by Albert Finney), who rides through the expected rhythms of a cop film—tough guy talk, jurisdictional squabbles, black-white male buddy bonding—before hitting a bump. The mogul’s money was knocking poor communities to rubble and then planning to build sleek real estate on top of sacred Native American hunting grounds. As the detective investigates, he sees and hears more than he ever has before about how rich white men have been destroying Nature for the sake of greed, and how the system for which he works has been helping them do it. “She’s an urban guerrilla fighting all of us fascist pigs,” he says, smirking, early on about an ecoterrorist his squad’s picked up; much later, though, he listens, eyes wide open, as the people he’s been looking for tell him, "You are the savage."