The Archivist Volume XXI: Therrrre Wolf, Therrre Albert Finney

by Ryan Lewellen

The Archivist

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand and Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Archivists, watch your asses, and watch ’em good, because the critters in these two werewolf flicks aren’t picky about when they attack. Full moon? Crescent moon? Man in the moon? It seems the size or shape of earth’s natural satellite doesn’t figure. What’s more important is whether or not the moon is bad… or if you have been bad. Two hair-raising films from the Warner vaults, both of them toying with the cinematic tropes of the lycanthropes (one of them, a brand-spanking-new Blu-ray release), and they are both a howling good time. I did all I could to stave these beasts off until October, but I simply could not wait any longer. If you dig werewolf movies, and you need a break after your hundredth viewing of The Howling or An American Werewolf in London, these are two exciting companion pieces to any favorite wolfman movie.

BAD MOON (1996)

I am going to be completely honest with you, our first picture for the week sucks. That doesn’t mean you won’t have some fun watching it, though. Bad Moon, as the opening credits told me, is based on a novel named Thor. That confounded me. The pre-credits sequence involved our lead character, Ted (Michael Pare) getting laid in the jungle, when a werewolf tears his lover away… and apart… infecting Pare in the process, before the monster’s head is blown to smithereens with a shotgun. Thor? Maybe, if the Norwegian god took up a Gallagher-esque comedy routine and swapped his hammer for a ten gauge?

My confusion was quickly settled. As the music swells, it is revealed Thor is the name of the family dog, belonging to Janet (Mariel Hemingway), who is Ted’s sister. That is the one intriguing quality this movie has to offer. The central conflict is between a man who is losing himself to his evil side, and a dog determined to keep his family safe. Therefore, the story is largely told from the dog’s perspective. That’s a challenging movie to make, and this one is by no means a success. It is extremely violent (and it certainly delivers for you gore-hounds), but it swings from those gnarly and disturbing images to a light and fluffy family tone when Thor is in a scene with anyone other than the monster. We’re talking Beethoven tone, here. It’s also the kind of low-budget horror film that doesn’t seem to understand how humans work. The performances are so odd, and the character’s choices are so stupid, you start to wonder if this wasn’t really a movie, but a series of holograms assembled by aliens in an attempt to better understand us. The experiment certainly failed, but the result is still a unique and rare (and short) chapter in the book of the werewolf movie.

The dog gives the best performance.

WOLFEN (1981)

For our second feature, Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh brings you a completely fresh take on the idea of a werewolf. In Wolfen, a high-powered magnate, his wife, and their bodyguard are all brutally murdered in Battery Park. Baffling the police, the slaying couldn’t quite have been done by a human, but doesn’t appear to be done by any known animal, either. The NYPD chooses to call on grizzled, semi-retired, semi-alcoholic, and completely disillusioned detective, Dewey Wilson (the incomparable Albert Finney). With Dewey on the case, teamed with a morgue orderly (Gregory Hines) and a criminal psychologist (Diane Venora), the mystery grows deeper and darker, until no one can be completely certain who is doing the killing, from a gang of native Americans, to a terrorist cell, to an ancient species of god-like wolves.

Albert Finney stumbles, stares, and slurs his way through an astonishingly understated performance. Wadleigh, who had only directed non-fiction features up to this point, has an incredible talent for pulling natural acting from his cast. Every player disappears into his or her character to such a convincing degree, you start to forget you are watching one of the coolest ensembles ever assembled. Edward James Olmos plays a mysterious Native American. The great Tom Noonan has a small role as a bashful zoologist. Even Tom Waits appears for a moment, crooning in Albert Finney’s favorite dive bar (nice choice, Al).

But acting… SHMACKTING! What about the rest of the incredible work being done in this picture? The good folks at the Warner Archives have, from what I have had the pleasure of witnessing thus far, made perfect choices for the somewhat exclusive Blu-ray disc upgrade. Wolfen is no exception. This movie looks incredible, and the transfer couldn’t be nicer. Its dreamlike images, formed in exquisite framing and lighting, are practically cinematography porn. You would be frightened if you could just stop concentrating on how beautiful it is. All that conventional stuff is great, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention its use of “monster vision,” via Steadicam and some kind of color negative, which was directly ripped off by Predator and several other films. This movie might not be perfect, but it is inventive, artfully rendered, and supremely entertaining. See it, before the next full moon!

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