Guilty Pleasure No. 30: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


Wolfen_1981A guilty pleasure is a film that we might enjoy, but isn’t as loved by others overall. It’s the kind of film that you can watch on any given day, but to speak of it may cause raised eyebrows among your peers. Everyone has at least one film or two that they treasure in this way.

My Guilty Pleasure pick is 1981’s Wolfen, directed by Michael Wadleigh. Loosely based off the novel by Whitley Strieber, the film focuses on two homicide investigators who learn that the case they’re working may actually be caused by animal attacks. Often mistaken as a werewolf film, I really wouldn’t group Wolfen into that category. It’s supernatural in some ways, yes, but you won’t find any serious werewolf activity in it. Surprisingly enough, Wolfen was released in the theatre just a few months after Joe Dante’s The Howling. This makes me wonder how audiences took to Wolfen after seeing all of the make-up effects in Dante’s work. From an effects standpoint, Wolfen’s big claim to fame is the negative photography used to showcase the animals’ point of view. I can’t imagine it was incredibly amazing when comparing the two, but on it’s own, it’s not bad. It’s one of the few movies I’d like to see get a remake, if only to have the story match Strieber’s book better.

When a millionaire land developer and his wife are found brutally murdered in Battery Park, Detective Dewey Wilson is brought on to investigate. Albert Finney (Miller’s Crossing, The Bourne Ultimatum, Skyfall) easily carries the film as Wilson, feeling a lot like the owner of your favorite corner deli. Wilson’s detective work is subtle in the film, and Finney plays to that with a relaxed alertness. He comes across as calm, questioning, but you get the sense that if it came to blows, he’d be ready to react. I suppose most detectives are that way. When the murder is believed to be a possible terrorist attack, a Security Agency brings in a psychological expert named Rebecca Neff, played by Diane Venora (Heat, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). Wolfen was Venora’s first film and she’s good in this, though the screenplay is written in a way where it’s more Dewey’s tale to tell. The book did Neff’s character more justice than the movie, overall. Rounding out the casting is Gregory Hines (Running Scared, The Cotton Club – also with Venora) as a forensics expert, Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica) as a Native American worker who may know more than he says and Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Last Action Hero, F/X – once again, with Diane Venora) as a Zoo Worker who’s just a little to into wolves in general. That’s just my opinion, though Noonan’s been known to play creepy very well. The performances here are all pretty good. No one is really out of place here, as far as I could tell.

If Wolfen suffers from any major problem, it’s in the writing. In adapting the novel, they had the chance to really bring the terror from the novel on screen. In the book, we’re given an understanding of what the Wolfen are – creatures older, faster and more terrifying than your typical canine. They came complete with their own way of communicating with one another, and Strieber’s novel even referenced his other story about Vampires, The Hunger. The final standoff of the book was a fight similar to From Dusk Till Dawn, with the hope that our heroes could maybe hold off what was coming. The movie decided to go a different route. Not terrible in any way, but it could have been really good if they stayed on track.

I could be off here, but I believe the film elected to try to make the story more relevant for its time by circling the murder around terrorism and using the Security Agency. The Security Agency has so little to do with the film outside of bringing Neff on the case, it’s incredible. About every 20 minutes, the film cuts back to this crew of personnel at their computers, watching footage of attacks (that have little to do with the original victim) in an attempt to piece together why this death happened. Meanwhile, Wilson walks into bar and gets the whole solution handed to him in a short story over a beer. I wonder if Wadleigh (who co-wrote the script) was trying to say that with all the technology at their disposal, all it really took to solve a crime was just regular legwork. To quote Olmos’ character “It’s the 20th Century. We got it all figured out.” That’s just my speculation on that.

From a Cinematography viewpoint, Wolfen has some impressive scenes, particularly those of the Manhattan landscape. For a city that doesn’t sleep, the streets as they’re filmed here are barren, with lots of shadows. One scene in particular has Finney and Olmos’ characters talking on top of a bridge, and I have to wonder not only how they were able to get that shot, but how the actors maintained their composure. One wrong slip and either of them could have fell. I also love seeing New York City in the early 80’s, where most of the Bronx and Brooklyn looked like warzones. Both Wolfen and Nighthawks (also released in the same year) are great examples of how bad the city really was during that time.

Wolfen was also one of James Horner’s first scores. Listening to it, you can hear elements of what you’d find in Aliens, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and his other pieces.

Overall, Wolfen is a good film if you find yourself running into it late at night and there’s nothing else to catch. I watch it on purpose, but that’s just me. We all have our tastes. If at all possible, consider reading the novel as well.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line

Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Ugly: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (AIP 1971)


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For a 13-year-old monster-crazed kid in 1971, attending the latest Vincent Price movie at the local theater on Saturday afternoon was a major event. Price was THE horror star of the time, having assumed the mantle when King Karloff passed away a few years before. Not to take anything away from Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee, but “Vincent Price Movies” had become, like “John Wayne Movies “, a sort of genre unto themselves. AIP had squeezed about every nickel they could  out of the Edgar Allan Poe name so, with the release of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, a new character was created for the horror star, the avenging evil genius Dr. Anton Phibes.

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Phibes is a concert organist, theologian, scientist, and master of acoustics who uses his knowledge and vast wealth to gain revenge on the nine surgeons who (to his mind) botched an operation that killed his wife. We first see…

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The Fabulous Forties #29: Li’l Abner (dir by Albert S. Rogell)


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The 29th film in the Fabulous Forties box set is a “comedy” from 1940, called Li’l Abner.

Li’l Abner takes place in rural America, which this film portrays as being the type of place where cousins get married and have children that end up raising pigs and marrying each other.  Everyone in the small town of Dogpatch is kind of an idiot but they appear to mean well.  There’s a huge amount of single, young women in town but apparently, there’s only one single, young man.  His name is Abner (Jeff York) and he’s called Little Abner because the people in town have a taste for irony and he’s not little at all.  In fact, he’s really tall and he’s also handsome and likable in a dumb sort of way.  Every woman in town wants to marry Abner but Abner has no desire to ever get married.  As Abner sees it, getting married means getting old and eventually dying.  He wants to have adventures in the real world as opposed to just staying in Dogpatch and doing nothing…

But then Clarence is sent down to Earth and shows Abner what life would be like if he had never been born … oh wait, sorry.  Wrong 1940s film.

Instead of being visited by guardian angel, Abner is misdiagnosed with a fake illness and he becomes convinced that he only has 24 hours to live.  How does he become convinced of this?  Do you really want to know?  Even more importantly, do I really want to tell you?  Seriously, this is really stupid.  Okay, Abner goes to see a barber but he thinks the barber is a doctor and the barber, as a joke, tells Abner that he’s going to die of a fake disease.  When Abner tells his parents that he’s going to die, his parents immediately realize what has happened but they decided to let Abner believe that he’s going to die because they really want him to get married and, if Abner’s on the verge of death, he’s more likely to propose to one of the many local girls who is pursuing him.

(Ladies, the lesson here is simple: If you want your commitment-phobic man to pop the big question, convince him that he’s got less than a day to live.)

Anyway, two different girls ask Abner to marry them and, since Abner thinks he’s going to be dead by morning, he says yes to both of them.  However, Abner then wakes up the next morning and, for a few brief moments, is convinced that he is dead and the heaven looks just like the Ozarks.  But then he realizes that no, he’s still alive.  And he’s engaged to two women!

AGCK!  Bigamy much?

Luckily, all of this happens on Sadie Hawkins Day.  On Sadie Hawkins Day, any single woman can marry any single man that she chooses.  So, Abner figures that he just has to wait around see which one of his two fiancées finds him first…

Or something like that.

To be honest, the plot of this one made absolutely no sense to me and I wasn’t shocked to discover that it was based on a comic strip.  Li’l Abner is only 72 minutes long but it still has more plot than the last few seasons of The Walking Dead.  (BAM!  Take that, quality television!)  Anyway, this movie was light-hearted and good intentioned but way too stupid for its own good.  Jeff York was likable in the role of Abner and silent film fans might want to watch it just because Buster Keaton shows up in a small role, playing a moonshine drinking Native American named Lonesome Polecat.

Otherwise, Li’l Abner is one of the more forgettable films in the Fabulous Forties box set.

The Fabulous Forties #28: Jack London (dir by Alfred Santell)


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The 28th Film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was a 1943 biopic about the writer, Jack London.  Not surprisingly, the title of the film was Jack London.

Now, I should start this review off by mentioning that I know very little about Jack London.  I don’t think that I have ever read any of his short stories or his novels.  I know that he wrote a novel called White Fang but that’s largely because there’s been so many different film versions of the book.  (Long before directing Zombi 2, even Lucio Fulci made a version of White Fang.)  Here’s what I do know about Jack London:

  1. He was a prominent writer at the turn of the century.
  2. He was reportedly an alcoholic.
  3. He was a Socialist who even ran for mayor of Oakland, California on the party’s ticket.
  4. He was an atheist.
  5. In 1916, depending on the source, he either committed suicide, died of alcohol poisoning, or simply passed away as the result of 40 years of hard living.

Of those 5 facts, 4 are totally ignored in Jack London.  The film does acknowledge that Jack London eventually became a prominent writer, even going so far as to open with stock footage of a U.S. warship being named after him.

As for his alcoholism, we never see London drunk.  Indeed, the film’s version of Jack London is so earnest that it’s hard to believe he’s ever had a drink in his life.

As for his Socialism, we are shown that London grew up in a poor family.  When, after serving at sea, he takes a writing class, he argues with a professor over London’s desire to write about the poor.  However, we never hear London express any specific ideology.  We certainly don’t see him running for mayor of Oakland.

As for his atheism — yeah right.  This film was made in 1943!  There’s no way that Jack London was going to be portrayed as talking about why he didn’t believe in God.

As for his death — well, Jack London ends with the writer very much alive.  There’s not even a title card informing us that London eventually died.

Instead, Jack London is much more concerned with Jack (played by Michael O’Shea) dealing with the Japanese.  Oh sure, we get some scenes of Jack London watching a shootout and breaking up a bar fight in Alaska.  And Susan Hayward shows up as Jack London’s always supportive wife.  (For that matter, Louise Beavers also shows up as Jack London’s always supportive house keeper.)

But, in the end, the majority of the film features Jack London as a war correspondent covering the turn of the 20th century war between Russia and Japan.  When he’s captured by the Japanese, he observes the harsh way they treat prisoners and is shocked when he witnesses several prisoners being ruthlessly executed.  When he talks to a Japanese commandant, he’s outraged as the commandant explains how the Empire of Japan is planning to take over the world.  When Jack finally gets back to America, he’s less concerned with writing White Fang and more concerned with warning the American people to remain vigilant…

Jack London is basically wartime propaganda disguised as a biopic.  The entire point of the film seems to be that if Jack London was still alive, he would want the men in the audience to enlist and the women to buy war bonds.  None of it is subtle and, beyond its value as a time capsule of how Americans viewed the Japanese in 1943, none of it is particularly interesting as well.

In the end, Jack London plays out like one of those earnest but dull educational films that tend to show up on PBS when no one’s watching.

The Fabulous Forties #27: Sundown (dir by Henry Hathaway)


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You may remember how, back in April, I started on a mission to review all 50 of the films included in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set.  I actually got off to a pretty good start and, by the end of the month, I was about halfway through.  Yay me!

However, then the month of May began.  And May turned out to be a very, very busy month.  As I sit here writing this, it’s been 27 days since I last posted a Fabulous Forties review.  That review was …. well, I can’t even remember what it was.  After I post this, I’ll click on this link to find out.

However, things have calmed down a bit and now I can go ahead and finish up the Fabulous Forties box set.  And that’s a good thing because, between me and you, I am more than ready to move on to the Nifty Fifties box set!

Anyway, without further ado, let’s consider the 27th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties, 1941’s Sundown!

Poster_of_the_movie_Sundown

Sundown was released by United Artists in 1941.  It’s a propaganda film, telling the story of British soldiers in North Africa and their attempts to both maintain the peace among the natives and to keep the Axis powers from arming the local rebels.  Bruce Cabot is the experienced soldier who knows how things work in Africa.  George Sanders is the new commander who is a bit more by-the-book.  At first, you think that the film is going to be dominated by the rivalry between Sanders and Cabot but actually it’s not much of a rivalry.  For the most part, they get along just fine and I guess that’s to be expected considering that the film was made at a time when the emphasis was on everyone remaining unified against the Nazis.

Speaking of the Axis powers, they’re always in hovering in the shadows of the film but it’s rare that we actually see any enemy soldiers.  Perhaps this is because the film was made at a time when the United States was technically neutral.  Joseph Calleia plays a prisoner of war who has rejected fascism and instead just wants to sing opera and cook for Sanders and Cabot.  Calleia’s character is specifically identified as being an Italian.  If not for that (and the fact that the film was made in 1941), it would be just as easy to assume that Sanders and Cabot were fighting the French or maybe the Russians.

There’s an enemy agent in one of the tribes and it’s up to Sanders and Cabot to figure out who.  Helping them out is the local big game hunter, played by Harry Carey.  And, on top of that, there’s also a mysterious native woman played by Gene Tierney.  Gene Tierney is totally miscast but that adds to this film’s odd charm.

And, for modern viewers, it definitely is an odd charm.  I watched Sundown twice and I’m still not sure exactly what happened in the film.  Sundown is one of those films that doesn’t so much have a plot as it just has a lot of scenes that kind of tell a story, assuming that you have the patience and concentration to figure out how they all link together.  Between Cabot’s roguish smile, Sanders’s stiff upper lip performance, Calleia’s enjoyable overacting, and Gene Tierney’s otherworldly beauty, Sundown is unexpectedly dream-like.  The film even features a sudden sermon in which a clergyman (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) exhorts everyone to fight.  The clergyman is never seen again.

Sundown was a strange movie, one that I often found myself struggling to follow.  It was also apparently a box office bomb, though it did receive 3 Oscar nominations.  One of those nominations was for Charles Lang’s cinematography and it was definitely deserved.  Even the version I saw (which suffered from a typically poor Mill Creek transfer) was still impressive to look at.