Wolfen (1981)

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Released 14-Oct-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Horror None
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1981
Running Time 109:24
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Michael Wadleigh

Warner Home Video
Starring Albert Finney
Gregory Hines
Diane Venora
Edward James Olmos
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $14.90 Music James Horner

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.40:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Back in the early 1980's, the werewolf movie went through something of a mini resurgence. Three films were released in the five months from April 1981 through to August of the same year that focused in on various aspects of the man-meets-wolf mythology. The two most famous are Joe Dante's The Howling and John Landis' An American Werewolf In London. The third film that came out in that time (in fact it came out between the other two) was from Michael Wadleigh, the man responsible for Woodstock, one of the most famous documentaries ever made, and was entitled Wolfen. As time has gone on, American Werewolf has entered modern folk-lore as possibly the greatest werewolf movie of all time, and very possibly the greatest horror movie of all time, while The Howling is still remembered for being the first time a green Rob Bottin was allowed to show off his prosthetic make-up skills. Wolfen on the other hand has dropped from the public consciousness and is now a largely forgotten film. That is a bit of a shame, as this is a rather different and interesting film that has plenty to offer.

    Starting more in the vein of a murder mystery than a horror, Wolfen finds detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) brought back from stress leave to work the murder of a slain real-estate tycoon, and heir to a massive fortune. Initially thought to be the work of a terrorist organisation, the investigation quickly becomes bogged down, with no sign of a suspect. The break comes when another body is found across town in the slums of Manhattan, murdered in the same manner as the tycoon - and a hair fibre at the second killing is found to match one from the first. There is only one problem - the hair is most definitely from a wolf. As the investigation goes on, Dewey begins to believe that the culprit is a local native American (you can tell this movie is old by the fact that they are referred to as "Indians") who claims he has the power to shape shift. As sceptical as Dewey and his morgue working friend Whittington (Gregory Hines) start out, the truth may be more than either of them can face - or survive.

    This film is interesting for a number of reasons, but mostly for the fact that it doesn't rely on shock-value make-up effects to stun the audience into a reaction - instead it concentrates on building tension for an extended period. This makes it quite effective as a thriller, and quite capable of sending chills down the spine on more than one occasion. Wolfen also has quite a lot going for it in the cast department. Led by Brit Albert Finney, it includes early performances from Edward James Olmos, Diane Venora, and the late Gregory Hines. None may have been of mega-star status, but all are at least notable, and make watching this film a fun exercise in "when they were young." Another point of interest, and something that came as somewhat of a shock to me, is that the "creature vision" this film contains is something that appears as though it was ripped off from Predator, until it is considered that the John McTiernan directed creature-feature was released in 1987 - some six years after Wolfen.

    There is much about Wolfen that isn't perfect - the slow pacing and ultimately disappointing creatures will frustrate adrenaline junkies, while the lack of development of the central idea is somewhat of a missed opportunity (apparently the novel on which this was based is much better in that regard). As this film is part of the new budget range from Warner (it has an RRP of $15), it is a great opportunity for fans of tense and atmospheric filmmaking to catch this forgotten wolf film from 1981. For that price, even sans extras and with only a 2.0 soundtrack, this film should be added to the collection of any horror/thriller fan who can stand a film without incredible make-up effects, but that works to engage the mind on a deeper level.

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Transfer Quality


    The video transfer for Wolfen may not be perfect, but for the age of the movie and the price the DVD is being delivered at, there is absolutely nothing to complain about - this movie looks better than many a high-priced "re-mastered" special edition.

    Presented at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, this transfer is 16x9 enhanced. That isn't quite the original ratio of 2.35:1, and as to why it was changed here, I have no idea, but the difference is so small as to make little difference. It is nice to see Warner not bowing to the idea that bargain DVDs should be produced for the lowest common denominator (as another distributor has done with a rash of bargain titles featuring 1.33:1 transfers, and boasting on the rear of the jacket that the image will fit your TV without black lines).

    Sharpness is quite good for the most part. There are only a few occasions where the image becomes a little soft, and apart from those the transfer is quite crisp, displaying plenty of fine detail. There are a few instances of heavy grain, particularly over the opening credits (from 0:24 until they finish), while the "creature vision"'s processing emphasises grain to an incredible level - but on purpose. There is also a rather grainy shot at 70:45 that appears to be an "editorial zoom" (framed normally during shooting, but then zoomed in through cutting the film to shape in editing), as once the frame rapidly pops back out to normal, the grain disappears again. Shadow detail is not all that wonderful, and the dark areas of the screen do tend to become impenetrable black pools, easily making this the most problematic aspect of the transfer. There is no low-level noise present.

    Colours are a little washed out, although the drab urban surroundings don't really help bring them to the fore. The greens of the zoo are good enough, but not exactly lush, while the highlights don't quite pop off the screen like normal, but as the entire film is affected in this way it is not a distraction.

    There is some pixelization during the heavy grain on the opening credits, but aside from that, compression artefacts are non-existent. Aliasing is a small problem, and crops up on a semi-frequent basis, but is most obvious on the New York cityscape from 0:55 to 1:02 and again from 54:38 to 54:42. Film artefacts are also quite common, and are on occasion quite large, such as at 34:45, and 46:55. They are frequent enough to be distracting at times, but given the age of the movie and lack of restoration, it is a surprisingly clean print.

    The subtitles on this disc are almost word-for-word accurate, and are well paced. On the downside, they are quite small, and are placed within the film transfer, above the black bars, but those are far preferable to not having them at all (something releases at this price are notorious for).

    This is a single-layered disc, and therefore does not contain a layer change.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    This is a good, if not great, audio transfer that does its job quite adequately, despite being restricted to only two channels.

    There is one solitary audio track on this disc, and it is the original English dialogue, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround (at 192 Kbps). The surround flag is set, and this is definitely a surround soundtrack.

    Dialogue is the biggest problem with the soundtrack, and on occasion can be muffled to the point of unintelligibility. This, for the most part, does not affect dialogue important to the plot (it is generally worst for quips, and mutterings - things that are only half heard anyway), but it is a little annoying.

    Audio sync is generally good, but does slip out from time to time, although never to any major extent.

    As with many of the performances, the music is an early work from a name now better known - James Horner. It is a fairly typical horror score, and does not really do anything to aid or hinder the film, mostly just producing weird noises intended to off-put the audience, yet more likely to annoy than anything else.

    For what is a 2.0 soundtrack, the surround presence is surprisingly good. The surrounds carry plenty of score, and many surround effects, both ambient and action cues. It may not have the impact of a full 5.1 track going flat-out, but it is quite a bit better than a number of "5.1" mixes around.

    The subwoofer only gets re-directed bass, and there is not that much to work with. It does kick in nicely during the opening credits to produce some unsettling rumbles at a barely audible level, but for the most part stays silent.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    As with the other releases in the Warner budget series, this DVD has no extras at all. That is not a real problem however, when the generally good quality of the transfer and the $15 asking price are taken into account.


    The menu is 16x9 enhanced, static, matched around the budget Warners theme with a photo of the movie in the background, and is silent.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.


    The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on;

    The Region 1 version of this disc misses out on;     Normally in a comparison that runs at five items to nil, it would be easy to award the prize to the Region 1, but in this case the extra features present on the Region 1 are of little real value and even combined do not tip the scales in its favour. Then, consider that you can buy Wolfen from Region 1 at US $20 (almost AU $30), or from Region 4 for AU $15 - and there is not even a contest. Grab it from here, now.


    This is an interesting take on the werewolf/horror genre that is content to build tension rather than rely on continuous jumps and orchestra hits. At a price of just $15, it is highly recommended for any horror fan.

    The video quality is surprisingly good for the age and price of this film. There has been no restoration work, but it does hold up quite well.

    The audio quality is also surprisingly good, providing a mix that makes good use of the surround channels despite being restricted to 2.0 surround encoded.

    There are no extras at all - but for this price, it doesn't really matter.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Nick Jardine (My bio, it's short - read it anyway)
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-555K, using Component output
DisplayLoewe Xelos 5381ZW. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-DS787, THX Select
SpeakersRochester Audio Animato Series (2xSAF-02, SAC-02, 3xSAB-01) + 12" Sub (150WRMS)

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Comments (Add)
great review and.... - wolfgirv