1981 was a heck of a year for werewolf movies. Of course, this would still be true had the only one to be released that year been John Landis’ genre-defining classic, An American Werewolf in London. But mere months earlier, another tale of lynanthropic terror hit screens, one which has sadly fallen into obscurity: Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen.
The two films share a lot in common. Both focus on supernatural wolf creatures cutting a swath of carnage through major urban centers, both make heavy use of then-new Steadicam technology to represent the point of view of the beast as it stalks its unsuspecting prey, and both see the beast come into conflict with that most recognizable guardian of modern society: the police. But as similar as the films are, when one opens the hood and looks deeper, they’ll find that the two films are so ideologically opposed that it becomes hard to believe it wasn’t all part of some higher plan.
American Werewolf is told from the perspective of David Kessler, an American backpacker who, after an encounter with a mysterious beast while on a walking tour of the English countryside, finds himself transforming into a ferocious monster to prey on the unsuspecting people on London. In the film’s conclusion, David transforms and goes on a rampage through Picadilly Circus, only to be mercilessly gunned down by the police. No silver bullets or wolfsbane needed, just the cold efficiency of a lead slug.
In the ethos of American Werewolf, the beast is definitely a tragic figure, unable to control its actions after being unwillingly transformed into something that has no place in the modern world. In the countryside, with its superstitious villagers and shadowy moors, the beast may be an alpha predator, but when transported into the landscape of the modern world, it soon finds itself outclassed and swept aside by the custodians of this new, unfamiliar terrain. The once peerless and unstoppable creature of legend is left to die in an alleyway, naked and vulnerable, brought low by the modern world, which has long outgrown its fear of the dark.
Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, however, presents its mythical beasts in an altogether different light. As seen through the eyes of our hero, NYPD detective Dewey Wilson, the superiority of the pack of Native American lycanthropes, preying on wealthy land developers, is never in question for a moment. While American Werewolf presented its werewolf rampage from the viewpoint of the beast itself, Wolfen is told from the perspective of a character most often only seeing the aftermath of the werewolf attacks, and someone utterly helpless to stop them. In the film’s climax, Wilson finally confronts the supernatural pack face to face, and only saves himself and his lover by supplicating himself to the creatures, literally bowing before them.
While American Werewolf in London presents its version of the creature as being ultimately unable to survive in the modern world, Wolfen takes the opposite approach, presenting the pack of ancient predators as still superior to man. In this way, the two films reveal themselves as having perfectly opposing views of modernity and modern civilization. In American Werewolf, the beast of lore, a remnant of a much older, more mythical time, is eventually gunned down and left to die by the police, no longer having any place of power in the new world. Wolfen, on the other hand, presents the ancient, natural world (personified by a group of Native American shapechangers) as still holding superiority over mankind. Rather than being violently executed for daring rear its head in an era which has left it behind, the beast of Wolfen humbles the guardian of modern law and order, only allowing him to live after he demonstrates his inferiority and reverence for the beasts.
It should also be noted that rather than merely seeking prey, the wolf pack of Wolfen devote their actions to the prevention of further urban encroachment into the natural world – their territory. To further supplicate himself to the pack, Detective Wilson even violently smashes a model of the construction project which, if built, would result in the destruction of their hunting ground. This is in stark contrast to American Werewolf‘s titular werewolf, who wanders the city of London with no higher purpose than to feed. Unlike the driven werewolves of Wolfen, who are able to demonstrate their superiority to man time and again, American Werewolf in London‘s David is a mindless beast, unaware of the danger it’s in until it’s far too late.
Monsters, in all their forms, represent man’s fear of something; the unknown, the ancient, the predatory. In the case of werewolves and other such creatures, the argument has been made time and again that underneath fur and fangs lies mankind’s lingering fear of the dark forests it left behind in favor of gleaming cities. American Werewolf in London, though presenting the titular werewolf as a fearsome beast able to hunt and slaughter mankind in even their most populated seats of power, reassures its audience that in the end, modern man is capable of defeating the demons it once feared. Modern society, with its guns and skyscrapers, can best even the fiercest predators of the old world. Wolfen makes no such reassurances. In Wolfen, the beasts that man has long since written off as fairy tales, and not to be feared, are as dangerous to mankind as ever. For all our advancement, for all our so-called mastery of nature, the things that go bump in the night can prey on us just as easily as they could a hundred years ago. Nature, despite our best efforts, remains the superior force. It is driven and intelligent, and we can only survive it by displaying our reverence to it. The question of which viewpoint is correct in the end remains entirely up to the perspective of the viewer. If we ever find out for certain, it will hopefully be under less hairy circumstances.