Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

US movie (1981). Orion/Warner. Pr Rupert Hitzig. Exec pr Alan King. Dir Michael Wadleigh. Spfx Conrad Brink, Ronnie Ottesen. Vfx Robert Blalack. Mufx Carl Fullerton. Screenplay David Eyre, Wadleigh. Based on The Wolfen (1978) by Whitley Strieber (1945-    ). Starring Albert Finney (Dewey Wilson), Gregory Hines (Woody Whittington), Tom Noonan (Ferguson), Edward James Olmos (Eddie Holt), Dick O'Neill (Police Chief Warren), Diane Venora (Rebecca Neff). 115 mins. Colour.

For 20,000 years the Native Americans and the wolves, or Wolfen, co-existed, organized societally along similar lines; but then the White Man came and virtually exterminated both. The cleverest Wolfen concealed themselves in the slums of the White Man's cities, where they survived in small family units by scavenging garbage and preying on derelicts. Now the territory of one New York Wolfen family is threatened by a housing project, and they begin to kill humans to defend it. Law officers Wilson, Neff and Whittington are put on the case by Warren, and slowly, incredulously, they uncover the truth. In a final confrontation Wilson destroys a model of the housing project, and the watching Wolfen vanish into thin air – although they still roam somewhere out there in the City.

Strieber's novel was an attempt to draw sf out of Urban Legend: the Wolfen are a cryptozoological species. The movie – a much more stylish affair than the novel – is almost throughout a demystifying exercise: these are very clever wolves, but wolves nonetheless. Yet the final, enigmatic vanishing throws everything wide open in a classic Slingshot Ending: in what becomes with hindsight an Urban Fantasy, are the Wolfen conjurations of Wilson's delusions, fuelled by alcohol and Native-American legends, or are they supernatural creatures? [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.