After reading Whitley Strieber's 1978 'Wolfen', producers Alan King and Rupert Hitzig took an option on the novel. They then entered into a development deal with Orion Pictures which put up the money to make the film. The result was a $17.3 million (not including the interest that had to be paid on the money) motion picture.
'Wolfen' was filmed between October 1979 and March 1980. It was noted originally production was scheduled for April 1979. The premiere intended for Christmas 1980 was delayed until July 1981. The reason for the delay was because 'Wolfen' had to be cut to the "final film" lasting 1 hour and 55 minutes.
Shot on location in 1979 New York City showing Staten Island, Central Park, Battery Park, New York Stock Exchange, the Manhattan Bridge, the Fulton Fish Market and South Bronx, 'Wolfen' sought to explore another life forms, a race of human-like wolves living underground in the ghetto and had the mental and physical powers vastly superior to humans.
It was revealed these alien beings communicated using telepathy, had infrared vision to see in the dark, could hear as far as the clouds above passing over and could detect the heat pattern of emotions as they would appear on the human's face. It was understood mystic wolves had something to do with Native American Indians black magic, hence the natives insisted these creatures be called "wolfen".
In the movie, writer David Eyre and director Michael Wadleigh used the novel as a point of departure. Albert Finney was approached to play the lead role with Diane Venora, a graduate of the Julliard School of the Arts, made her film debut playing a psychologist specializing in terrorist behavior.
Terry Pace of 'Times-Daily' made the observation at the time, "Every facet of filmmaking – acting, directing, cinematography, editing, music – must be considered before a movie can earn an honored spot on the roster. 'Wolfen' stands in a class by itself, combining psychological horror with a social message. The screenplay by Michael Wadleigh and David Eyre is sharp and thought-provoking.
"Albert Finney gave a sharp, ingratiating performance as a world-weary detective. The chilling South Bronx locations were hauntingly captured by visual-effects expert Robert Blalack. The camera's surrealistic trek through the deserted streets as the wolves closed in on their prey was one of the technical wonders of the year."
'The Washington Afro-American' reported, "To bring 'Wolfen' to the screen, Wadleigh tested every exotic film stock and electronic aging device he could obtain. The final image is a wide-screen blend of photographic and electronic images with computerized optical processing. Extensive use was made of a specially-rigged Steadicam and the Louma, to achieve point-of-view. Camera moves that would otherwise not have been possible. To render the sense of superior hearing, minute sounds such as eye blinks have been digitally recorded in anechoic chambers."
Michael Wadleigh dropped out of medical school after his 2nd year because ''in the '60s there were many more interesting things to be done than to look through a microscope.'' Orion Pictures asked Michael to pick a book it owned and made it into a movie. He told 'The New York Times', "I picked 'Wolfen'. I didn't like the book, but I liked the premise. I rewrote it as 'Moby Dick,' the horror story, a sugarcoating around serious ecological issues.
"Before Columbus, there were 2 hunting tribes in America, 2 successful animals - Indians and wolves - who respected each other. There were 2 million wolves here in the 15th century; now there are 200. At the end of my movie, Albert Finney faces the Alpha wolf, harpoon in hand and a chance of blowing him away, but realizes a wolf is a creature of nature and the detective is just a chained dog and that man - not wolf - has formed the unjust society.''