Happy Halloween! As promised, here is the second 1980s horror movie posting.
“Wolfen,” starring Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines and Edward James Olmos, is NOT about werewolves. It’s an eerie tale about a pack of mysterious supernatural creatures that may or may not be connected with a group of local Native Americans, and who roam the city streets, viciously attacking several different New Yorkers. The story is mostly told through a police procedural structure, with side commentaries about politics, terrorism, ecology, and urban redevelopment. The film wasn’t a box-office success when it was released in the summer of 1981, but it did receive modest praise from critics and was noted for its ingenious use of an in-camera thermographic effect to portray the point-of-view of the wolf-like creatures (a similar technique that was more famously used in 1987’s “Predator”).
Although the plot is a bit muddled and confusing, both the special effects and the camera work are pretty amazing, and the atmosphere is thoroughly creepy. New York City appears almost surreal — the streets are empty, the mood is gloomy, and it feels like we’re part of some alternate universe that’s from the mind of George Orwell or H. P. Lovecraft. Personally, I thought Albert Finney was kind of miscast as a Staten Island cop with brooding psychological baggage (a more-apt Dustin Hoffman purportedly lobbied for the part but was rejected by director Michael Wadleigh), but that doesn’t mean he’s not entertaining to watch. And of course, one of the best aspects of this sociopolitical horror flick is its numerous NYC locations, taking place in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and the seldom-used Staten Island.
Like many films that take place in NYC, Wolfen opens with a wide panning shot of the Manhattan skyline, ending on what’s clearly the Brooklyn Bridge. There wasn’t any confusion as to what bridge this opening scene took place at, it was just a matter of figuring out where the camera was placed and which direction it was facing. Turns out we’re looking from around the center of the bridge towards Brooklyn, whose skyline has gotten a little more crowded.
The Bronx Church
I had heard about Wolfen ever since I was a teenager, but I never really knew much about it. I always assumed it was part of a string of werewolf movies that came out in the 80’s, such as The Howling (1981), An American Werewolf in London (1981), and Silver Bullet (1985), but never really paid much attention to it. In fact, until very recently, I had no idea that the film took place in NYC. It was while I was doing research for the film Fort Apache, the Bronx that I read an article that mentioned that they shot some scenes in the same South Bronx neighborhood as Wolfen. I immediately got excited, not only because I discovered a new movie that took place in New York, but that several scenes had been shot in my most recent borough of residence — the oft-overlooked Bronx.
I was already pretty familiar with the Charolette Gardens area in the South Bronx from my research into Fort Apache, and having biked through the neighborhood many times, I knew that it was practically unrecognizable from what it looked like 40 years ago. So, I figured it wouldn’t be an easy task to nail the exact location of this pivotal church, especially after learning that it wasn’t a real church and was really just an elaborate set built by the production (and therefore wouldn’t be listed in any past directories).
Fortunately, the film starts with a wide helicopter shot of the area featuring the church as well as the unique street layout and a nearby el train. After consulting local maps, and using the streets, extant buildings and the el train as reference points, it didn’t take too long to figure out where the church was situated. However, since the streets intersected in front of the church from unusual angles, it did take me a little time to figure out where the shot of the destitute woman with the walker took place.
I figured the scene took place on one of two different blocks that were to the north and west of the church, so I just combed through a bunch of tax photos from 1939-1941 in search of any buildings that matched the crumbling ones seen in the film. I eventually stumbled across some matching buildings on 172nd Street that confirmed the filming location.
Getting the “after” photo of 172nd at the proper angle wasn’t too difficult, but of course, since I didn’t have access to a helicopter or a drone, to get a comparable vantage point of the movie’s opening shot of the Bronx, I had to rely on Google’s 3-D Satellite View. (Click the image above to enlarge it and try to spot the few buildings that survived the wrecking ball over the years.)
Battery Park Attacks
There wasn’t too much confusion as to where this scene was filmed. IMDB had already listed Battery Park as a filming location, but it didn’t specify where exactly in the park these scenes were filmed. Since this scene took place in the dark and was mostly shot in what’s been dubbed “Alien Vision,” it was tricky to identify the park’s landscape or any of the outlaying buildings. So I relied on the later “Battery Park Investigation” scene (see below) which took place in the daylight to help me figure out the specific locales from this murder sequence.
Staten Island Phone Call
According to the dialogue in the film, the Dewey character lived in Staten Island, but I knew that didn’t necessarily mean they actually shot in Staten Island. There were only a handful of scenes that supposedly took place there, so I thought it was possible the crew didn’t bother to travel all the way to that remote borough for only one or two days’ work. But I knew that I had to at least check it out.
The first thing I do when trying to identify an unknown filming location is see whether there are any legible store signs in the scene, because as long as they’re not set-dressing, signs are usually the most helpful clues. In this scene, there was a corner shop called, “Stuyvesant Pharmacy,” which I assumed was real and would be a findable place online and wouldn’t require a trip to the library to look through their NY phone directories. But when I did a Google search, I couldn’t find any info on “Stuyvesant Pharmacy,” but for some reason, I kept getting hits for a “Saint George Pharmacy” at 99 Stuyvesant Place in Staten Island.
I immediately knew “Saint George Pharmacy” wasn’t the same place from the movie because it was located in the middle of a block and not on a corner. But having discovered that there was a street called Stuyvesant Place, I thought there’d be a chance a pharmacy with the same name would’ve been located on it. After a few clicks and scrolls in Google Street View, I came to the corner of Stuyvesant Place and Wall Street that had a corner deli adjacent to a hill that looked like it could be a match. Even though I didn’t immediately see a payphone on the opposite corner, when I set the Google Street View back to 2007, I was delighted to see a payphone suddenly appear. I also noticed that the deli that’s currently on the corner was actually a pharmacy back in 2007.
Satisfied that I found the correct location, the only thing that briefly slowed me down was trying to figure out which building Finney exited with his coffee and newspaper. None of the buildings in the background seemed to line up and I thought that maybe they shot this initial shot at another location. Then I realized they simply shot it on the opposite side of Stuyvesant Place. I don’t know why they did that, but I’ll just have to accept that there are some questions that will forever remain unanswered. Sigh.
Battery Park Investigation
As I mentioned above, IMDB had already identified Battery Park as a filming location but didn’t specify where in the park these scenes took place. One obstacle in finding the exact spots used in the film was that the layout of the park has changed somewhat since filming took place in late-1979. After the completion of multiple restoration projects in the park starting in 1996, a lot of the paths, benches and trees have been moved or removed completely. Fortunately, a lot of the larger landmarks have remained in place, helping me figure out where these scenes took place within a few yards or so.
One of the more prominent structures that helped me pinpoint these filming locations was the Pier A building near the northeast end of the park. Constructed in 1885-1886, the pier was built for the NYC Department of Docks and was headquarters to the Police Department Harbor Patrol (where their steamboat “the Patrol” was regularly berthed), and later served as a firehouse for the New York Fire Department Marine Division. Considered by many as an outstanding example of Victorian architecture, Pier A is the only surviving structure of its kind from the bygone maritime center that used to occupy lower Manhattan.
One of the pier’s signature features is a ship clock and bell in the tower at the outer end of the pier which was installed in 1919 as the first permanent memorial to the U.S. servicemen who lost their lives in World War I. Supposedly the clock is one of only two on the East Coast whose chimes ring the hours in ship’s time. Even though Pier A was actively being used by the fire department into the 1990s, the building was threatened with demolition by the city in the 1970s, before finally being saved by the New York Landmark Conservancy. It was officially designated as a New York City landmark in 1977 and is now home to a pair of restaurants and a private event space.
The other significant structure that appears in this sequence from Wolfen is Castle Clinton which is situated not too far from the pier. Originally built in 1808-1811 on a small artificial island just off shore, the circular sandstone structure was first intended to be a military fort in anticipation of the War of 1812 — although it ended up never seeing any action. Over the years after the war, Castle Clinton served as a beer garden, exhibition hall, opera house and theater, until it finally became the first U.S. immigration station, processing over eight million people from 1855 to 1890.
After the U.S. immigration center moved to Ellis Island, the Castle became home to the New York Aquarium, which quickly became one of the most popular attractions in the city, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. (The largest attendance on any one day was 47,360 people on August 20th, 1898.)
According to a 1919 Guide, the Aquarium, which was free and open to the public every day of the year, was equipped with 94 large wall tanks, as well as 34 smaller tanks. In addition, the circular building had seven large floor pools which would house all types of species of fish, as well as other water-related creatures such as dolphins, sea lions, beavers, penguins, frogs, alligators, and manatees. And unlike the current aquarium in Coney Island, the aquarium in Battery Park had a warm and elegant ambiance, adorned with palm trees and arched columns.
It’s hard to find a New York attraction that was as beloved and appreciated as this aquarium. Not only was it considered a tranquil place to relax, but it was also considered a respected institute of learning which had a fully-equipped laboratory and a scientific library. Many New Yorkers were shocked when it was shut down in 1941 after the Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, prepared to raze the structure to make way for the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel. According to an October 11 article in The New Yorker, the always-controversial Moses said that Castle Clinton “had no history worth writing about, and that it was only an ugly wart on the main axis leading straight to the Statue of Liberty.”
Fortunately, preservationists prevailed, and Moses’s proposed demolition was prevented when the federal government finally obtained the property on July 18, 1950. After a major rehabilitation took place in the 1970s, Castle Clinton is now administered by the National Park Service and houses a ticketing facility for admission to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
One of the landmarks that appeared in Wolfen which wasn’t real was the windmill — it was, like the church in the Bronx, a construction of the film’s art department. In the story, it was supposed to be a replica of America’s first windmill, brought over by a distant ancestor of the Christopher Van der Veer character. According to the director, this windmill symbolized the introduction of the Industrial Age and the inevitable destruction of the Native Americans and their “primitive” culture. This theme of technology vs. nature was conveyed throughout the film, and it only makes sense that this battle brought on by the Wolfen began in Battery Park, since that is where Dutch settlers first landed and the history of Modern America began. The popular legend is that in 1626, Peter Minuit, acting as the Director of the New Netherland colony, purchased the territory of Manhattan from the Lenape Native Americans group for $24 worth of goods and trinkets. There is a flagpole monument in the northern end of the park that was given by the Netherlands in 1926, commemorating Minuit’s supposed purchase of the island. For years, it’s been assumed this transaction took place in the Battery, but the modern consensus is that it actually took place about 15 miles north, underneath a tulip tree in today’s Inwood Hill Park.
For the record, even though I refer to this area as “Battery Park,” in 2015 it was officially changed to the more historically-accurate, “The Battery.” But me being a stubborn New Yorker, I refuse to change my nomenclature, the same way I refuse to refer to “Hell’s Kitchen” as “Clinton,” “The Triboro Bridge” as “RFK Bridge,” or “Sixth Avenue” as “Avenue of the Americas.”
Hot Dog Conversation
I knew this scene took place in Manhattan along the Hudson River because of the West Side Elevated Highway that loomed above. I found a website where the author talked about Wolfen and was absolutely thrilled to see that elevated highway in the background, apparently thinking that Wolfen was the only movie in which it appeared. This was naturally untrue, as I can think of at least a dozen films/TV Shows that feature the elevated thoroughfare (officially called the Miller Highway), including the last scene from 1972’s Serpico and the car chase sequence from 1950’s Side Street.
Of course, figuring out that this scene took place along the westside was easy; figuring out where on the westside wasn’t. My biggest obstacles were the actors themselves, since they obscured a lot of the nearby buildings. (To help resolve this problem, I created a composite image in Photoshop that completely eliminated them.) The pier that appeared behind the Neff character wan’t much help either because it was too far away for me to be able to spot any distinguishing features.
The one big clue I had to go on was the extra-wide cross street that appeared behind the hot dog stand. I could only think of a couple of streets along the westside that were that wide —Canal and Christopher— so I went to Google Maps to check them out. After some intense staring, I found several buildings along Christopher that lined up with the buildings that appeared in the movie, thus confirming the location of this scene.
The Van der Veer Towers
This location was listed on IMDB, as well as a few other movie location websites, so there was no real research involved, other than confirming that this information was correct, and figuring out which entrance at Chase Manhattan Plaza was used in the scene.
The one thing that bothered me when taking the “after” pictures of this location was the fact that the sculpture, Group of Four Trees (unveiled in 1972), which sits in front of the building, didn’t seem to line up with the film stills. I tried taking the pictures from a bunch of different angles, but I could never make it quite work.
It wasn’t until later that Blakeslee, my research parter, discovered that the art piece was taken apart, and transported to a shop yard for reinforcements and restorations, then reassembled at the plaza in the early 2000’s. So, it’s not out of the question to think that a few of the pieces shifted in one direction or the other during this procedure, causing them to appear at slightly different angles.
One Chase Manhattan Plaza is definitely an anomaly in the Financial District, and as I was taking “after” picture of it one Sunday morning, it felt like I was in Midtown along Park or Third Avenue. The consensus in architectural criticism has been that when the boxy modern skyscraper at 28 Liberty Street was erected in 1960, it dramatically reshaped the skyline and character of the financial district. Many people felt that once David Rockefeller, the executive vice president of Chase, began planning this project, it helped trigger the economic revitalization of lower Manhattan (which was waning at the time) and helped push it into the modern age.
Besides being a tall, 60-story, silvery-metallic tower that was dramatically different from its older masonry neighbors, Chase Manhattan Bank incorporated an immense 2-1/2 acre open plaza that offered a welcome break from the dark, narrow streets that prevailed in much of the neighborhood. What was particularly unique about the plaza was that the design helped conceal six lower floors of operations that would have been difficult to fit into the tower, including an 800-seat auditorium, a staff cafeteria and one of the world’s largest bank vaults.
Whether you liked it or hated it, One Chase Manhattan Plaza was undoubtedly considered one of the first modern skyscrapers to grace NYC.
Ironically, when you stand in the middle of the plaza next to the weirdly-shaped Group of Four Trees sculpture, especially on an idle Sunday morning, you can’t help feel like you’ve been transported back to the 1960s.
Exploring the Bronx
Like the earlier scenes, finding the exact filming spots in the Bronx took a little legwork. In the initial shot of Dewey and Neff arriving, I could see a street sign in the background (in Bronx’s white-on-blue motif), but I couldn’t make out what it said. Instead, since I figured this scene was shot near the church location, what I did was just look at any nearby streets that were on a slight hill and had a T-interection at one end. Eventually I stumbled upon E 170th Street which matched the street that the camera is looking down in this scene.
The big thing that excited me about this initial shot on Louis Nine Boulevard is that it was one of only a few shots from this film that featured any extant (albeit distant) buildings in the Bronx. Pretty much every other scene that was filmed in the Bronx was filled with tenement buildings that have since been torn down, and most commonly replaced with single-family homes.
The next shot of the church was fairly easy to pinpoint, since the street signs in the foreground were much more legible, and I already knew where the church was situated.
Late Night Drinks
According to several sources, director Michael Wadleigh was taken off this film project at some point during post-production. The studio decided to hire director John Hancock to shoot some additional footage to help make the film more of a traditional horror shock-flick. He filmed some extra gore effects as well as some insert shots of the wolfen growling and snarling. (Apparently, Wadleigh was adamant about not having the creatures growling or bearing their teeth, but instead had them quietly staring down their victims before attacking them, thus making the wolfen more calculating, intelligent beings.)
In addition to the new footage, the studio also had the running time of the film cut down in order to minimize the sociopolitical angle in the storyline. One of the more tragic trims was in this bar scene, which originally featured Tom Waits as the tavern owner, singing and playing the piano. (You can still hear audio of him in the background in the theatrical release.) Fortunately, I was able to find a European cut of the film which included an extended scene in the bar. Not only did it restore some of the footage of Waits at the piano, but it showed more of the tavern’s interior, confirming that it was shot at Chumley’s in the West Village.
The historic Chumley’s bar has been a long-time Village institution, but this is the only time I can recall a film crew was allowed to shoot inside. The former blacksmith shop on the corner of Bedford and Barrow was converted into a speakeasy in 1922 by the socialist activist Leland Stanford Chumley and became a favorite hangout for many influential journalists, novelists, poets, playwrights, and other social activists. After prohibition ended, Chumley’s remained a popular drinking spot for literary types, including E.E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, and John Steinbeck. In keeping with the literary theme, the interior of the tavern was known to be decorated with hundreds of book jackets written by many of its frequent customers.
Even though modern-day “speakeasies” with hidden entrances are now a staple in NYC, Chumley’s was one of the first to implement this Prohibition-era feature. The tavern had two entrances, but neither had any markings or an exterior sign, and one of them was located at the end of a nondescript courtyard which made you feel you were about to enter someone’s studio apartment. Inside, Chumley’s was equipped with additional trap doors and secret stairs that supposedly connected to a series of underground bootlegging tunnels. (Legend has it that one of the tunnels led to the nearby wood-frame house at 17 Grove Street.)
Sadly, in 2007 Chumley’s was forced to close its doors when its chimney and part of the building’s facade collapsed. After that, the former speakeasy at 86 Bedford was threatened to be a thing of the past. The owner faced a series of financial woes, construction delays, and battles with the city and local groups, but thanks to some new investors, Chumley’s finally re-opened in 2016 as an upscale reservations-only restaurant.
Even though Chumley’s still features an unmarked entrance and a literary-themed interior design, the atmosphere has definitely changed. Once a hangout for both intellectuals and dopey college kids alike, today’s fully-restored space (resurrected by restauranteur Alessandro Borgognone) seems to now cater to a very specific class, featuring upscale food items and expensive “mixology” drinks. It’s great that Chumley’s has persevered after having to face many obstacles, but the posh restaurant of today no longer resembles a place a young Tom Waits would feel very comfortable belting out a somber tune anymore.
Crossing Brooklyn Bridge
The wolf-creature supposedly travels from the Bronx to Manhattan via the (easily-identifiable) Brooklyn Bridge, which would technically be possible if it came via Randall’s Island into Queens and then into Brooklyn, but it certainly wouldn’t be the most efficient route. Obviously the filmmakers took some creative license on this score, which makes sense if you consider that the more logical Willis Avenue Bridge is not nearly as visually interesting at the historic Brooklyn Bridge.
Poor wolfen travel routes aside, the biggest challenge I faced with this scene was not figuring out where they filmed it but was taking the “after” pictures on the ever-popular Brooklyn Bridge which is normally jammed with tourists from sunrise to sunset. It used to be the tourists mainly congregated on the Manhattan-side of the pedestrian walkway, but now that Brooklyn is no longer considered a scary place by tentative travelers, many of them ease on down to the east tower where this scene took place, cluttering up any potential photographs.
Desperate to get these pics taken before Halloween, my best option was to take them during a crappy rainy day. (You can see how the pathway is slick in all my pictures.) There were still the occasional group of sightseers mucking up my shots, but as long as I was patient, I eventually got everything I needed. (Although, I did end up accidentally backing into a French tourist, who angrily cursed me out in a delightfully adorable accent.) Only drawback was that since it was a cloudy day, the visibility was limited and the Manhattan skyline was almost entirely shrouded in a thick grey mist.
The West Village
Having already identified Chumley’s as the location of the earlier scene in a bar, I guessed that these POV shots of a wolfen took place somewhere outside of Chumley’s on Bedford and Barrow. After looking at that intersection in Google Street View, I was able to easily match up several buildings from this sequence, despite the fact that it was shot in the highly-stylized “Alien Vision.”
And when I say “Alien Vision,” I’m speaking about the Steadicam shots that were used to represent the creature’s POV as it zips around the city and attacks unsuspecting New Yorkers. Operating the camera for these sequences was Garrett Brown, who was described by director Wadleigh as “a very athletic guy who can run like crazy.” But Brown was not just a camera operator, he was also an ingenious mechanical inventor who created the Steadicam stabilization system back in 1975 — the same system that is still used in film and television today.
After watching all the scenes that took place at Neff’s apartment, I was fairly certain it took place somewhere along Riverside Drive. I just looked along the West Side in Google Street View, focusing on the sections of Riverside Drive that have one-way side streets that split off of the main thoroughfare. (In a later scene that takes place in the morning (see “Sleeping at Neff’s” below), I spotted what looked like an intersection where the narrower side street rejoins the main drive.) I eventually found my way to West 108th Street where I identified the apartment building used in the film.
The funny thing is, after spending all that time searching in Google, I later noticed that IMDB already had the address listed on their production page. But it’s always good to do my own research to double-check that IMDB got it right. Case in point, IMDB also lists the location of the Bronx church at the correct intersection of 172nd Street & Seabury Place, but incorrectly places it on the northeast corner, opposed to the southeast corner.
Taking these “after” pictures of locations can sometimes be a bit of a pain, but sometimes it presents me with a friendly encounter. Such an encounter happened when I was taking photos of this apartment.
In the small driveway/courtyard adjacent to the building, there were a pair of retired women working on their spice and herb garden. Never sure if anyone would be interested in what I’m doing, I still decided to engage with one of the women and tell her about the film, Wolfen. Although she was unfamiliar with the title, she did hear that they shot a film there some time ago, and she certainly knew who Albert Finney was. So I showed her a still of him from the film on my iPhone, and she was elated to see him occupy the very spot she was standing on from nearly 40 years ago.
After being introduced to her pair of Pembroke Welsh Corgis (who bore no resemblance to any wolfen), the retiree from Arizona and I had a nice little chat about living in New York. And as an added token of friendship, as I was on my way to go photograph another location, she offered me some fresh basil from her garden.
How can you say “no” to free herbs?
Central Park Zoo
Not much to say about this location. It wasn’t difficult to figure out that they filmed in and around the zoo in Central Park, and the Delacorte Clock was an obvious clue in figuring out which underpasses they walk through in the scene.
And while I was there taking pictures, I timed it so I’d be there on the hour so I could listen to the clock chime a song and watch the zoo animal sculptures parade around the giant timepiece. I still find it to be one of the more enchanting monuments in the parks of New York City.
A gift from publisher and philanthropist George T. Delacorte in 1965, the three-tiered musical clock was installed in the newly-constructed arched gateway that sat between the Central Park Zoo quad and what was then, the Monkey House (now the Zoo School). Each day from 8am-6pm, the clock plays one of 32 nursery rhyme melodies every half hour while the bronze animal sculptures move around as if accompanying the tune. In 1995, the Central Park Conservancy supervised a restoration of the clock and sculptures, financed through an endowment of the Delacorte estate.
George Delacorte also donated the Delacorte Theater in 1962 and the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in 1959, placing it just north of the Conservatory Pond in what he called “the finest spot in Central Park.”
Like the earlier scenes taking place on Brooklyn Bridge, it was clear that this scene took place on the neighboring Manhattan Bridge. The only question was which side of the bridge does Dewey talk to the Indian foreman, and which tower does he ascend to speak to Eddie. To answer these questions, I relied on the buildings along the skyline to let me know where the camera was looking.
I thought getting a photo of where Finney edges his way up a suspension span was going to be impossible, but it turns out he wasn’t as high up as it appeared in the film. Turned out the span was only a few feet above the roadway.
But speaking of high places, Finney did end up in a fairly perilous situation when he was confronting Olmos’ character on top of the bridge’s tower. There wasn’t any special effects; all the actors were really up there. Apparently most of the crew weren’t quite as enthusiastic about going to those heights, and only a small handful of men ended up climbing to the top of the bridge. According to a blog post by Sara Halligan Garrison, her grandfather James, who was the key grip on the film, as well a small rigging crew, climbed to the top of the east tower to set up the gear, but decided to bring along a cooler of beer as well. As the story goes, a few of the members climbed inside one of the metal domes on top and, in her grandfather’s words, “smoked so much reefer it looked like the damn bridge had caught on fire!”
Her great-uncle Harold, who was also a crew member, drank his share of beers up there, and at some point when he couldn’t hold it in any longer, ended up relieving himself on top of the bridge. And apparently, someone on the crew had the foresight to snap a photograph of him in the act for all posterity.
To hear more fun stories of her family members on NYC sets, as well as some great behind-the-scenes photos, check out Garrison’s blog.
Finding this location was a joint effort between Jeff Blakeslee and myself.
Because this extended sequence ended with Olmos running around the beaches of Coney Island in Brooklyn, I figured the “Wig Wam” bar was also located in Brooklyn. So, even though I thought “Wig Wam” was not a real name of a bar, I still did a Google search to confirm this, and to my surprise, found evidence of an old Indian drinking establishment called “Wigwam” on Nevins Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill.
Apparently the Wigwam used to be at the center of what was Brooklyn’s Mohawk Indian community, dating back to the late 19th Century. It seems as though most of the Mohawks who came to NYC, migrated from a couple different Indian Reservations in Canada, settling in what is now Boerum Hill. By the mid-20th century, the neighborhood was nicknamed “Little Caughnawaga” and had the largest colony of Caughnawaga Indians outside of the Reservations up north. Throughout the neighborhood, there were services that catered to the needs of the colony — such as grocery stores offering food items used by the Mohawk women to make traditional dishes, and the non-Indian pastor at the local Presbyterian Church giving sermons in the Mohawk dialect of the Iroquois language. As implied in the story of Wolfen, the main source of income for the Mohawk men was doing high steel work on bridges and skyscrapers, as well as a multitude of other steel-based structures.
But after looking at the Nevins Street building which formally housed the Wigwam Bar, I determined it wasn’t the same place featured in the film, and it was back to the drawing board. That’s when I noticed something in the scene that indicated to me that the bar was probably shot in Coney Island — as Finney follows the three Indians, I saw a blue skeletal structure in the distance that looked like it could be an amusement park ride.
After looking through a catalogue of rides that would have existed in Coney Island in the late 70’s, I came across something called the Jumbo Jet which looked like it could be a match.
Designed by Anton Schwarzkopf, a German engineer who created a number of different amusement rides and steel roller coasters throughout the world, the Jumbo Jet started operating in 1972 at the new Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, run by Norman Kaufman. The ride, which had a unique spiral design that made it stand out from its neighboring wooden coasters, was the only permanent installation of its type in the U.S. at the time.
The Jumbo Jet stayed in operation at Coney Island until 2002, when it was permanently closed after experiencing a problem with the trains. According to The New York Post, this wasn’t the first problem to occur with the twister coaster: In June of 1986, seven people suffered minor injuries when a two-car section of the Jumbo Jet ride derailed, and in May of 1996, two people were hospitalized with minor injuries after bolts on the Jumbo Jet came off, throwing the passengers into a pole. The coaster was removed in 2003 and purportedly sold to a park in China.
Even though I was confident that the Jumbo Jet ride was on the same street as the “Wig Wam” bar, it didn’t help me in my location search because I couldn’t get a specific fix of where the coaster was situated in the amusement park. I knew the ride was somewhere on the Steeplechase property, bounded by West 15th and 19th Streets between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk, so I asked Blakeslee to help me search all the potential streets in Google Street View. I was rather worried the one-story former bar would be long-gone today, but hoped that one of the neighboring apartment buildings that appeared in the scene would still be around. After spending hours going up and down Coney Island streets, I was about to give up when Blakeslee alerted me that he thought he found a match on 19th Street.
I was amazed to discover that the bar and the apartment building to the north of it were both standing in 2018. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said about all the unique beachfront properties to the south, which have since-been razed.
Confident we found the Wig Wam Bar, we were both interested in figuring out where Eddie’s two drinking buddies part ways with him at the end of the scene. I was pretty sure there was a slight jump in geography because suddenly there weren’t any apartment buildings anymore. By turning up the brightness on the image, I was able to see some large cutout letters along the side street the two Indians take. Eventually I figured out that the letters said, “Thunderbolt,” which was the wooden rollercoaster that sat next to the new Steeplechase Park.
Not to be confused with the new Thunderbolt steel coaster that opened in 2014, the original Thunderbolt operated on the same site from 1925 until 1982. Two years senior to the famous Cyclone, the Thunderbolt was the first of its kind in Coney Island and was immortalized in 1977 in the Woody Allen film, Annie Hall as the rollercoaster with a house underneath it.
Owned and operated by the Moran family since its conception (who actually lived in that house underneath), the Thunderbolt was originally designed by the “Thomas Edison” of rollercoasters, John Miller, who is widely considered the “father of the modern high-speed rollercoaster.” Of course, like the Jumbo Jet, the Thunderbolt saw its share a accidents too, including one fatality in its opening year. The rollercoaster’s last malfunction occurred in 1982 shorty after the grandson of the original owner passed away. Apparently, the train valleyed between the 3rd hill and 2nd turnaround and had to be evacuated by the operators who simply locked up the ride and left the train where it was.
After that incident in 1982, the wooden coaster was officially closed down and sat dormant behind chain-link fences for nearly two decades, gathering rust and being overtaken by vines.
During that period, Horace Bullard, owner of the Kansas Fried Chicken fast-food chain, was intending on repairing the rollercoaster and opening a grandiose new version of Steeplechase Park on the surrounding land, recreating the legendary amusement center he frequented as a child.
Sadly, bureaucratic red-tape, poor planning, and escalating prices prevented him from fulfilling his dream, and in a move to help pave the way for the construction of a sporting complex (a move a federal court later found to be illegal), the Giuliani administration had the Thunderbolt torn down in November of 2000. To add insult to injury, a crestfallen Bullard only received one dollar in damages from the courts.
Having figured out that the scene in Wolfen where Eddie’s two drinking buddies walk away took place near the old Thunderbolt rollercoaster, it still took me a little while to figure out the proper orientation, and pinpoint the exact location.
I finally relied on a 1996 satellite photograph of Coney Island Beach (when the Thunderbolt rollercoaster was still standing) to help me fill in the blanks. From the photo, I was able to deduce that the action switched from W 19th Street where the bar was to W 16th where the Thunderbolt was on one side and the mostly-empty Steeplechase Park was on the other. (Click on the image to the left for a larger view.)
I concluded that the three Indians walked south on W 16th, and then two of them turned east onto Bowery which ran along the backside of the old wooden rollercoaster.
This section of West 16th Street and Bowery seen in the film is now gone, and 16th has been replaced with a narrow walkway wedged between MCU Park (home to the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team) and the new Thunderbolt steel rollercoaster at Luna Park.
Wilson’s Staten Island Home
Finding this location was all Blakeslee’s doing. Since you can see the Manhattan cityscape in far distance, we both figured this scene took place on Staten Island. The one big clue was presence of a church steeple in the foreground. Figuring they shot this scene not too far from the earlier payphone scene on Stuyvesant Place, Blakeslee looked for any churches in the St. George neighborhood and finally came upon the St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, whose facade looked similar to the church in the film. From there it was just a matter of calculating which house across the street they shot in.
When it came to taking the “after” pictures, I thought it’d be nearly impossible to match the massively-high angle used in the film, until I realized all the houses opposite the church were sitting atop a tall embankment. So, all I did was take the pictures from the porch of 122 York Avenue and they ended up looking almost indistinguishable from the shot taken from the second-story bedroom window in the film.
Sleeping at Neff’s
This scene that takes place in the morning is the one that helped me figure out that Neff’s apartment was somewhere along Riverside Drive.
The one thing I still don’t understand from this scene is why there’s a guy trying to start a motorbike, then falling over. One theory is that the bike belonged to the zoologist character played by Tom Noonan, who was seen riding a similar bike earlier in film, right before he’s killed by the wolfen. And this would then suggest that this unknown guy found the bike in the park and is now trying to steal it — but without much luck.
Another theory is that the guy was just a background actor who was supposed to simply drive by in the scene, but somehow screwed up, and director Michael Wadleigh decided to just leave it in the film.
Back at Van der Veer Towers
Surrounded by Wolfen
I get excited every time I discover a new film that has used the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street for one of their scenes. It just happens to be one of those locations that isn’t as obvious as Times Square or the Washington Square Arch, but nonetheless has been used in countless films over the many years. As of this writing, I believe the earliest film to feature Federal Hall is 1948’s Force of Evil, but I’m guessing that there’s got to be something from the silent era that also utilized this location. I just need to do some digging.
Running Back to Van der Veer Towers
As I was writing this post, I kept on going back and forth on whether Wolfen was an exceptional film or not. The more I read about the backstory and what director Michael Wadleigh was trying to achieve, the more I feel it failed as an esoteric sociopolitical thriller, but worked as a horror film with some nice 1970’s political paranoia themes and a variety of NYC locations thrown in there for good measure.
I guess it all comes down to expectations — I was originally expecting a low-end cheapo horror flick with bad dialogue and schlocky thrills, but ended up getting a whole lot more. So it might not be perfect film, but it’s a good one, and certainly worth taking a look.