(director/writer: Michael Wadleigh; screenwriters: David M. Eyre, Jr./novel by Whitley Strieber; cinematographer: Gerry Fisher; editors: Chris Lebenzon/Marshall M. Borden/Dennis E. Dolan; cast: Albert Finney (Detective Dewey Wilson), Diane Venora (Rebecca Neff), Edward James Olmos (Eddie Holt), Dehl Berti (Old Indian), Gregory Hines (Whittington), Tom Noonan (Ferguson), Dick O’Neill (Warren), Peter Michael Goetz (Ross); Runtime: 115; Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers; 1981)

“I found it easy to root for the werewolves over the derelicts, millionaires, and arrogant police who were victimized.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A complex contemporary horror flick based on a novel by Whitley Strieber, that is slow in developing and when it becomes evident what’s happening there’s more interest intellectually in what is uncovered than thrills. New York City Detective, Captain Dewey Wilson (Finney), is called in to investigate a mutilation murder of three people in Battery Park. A wealthy real estate mogul, his cocaine-sniffing wife, and a bodyguard, are killed by something that’s not human but resembles a wolf. The wisdom of the police higher-ups is that this is a political terrorist group in action, so they assign criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Venora) to help the captain.

When a drug-addict derelict is killed in an abandoned building in the South Bronx, the coroner, Whittington (Hines), informs the detective that the same hair is found on his body as in the Manhattan killings. He also mentions that these animal killers must have superior knowledge than we do, because they refuse to take the diseased parts of the body. It takes the lab technicians, even with the benefit of modern technology, days to come to the same conclusion these beasts come up with on the spur of the moment. Criminal pathologist Ferguson (Noonan) clarifies that these hairs are from wolves no longer common in America, who were wiped out the same time the Native Americans were. He goes on to lecture us that the wolf and Indian had similar cultures and habits, and learned to live together in harmony.

In this baffling case where no clue is given to what is the actual weapon of the killer, Detective Wilson is convinced that these grisly murders weren’t committed by a terrorist group and is open to the suggestion of werewolves. Police Investigator Ross (Goetz) firmly believes it was a political terrorist group, and brings in all sorts of terrorist leaders for questioning and uses the lie detector to determine their veracity.

On a hunch Dewey looks up an Indian activist he arrested for manslaughter some years ago, Eddie Holt (Olmos), and the talkative Indian is now working atop the George Washington bridge. He tells them the legend of a supernatural species descended from Indian hunters who went underground (they’re living on Charlotte Street in the South Bronx in abandoned buildings and churches). From what Eddie said, it’s apparent that these supernatural creatures, wolfen, feel threatened because they are being uprooted from their homes in The Bronx due to land development. The same landlord in The Bronx is the one in Wall Street.

Wolfen plays as a modern update to the werewolf legend, as they are portrayed in a sympathetic light. They are the victims in all this modern upheaval while the ones they attack are seen as the savages. There’s much self-indulgent ecology to chew on, in this slickly filmed surrealistic presentation. In any case, I found it easy to root for the werewolves over the derelicts, millionaires, and arrogant police who were victimized.

Director Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) uses distorted camera imaging to film from the point-of-view of the wolves. Outstanding British cinematographer Gerry Fisher does the honors of making this a very stylish looking film, which gives the impression that something deeper than what appears to be happening is taking place. All the camera shots are presented in this manner, showing how the wolves can pick up man’s scent much quicker than he can theirs and their heat-seeking vision can detect their quarry’s body temperature. They cannot be vanquished; so I guess the message is, that we better learn how to live with the werewolf, they will always be with us. Hey, I’m willing to give it shot…as I think Finney is, also.

REVIEWED ON 6/14/2001 GRADE: C     https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/