Wolfen

Wolves and Indians are essentially the same
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1981
Director: 
Michael Wadleigh
Starring: 
Albert Finney, Diane Verona, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan
The Setup: 
It seems some sort of werewolf-type things are taking out a bunch of people.
Discussion: 

I got this movie because I liked Tom Noonan in The House of the Devil and readers suggested some other stuff he was in. I was also happy to watch it because it's an 80s horror film I remember from my youth but never actually saw, and it wasn't more than a few minutes into it that I was blissfully drenched in the wonderfully satisfying 80s horror vibe. This is especially apparent when watching the extensive Wolf-O-Vision footage, which is filmed with a kind of day-for-night video effect that your local cable outlet might be too ashamed to use anymore. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

We open with footage of some Native Americans atop the Brooklyn Bridge, doing some kind of ritual or whatever, then we see an urban war zone of debris and abandoned apartments which turns out to be in the South Bronx. If you live in New York now, this will take you back to the 80s, when there were such urban war zones and you'll recognize the kind of apartment buildings that have been fixed up and people live in now. Then we join some politician or other in a limo with his wife, being driven OUT of Manhattan on the Williamsburg Bridge, only to arrive IN downtown Manhattan. Such is the mysterious geography of New York in movies. They're wondering at some moronic sail-sculpture thing when we see that... SOMETHING is watching them. In stunning Wolf-O-Vision. Their bodyguard tries to pull a gun... but he would need a hand for that, don't you think? And now all he's got is a bloody stump. Then the man and woman get killed.

We now join our star Albert Finney as Dewey, called from Staten Island to view the crime scene. He has been out jogging, and is wearing a hoodie and a headband under his lengthy hair and... I'm sorry, but he looks like a lesbian. The stereotype of the lesbian gym teacher. It looks like the part was intended for Glenda Jackson, but they switched it, and decided to keep the look and the wardrobe. Turns out Dewey was thrown off the police force for something, and now they want him back on. He has a police boss named Warren.

Dewey meets Gregory Hines as a medical examiner, who has examined the bodies and learned that their limbs were severed by one incredibly sharp blade of some type, but get this, there are no traces of metal. We also meet some pretty young woman, Rebecca, who will become Dewey's unofficial partner, since there must be a love interest. By now we have almost gotten our heads around the fact that Dewey is a charming artifact of an 80s hero, the kind of person who would never ever be a hero-type today, and that--much as I know our expectations have shifted toward artificially snow-white teeth--Dewey's teeth are YELLOW. Really, to our eyes looking back, shockingly yellow. Maybe that's what that Coldplay song was all about.

So we see the apartments in the South Bronx being demolished to make the way for new developments--inherently evil developments, as you must know--and get a little taste of life in the ghetto. After seeing a homeless man being killed, the construction workers discover that the debris around the building site is strewn with human body bits! And breath-freshening crystals. They gather up some of the chewy body bits and tangy oat clusters and take them to Hines, who notes that all of the victims were diseased. How did whoever was responsible know that they were all sick? HOW?!?

Well Dewey and the lovely Rebecca go out to the development site in the South Bronx, where the wolves get a good look at them. Then we have mucho Wolf-O-Vision as they cross into Manhattan and spy on Rebecca in her apartment, leading to that familiar horror movie staple that can be called: It Was Just The Cat. Meanwwhile Tom Noonan joins the medical examiner team as Ferguson, who soon brings the theme of this movie front and center by saying "Wolves and Indians are essentially the same." You see, they both used to roam the land free and practice their warrior spirits and paint with all the colors of the wind, but then there was "the great slaughter" and they were driven off their land and now are just struggling to hang on in the face of the evil, oppressive white man. And if you haven't figured out that this development project in the Bronx is displacing the wolves just like we displaced the Native Americans, it's back to third grade for you. Speaking of that, it is a little funny to our modern politically-correct ears to hear even the sympathetic people refer to Native Americans as "Indians." Speaking of Indians, Dewey goes to visit one he used to know, who is hanging at the top of the Williamsburg bridge. This movie makes it out that anyone can climb to the top of these major Manhattan bridges any old time they want, and who knows, maybe they could back then. There he meets Native American Eddie, played by Edward James Olmos, who apparently Dewey threw in stir back in the day for some crime he had committed--but it wasn't his fault, because he was disenfranchised by the WHITE MAN! Eddie intimates that he knows all sorts of wolfy secrets Dewey couldn't possibly know about, then leaves the detective way up there all alone.

SPOILERS > > >
That night Dewey finds Eddie out by the beach at Coney Island [these wolf-people sure do get around], where he starts acting DECIDEDLY wolfish and stalks around naked until he threatens Dewey. Meanwhile Ferguson is in the lab, watching movies of the once-majestic wolf populations being methodically killed. He goes for a bike ride in Central Park, where he soon meets a toothy end.

Then Dewey rushes over to Rebecca's, and her lust for doughy older men with saggy old wardrobes and teeth the color of summer corn has its way, and the wicked voyeuristic wolves watch their repugnant coupling from the fire escape. Peeping Tom werewolves! In the meantime, we keep interrupting to visit some government control center with unrelated characters... and now the movie is over and honestly I can't say what those parts had to do with anything.

Now Gregory Hines has it all figured out. It would seem that roughly 100 people per year just VANISH in every major city. Then we have a little history of the Wolfen, which are some kind of human/wolf combo that is never fully explained [except to simply assume that the uber-spiritual Native Americans have special powers], but has been around for 20,000 years. "Then the slaughter came" and basically the remaining populations moved into the outskirts of cities, where they would discreetly snack on the sick and infirm, people who wouldn't be missed. In here is a scene where Dewey ends up in an all-Native American bar, where they all start eerily clucking like chickens. Hmm, maybe Native Americans don't need the "help" of sympathetic movies like this.

Soon after Dewey, Rebecca and Warren, the cop boss guy [remember him?] are surrounded by wolves, but Warren can't lay down his arms and choose the path of non-violence, which he pays for with his hand and later his head. Rebecca is traumatized by this [and it's amazing how that blood spurt flies so far to land SPECIFICALLY on her face] and soon we discover that Dewey has some sort of psychic connection with the wolves! This is getting just like Jaws 4.

Then they repair to some fancy penthouse--I think it's the place of the politician killed at the beginning--which is all mirrors to give us fractured images, used to decent effect when the wolves finally show up. The wolves that appear are full-on wolves, by the way, no human-wolf hybrid, making you wonder about this huge blade they can cleanly sever people's heads with... and which is never discussed again, after the beginning, in an attempt to divert you from that very question. Anyway, Dewey is surrounded, and he carefully lays down his gun. Then he smashes the model of the development the politician was going to build in the Bronx, as if to tell the wolves "ME NO LIKE DEVELOPMENT." The wolves say "Hey, I guess this dude's pretty cool," and vanish. We have some footage of the wolves running through the city, and that's it!
< < < SPOILERS END

It was pretty good fun, especially if you enjoy basking in the 80s-movie vibe. If you don't care about that its charm is significantly diminished, as it's just sort of a silly horror thing with a SERIOUS POINT whose silliness undercuts its intent. But I found it quite fun and involving, although I don't have much respect for it now. And can't find much else to say about it, either. It was amusing while it lasted.

Should you watch it: 

If you like, especially if you like the whole vibe of early 80s horror films.