Native Americans and werewolves are a match made in heaven, just ask Stephanie Meyer. Some of you are no doubt saying “duh!”; when your Quileute lycanthropes can be embodied on the silver screen by a big slab of HGH hunk-sausage like Taylor Lautner it’s definitely a perfect combo. Believe it or not though there is actually a more significant reason beyond Mr. Lautner’s distant Potawatomi bloodlines and beefy, tan, recombinant DNA body. Wolves of course are universally respected and mythologized by the earliest people of the Americas. They frequently occupy places of reverence and fraternity in the stories of the Lakota, Cherokee, and Pueblo. Combine this with claims of shamanistic shape-shiftinng (Say that 10 times fast) and the Indian werewolf becomes the perfect story-starter for writer’s wanting to shy away from the European Lupine tradition.
Whitley Streiber (Author of ‘Communion’ and ‘The Hunger’) took this folkloric tradition as the starting point for his 1978 novel ‘The Wolfen’ which two years later became a feature-film known simply as “Wolfen”. “Wolfen” follows Tanqueray tippling Detective Dewey Wilson as he hunts for the murders of a prominent businessman and several South Bronx junkies.
From the beginning the facts of the case don’t make sense, especially the fact that despite the victims suffering severed appendages and torn throats no residue from a murder weapon can be found at the crime scenes. Dewey partners with forensic pathologist Whittington and an executive security consultant named Rebecca Neff to ferret out the cunning maulers who are savaging both ends of New York’s social strata. Victims among the junkie wastrel population of the Bronx continue to surface as the investigation deepens. The discovery of wolf fur and bite marks at the crime scenes eventually lead Wilson to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge and a confrontation with Native American activist Eddie Holt.
Holt baits Dewey into a guessing game around the shapeshifting abilities of New York’s Indians and eventually Eddie puts on a bare-assed, private, wolf-dance for the detective under a pier. Wilson comes away from the experience either too embarrassed to keep pursuing Eddie as the killer or convinced that Holt just doesn’t have the balls for it. Meanwhile the evidence of lupine involvement in murders continues to mount. After one of his compatriots is killed staking out the killers' favored hunting grounds Dewey comes face to face with the murderers. Given new insight into the marauding horde the grizzled cop realizes he must use a more cerebral approach to put an end to the carnage.
“Wolfen” isn’t going to challenge ‘American Werewolf’ or “The Howling” for best Wolf films of the 80’s for a few reasons. On the execution end of things, the film's biggest pitfall is that there are some information and reasoning gaps. Additionally, despite a story structure that is well crafted the narrative doesn’t pay off in quite the right amounts given the slow build of the journey. There is an expectation of a big finish; one that is probably born out of the pacing and the lengths to which director Michael Wadleigh goes to accentuate mystery while deftly playing hide the monsters. It’s not that I felt entitled to seeing the murderers but as a horror film viewer I did need more blood, grue, and casualty than the filmmakers offered up.
Make no mistake, what is offered in the FX department is quite good. Some nice practical gore is reinforced by perhaps the best looking wolves that have been committed to film before or since. Other aspects didn’t age quite so well. The polarization filter they chose for the “Evil Dead”-styled dog’s eye view of the hunting ground is an effect that was overused in the early days of MTV and seems to cheapen the clever shooting technique being employed. The rest of “Wolfen” is also a bit dated but in a way that makes it come across as a gritty period piece from the late seventies rather than a showcase for outmoded technology.
The shooting by Gerry Fischer is the true show stealer. He throws haunting light across immaculate production design and manages to transform the abandoned neighborhoods of the South Bronx into a war torn vision of the southwest and plains states with shanty towers and charred churches replacing the rocky buttes and mesas. The cast has star power and believability even if outside of Edward James Olmos the performances are never outstanding. Now I’ll be the first to admit that a naked Edward James Olmos is a poor substitute for Taylor Lautner in the abs and buns department, but Olmos does manage to summon some of that delightful Lt. Castillo menace that he paraded across the beaches of Miami a few years later. The score by Jon Barry is pedestrian for the most part but the sound design and editing make up for the lack of imagination in the music department.
Even with its uneven mix of elements Michael Wadleigh manages to keep pulling you into the world of “Wolfen”. This feat seems even more impressive when you consider his only other significant directorial credit prior to this was the landmark documentary “Woodstock”. Or perhaps it makes perfect sense in a way I just fail to grasp. What I do know is that “Wolfen” is a good thriller with some nice high points. As I said, it won’t make you forget “The Howling” or “An American Werewolf in London” or even that hypnotic wet T-shirt covershot of Tay on Rolling Stone; I mean we’re only human, right? What “Wolfen” will yield is a pleasurable 114 minutes of well-conceived Native American Wolf-lore loosed on the streets of New York. I think we can all afford to take some time out from our respective man-crushes for that.