One from the Vault
I know this is based a book by Whitley Strieber but I have never read any of Strieber’s books so can’t compare it as an adaptation. I have heard this film named among werewolf films of the 80s but [SPOILERS AHEAD] it really isn’t a werewolf film. In fact it is difficult to categorise this film since it has elements of the creature feature mixed with what is an urban crime drama.
A wealthy businessman Van der Meer and his wife are brutally killed along with their driver in Battery Park, New York. The police chief Warren (Dick O’Neill) puts semi-retired detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) on the case. Dewey is an experienced cop but he’s rarely seen anything like this with the bodies torn apart and pieces missing. On the scene is Whittington (Gregory Hines) from the coroner’s office
They suspect a political motive in the murders. Van der Meer had a private security firm watching him and his driver worked for them too. They are able to trace everywhere Van der Meer went until he was killed. Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) is an expert in terror groups and fringe political organisations so Warren asks her to work with Dewey.
They don’t get anywhere with the political angle but that doesn’t stop them and the security company keeps at it while Dewey consults Whittington who can’t help identifying the murder weapon since he can’t find any trace of metal in the wounds. The body of a homeless wino is found in the rubble in a demolition site in the slums of South Bronx and though there is no obvious connection between the victims evidence from the body shows he was killed the same way. Dewey thinks this proves that the motive is not political.
Dewey and Rebecca visit the South Bronx site and are drawn to the remains of an old church. Rebecca climbs the bell tower to investigate a strange noise she thinks is like a baby crying but Dewey gets an urgent feeling of danger so he grabs her and rushes both of them outside. Rebecca asks what he thought was up there and he can’t really say apart from the glimpse of a pair of glowing yellow eyes.
Whittington finds hair on the body of the homeless man and they match hairs he found on the body of Mrs Van Der Meer. Hair expert Baldy (James Tolkan) eliminates humans as the source of the hair so they talk to Whittington’s friend Ferguson (Tom Noonan) at the zoo who identifies them as wolf hairs. Ferguson would have been my number one suspect but then I think that’s because I saw Manhunter and Robocop 2. Ferguson goes on about how wolves aren’t killers and how it is humans who are the savages. It’s a point of view held by many who seem to be overcompensating for centuries of abuse but events will prove him wrong.
Dewey knows there is something strange about the killings but he still thinks a human is behind them. In fact he wants to talk to a Native American construction worker Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) who has been jailed for violent activity for the Native American cause. Dewey has to climb up one New York’s massive suspension bridges to talk to Eddie [There is no way I would have gone up there. Those shots were stunning and terrifying]. Eddie knows what he thinks and plays up to his fears with talk of skinwalkers being able to take on the shape of an animal.
This is what Dewey actually thinks and he follows Eddie when he leaves his local bar. Eddie goes to the beach and strips off and starts some crazy running about like he’s possessed by a wolf. He comes towards Dewey acting crazy and frothing at the mouth. This freaks Dewey out at which point Eddie spits out the foaming tablet and laughs at his joke on Dewey. “I told you it’s all in the head,“ he says as he runs off.
The last part of the film Dewey is left with only the truth about the killers but the killers know that Dewey has been looking for them and they have to take steps to stop Dewey uncovering them. After Ferguson disappears and Whittington gets his throat torn out trying to get pictures of the killers, Dewey goes to the bar where Eddie Holt drinks and they tell him about how when modern man arrived and built cities on their old hunting grounds a pack of magic wolves adapted to the city and lived off those who fall through the gaps. The rich man died because he wanted to redevelop the slums where they hunt. I id cringe at this stuff but giggled out right when Dewey calls them wolves and he is corrected that they are Wolfen which might impress the ignorant or the hippies but that is just German for wolves.
Magic wolves may seem a bit of an unfair way of describing them but that is the only way to explain ending. Dewey was in Van Der Meer’s penthouse putting everything together when Warren and Rebecca arrive with news that a group of terrorists are being blamed for killing Van Der Meer and they’ve all been killed. They found a wolf skin in their base which is good enough to explain the wolf hairs. So everything has been wrapped neatly for the authorities even if Dewey knows it’s all BS. They leave and when getting to their cars the wolves strike killing Warren and driving Dewey and Rebecca back into Van Der Meer’s building and up to the penthouse. Just when they think they are safe wolves smash in through the window. Dewey does not attack the wolves but instead makes a point of disarming and then as symbol of his understanding he smashes up the model of Van Der Meer’s redevelopment plans and after that the wolves disappear.
This film is one I often forget about. It didn’t spawn any sequels and doesn’t seem to have acquired a large cult following. It does have some of the typical simplistic romantic attitude of the evils of modern man and how he is out of touch with nature and his past and that is a sort crude them running through the story. The film does a good job of building up the tension of the presence of the killer wolves without actually showing them until the climax and I wonder if this is because the wolves just too adorable to show very often. It plays about with audience expectations very deliberately when Dewey seems to be following up the skinwalker angle then laughs at us for taking it seriously. This may be why some misremember it as being werewolf film. The best thing about the film is Dewey and his dry morbid sense of humour and he is full of funny lines though the rest of the cast give back as good as they get. He comes across a bit like a grumpy Columbo and Albert Finney plays him perfectly. While it does get a wee bit preachy and pretentious and it’s a bit dated in its style, subject and pacing it is an enjoyable film.