Tuesday, October 28, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 23: Wolfen (1981)

What if werewolves were real?

I don't mean in the supernatural sense, either. What if werewolves were an actual biological entity? Imagine an intelligent canine creature that humanity could easily have assumed was really a human in wolf form. Imagine that this creature has been preying on humanity in secret for centuries. What would happen if it was in danger of being found out by modern humanity? What would it do to defend its secret?

To find out, I suggest you read The Wolfen by Whitley Streiber. I say that because, in order to fairly evaluate Wolfen it is necessary to look at it completely separate from its source material. It's not quite a case of "in name only," as the two do proceed along similar plot lines, but the film is so divergent from its source that comparing it is entirely unfair.

In some ways that is a negative, because the plot of the novel is very streamlined and direct, while the movie's plot--as we shall soon see--is a bit of meandering mess. However, don't assume that means that the film is without merit. Indeed, there are many reasons why I'm willing to forgive its messy plot.

We begin in New York, as real estate mogul Christopher Van der Veer ( Max Brown) is overseeing the groundbreaking of a new development in a rundown neighborhood full of crumbling buildings and indigents. But something is watching Van der Veer from a ruined church nearby, something with eyes that detect wavelengths that the human eye cannot even dream of. (As rendered by a POV cam set on "solarize") And whatever it is, it's not happy about his new project.

As Van der Veer and his wife, Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo), drive across a bridge in their limo that evening, a Native American high steel worker we'll come to know as Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos!) watches from the cables and angrily throws his bottle of booze at their car as it passes. The couple and their Haitian bodyguard don't seem overly bothered by this and continue on to Battery Park.

While Pauline tools around the empty park under Eddie's loving gaze, the something is watching them. Their dog, a Borzoi, is the first to realize the watcher is there and promptly abandons its masters. Their Haitian body guard, Sayad Alve (John McCurry) realizes they're being watched next and draws his revolver, but whatever the creature is it's so fast that it tears his hand off before he can get off a shot and then kills him before he can scream. Then it hides in the windmill sculpture the couple is playing in--waiting until he sees it to take out Van der Veer, slashing his throat, and then finally tearing Pauline's throat out so thoroughly her head is nearly severed. Van der Veer staggers away and collapses on a nearby grate.

Homocide detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney!) wakes up and goes for a jog before stopping for coffee and donuts. He's apparently on some sort of suspension, no doubt because he's the kind of "asshole who gets things done" character that writers love and real people can't fucking stand working with, so he's a bit surprised to get a beep on his pager. Calling in, he speaks to his boss, Warren (Dick O'Neill), who wants him to get his ass down to battery park--they have a triple murder and maybe even a sexual assault and cannibalism for him to take a look at. When Wilson asks how he's supposed to get down there, Warren growls, "Fly!"

He means it, though, and Wilson arrives by helicopter. Warren's in a foul mood because Van der Veer basically owned Manhattan, his lineage tracing all the way back to the Dutch who bought the island, and the Mayor is breathing down his neck. Speak of the Devil, the Mayor (Sam Gray) appears with two people in tow, an aide and Ross (Peter Michael Goetz). Ross runs ESS, Executive Security services, and Sayad worked for them. The coroner is taking forever to arrive, but Wilson points out that their best man is already on the job. He's referring to Whittington (Gregory Hines!), rocking out to his Walkman as he examines the crime scene.

Whittington and Wilson clearly know each other well, based on the banter as they walk through the crime scene while Whittington catches him up. He shows Wilson the severed hand of Sayad and Wilson notes that the man had a ring with a goat's head and pentagram on it and intones, "Voodoo." First I've ever heard of those symbols being associated with voodoo instead of Pagan magic or Satanism, but it could be that I'm the ignorant one here. But given the film's ideas of American Indians later on, I'm confident in leaning towards the film not knowing shit about voodoo.

Thankfully the voodoo thing won't go anywhere, since this film didn't need another red herring subplot, as we'll see soon enough.

We also find out that whatever killed Van der Veer took his brain, which is more than a little unusual even for this crime scene. As the two discuss Pauline's death and the fact that it's possible for the brain to survive decapitation for several minutes--and we all know if a movie brings that up, it'll pay off like Chekov's severed head--it becomes increasingly clear that there's no clear motive to the killings. Nothing was stolen from the corpses, and nothing points to an abduction gone wrong. And then there's a darkly humorous moment where it's implied the people carting off Pauline's body dropped her head.

At the morgue, Wilson walks by an attendant played by Reginald VelJohnson, who is currently admonishing a corpse with gunshot wounds to the head, "I told you that you shouldn't have been messin' around with that bitch!" Wilson waits in an examination room while Whittington meets with the big brass, eating chocolate chip cookies from the grocery bag he is inexplicably carting aound with him--though it has zero baguettes in it, so it's not at first clear that it is groceries--amongst glimpses of the ghoulish process of examining cadavers. When whittington comes to talk to Wilson,he points out that there's something unusually wrong with the victims: metal usually leaves a residue that shows up on x-rays, but the victims don't have a speck of it. Yet only metal could do the kind of damage they're seeing. Wilson suggests that maybe it could be some kind of industrial plastic, but Whittington glumly points out that he doesn't have a way to taste for synthetic weapons.

Ross over at ESS HQ jumps to his own conclusions. Van der Veer has a niece who is some kind of rich girl wannabe revolutionary Pattie Hearst figure. The whole crime scene stinks to Ross's nose of a terrorist execution and he wants an expert brought in, criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora). She has a lot of experiences with terrorist behavior, and so she becomes Wilson's partner on the case. Wilson isn't thrilled about being partnered with a shrink but, for him, he's actually quite polite when they meet to talk about terrorist-style murders.

Meanwhile, a junkie in the neighborhood of that ruined church gets his latest fix. He wanders into another ruined building and suddenly hears what sounds like a baby crying--but the solarized POV cam sure isn't a baby and it slashes his throat and drags him into the shadows. Whatever it is that killed the junkie, it roughly discards one of his internal organs. The junkie isn't the first to go out this way in that neighborhood, as the construction crew working on Van der Veer's site soon discovers when they uncover mutilated human remains in the rubble they're pushing around.

Wilson and Neff had been investigating Van der Veer, including a visit to his office on Wall Street, where they learned of his project for urban development. The groundbreaking of which had taken place just days earlier. Wilson and Neff go to investigate the worksite and find their way to the ruined church. In the church, Neff hears what she swears is a baby crying and goes into the tower to investigate. However, Wilson hears what sounds like a wolf howling and hurriedly rushes up, grabbing Neff and causing them both to fall down the stairs before fleeing the building. They don't see the glowing eyes watching them depart.

The body parts found in the South Brox interestingly prove to be a clue to the Van der Veer murders. See, there were hairs found on the Van der Veers that the NYPD's forensic hair specialist can't identify, other than they aren't human. And the same exact hairs were found on a liver in the South Bronx. Who, or what, the hell could want to kill some indigent in the South Bronx and the most powerful man in Manhattan?

For that, Whittington refers Wilson and Neff to Ferguson (Tom Noonan!), a zoologist at the Central Park Zoo. He's currently feeding a rat to a python when they arrive, which naturally is edited so it takes way less time than an actual snake feeding. Being an eccentric character, Ferguson briefly asks if maybe they're not looking for a snake. At any rate, one glance at the hair and Ferguson immediately identifies it, which seems a bit unlikely honestly, as Canis lupus. Ferguson laughs at their ignorance of Latin nomenclature with, "You want to meet 'im?" And he promptly goes into a back room, whistles like he's calling a dog, and produces a stuffed wolf.

Ferguson can't ID the exact subspecies, but he's certain the hairs are wolf hairs. When he's told the hairs came from a crime scene, Ferguson gets irritated and begins stroking a stuffed skunk. (That's...that's not a euphemism) Wolves don't attack people, he (correctly) points out. And he waves away the crime scene photos, basically refusing to answer the question of whether of wolf could do that kind of damage. He also shoots down the suggestion that it could have been a trained wolf, arguing that it wouldn't be a wolf then. (Um, yes it would) He then goes off on a rant about how wolves lived in harmony with nature, "like the Indians," (?!) until the white man showed up with the "Genocide Express."

Ah, yes, you see this film hails from the time period when Hollywood was realizing how horrifically American Indians had been treated from the days of Columbus until...well, white people haven't ever actually stopped treating them like shit, have we? Unfortunately, the response was transform the stereotype of Indians from scalping, inhuman savages to a magical fairy race that lived in harmony with nature. Still offensive and condescending, just in a different way. Oh, and they somewhat moved away from casting white people as Indians and more towards casting anyone with a brown complexion. Any actual Indian who got cast was usually a background role or just there to somehow make it okay that the central Indian characters weren't actually Indian.

I'm so glad we've moved away from that trend--

Oh. Right.
At any rate, Ferguson's completely inexplicable Indian rant reminds Wilson that he knows of a certain Native revolutionary who decided to actually do something about that centuries-old grudge against thieving palefaces: Eddie Holt. Eddie did time for plotting a bomb threat and killing "an apple"--no not that apple, Wilson means a conservative Indian, "red on the outside, white on the inside." Now Holt works high steel, like so many other Natives.

Which means the film is now introducing another red herring character, even if we actually saw Eddie at the film's beginning, at about an hour in. The film already had enough with the whole ESS and terrorism, especially given the audience knows that terrorists don't usually have heat vision and live in ruined churches so they can eat junkies. Eddie's contribution is that he starts talking about shapeshifting when Wilson visits him at the top of a suspension bridge. "It's all in the head," he tells Wilson before taking advantage of Wilson's fear of heights to slip away and thus dodge any further questions.

Wilson follows Eddie that night and sees him take part in some kind of ritual after leaving a bar with two other Indians. [Okay, terminology evolves so if there's a preferred term I could be using instead of outdated and/or offensive language, somebody please tell me so I can make this review less offensive] My guess is that he takes peyote or some equivalent, because Wilson follows Eddie as he heads down to the beach, strips naked, and begins acting like a wolf. He runs down the beach snarling and foaming at the mouth, he howls at the moon, and then he spies Wilson and corners him...before dropping the wolf act and saying, "Dewey, I told you, man--it's all in the head!"

So if you ever wanted to see full frontal Edward James Olmos, this is the movie for you.

Having safely established that Eddie is not actually a werewolf, Wilson drives to Neff's apartment and sits in his car, thinking. Wilson wasn't privy to the POV cam following his car's tracks over the bridge from the South Bronx and--killing a consruction worker on the way after it failed to avoid his detection--so he doesn't realize he's being hunted. However, he suddenly realizes he's being watched and, in a moment more or less actually taken from the book, he catches a quick glimpse of a wolf on the garden wall of Neff's building. The wolf is gone before Wilson can flip on his headlights to confirm he saw it, but he trusts his first impression. He quickly makes his way inside her apartment to ensure that she's safe and then the film's most unbelievable sequence occurs: Wilson and Neff have sex while the wolf POV watches from a nearby balcony.

I choose to believe we see the sex scene this way because there's no way to realistically sell the audience on their sudden romance. The two have zero chemistry and their relationship feels strictly professional--they're barely friendly, much less sexually attracted to each other. It'd be less ridiculous to see Wilson plant a sloppy kiss on Whittington and then bend over a coroner's table for Whittington to pound him. Hell, I'm kind of sad that doesn't happen, now.

Speaking of being fucked, Ferguson is in his office talking into a recorder about wolves while watching footage of helicopter wolf kills. Watching Sarah Palin's home videos when a wolf POV is watching through your window is a bad idea--and no, I have no idea how the wolf knew that Ferguson was a relevant target. At any rate, hearing the other animals get upset by the presence of an unexpected carnivore causes Ferguson to call 911 and report a fire at another address (!) and give his name as "Peter Wolf" before taking his gerbil-powered motorbike out to a tunnel to try and communicate with the wolf he now knows is out there. Of course, you may be wondering why he would do that, but that's because this is another bit lifted from the book and placed A) in the wrong point of the narrative and B) removed of the context that Book Ferguson had discovered that "vampires" were actually people who had learned to communicate with the "werewolves" and he believes he can do the same using the old signals he discovered in his research. Here, Ferguson is just a complete doofus.

The end result is the same, of course. Ferguson fails to communicate anything to the wolf other than, "I am made of meat" and he exits the picture when his gerbil bike proves unable to outrun a wolf.

Wilson and Whittington meet at Ferguson's office the next morning. Whittington has done some digging and found that, in New Orleans, they found a liver with a canis lupus hair on it. He's checking with Chicago and other big cities, but one thing is clear: a lot of people go missing each year in big cities that nobody cares about, like drug addicts and the homeless, and suddenly a few human body parts turn up in their place. Body parts that look like they have teeth marks in them, and are all diseased. It's Whittington's belief, and Wilson's for that matter, that some kind of unknown wolf subspecies has adapted to living in human cities and feeding on the humans who won't be missed. Both have realized that Ferguson is missing, but they don't yet make the connection that he was silenced.

While Neff is busy following up the terrorism angle that Wilson has long since abandoned, Wilson and Whittington set up sniper positions in crumbling buildings around the old church with radios, night vision scopes, and high-powered microphones. After several hours of nothing happening, Whittington starts goofing around--mooning Wilson and accidentally opening a beer can in front of his mic so that he almost blows his own ears out. Wilson sees what appears to be animal breath by the church, he goes to investigate. The tower is empty, though, and opening doors just almost gives Wilson a heart attack when he disturbs some pigeons.

Unfortunately, it turns out their quarry was a step ahead the whole time--and we get our first good look at one of them when it slips down behind Whittington. It's a wolf all right, and an actual wolf. As it turns out, a snarling wolf is a truly terrifying thing to behold.

"I'm gonna huff, and puff, and tear your liver out!"
Exit Whittington as the wolf pounces on him and rips his throat out. Wilson arrives too late and screams to the heavens over Whittington's body, as the wolf watches.

For some reason, Wilson goes to the Indian bar. Eddie and the others explain to the shell shocked Dewey that "it's not wolves, it's Wolfen." After white men arrived and disrupted the balance of nature, the smartest of the Eastern American wolves "went underground," hiding in the cities that developed and adopting the castoffs of society as their new prey animal. Wilson had all his superior technology and he still couldn't defeat the Wolfen, and he won't be able to. The Wolfen kill to feed and to protect their hunting ground, their family. Then the bar patrons laugh it all off, pretending they've all been watching too many cowboy movies and telling Wilson not to believe any of this bullshit.

It'd almost be clever if the film didn't so clearly subscribe to the noble savage tropes.

Wilson finds himself at Van der Veer's office, trying to parse everything that's happened. He suddenly makes the connection between Van der Veer's urban renewal project and the Wolfen's hunting ground. The film of the groundbreaking that plays on a projector in the office shows the ruined church prominently and Wilson has finally figured out that Van der Veer was killed to stop him from destroying the source of the Wolfen's food.

And here we have a typical Hollywood fuck up when it comes to "intelligent" animals, one which the novel actually largely avoided. In the novel, the Wolfen risked exposure because they accidentally killed some undercover cops and thus had targeted someone who would be missed. Their other victims were those who could potentially reveal their secret existence. The opening "murders" here, however, imply an understanding of real estate development that it is simply impossibly for wolves to understand so intricately.

At any rate Wilson is suddenly interrupted when a wolf skin falls on him from above. It was thrown on him by Warren, and Neff is standing there laughing. While Wilson was busy getting his ass kicked by super-smart canines, ESS was raiding the terrorist compound of the "Götterdämmerung" cell. They claimed responsibility for the Van der Veer murders and their motto is "The End of the World. By Wolves." Naturally, it fails to explain the deaths of junkies and other riff raff in the same manner, but Warren doesn't care.

Or rather, he doesn't care yet. On the way to the car, Warren, Neff, and Wilson suddenly find themselves surrounded by wolves on the city street. James Horner is the film's composer, incidentally, and he is at his James Horneriest here--basically the same tense score he'd use for suspenseful sequences Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens. And it makes the whole sequence even more awesome.

Warren refuses to listen to Wilson and makes a break for the car. His gun hand is torn off first, and then when he makes it to the car to radio for backup he finds that a Wolfen is already in the backseat.

"Take this car to Cu--huh? What do you mean we already did that joke?"
And Warren, upon exiting the car in desperation, gets to be the one to discover that the whole thing about the head surviving decapitation for several minutes is very true. Wilson shoots the gas tank and, using the explosion as a distraction, he and Neff flee up to the safety of Van der Veer's office.

Right. Safety.

Sure enough, the wolves bust in through the windows and confront Wilson and Neff. Wilson finds himself facing down the White Wolf that is coded as their leader because of course it is. He not only lowers his gun, though Neff is more reluctant to lower hers, but he drops the bullets out of it. And then he smashes the shit out of Van der Veer's model of the proposed urban development project. This satisfies the White Wolf, who howls, and then all the wolves fade away. The Hell?!

Backup arrives to find a destroyed office, which Wilson just blames on "terrorists." "Götterdämmerung?" "Yeah. Götterdämmerung."

And we end with a happy montage of wolves running through the Bronx as a voiceover talks the usual spiel about mankind's hubris and nature triumphing. The End.

It's coded as a humbling and uplifting ending, which not only puts it at a polar opposite of the denouement of the novel that promised all-out war between humans and Wolfen was basically imminent now that their existence was exposed, but it's a moral that makes no sense. Basically, the privileged in American society are gonna go on obliviously while wolves kill and eat the people whom those privileged are already preying on--most of whom are represented as poor people of color. Wow, the palefaces really got taught a lesson there.

It also makes no sense because what did Wilson do, beyond a symbolic gesture, to actually ensure the development project Van der Veer started wouldn't go through? Hell, he blamed the terrorists and they were all implied to be killed in the raid on their compound. So what's going to change there?

It may sound like I'm being very negative towards the film, but the truth is that for all its bloated excess of plot and almost total disregard of a pretty awesome source, I kind of love the film. Oh, it's stupid and full of cliches, yes, but there's so much to recommend it.

For one, there's the use of actual wolves which far too few wolf movies can claim. Then there's the James Horner score and for all his self-plagiarism (and, you know, actual plagiarism), I love me some Horner music. But most importantly is the film's portrayal of New York. Too many movies of New York, especially after 9/11, portray the city in as beautiful and charming a light as possible. Even muggings in those movies seem quaint.

But this New York is as raw and feral as the wolves that prowl it. Buildings are crumbling, weird people are all around, and everything just feels dirty. Perhaps its director Michael Wadleigh's background as a documentary director, but there's no question that he's showing you New York as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The film desperately needed a firmer hand in the scriptwriting stage, as I really would love to know why it was felt necessary to add so many red herrings and irrelevant subplots to a movie about "werewolves." However, there's no question that the film is both a fascinating film and a marvelous time capsule of a New York long gone.

Is it a good film? Overall, I'd say yes. Could it have been better? Absolutely. And, had it not been a box office failure, I'd say it was a prime candidate for a remake. On the whole, though, I'm happy it turned out the way it did because it certainly is a very unique experience.


Thus concludes Day 23. Click the banner to check out the other W movies!

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