Former NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is forced out retirement to solve a series of murders when a billionaire named Van der Veer and his wife are slain in Battery Park. The victim’s bodyguard has ties to a Haitian voodoo cult, which tips off Wilson that it’s not terrorists that are to blame, contrary to the belief of the security company that worked for the victim. Dewey teams up with a psychologist (Diane Verona) and a coroner (Gregory Hines) to piece together the clues of what’s really going on. The trail leads them to an abandoned, crumbling church in the Bronx, slated to be demolished by Van der Veer and a Native militant activist (Edward James Olmos).
Anything else in this drawn out plot is virtually unnecessary. Suffice it to say, these werewolves are essentially Native American skinchangers, and even that’s up for debate. Some viewers and critics claim they are changing spirits with actual wolves rather than living up to the traditional werewolf lore.
However you want to see it, it amounts to two hours of movie with 20 minutes of plot and 45 minutes of traditional detective work to uncover that plot. The rest is suspense, long camera shots of dilapidated buildings, characters foreshadowing their own deaths, and, of course, the first-person perspective camera angles that let the audience see through the eyes of the wolves. This is what the film is known for, being the first of its kind to do this and setting the stage for what would be made famous in the Predator films.
The truly sad part is that this film might have been something more memorable had it stood alone. The idea was far better than the execution, so much so that it attracted Dustin Hoffman to the lead role, but the director insisted on Finney. There is a deeper psychology to consider in the themes it borrowed from Whitley Strieber’s novel. But timing is everything. The Howling was released a couple of months before Wolfen, which became a lasting franchise, and a month later would see John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. Wolfen became one of those cult films that none but the most diehard monster fans remember simply because it was buried at the box office between its werewolf counterparts and a little film you may have heard of called Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was still going strong when Wolfen was released.
Of particular note for me is the score. This is an early work by the late James Horner before he was “on the map” as the great he would become. Many of the themes he would create for this would be built upon for the following year’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and his 1984 scores for Krull and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The cues are distinctive, which makes watching this film a bit of an oddity if you’re more familiar with the music from those later films.