Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


WOLFEN (1981)

Notes: Orion Pictures Co. 114 minutes. MPAA Rating: R.
Directed: Michael Wadleigh
Based on a novel by Whitley Strieber.

Dewey Wilson: Albert Finney
Whittington: Gregory Hines
Rebecca Neff: Diane Venora
Eddie Holt: Edward James Olmos
Ferguson: Tom Noonan
Old Indian: Dehl Berti
Warren: Dick O’Neill

The setting is New York. Up on top of a bridge are a couple ofNative American guys, who turn a bird loose. The bird flies offand then its view becomes an aerial view of the city from a helicopter. We zero in on a building being demolished. There is a groundbreakingceremony nearby. From the ground we get a different perspectiveof the chopper overhead and the ceremony; the sounds and colorsare different. This is our first instance of Wolfen Vision, butwe don’t actually see the creature who’s watching everything.

Christopher Vanderveer and wife Pauline are heading back to theirpenthouse in their limo with their pampered dog and decide tostop by Battery Park. An entire security network is monitoringtheir movements. On their way, Pauline indulges in some recreationaldrugs; then one of the guys from the bridge throws a bottle attheir window as they drive by. At the park, Pauline is fascinatedby the chimes in her drug-induced state. We see some pagan-lookingweather vanes, a shot of the full moon, and then through moreWolfen Vision (hereafter abbreviated as WV), we stalk the limodriver. One of us is even under the metal grating he’s walkingacross on the sidewalk. He sees us and reaches for his gun, butloses his hand and then is killed quickly enough. Then we getChristopher, then Pauline. There is a lot of blood, and the attacksare quite forceful.

The next morning, Dewey Wilson is beeped to come to the sceneof the crime. Boss Warren tells Dewey to “take a look around,see if you can sniff out anything.” Whittington, one ofthe coroner’s guys, is there already and shows Dewey the bodies. Christopher’s brain is missing. The limo driver’s severed handhas a ring with a pentagram and goat on it. Pauline’s head isnearly severed as well. Whittington talks about the horrors ofdying that way. He says that during the French revolution theywould pick up the heads; most had died from the shock, but aboutevery fifth one was still alive and blinking and trying to talk. “The brain can live without oxygen for more than a minute.. . . How’d you like to see your own body and know that you’redead?”

Back at the morgue, one of the workers berates a corpse and smackshis face. Dewey’s eating cookies amid all the dead bodies. Whittingtontells him that whatever was used to kill the Vanderveers was notmetal. Back at the station, some young guy asks to see Dewey’sidentification, and Dewey tells him, “All that separatesyou from a guard dog is a brain.” He finds out that theVanderveers were returning from their anniversary party. Christopherhad no business enemies, but lots of political enemies.

Back at security central, they are running through their fileson terrorists and come across Vanderveer’s niece, so they pickher up. Then they choose to call in Rebecca Neff, an expert consultantin terrorist behavior. Warren teams her up with Dewey. She tellsDewey about the latest in international terrorism. Rebecca talksto the niece, who is monitored surreptitiously, voice patterns,infrared, photographic surveillance, everything. Dewey makesa comment that Congress and the White House should be monitoredthis rigorously; the whole country would grind to a halt. Theniece is startled when Rebecca begins to question her about Vanderveer’sdeath, and then she claims it wasn’t a murder, it was an execution,and the monitors say she’s definitely lying.

Out on the streets of the Bronx a guy is getting some drugs, anda pentagram with a big eye in the center passes hands. He headsout to some of the demolished buildings and wanders among allthe rubble. He hears some weird noises and walks around somemore. Through our WV we follow him and take him down. Then hisbody gets dragged off, and his brain gets plopped onto the ground. Dewey blames paranoia for the terrorist explanation, saying ifit was really an act of terrorism what weapon did the killersuse and why didn’t anyone alert the press. He has a sticker inhis office that reads, “God, guns, and guts made America. Let’s keep all free.”

The next day, WV shows a wrecker demolishing some more buildings. Some guy is pushing rubble around with a dozer and finds somebody parts. Dewey and Rebecca go to the Vanderveers’ penthouse. They have some strange metal blinds that make chiming soundswhen they’re disturbed and we see also a model of the projectVanderveer was working on. Dewey is beeped by Whittington, whotips him off to the body parts found in the Bronx. He tells himthat they found hairs of unknown origin in the Bronx identicalto those found at the Vanderveer scene. “All I know is theyain’t human,” he says.

Dewey and Rebecca wander around the rubble in the Bronx. Theyare being watched through WV. They look in an abandoned old church. Rebecca thinks she hears a baby crying, so she heads up the stairs. Strange, vaguely human noises that may or may not be the windare heard sporadically. Dewey’s looking at some strange stainedglass that shows a person being carried off by a wolf. Then hehears a menacing howl, definitely not the wind, and runs up thestairs, grabbing Rebecca. Through WV, they both roll down thestairs and then run out into the open and away. In the dark atthe top of the stairs we see two glowing red eyes. After darkfall,we get the WV running down the stairs and out of the church. Dewey and Rebecca sit in a dingy restaurant and wonder what wasin the church. More WV, running onto bridge. An unfortunateguy gets in our way and is sent flying off the bridge. Now morerunning across bridge, then through the streets. Dewey dropsoff Rebecca at the company apartment where she’s staying. Laterthat night Rebecca sees a shadow moving on her ceiling, goes ontoher balcony with her gun, and her cat jumps onto the railing infront of her.

The following day, Dewey and Rebecca talk to Ferguson, some sortof biologist at the zoo. He says the hairs are wolf hairs, buthe can’t place the subspecies. He says there aren’t any wolvesaround here, “they went the way of the Indians and the buffalo,the genocide express.” They ask if wolves could be trainedto kill, and Ferguson gets really defensive, saying then it wouldstill be a person killing people, not wolves. Now begins theweird stuff. He says wolves are “too smart. They’re likeIndians. Wolves and Indians evolved and were destroyed simultaneously. Their societies are practically one and the same. They’re tribal,they look out for their own, they don’t overpopulate, and they’resuperb hunters.” This gives Dewey an idea. He decides tocheck up on Eddie Holt, a member of NAM (the Native American Movement). He’s doing construction work on the bridge, and Dewey has togo up to talk to him. Eddie goes off on shapeshifting a bit,unhooking Dewey’s safety cables and telling him it’s all in thehead. If you believe you’re an eagle, you can just step rightoff the bridge and fly. Dewey makes his way back down. At securitycentral we find out that Eddie was on the bridge the night ofthe murders, but that no one saw him get any closer. “Maybethey didn’t recognize him,” Dewey speculates.

Dewey visits Whittington get the scoop on the body parts. Hetells him that all the abandoned organs were diseased, and theyall have the same striation patterns, like teeth marks. “Somethingout there might be eatin’ people.” Ferguson shows up tohelp with the analysis. Dewey leaves them to bicker and waitsoutside an Indian bar for Eddie to come out. Eddie goes downto the beach, and Dewey follows on foot. There is a shot of thestill full moon. Eddie strips, gets on all fours, and makes somewolf prints in the sand. He laps at a pool of water, then bitesthe water, then runs around and howls. Dewey decides to backoff, and Eddie, spotting him, rushes over and gets confrontational. After awhile he stands up straight and says, “Dewey, I toldyou, man, it’s all in the head.”

Meanwhile, we wander the zoo with our WV and scare all the animals. We come to Ferguson’s office and watch through the window ashe watches old films of wolf hunts and records facts of wolf acuitiesand capabilities. Ferguson hears some strange noises, mostlythe frightened zoo animals, and opens his window. He picks upthe phone and reports a fire, then gives his name as Peter Wolf. Then he takes his geekboy scooter out and waits for the firetruck to pass. As the sirens die in the distance, he can hearwolves howling. He’s exhilarated. He starts his scooter andhears some really vicious wolf sounds nearby, not howling, sonow he’s pretty fearful, probably thinking he should have boughta faster bike. He gets a little way and then is hit from theside and thrown about twenty feet off his bike.

Dewey sits in his car outside Rebecca’s apartment as the rainstarts. Then we see him sitting there with WV. Then he seesa wolf form on Rebecca’s balcony, its breath visible in the cold,but when he switches on the headlights it’s gone. He goes upto her apartment and looks distressed enough that she doesn’tspeak. More WV looking at the apartment from outside. InsideRebecca pours them both drinks. Through WV we climb up and lookin the window and see that Rebecca and Dewey are in bed together.

In the morning, Dewey and Whittington head to Ferguson’s office. “Fergie never went home last night,” Whittington says. “His mother called, FREAKED OUT.” Rebecca is doinganother terrorist interview. Dewey and Whittington get some nightvision gear and guns and go to stake out the old church. Thatnight, Dewey says decidedly, “They’re here,” when hesees breath rising from behind an old wall. He goes down to thechurch to look around. Whittington gets the creeps. We see himthrough WV and climb down through a hole in the roof. Now wedefinitely see one of the beasties. The wolf gives a nasty snarland jumps him. Dewey hurries to find him as we see his body beingdragged off. Dewey bursts into the building and shoots around,then Whittington’s body drops onto him from above.

Dewey goes to the Indian bar to talk to Eddie. Here’s the explanation:

Eddie: It’s not wolves; it’s Wolfen. For twenty thousand years,Wilson, ten times your fucking Christian era, the skins and thewolves, the great hunting nations lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came. The smartest ones, they went undergroundinto the new wilderness, you cities, into your great slum areas,the graveyard of your fucking species.

Old Indian: These great hunters became your scavengers; yourgarbage, your abandoned people, became their new meat animal.

Dewey: They’re only —

Eddie: Animals? Are you sure, Wilson? They might be gods.

Old Indian: In their eyes, you are the savage.

Eddie: You’ve got your technology, but you lost, you lost yoursenses.

Old Indian: They can see two looks away, they can hear a cloudpass overhead. In their world, there can be no lies, no crime.. . . They kill to survive, they kill to protect family. Mankills for less.

Back in Vanderveer’s penthouse, Dewey muses on what he has learned. He looks at the model, the shovel used for the groundbreakingceremony, he views the promotional video for the constructionproject. Warren and Rebecca show up and say that they’ve pinnedthe murders on a terrorist group whose motto is “the endof the world by wolves.” The three of them leave. Outside,Dewey senses they are not alone. The Wolfen are there, and theyare quite angry. Warren reaches for his gun, Dewey advises againstit. Warren continues anyway, and loses his hand. He climbs intothe car, but there is a wolf in the back seat, and as he climbsout he gets hit by another wolf. Dewey shoots the car and itexplodes, then he shoots the glass on the front of the buildingand the alarms go off. He and Rebecca get in an elevator andgo back up to the penthouse. Cops show up outside. Wolfen jumpthrough the windows in the penthouse and take command of the room. Dewey and Rebecca both have their guns drawn. Dewey stares atthe white wolf. Extended close-ups of first the wolf’s eye, thenDewey’s eye with WV. Dewey empties his gun and sets it down,and Rebecca lowers her own. Dewey smashes the model; the Wolfenhowl and leave right before a cop enters the room shooting.

Dewey and Rebecca go out on the penthouse balcony. The Wolfenrun merrily through the streets of New York. More WV runningto the church and up the stairs. There is a shot of the old churchsilhouetted against the dawn, and then a similar shot of the NativeAmericans on top of the bridge.

The tone of the movie is much different from the book, which offereda plague of creatures that had followed the white man from Europeand had always lived off of human flesh. Here we are meant torecognize the barbarity of the whites in contrast to the balancedand peaceful way of life of the indigenous inhabitants of NorthAmerica, namely the Indians and the Wolfen. The Wolfen are notthe enemies, they are just trying to survive in a changing world. At the very end there are themes of respect and honor, but mostof the movie preceding involves suspicion of the Native Americanand the horror of mutilation and potential cannibalism.

We give points for realism since they used actual wolves, notHuskies. After seeing very little of them for the entire movieand wondering, it’s a little jarring when one suddenly appears. (Hey, it’s an example of us caught in the doppelganger effect!)

Werewolf Films