The excellent horror book “The Wolfen” was penned by the gifted Whitley Strieber. After being released in 1978, it instantly gained acclaim and made Whitley a well-known figure in the literary community. It became such a relic that Michael Wadleigh made it into a Hollywood spectacular in 1981.
The traditional wolfman legend, which is now extinct, was given a more mythological spin in Wolfen. An American Werewolf in London presented stiff competition when it was first released in theatres, and sadly, it was forgotten about over time. Looking back now, it truly stands out as a timeless great story that was innovative.
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Exploring the story and plot
Christopher Van der Veer, a successful businessman, his wife, and his bodyguard are all assassinated in Battery Park. Instead of introducing the killer to the viewers, the killer’s point of view is portrayed. At this moment, the viewer has no other option than to speculatively identify the murderer.
It is on the next day that we, the audience, are introduced to the main protagonist of the story, former New York City detective Dewey Wilson. Along with Wilson, we are introduced to the mayor, Warren, Wilson’s superior, and Coroner Whittington, an officer.
Dewey Wilson is shown in the film as being intent on identifying the person or thing responsible for a succession of terrible killings. During the investigation, the police are left with more questions than answers, and the post-mortem team falls short of explaining the unnatural deaths of a city executive, his wife, and a bodyguard. The police are only able to trace the victims’ evening plans, which included some booze, gifts, and drugs.
Executive Security claims that the killings were carried out by terrorists, but Wilson is dubious given that the victim’s bodyguard was a Haitian with voodoo connections. With the police commissioner and the mayor putting pressure on the police department to solve the case, Wilson is partnered with criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff for the case.
Elsewhere, a homeless man is exploring the grounds of an abandoned church in the South Bronx, that is set to be demolished by Van der Veer’s development firm. He is killed by an unseen creature. While investigating the penthouse of Van der Veer, Wilson and Dr. Neff are tasked with looking into the killing of the homeless man.
At the church, Dr. Neff is drawn to the bell tower by what appears to be a baby wailing. Wilson pursues her but somehow loses her track. After she separates from him, Wilson hears a wolf howl but doesn’t hear the sobbing baby. He chases Dr. Neff up the tower and drags her down to safety. Later that evening, when the duo retreated to a local bar, the same creature is seen killing a bridge worker by throwing him down the bridge. That night, while Dr. Neff was alone in her apartment, she encountered the shadow of an animal. Scared, she draws her gun. but, much to her relief, it turned out to be her cat.
Meanwhile, Coroner Whittington uncovers non-human hairs on multiple victims. Wilson and Whittington consult a zoologist, Ferguson, who determines that the hairs are from an unidentified subspecies of the canine species Canis lupus, a breed of the grey wolf. Ferguson further compares wolves to native Americans.
After listening to Ferguson’s theories, Wilson discovers Eddie Holt, a fierce Native activist he detained a few years back, working in construction. While being questioned by Wilson on top of the Manhattan Bridge, Holt claims to be a shapeshifter, which links him to the murderer. That evening, Wilson decides to follow Holt and keep an eye on his activities. While following Holt, Wilson discovers him with two native Americans.
One of them is an elderly native American who gives him a neckless and puts something in his mouth. Holt leaves the other two and goes on his separate way. Wilson keeps pursuing him until he observes Holt stopping by the beach, where he strips off his clothes and starts howling like a wolf.
Holt drinks water from a puddle just like a dog and starts running through the beach and howling at the moon. Suddenly, after howling at the moon, Holt realizes Wilson is following him and starts to approach Wilson just like a wolf. Wilson starts to walk away from the beach until Holt corners him under a pier. Seeing Holt stalk and howl at him with movements like a wolf, Wilson draws his gun, upon which Holt reverts to a human-like posture and mocks Wilson, saying “it’s all in the head.”
Meanwhile, at Ferguson’s office, he watches a documentary on wolves. The footage also shows him hunting wolves. Someone or something appears to be stalking Ferguson through his office window. Upon realizing this, Ferguson is intrigued and goes outside to investigate. Ferguson visits Central Park after finding animal clues; however, the murderer hides for him there, in a tunnel. When Ferguson reaches the tunnel, he hears the growls of an animal, upon which he turns back, but before he can find a way out, he is attacked by the unseen predator while on his motorcycle.
Wilson, on the other hand, after coming back from the beach, leaves his apartment at night to go keep an eye on Dr. Neff, where he gets hallucinations of Holt turning into a wolf right in front of his car. Upon getting hallucinations, he rushes to Dr. Neff’s apartment to protect her, where she is shocked to see him with his gun drawn. After Wilson calms down, Dr. Neff pours him a glass of wine, and he spends the rest of his night at Dr. Neff’s house, where the two end up having sex, unaware of the attack on Ferguson.
The next morning, while Wilson prepares to leave Dr. Neff’s apartment, he spots a fat man with Ferguson’s motorcycle. Unaware of Ferguson’s fate, he heads to Ferguson’s office, where Whittington confirms the retrieved hairs are of Canis lupus. They discuss the whereabouts of Ferguson, and Whittington explains that Ferguson’s mom had called him last night to inquire about Ferguson, as he had not reached home.
They asked the janitor in Ferguson’s office if he knew anything, but to their dismay, the janitor knew nothing. Wilson speculates if Ferguson could be a victim or suspect, to which Whittington replies that he has known Ferguson for years and he is weird but not that weird.
Later on, at the police department, the two prepare to look for the wolf near the church. Armed with sniper rifles, the two head off to the South Bronx, where they take positions in two separate buildings opposite one another. Whittington opens a can of beer near a parabolic mic, which results in Whittington almost going deaf. Wilson heads to the church bell tower while Whittington keeps an eye on him.
Wilson opens a door and gets a jump scare from pigeons. A wolf approaches Whittington, who is unaware of the animal that attacks and kills him. Wilson, who was in contact with Whittington through his phone, rushes to help him, where the lifeless body of Whittington falls on him. Frustrated, Wilson screams in anger as the wolf keeps an eye on him. Meanwhile, police arrested a few terrorists in connection with the Van der Veer murder.
On the other hand, Wilson visits a pub full of Native Americans, where he encounters Holt and two elderly natives, who explain to him that the killer isn’t a wolf but a “Wolfen.” They further say that the Wolfen might be gods who saw the outsiders as the savages that rampaged the land of the natives. They explain that the Wolfen have inhumane abilities and only hunt to protect their hunting grounds. Wilson heads to the Van Der Veer penthouse, where he finally understands why Van der Veer was murdered after watching a news report about Van Der Veer’s plans to transform the hunting grounds into his construction project.
In the penthouse, Wilson is approached by Warren and Dr. Neff, who scares him by throwing a wolf skin at him. The two reveal to Wilson that the murders were committed by the terrorists. The terrorists’ moto was the end of the world by wolves. Wilson is confused by the revelation, as he still believes it was the Wolfen. As the three of them leave the building and walk to their car, Wilson spots a wolf.
They are quickly surrounded by the pack of Wolfen. Despite repeated warnings from Wilson, Warren draws his weapon, preparing to shoot at a wolf. One of the wolves attacks Warren and rips off his right arm. Warren quickly takes cover in his car, seeking backup. But instead, a wolf chases him out of his car. Upon which, the wolf attacks and decapitates Warren in one blow.
Seeing Warren’s death, Wilson shoots and blows the car to buy some time. Taking the opportunity, Wilson and Dr. Neff hide in Van der Veer’s penthouse, where the wolf pack surrounds them both. Meanwhile, backup arrives as the police surround the building. Seeing no way out, Wilson surrenders his weapon to the white alpha and proceeds to destroy the model of Van Der Veer’s construction plans, trying to convey that he and Dr. Neff are not enemies.
The wolf spirits disappear as the police barge in, shooting at the wolves, but they stop as they realize no one was there. Wilson explains the killings were done by the terrorists, seemingly keeping the secret of the Wolfen to himself. In the ending monologue, Wilson explains the actions of the Wolfen and compares them to the actions of humans. Wilson further concludes that the Wolfen will keep preying on humans as humans do to each other. The movie ends just as it started, with Holt and his friends looking over the city from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.
A mystical and unexpected take on the classic man-wolf stories really puts the salt on the plate for this movie. Such underrated classics are truly treasured by the fans of the genre, but sadly in the present day, these classics are buried by the mainstream media. The presence of a true artist like, Albert Finney, just adds to the mysterious and mythical ride of this horror thriller. The script does restrict him a bit from flexing his acting muscles, but it is done so in all interest of the movie. It really gives a unique experience to first-time watchers with its haunting take on Native American folklore.
Wolfen is a horror crime thriller that breaks away from its narrative of the same old Hollywood werewolf movie. It combines different social messages with old folklore in a beautiful manner for the audience to realize the mistakes and crimes we as humans commit on a regular basis. Even after three or four decades, Wolfen forces us to acknowledge human greed and how we, as a species, impact our earth and nature. As stated before, it is not your average horror movie. With its mythology-driven plot, Wolfen looks to touch the human consciousness and try to impact the lives of the viewers.