When WOLFEN first came out, I was sixteen years old and hungry for any and all horror films that I could encounter, with my appetite for scares of the lupine variety kicked into high gear by the excellence of THE HOWLING. You see, like most fans of the genre, I have a particular flavor of horror and preference of monster that pleases me more than any other, and that would be yarns about werewolves, so when WOLFEN came out I was more than ready for it. Or so I thought.
When a South Bronx urban renewal plan begins demolishing a dodgy neighborhood infested with junkies and other assorted lowlives, a series of brutal and bizarre murders commences, starting with the rich developer behind the development initiative. Also killed are his girlfriend and his huge, Haitian bodyguard, who was a gun-wielding former officer in Haiti's infamous Tonton Macoute paramilitary force (a group of guys you would NOT want to mess with). Investigating NYPD Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is put under direct pressure from his boss, the commissioner, and the mayor to solve the case with expedience, thanks to the murders being (incorrectly) believed to be the work of a terrorist organization called "Gotterdammerung." Noting the deceased bodyguard's prominent ring proclaiming his voodoo affiliation and not buying into the convenient , Dewey's sleuthing takes a decidedly supernatural turn as the murders proliferate and yield inexplicable forensic evidence (or complete lack thereof) from the victims' remains. In no time, Dewey, his coroner buddy Whittington (Gregory Hines), assigned criminal psychologist partner Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), and weirdo zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan) find themselves on the trail of creatures straight out of Native American mysticism — a connection pointed out by Ferguson — a pack of wolf-spirit predators who kill to preserve their hunting territories (and also to take advantage of any weak and easy prey that may wander within their range). The Wolfen have a number of bizarro powers that, among other things, allow them to remain undetected my the eyes of unbelieving mortal men (until it's too late), so even if Dewey could prove their existence and culpability for the killings, who in the modern age would believe his findings?
Though quite intelligent, mature in approach, and delivered in a way that renders its fantastic elements believable, WOLFEN unfortunately comes as something of a disappointment when sandwiched between the same year's back-to-back lupine onslaught of THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (all were released in 1981). It's less of a straight-up horror movie than it is a police/detective procedural with a rather dull first hour, but things liven up considerably once we start getting clued in as to exactly what the hell is going on in regard to the supernatural predators. The performances are all good and the story's mostly solid — I could have done without a pointlessly-included sexual encounter between Dewey and Rebecca that comes from out of nowhere and adds absolutely nothing to the plot — so I say it's worth a one-time look for lupine horror completists and those who want to see Edward James Olmos running around butt-nekkid as a militant Native American pretending to be a wolf. Also of note is James Horner's score, which features a few flourishes that would become indelible when revisited some five years later for the score accompanying ALIENS.
Poster from the original theatrical release.