Before he was getting beamed up into spaceships, Whitley Streiber wrote The Wolfen. It came out in a year that saw two other essential werewolf movies, An American Werewolf In London and The Howling. There’s a reason why this film isn’t mentioned in the same breath as the other furry releases of 1981. By comparison, it’s slow-moving and not as filled with either humor or menace.
Former NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson (Alberty Finney) has come back to the job to work with criminal psychologist Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora, The Cotton Club) to solve a violent series of murders, including a business magnate who was killed alongside his wife and gigantic Haitian voodoo bodyguard.
So what keeps killing people throughout NYC? Is it a wild wolf? Or Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), a Native American activist who claims that he’s a shapeshifter?
Along the way, Gregory Hines plays a coroner, Tom Noonan is a zoologist and Tom Waits makes a cameo as a bar owner.
This is the only movie that Dustin Hoffman was ever rejected for. He really wanted the lead, but director Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) wanted to work with Finney. For what it’s worth, he was removed from the film after reshoots and was replaced with John D. Hancock (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death), who supervised post-production and fixing some of the movie’s dialogue.
If this had been released in any other year but 1981, I think it may be more fondly remembered. It’s fine — a bit slow, but the idea of Native American skywalkers being wolf spirits that haunt New York is interesting. However, it’s a less successful take on traditional monsters than Steiber’s The Hunger, which would be made into a film two years later.