August 22, 2012

EJO Review: Wolfen

Next up on our Edward James Olmos series is a real disappointment. There aren't many good werewolf films outside of Universal's Wolfman series, and Wolfen (1981) was supposed to be one of good ones. Sadly, not only does it not rank with An American Werewolf in London or The Howling, or even Wolf (werewolf Jack Nicholson!), but it's actually rather terrible. And it's not even a werewolf movie!

The film opens with a monster attack sequence that the makers of Predator clearly saw. The wolfen-point-of-view shots were undoubtedly the inspiration for the Predator's infrared vision. Since I plan to rip this movie pretty hard, it's nice to start off with something good, and the film deserves credit for its pioneering monster POV. Thank you, Wolfen; Predator would've been slightly less awesome without you, so you weren't a complete waste of celluloid. The shots of run-down New York City are also effective, atmospheric, and creepy. I miss the New York that gave us films like this and Escape from New York. Where can we find a rotting cesspool of crime and decay to film now? Thank God there's still Detroit.

Anywho, after taking way too long stalking people (and getting so close to them that you can't believe it wouldn't be seen, or heard, or smelled, a recurring problem with the stalking sequences), the wolfen kills a rich, important muckety-muck and his wife, though not before killing their chauffeur, because the black guy always has to die first. Solving this murder is so important to the city of New York that they bring in a fat, lazy drunk specially to handle the case. Said fat, lazy drunk is played by Emmy-award winner Albert Finney, who does an excellent job playing a fat, lazy drunk, and not just because he's English. In fact, despite occasionally missing with his American accent, Finney gives the film's best performance (apart from God's own, natch), and I'm thankful he was chosen for this role rather than America's home-grown go-to guy for the role of fat, lazy drunk in the late '70s and early '80s, Joe Don Baker. The other performances range from adequate (Gregory Hines(!) as Finney's coroner pal, Tom Noonan as a zoologist whose obsession with wolves even I find unhealthy) to jaw-droppingly awful (Diane Venora as a psychologist assigned to assist Finney, though her assistance consists entirely of sleeping with him for no reason other than they're the two leads in the film). This is also the film debut of Reginald VelJohnson, notable because it's possibly his only appearance in front of a camera not playing a cop.

Edward James Olmos is cast in this film according to the Hollywood Ethnic Actor Rule as an American Indian(!), despite the fact that he doesn't look Indian at all. You'll remember from last week that this rule allows actors in the "not WASP or black" category to freely play any ethnicity in that category, since American audiences won't know any better. He plays Eddie Holt,* a militant Indian put away by Finney's Dewey Wilson (yes, really) for killing an apple. No, I don't mean he went to prison for wanton slaughter of innocent fruit. "Apple" is apparently the American Indian version of Uncle Tom (or, to the primary audience of this blog, "banana"), that is, a ethnic minority who's sold out to the Man. Holt is so obviously set up as the werewolf that you instantly know he's not the werewolf, though it takes Olmos running naked on the beach for Dewey to figure this out. Frankly, I would've preferred that Dewey make this determination without my having to see the little Eddie. The scene has Dewey, thinking Holt is going to turn into a werewolf (it's complicated), following him to the beach where he strips naked, licks up water from a puddle in the sand (wolves drink seawater?), and runs around making growling and howling noises. While all this is going on, to absolutely no one's surprise, someone is killed by the wolfen in another part of the city, sending Dewey back to the drawing board for suspects. I admired Olmos's dedication to his art in this scene, as it must have taken serious cajones to go on camera and do the scene rather than just punching the director in the face or smiting him with a thunderbolt, and it reminds me just how prudish our society has become over the lifetime of yours truly. Still, a grown man running around pretending to be a wolf just looks silly, no matter how much gravitas the actor has or how scary the music is. It's a goofy moment played straight but impossible to take seriously, like something out of The Exorcist. Actually, "goofy moment played straight but impossible to take seriously" describes the whole of The Exorcist.

As with the previous projects, I can see why Olmos took this role. Wolfen is firmly in the vein of 1970s Western-civilization-in-decline films that portray victims of European colonization and oppression as morally superior to their conquerors. The film sets up a dichotomy between the Noble Savages (guess who they are) and the White Man Dependent on, Like, Capitalism, Man, and comes down clearly on the side of the white liberal guilt. I mean, Indians. And this is the single biggest problem with the film. It is, in fact, the reason it's a truly bad film rather than a serviceable low-key, low-FX monster flick. There is essentially only one Indian character (Holt), and more than once he gets to wax morally superior to Dewey by ponderously speechifying about how corrupt White Society is. To give you an idea of how well the Indians emerge as characters, the only other Indian has any screentime at all is credited as "Old Indian". No name, just Old Indian. We don't even find out what tribe these Indians are a part of, or even if they're from the same tribe! They're just Indians, and Indians love nature and marijuana and hate capitalism and Whitey. And the ones who don't aren't real Indians ("apples") and deserve to be murdered. The filmmakers would undoubtedly be appalled to hear that this is the subtext of their film, as I'm sure they didn't intend to treat their Indian characters as shabbily as 1960s Westerns that portrayed them as a faceless horde of identical backward savages to be mowed down by heroic white cowboys. But to quote Ken Begg, "well, you can’t not see it. I’m absolutely sure that it’s unintentional, but still, it’s kind of there anyway."

The worst example of the one-dimensional nature of the Indian characters in this film is the excruciating exposition scene near the end, in which Dewey, rather than discovering the secret of the wolfen through the White Man's Science of his detective work, has the wolfen explained to him by the Indians (again, mostly by Olmos looking righteously angry). Dewey goes to a bar full of Indians, imaginatively named the Wigwam Bar (really?), and there the Indians painstakingly explain to him what the wolfen are, why they've done what they've done, and why the White Man deserves to have it done to him. (That the wolfen have killed a number of black characters at this point goes unaddressed. I guess they're collateral damage from the wolfen's carpet bombs of justice.) Why yes, the Indians are smoking peace pipes while generic Indian chanting plays on the soundtrack.** I'm so glad you asked!

Wolfen's pacing is slow, its acting is hit (Finney, Olmos)-or-miss (Venora, the non-Finney cops and investigators), its story is a little scattershot, its kills are telegraphed (maybe they were slightly more surprising in 1981, but I doubt it), and its central monster not being a werewolf is a cheat. But all of these things could be forgiven if not for the ham-handed "message" of the film and its treatment of Indian characters as positive stereotypes every bit as offensive as the negative stereotypes it's reacting against. And then there's the ending. And I said, you find out what the wolfen are and why they're doing what they're doing, and the film clearly agrees that they have some justification. But the ending torpedoes any final hope the film had. Not because it has the wolfen offscreen teleporting from ground level to the penthouse balcony of a skyscraper, but because Dewey realises that the wise Indians are wise and that the wolfen are morally correct, and he decides they should be left to continue to murder people as they see fit. I'm serious, that's really the implication of the ending. Dewey agrees that the wolfen are right to eat the people they've chosen to eat. I can't explain to you how little sense this makes in the context of the film. It's bad enough that the makers of the film thought this, given the situation they've set up, but why does Dewey accept it? There's nothing about the character, either before or after his experiences with the wolfen, that in any way suggests he'd be okay with this. The wolfen even eat one of his friends in the movie! Dewey must've smoked some of whatever they put in those peace pipes to just accept that the wolfen have killed (including, again, a good friend of his) and will continue to kill. That, or the filmmakers allowed their own belief that the wolfen are right to impose itself on their character, regardless of whether or not the character and his experiences support that view. I'm betting on the latter.

I haven't mentioned the subplot of another entire group of investigators trying to link the murder of the rich muckety-muck to a vague, ill-defined "terrorist" group, using some kind of truth-machine that looks like whatever Egon was imaging Dana's face with in the original Ghostbusters. But that's okay, because this storyline has impact on exactly nothing, and I can't for the life of me figure out why it was included. But as I've noted, it's the film's moral failings that truly made me angry and frustrated with it. Like The Constant Gardener, the film makes its creators appears to be of the "if your cause is just, anything you do in furtherance of that cause is just" school of evil. Ends alone do not justify any and all means.

Unless the goal is to make sure there are no more Adam Sandler movies. In that case, use any means necessary.

* How they resisted naming the character Eddie Two-Bears or something equally "Indian" I'll never know, but kudos to the filmmakers for at least avoiding this stereotype.
** Actually, the Indians give two completely different explanations for why the wolfen are killing people, but nobody ever seems to notice this.

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