There isn't anything particularly new about this production. Even the ecological aspect has been used before. And the director uses suspense-heightening techniques that were honed to perfection back in the early 50s by people like Jack Arnold. There is either creepy music or utter silence and the character is alone and senses danger. Suddenly a hand reaches into the frame and taps the character's shoulder. The character jumps but it's a friend's hand. I didn't count the number of times this hoary device is used in one or another of its incarnations.
A character sitting alone in the darkness suddenly has a wolf's hide flung over him (by a friend). A woman investigating a suspicious noise in her own apartment is shocked when she spins around and sees a shadow figure -- but it's only her reflection in a mirror. Ditto for Gregory Hines in a ruined church. The killer's POV shots are by now hoary.
The director has also used an irritating photographic technique to signal the presence of wolves. We have learned from Fergie (the expert lupologist) that wolves have an enormous range in their visible spectrum of light, from ultra violet through infra red. For much of the movie we are looking at events from the wolves' point of view. To render this enhanced visibility the director has chosen to overhue the images or to make them suddenly flash. It's truly a distraction, especially coupled with the use of a shaky hand-held camera whose movements are accelerated. Something similar happens with the wolves' hearing. They can detect sounds from "earth tremors" to about 100,000 cycles per second. (Ours runs from about 20 cps to 20,000 cps, tops.) The enhanced hearing is suggested by making the sound of a man crunching Fritos audible from across the street, but also by overlapping the same sounds slightly out of synch. If that were actually the way wolves heard noises, they wouldn't be around any more.
The story doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense either, when you come right down to it. Let us skip over the fakery of the mysticism attributed to Indians who work the high steel in New York City -- mostly Mohawks in real life. As a cultural anthropologist I've lived with and studied Chippewa, Tlingit, Cheyenne and Blackfeet. They are religious in a way that goes beyond our concept of visiting church on Sundays. They may use peyote too, but they are serious about it. Among the Cheyenne the ceremony is preceded by a very long fast, lasts for 24 hours, and takes place in a social context, accompanied by drums and songs. Here, Eddie gobbles some kind of psychedelic substance after coming out of a bar, tears off his clothes, and runs growling and croaking alone through the night. Don't American Indians have enough to contend with? Must we do this to their image too?
The wolves' roles should have been more carefully thought out too. They feed off the sick, the abandoned, in their own quiet Darwinian way. But then why did they attack Van der Whatever and his wife and eat their brains? The guy was an alpha male, so eating him doesn't exactly prune the herd of misfits. I suppose because, being a rich real estate magnate, he was going to replace part of the shattered Bronx with a housing complex. That makes them mind readers. And sometimes the wolves can recognize a friend when they see and smell him -- they let Finney and Venora go after cornering them in an office. And sometimes they don't. Fergie, the expert, weeps with pity and love for wolves, but it doesn't matter. They eat him too.
So is there any reason to watch this film? I think so. The reason such tried and true formulae like these survive is because they work. (This is known as cinematic Darwinism.) This one would do better without the dazzling and bewildering photographic business, but it works pretty well as a scifi/monster movie centered about locations in the South Bronx, which here looks a lot like Frankfurt, Germany, did in 1945.
The acting is quite good as well. Gregory Hines is more than a simple sidekick, although how he gets from pathology to being a street sniper is brushed over without explanation. Albert Finney does well by his American accent. His drollery -- the script is occasionally pretty witty -- is casual and offhand. And Diane Venora -- wow! She's a beautiful woman to begin with. And she's given a flattering do and just the right amount of Hollywood makeup to make her conventionally exquisite. Not much is asked of her in the role of Finney's new partner, drawn into the case because of her knowledge of cults and symbols. She is, more or less, to Finney what Joan Weldon was to James Arness in "Them." There is a love scene between them, but we see it through the eyes of the wolves who have followed them home to an apartment and evidently climbed the walls in order to peek through the windows on an upper story. Blast! Both the images and sounds are distorted beyond anything other than minimal recognition. Well, I suppose it's a novel way to show lovemaking, although no "Hiroshima mon Amour."
Largely because of the performances and the occasional bright spot in the script, and because of the relatively new locations, I rather enjoy it. It's worth spending time on. And I agree with Fergie. We should stop killing wolves. There are too many of us and too few of them. Mano a mano might be okay, but shooting them from helicopters?
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