Out in the fields of Wyoming, there is a mystery afoot, involving the cattle on the huge farms there. A new sheriff has just been voted in, Harriet Purdue (JoBeth Williams), and as the popular choice she makes up her mind to do her best with what is actually a low crime rate community, but when individual dead cows begin to be left in fields with parts of their bodies seemingly cut out with surgical precision nobody can explain what is going on. Meanwhile, in New York City tough detective Ruben Castle (Robert Urich) has decided on two things, he will give up the urban life to settle in the country with his teenage daughter Mackenzie (Marin Kanter) and finally give up the booze...
Cattle mutilations were a genuine phenomenon; some saw the cards explaining that at the beginning and end of this film as mere flim-flam, about as reliable as the introduction to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as far as reliable basis for a movie went, but although it pretty much died out in the twenty-first century, it was a subject much worried over in conspiracy theorist circles from the nineteen-seventies onwards because it represented a sinister occurrence that could have far-reaching implications, and not only that but the cattle corpses were actual proof of something strange going on. Some blamed the government, but others blamed space aliens given there were UFO reports accompanying the mutilations in some cases.
This spiralled off into wild theorising about the aliens creating hybrid creatures from both cows and humans, as well as the visitors themselves, but you may be relieved to know Endangered Species, in spite of that ominous title, had little time for any abduction narratives as far as the Greys went, it placed the blame very much in the mould of the conspiracy thrillers of the previous decade, notably The Parallax View with which it shared a few story beats. If anything, Robert Urich was a shade too colourful a character for the plot, which tended to overburden its first half with extraneous incident all to serve the purpose of crafting what presumably director Alan Rudolph hoped would be three-dimensional personalities we in the audience would get to like.
Certainly Ruben came across as someone we should regard as the hero, and there was a flavour of an old Western where cattle rustling was the order of the day (or night), but for much of the time he was just too reckless for us to endorse wholeheartedly, continually returning to the bottle, or making dodgy decisions such as allowing sixteen-year-old Mackenzie to drive for assistance when they break down in the middle of the Wyoming nowhere, whereupon she crashes her car into the Sheriff's. Ah, the Sheriff, she almost became the focus by default, which may have been part of the reason this flopped in the cinemas: Urich was a major star on television, and it was evident that would carry this movie, yet it was really JoBeth Williams who was the hero, or heroine, of the storyline as Harriet struggled against many obstacles.
One of those being the essential sexism she was facing among those who thought she wasn't up to the job, which in a subtle move looks as if she was elected because the townsfolk thought she would be a soft touch and not bother them overmuch. When the trouble with the cattle starts dominating, she once again is faced with not being taken seriously as she tries to explain it, and it's true the film had problems conjuring up a convincing reason behind a baffling conspiracy just as had happened in real life. With town mayor Gailard Sartain and his lookalike, influential councilman Hoyt Axton no help, and Axton's character appears to be actively obstructing justice for which he pays a heavy (and bizarre) price, the film turned to the powers that be as what we should be investigating as Ruben's journalist friend Paul Dooley does his best Woodward and Bernstein to uncover a very murky truth and the ex-cop and the sheriff join forces. Their subsequent romance spoke more to mainstream cliché that this did not need, and Endangered Species fell between two stools of thriller and quasi-science fiction, but it was different enough to be worth the while of those interested in the less conventional. Music, including lots of weird sound effects, by Gary Wright.