Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: Wolf House

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet; live photo by Michael O'Hear

Wolf House
Directed by Matt D. Lord
White Lion Studios / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
69 minutes, 2016 / 2017

There’s nothing like a nice creature feature to sink one’s teeth into on a cold winter night, right? It’s -10F outside right now (serious), so I’m curled up in bed and about to watch what I’m hoping will happily mix with my hot chocolate and marshmallows and go down smoothly. Electric blankie? On! Pillows propped? Soft and supportive. Remote in hand? And… away we go!

Gotta say, in the first few minutes I’m getting a worrisome feeling. This is one of those “Six kids go to the woods and were never heard from again” found footage things. People are still making these? Please, let me be wrong. After all, I’m at less than 4 minutes so far.

The film takes place in a real location, Hartland, NY, which is somewhat close to Niagara Falls and Lake Erie (or maybe that should that be Lake Eeeeeerie…whooooo… Okay, I kid. Now back to the review).

These six people who go to the Wolf Cabin contain two couples, and their two male friends. As in similar films, we get to see them be asses to each other in “bro” moments – especially picking on one of them – for about half the film that is supposed to be the audience getting to know the characters. Continuing with the lowest common denominator, all we get to know is that we wouldn’t want most of these people in our lives if they treat their friends this way. Okay, I’ve been brutal with my pals, they’ve been that way with me (it’s a Brooklyn thing), but not to this level. Or maybe I’m older now I don’t remember it as it was, that could be true, too. Either way, other than them being childhood friends and their girlfriends; that about all we get to know about this group, so the opening 20 minutes are essentially very bad home movies. This last trope is quite common in found footage films.

After shooting some bigfoot kind of creature outside the cabin, they take the carcass to one of their homes in the ‘burbs. There, it revives and its scent attracts all different sorts of creatures from the woods, such as dog-like things and men with no eyes. It doesn’t really make much sense, but by this time I was so happy to see some action I was willing to let it go. Besides, the creatures looked pretty cool for a low budgeter like this. More on that shortly.

The crew gets taken out one by one through means of lurking creatures while the rest go running around with their cameras on willy-nilly, quite often focusing on the ground or their feet. And yes, there is the much-used scene where someone takes a selfie and says a sniffling goodbye to their family, a paradigm started by The Blair Witch Project (1999), I believe.

If you turn on the film at about 22 minutes in, you’ll see a much better – albeit shorter – movie, but you won’t really lose all that much in characterization. The action definitely picks up when they bring the whatever-it-is back to town, and the creature besieging begins. My guess is that most of the humanoid thingies are either Native Americans or their spirits (only one woman speaks briefly, in another tongue). What makes me think this is the location and the face paint. They don’t, however, have the facial features usually associated with Indigenous Peoples (I’m guessing Mohawk for that neck of the woods?), and I kept wondering if this might be seen as appropriation. Now, a film like this probably should be more suspenseful and not give the viewer room to reminisce on these kinds of questions. I should add at this point that one of the actors, Rick Williams, is First Nation, and even has a ‘Hawk hairstyle.

The big dog/wolf creature is interesting and decently done (a long extra is included about its creation), though it’s obviously a person in a costume, but it reminds me of the cow from the play version of Into the Woods, using stilts and outer skin. From what the commentary says, it took up a chunk of the film’s $5,000 budget, and I believe it.

Another nice feature is the occasional inlay camera work where you see the main action, with a smaller inset of another room being filmed as creepy things happen there. This was a nice touch. The other thing I appreciated is that the actors did well sounding scared, and moved somewhat reasonably realistically in that agitated state. I just wish I could have cared more about them.

Part of the bigger issue is that there is no explanation about the creatures, or especially the humanoid ones, like where they come from. Are they human or not? A combination? Some come and go in a second, and others seem to be able to be killed. I mean, it’s pretty obvious they are there because they followed the people home. Now, while these creatures are roaming around outside, doesn’t any of the neighbors notice that there are huge, hairy things with glowing roaming around? There is some discussion about this during the commentary track, but the mix of natural and supernatural throws me.

One of my ideas of a missed opportunity is the lack of using the incessant tormenting of the nerdish guy by the others at the conclusion. I would have liked to see maybe him conspiring with the visitors to get rid of the others in anger and shame (and perhaps pay for that at the end).

Marcus Ganci-Rotella, Matt D. Lord, Ken Cosentino and Liz Houlihan
at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival; pic by Michael O'Hear
On a positive note, the interspersing at the end of the horrors of the night and footage shot before when they were a relatively merry group is a nice touch, as is the photo memorial near the credits. It should be noted that this film did get some strong and positive reviews, and was selected at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival, so don’t only go by me, please.

There are four extras here, including the trailer to this and two other found footage films. The 22-minute Making of Featurette is honestly not very interesting, showing the group filming mostly a particular scene, but it’s a bit too loose, in a found footage kinda way. There’s very little structure to tell you what is happening. That being said, there are some good moments here and there, lasting about 5 minutes overall interspersed throughout. The Making of the Monster is 1 hour/25 minutes! It’s essentially a step-by-step tutorial by Ken Costentino, who is an also an actor in the film, co-writer, and Director of Photography. Honestly, it was somewhat interesting, but I just didn’t have the time to sit through that much. If you are interested in a career in practical SFX, you may want to pay more attention than I did.

The last is the commentary, with Costentino, and two other actors, Marcus Ganci-Rotella (the picked-on guy), and Elizabeth Houlihan (the other co-writer), which is decent. They tell anecdotes while not stepping all over each other. There is nothing deep discussed, such as motivation or meanings, but they do give the impression that they mostly had good experience making the film.

Seriously, if you’re going to be making a found footage film by this late point in the trajectory, where it has become so commonplace, please try and do something more original. If you are going to do a home movies style beginning, there should be some interesting things happen rather than a bunch of tools tooling around in front of the camera. Let us know about some motivations, some history, something to latch onto to care about. This is especially true if it’s going to be a “never seen again” story where you know everyone is going to die. I really don’t mind if they do, but you’re projecting a final scenario that comes as no surprise, it cuts down on the suspense element.

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