by Jason Pyles
Movie Podcast Weekly.com
Premise: Four friends get stranded in an abandoned, gold-mining town, where they are preyed upon by a pack of wolves.
Review: Nothing is scarier than being eaten alive. I’d rather be buried alive than eaten alive. That’s why this unthinkable predicament makes such an effective backdrop for the characters in “Wolf Town.” When watching a film like this, it’s impossible not to wonder to yourself, ‘What would I do if I were in this situation?’
I’ve said it many times before on my podcasts, but a golden premise to me is something I refer to as the situational thriller or situational horror film, which is when a movie’s characters find themselves in precarious circumstances that aren’t immediately life-threatening, but the longer they remain in the situation, the more deadly and hopeless their predicament becomes. Some of my favorite examples include another wolf movie, “Frozen” (2010), as well as “Open Water” (2003) and “Open Water 2: Adrift” (2006), “Buried” (2010), “Touching the Void” (2003), and “Gerry” (2002), just to name a few.
Perhaps it’s merely coincidental, but I suspect the reason there were so many situational premises during the Aughts decade may have something to do with the way our national psyche was affected by watching rescue workers try to dig survivors out of the rubble when the two towers fell. Who among us didn’t wonder what it would be like to be trapped beneath those ruins? Obviously, a film that was a direct result of this was “World Trade Center” (2006).
Of course this sort of premise provides a screenplay convention known as the countdown, which is employed to generate suspense, except in this case, the ticking clock is invisible (always a more tasteful choice than the descending red numbers). Ultimately, I believe the reason “Wolf Town” still fails, despite its golden, situational horror premise, is because the filmmakers did not exploit this simple method for generating suspense. For example, instead of using the dialogue to reinforce and remind us of all the reasons our characters are running out of time, screenwriters Paul Hart-Wilden and Asabi Lee opt to have their characters repeat the very same sentiments, ad nauseam, reciting something like, “We gotta get out of here!” and “They’re just dogs!” over and over again. Seriously, if they say those lines once, they say them nine times each, which is eight times too many.
Aside from its premise, the most interesting aspect of “Wolf Town” is its blended or split protagonist, meaning, the protagonist’s role is shared by two characters, instead of one. (This is an unusual phenomenon that is rarely seen and is usually avoided because it’s inherently problematic. The last example of this that I can remember can be found in the “Back to the Future” trilogy.) In “Wolf Town,” the lead is Kyle (Levi Fiehler). His character begins the film as a poor man’s Shia LaBeouf, with that fast-talking mix of arrogance and charisma. But soon we discover that Kyle suffers from paralyzing fear, as when we witness him ball up on the ground in fetal position at the site of a wolf, uncommon behavior for a typical leading man. However, this gives our main character his fatal flaw, a weakness that he needs to overcome by the end of his story arc.
Instead, the bravery we’re expecting is manifested through Rob (Josh Kelly), the boyfriend who’s dating Jess (Alicia Ziegler), the adorable gal whom Kyle hopes to bewitch. “Wolf Town” surprises us a little because we’re prepared to hate Rob and pull for Kyle, but actually, Rob turns out to be a funny dude, who’s also heroic; meanwhile, Kyle is a giant baby. Though this dynamic is initially intriguing, these characters’ arcs later unravel and resolve in an unlikely way. It seems apparent that the screenwriters couldn’t decide which one should be the protagonist.
There’s another odd choice in “Wolf Town.” It’s not surprising to be given subjective point-of-view shots from the wolves’ perspective, because this is a common convention of most modern monster movies (and in this movie, the wolves are the “monsters,” of course). But at one point, we’re given a subjective point-of-view shot from a dead body’s perspective, as the wolves drag it away. If the victim were alive, then this shot would make sense. But knowing that the character is dead, it’s tougher for us to identify with this perspective. After all, who ever identifies with a dead body in a movie?
Real wolves are used in the film, but the scenes of them snarling viciously are evidently stock footage that looks like some B-roll from a grainy nature documentary. While the setting of the wolves and our characters may be similar enough, the quality of the film is obviously different, so the film appears to be cut together from two sources, as indeed it was.
And it’s always bad news when a film elicits unintended laughter. There’s a screenwriter’s oversight where one character holds another character back in relative safety, as a third character is eaten alive. I can’t reveal it here, but because of the dynamic among these three characters, this is pretty humorous. Another funny part of this film is the ending credits, where it lists the casting of “The Wolves” as (Themselves). Brilliant.
As for genre, I’d bet that “Wolf Town” was intended to be a horror film, but the lack of gore and actual horror elements are mild enough that I’m classifying this film as a Thriller first, Horror film second. “Wolf Town” is not going to be enough for the hardcore horror fan. I realize it must be terribly challenging to create a film whose scenes depict wolves eating people, but there’s another film of comparable quality and budget called “Prey” (2007). It features a pride of lions eating people, and while it crosses the lines of visual credibility at times, “Prey” makes a valiant effort to horrify us with scenes of man-eating gore. For movies with this premise to work effectively, we need to be shown the consequences and the carnage. For instance, even though the wolf attacks are few in “Frozen,” that film still provides grisly reminders of what’s at stake.
Summary: “Wolf Town” might work as a thriller for someone with very mild tastes, but I suspect for most modern viewers, “Wolf Town” won’t be enough to hold them in suspense. Admittedly, due to my love for this kind of film, I would have watched this movie regardless of its reviews. But for those who don’t have such unconditional love for man-eating creature features, I’d recommend checking out “The Grey” (2011) and “The Breed” (2006), instead, though the latter has wild dogs rather than full-blown wolves.
Verdict: 4 out of 10 ( Avoid )
Directed by John Rebel.
Starring Levi Fiehler, Alicia Ziegler, Josh Kelly.
Genre: Thriller / Horror
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some bloody images)
Runtime: 90 minutes.