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Wolf House, The
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Intriguing, but something of a drag."
4 stars

It helps to bring some basic knowledge of Chile’s Colonia Dignidad into the strenuously experimental animated feature 'The Wolf House,' though that’s not really necessary to decipher what’s going on — to the extent that you can decipher it.

The history of the Nazi-founded Chilean colony functions more or less as backdrop, or in visual hints here and there, such as some lines on a wall that momentarily become a swastika before resolving into a window frame. The Wolf House appears to unfold in one unbroken take, whatever that means here, because of course there were thousands of takes — the movie is primarily stop-motion animation, with various other media paying visits. Its herky-jerky, unstable style seems to represent what life in a repressive, abusive colony might feel like. The very celluloid is breaking down, decaying, burning itself. The technique is truly apocalyptic, while the narration is hushed, mesmeric.

Directed by Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León, making their feature debut after several shorts, The Wolf House observes Maria, who has escaped from the colony and has sought refuge in a remote house in the woods. There she finds two pigs, who become two children known as Pedro and Ana. The three humans/humanoids melt, come apart, reassemble, while the house — really just one room — keeps changing around them. The movie’s conceit is that it’s a propaganda film made by the colony’s leader to prevent further escapes. Therefore we’re getting moral instruction from an immoral system. Film being what it is, though, we are drawn into the happenings, even if we can’t always read them. We forget we’re seeing propaganda and just respond to the vibe of dread and revolt. The wolf waits always outside. We’re trapped in the changing house along with the changing people. Only we stay the same.

The style will not be for everyone. The twisted, spackled physiques recall something out of a painting by David Lynch, who has said he strives to create art that people want to bite. There’s a bit of Lynch’s 1966 sculpture/animation loop Six Men Getting Sick in there, too. And the flickering, dreamlike horrors of the inconstant flesh reminded me of the aggressively grotesque Sloaches Fun House segment Animalistic Times (1995). There’s probably a bunch of stuff in there — Francis Bacon, etc. Of course, some of the style is simply what happens when you do stop-motion but leave in all the telltale stuff animators usually painstakingly avoid. It’s intentionally rough-hewn, like the accidental folk art it purports to be. I imagine some viewers, though, won’t need context or prior history in order to get lost in the whirl and seethe of this chaotic universe, where things living and unliving perpetually destroy and remake themselves.

Others may feel the tug of time passing; even at just 73 minutes, The Wolf House feels a bit overextended and, at some points, exhausting. If you don’t have to take in the whole thing in one gulp, it will likely play better parceled out across a couple days. It could also be the old trap of strongly pictorial short-film directors not adjusting the pace for feature length. There’s only so much visual dazzlement I can manage in one sitting before my eyes glaze over and I become numb to the fireworks. (Subsequent viewings help, because you know what to expect.) Something like The Wolf House earns high marks just on the strength of its restless images — sometimes the movie seems dissatisfied with itself, always in motion, always shape-shifting. But a little of that can go an awfully long way.

Some of it gives the impression of being something ungovernably weird that you catch out of the corner of your eye on late-night TV — Adult Swim more or less hung its shingle on that aesthetic. In this case, though, it’s not stoner-weird but the fractured, nonsensical perceptions of a prisoner — more Painted Bird than Harvey Birdman. It leaves us unsettled, as though we’d looked into a random passerby’s darker emotions and seen something we weren’t supposed to see.

I can’t really fault 'The Wolf House' for giving us exactly the insecure, not-always-pleasant experience it means to give us. It took five years to make, and has been kicking around film festivals since 2018, so … it was begun when life was far less dark, was released when things were darker, and now comes to American home video in the darkest moment many of us have lived through. And maybe some viewers might eschew a film that so effectively reflects our inner world today, and others may find catharsis in it. Whatever it is, it’s not remotely easy.

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originally posted: 10/06/20 16:41:48
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USA
  20-Mar-2020 (NR)
  DVD: 13-Oct-2020

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