After having screened at 20 different film festivals where it won a bunch of awards and received universal critical acclaim, The Wolf House is finally heading to US virtual theatrical release on May 15. This is not a traditional horror film: in fact, The Wolf House (originally titled La Casa Lobo) is a Chilean experimental animated horror-drama where, using stop-motion animation, directors Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña unfurl a never-ending series of transformations that play out as a single-sequence shot.
The Wolf House is not a movie you can just sit down and watch with no idea about the context, unless you’re only interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking. In fact, it’s important to know that this film is loosely based on the grim case of Colonia Dignidad, an isolated colony of Germans and Chileans established in post-World War II Chile by emigrant Germans and led German fugitive Paul Schäfer, which became infamous for the internment, torture, and murder of dissidents during the military regime of General Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. You can find out more about this crazy story here.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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The Wolf House – plot and style
Inspired by the aforementioned cult, The Wolf House masquerades as an animated fairy tale produced by the leader of the sect in order to indoctrinate its followers. Through pretended footage made by the cult leader, the story follows Maria, a young woman who finds refuge in a house in the south of Chile after escaping from the religious fanatics. She is welcomed into the new home by two pigs, the only inhabitants of the place: soon, however, the universe of the house reacts to Maria’s feelings, morphing as her emotions change. Later, the animals transform slowly into humans and the house becomes a nightmarish world.
While the story of The Wolf House is compelling and disturbing, what really defines this movie is its unique and marvellous style: shot frame by frame using digital photography, the film is a single-sequence shot that covers a period of time that can represent either years or just minutes, just like in a dream. Or, rather, a nightmare. On top of that, you have the animation techniques, which combine stop-motion animated puppets made of paper with 2D animated drawings that appear on the walls of the ever-changing house.
An audio-visual nightmare
Yet, these directorial choices not only make The Wolf House a viewing experience that you can’t find anywhere else, but it also becomes a mean to tell the story and explain the characters. In most stop-motion animated films, objects are physically manipulated in small increments between individually photographed frames so that they seem to show independent motion or change when the series of frames is played back. In The Wolf House, on the contrary, the cutout animation is enriched by the one-take “gimmick”: the animation not only includes the movement of the characters, but also how they appear, vanish, morph and switch from one state to another. In other words, everything in this picture is constantly changing and transforming in a constant destructing-creating process.
This represents what feelings and emotions Maria (the only visible character in the film) is experiencing on and off screen. Ad the directors stated, “The Wolf House is a feature film where beauty, fear, disorder and the narrative itself are born from the precarious and permanent states of change”. The style, the experimental presentation, perfectly tells the story of a physical and mental world that falls apart, destroying and renewing itself repeatedly. Without a proper soundtrack, but filled with the voices of the characters (Maria and the cult-leader narrator), ambient sounds, foley and vocal music, The Wolf House not only looks like a nightmare, but also feels like one.
A beautiful yet repellent watching experience
Due to its unique nature, it’s really hard to find element to criticise in The Wolf House. For experimental pictures like this one, there basically isn’t any point of reference, therefore it’s difficult to decide whether there are recognisable flaws or the elements one may not like purely dependent on personal preference. With that said, The Wolf House succeeds at building (quite literally) a world that’s both gorgeously-looking and disturbingly unsettling and off-putting.
In certain instances, however, the odd and eerie feelings might not be entirely intentional. Although the different kinds of animation and the overlapping musical choices make the experience completely unique, they also create inconsistencies in the tone, which can feel jarring from time to time. Again, this could be entirely connected with the nightmare-like logic of the film, but it does come off as distracting in a few instances. Yet, the single-sequence shot causes some fractures in the animation that, while unavoidable, reminded me of glitches in a video game. I guess this was just a trade the directors were willing to make: had the movie been shot in a more traditional way, these “glitches” wouldn’t be present. Finally, whether this is an issue with the film or not, I feel like you would need to know the context of this movie in order to appreciate it.
It might sound like I’m fully endorsing this film, but I honestly didn’t fall head over heels with The Wolf House. However, ignoring how much insane work and story boarding went into it would simply be foolish. Upon first viewing, this is a film I consider to be truly great and unique, despite not loving it personally.
However, it’s a movie that sticks with you, and I can’t help it but feeling like I need to watch it a couple more times. That said, if you are looking for more traditional types of horror (or animation), The Wolf House is probably not the movie for you. Otherwise, make sure to look for its virtual theatrical release in the Anthology Film Archives in New York, the Laemmle theatres in Los Angeles and other virtual cinemas starting on next Friday, May 15.
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