The Wolf House

The Wolf House (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those starved for new images should make it a priority to watch Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña’s “La casa lobo,” a stop-motion animated horror film so bizarre that it is impossible not to stop, stare, and admire the visual acrobatics displayed on screen.

Without the proper context, a viewer might summarize the story this way: Fearing punishment, a girl named Maria (Amalia Kassai) runs away from her village and finds refuge in a house in the middle of the woods; she spends some time there and eventually decides to return home. But this unique film is inspired by an actual case of Colonia Dignidad (“Dignity Colony,” later renamed Villa Baviera), a cult founded by a German pedophile who emigrated to Chile. Residents were tortured and killed, males and females were segregated, children were sexually abused and drugged, and communication from the outside world was prohibited. Nazis and other war criminals were welcomed there.

The picture commands a specific perspective in that it is meant to be a tool for indoctrination. This can be supported by the opening and closing minutes. In the former, which is told using “live action” images, we get a sneak peek of the village. People appear to live simple lives; their lifestyle seems to be peaceful and inviting. The narrator emphasizes the community’s relationship with the earth, the animals, nature. But notice: Although we see people walking about, there are no close-ups of faces. Images are shot from a distance—far enough to hide or blur certain elements that may prove revealing. An illusion of tranquility is created.

In the latter, stop-motion animation on full throttle, the movie just… ends—unsettling in a different way because the happy ending comes out of nowhere. It feels wrong. This is purposeful; we are meant to be shocked, to question, to wonder what really happened. We cannot help but to feel lied to. Think of a fairy tale like “The Little Riding Hood” where the wolf eats the grandmother whole and suddenly a title card appears with the message, “And Little Red Riding Hood decides to turn back and head home.” Clearly, the screenwriters León, Cociña, and Alejandra Moffat put a lot of thought into what they wish for the viewers to feel and consider.

They also put a lot of thought, patience, and energy into the incredible animation. We are so used to stop-motion animation that comes across clean, sanitized, expensive. An animation studio like Laika, for instance, does an excellent job hiding strings and wires, making sure that camera movements feel smooth and natural, that themes and messages to be conveyed are fully ironed out. Naturally, the vibe behind the animation must appeal to children.

“The Wolf House” throws such expectations out the window and spits upon them. The story takes place mostly inside a house and so the filmmakers are forced to be creative. I loved it when characters are presented as paintings on walls. When they move—keeping in mind the stop-motion approach—we see the tracks and gradations of their movement; the more they move, the more we see painting spatters on the floor—elements that would be eliminated or hidden in a work designed to appeal to the mainstream. Another: when creepy 3D models are required to make either sudden or slow, carefully controlled movements, wires jutting from their bodies can be seen from the moon. Leaving out such “flaws” doesn’t matter because what counts is how convinced we are of the action once the wires are pulled.

The rawness of this film allows it to stand out among its contemporaries. At the same time, it made me appreciate the astonishing effort put into this type of animation regardless of whether the work is meant to appeal to millions or a select few. Sure, jump into it for its strange appeal. But it is likely that you’ll find yourself sticking with it for the small but wonderful details, both in terms of story subtext and execution on how best to engage us visually.

2D or 3D, observe how the characters’ eyes are always expressive. When you feel lost, and more than a handful will because the screenplay is uninterested in stating the obvious, look into the eyes. They are the anchor.

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