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Thursday, August 4, 2011

MEDIUM RAW: NIGHT OF THE WOLF -- DVD review by porfle

I'd rather a movie be a total failure than to show a lot of potential and then disappoint.  But for a low-budget feature made by fledgling filmmakers, MEDIUM RAW: NIGHT OF THE WOLF (2010) is just good enough to make its shortcomings all the more frustrating.

Writer-director Andrew Cymek's visual talents are apparent from the start, as he displays a keen cinematic eye that makes this movie a real morbid pleasure to look at.  Dark, moody, and oppressively atmospheric, the look of the film matches its foreboding premise of a mysterious killer known as "The Big Bad Wolf" who has already kidnapped fourteen young girls who were never seen again.  His calling card is the scrawled question: "Are you the woodcutter?"

Johnny (Cymek) watches his own sister snatched away and is still haunted by the sight when, years later, he's the detective in charge of the case when the Wolf belatedly reappears.  Cymek sort of resembles an "NYPD Blue"-era Ricky Schroeder and is good at conveying a deep melancholy in the role.  When he and his partner Elliot (John Rhys-Davies in little more than a cameo role) track down and capture the killer, it's spooky and harrowing enough to bode well for the rest of the movie.

Things keep looking up as we enter the insane asylum where the Wolf, otherwise known as Harold Grierson (Greg Dunham), will be stowed away under heavy guard along with a host of other intensely dangerous crazies including the cannibalistic Mabel (Sandi Ross), a human gorilla named Benny who hates the color red (the late Andrew Martin of pro-wrestling fame), and giggling toe-freak Oliver (Shawn Lawrence).  This place is like Hannibal Lecter's dungeon in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS only more so, with set design that might've been conceived by H.P. Lovecraft.  The fact that the whole thing was done on the cheap in the basement of a church is extremely impressive.

Johnny's estranged wife Jamie (Cymek's real-life spouse Brigitte Kingsley) is an idealistic psychiatrist who thinks she can get through to these nuts but is proven wrong when there's a power failure and all the cell doors spring open.  Johnny, who's there to kill Grierson to avenge his sister, finds himself having to protect all the trapped civilians from a bunch of escaped psychos, including a little girl named Sabrina (Kristina Morgan) and her grandmother. (Naturally, Sabrina wears a little red riding hood in case we miss the connection.)

With a set-up like this, you'd think that we're in for a grueling ordeal of terror, right?  Wrong.  The trouble is, the bad guys in this equation just aren't very scary, and Cymek too often goes for action and humor when what we really want is flat-out horror.  Benny's big breakout is more like an episode of "The Hulk" than anything else as he stomps around roaring and throwing people, while toe-obsessed Oliver is just plain funny.

A lengthy setpiece featuring a captive Jamie in the kitchen with Mabel, who's delightedly whipping up a mess of human vittles, is entertaining but played too much for laughs--some of Jamie's mortified "takes" are almost Zucker-level stuff.  Several other characters seem to be there solely for comic relief as well, and even Grierson is pretty ineffectual as a Lecter-like boogeyman.

After everybody's done running around in the dark eluding the bad guys for awhile, the action comes to an old-school cliffhanger climax with Jamie trapped in a cage that's slowly sinking into a vat of water while Johnny battles the Wolf.  It's right about this time that we begin to realize how hokey-looking that metal wolf suit really is, which doesn't help.  Still, the sequence does generate some suspense even though we've given up on "scary" for some time now.  A final reference to Little Red Riding Hood comes off pretty well, too.

What makes this film worth watching, more than anything else, are the visuals.  The photography is beautiful, with deep blacks highlighted by imaginative lighting effects in almost every shot and consistently interesting direction by Cymek.  I did find the chapter titles distracting and unnecessary (after the power goes off, we really don't need the words "Night of the Wolf" to tell us what's about to happen), and the abrupt switches between serious and comic give the film an inconsistent tone.

As Dr. Parker, the clearly unhinged director of the asylum, William B. Davis gives the best performance I've seen from him since he was puffing coffin nails on "The X-Files."  He really gets into the role and proves once and for all what a fine actor he is.  Standouts also include Sandi Ross as Mabel and Shawn Lawrence as Oliver, with pro wrestler Jason Reso (WWE's "Christian Cage") likable as Johnny's parter Pete and child actress Kristina Miller holding her own as Sabrina.  As Jamie, Brigitte Kingsley is okay until called upon to emote, but this matters little in light of the fact that she happens to be drop-dead gorgeous.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and Engish subtitles.  Extras include a thoughtful commentary by Andrew Cymek, deleted and extended scenes, an alternate ending, and a trailer.

MEDIUM RAW: NIGHT OF THE WOLF works best when it's dead serious, and the fever-dream visuals are allowed to wend their way into our imaginations.  The more pedestrian action that takes place within this setting didn't do that much for me, but what these low-budget filmmakers have managed to accomplish on an aesthetic level is a thrill unto itself.

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