Jeff Wadlow’s feature film debut is a straightforward campus thriller that has pranksters getting a jolt when their invented killer becomes very real, but around the midpoint the director and co-writer Beau Bauman flip the film into a mystery mode, and have us guessing not who’s the killer, but whether gruesome traumas inflicted upon the teens are real or imaginary.
Subtle hints of master manipulation, loyalty tests and complicity are dropped throughout the film, and the big reveal kind of works, but like most puzzle thrillers, one has to believe the killer knew or was able to shape the direction of the Big Plan far in advance, or at least be creatively nimble and have alternate stressors that would still guide the victims into doing exactly what was needed in the final scene. That, and be able to pull off a great poker face of incredible innocence.
Styistically, Wadlow’s film kind of recalls the refreshing qualities of Iain Softley’s early work – certainly the compelling Backbeat (1994), and even the vapid Hackers (1995) – because there’s great use of the ‘scope ratio as well as montage and scene transitions; one could argue Wadlow and editor Seth Gordon are manipulating us into believing we’re watching a disposable slasher before the plotting becomes far more intricate. Flash edits and the characters’ imagined perceptions of the masked killer recur just enough to supplant this sense complacency among audiences, and the use of technology is interesting not for what it shows, but for what isn’t bothered with in extreme close-ups and technobabble.
Besides brief close-ups of MS Messenger applets, there’s very little effort to show people typing or reading or interacting with their cellphones, PDAs and laptops – and that’s a good thing. When contemporary gear was an added character in the voyeuristic Halloween: Resurrection (2002), it bogged down the narrative, dated the film because of its physical chunkiness, and had the writers doing lazy things like anchoring a scene’s tension apex around watching someone read in big bold type “HE’S STILL IN THE HOUSE!” on their cellphone.
We already know rebellious transfer student Owen Matthews (Donkey Punch’s Julian Morris) is going to get a series of teasing follow-up messages from “Wolf,” and the filmmakers are smart enough to focus on their fear of that message, as well as the after-effects that don’t (for the most part) involve running to and from locations to save someone’s life.
Halloween: Resurrection was meant to be about voyeurism, but instead of reality TV producers being the master manipulators who provoke their show’s participants into contrived moments of jeopardy to entertain a teen audience, in Cry_Wolf Wadlow is essentially ‘the Wolf’ who manipulates the viewer into accepting several things before the real truth is revealed.
It’s a bit of The Usual Suspects at play, too, but where the film starts to falter is after the big Halloween dance – usually the Big Scene in a horror film, but here dispensed with in favour of an extended denouement where the masked killer stalks Owen and his fellow pranksters. The reason that set of sequences don’t wholly satisfy is because rather than expand on or further character relationships, they have everyone running around and finding another body, which is one of the reasons the Urban Legends trilogy sort of fumbled.
One also has to presume neither building security nor the Headmistress (Rachel Getting Married’s Anna Deavere Smith) are around much, nor keep tabs on school troublemakers.
What sells the film is the fuzzy romancing and teasing between Owner and Dodger (silky Lindy Booth, from the Dawn of the Dead remake, and Wrong Turn) because it’s clear the latter isn’t a standard heroine about to be stalked and slashed.
Cry_Wolf also benefits from a soothing visual palette, and Michael Wandmacher’s pulsing score that foregoes the usual fear tracks and focuses on the characters; it’s an electronic score with wit, charm, diversity, and a great main theme that nails the humility of being played for a fool.
Wadlow’s film doesn’t break new ground, but it’s far more clever and sophisticated than the monthly direct-to-DVD fodder fans have to sort through.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan