Thomas Paine wrote that “[t]he sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.” The inverse of Paine’s formulation, of course, is that the ridiculous, having become sublime, can easily overshoot and wind up back in its previous state, which is as good a description as any of Cry_Wolf. Imagine a teen slasher movie that employs almost every imaginable genre trope while never becoming entirely predictable or nonsensical, is mostly competently filmed and acted, yet offers the delightful absurdities of seeing Jon Bon Jovi standing beside a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient (Anna Deavere Smith) and hearing Gary Cole attempt (and fail at) a clipped, upper-class English accent. The upshot is a film that’s enjoyably campy in a vein reminiscent of Wes Craven’s Cursed or — my personal favorite — the glorious travesty that is Showgirls, yet succeeds at fulfilling the expectations of its genre.
The plot centers on Owen Matthews (Julian Morris), an English teenager exiled by his indifferent father (Cole, hehe) to an American private school, and Dodger Allen — her mother is “a Dickens scholar,” she expains — the redheaded cutie Owen meets upon his arrival who quickly coaxes the smitten lad into her social circle and their mean-spirited amusements. Foremost among these is a game called “Wolf,” a sort of adolescent “Duck-Duck-Goose” in which the naughty teens sit in a circle with their eyes closed while Dodger (Lindy Booth) silently designates one of them the wolf. They then open their eyes and begin to accuse one another of being the wolf, inadvertently playing out their internal and interpersonal conflicts. The goal, Dodger explains, is to “avoid suspicion; manipulate your friends; eliminate your enemies.” Sweet girl.
Soon enough Dodger decides that she needs to up the ante, and she and Owen begin devising a game of “Wolf” for the entire school. Using the recent death of a townie girl as their starting point, they assemble a serial-killer legend that they email to all the students, making it look as though Owen is only passing along a message forwarded to him. Soon the campus is abuzz with rumor, speculation, and suspicion, with only Owen and Dodger’s journalism teacher, Rich Walker (Jon Bon Jovi!), smart(!) enough to figure out what they’re up to.
At the screening I attended, the entire audience snickered whenever JBJ appeared and continued to snicker for the rest of the scene. This may be because he’s about as gifted an actor as he is a songwriter, or it may be that, like me, every time they saw him they heard “Whoa-oah, we’re halfway they-uh,” in the back of their heads. Either way, he and Cole are the only real bums in the cast; everyone else is at least competent, and the two leads are sufficiently winsome to carry our interest.
The film takes an unusually leisurely pace in establishing them and the rest of their clique before the corpses start piling up; after the screening, a friend told me that a man behind us had grumbled “When are they gonna start killing people?” about a half-hour into the movie. There’s a long build-up, involving threatening instant messages over Owen’s laptop and grisly clues left lying around but, inevitably, someone does start killing people, taking out Dodger and Owen’s friends who helped concoct the serial-killer legend and menacing the leads at various spots on campus. But wait — are the kids really dead, or is it a hoax? And if they’re really dead, is it one of their own who’s doing the killing? or is it Mr. Walker, who has a dirty secret he must keep quiet? or the creepy caretaker who’s always in the periphery, raking leaves and glowering? The script throws out enough red herrings to fill a fish market. With every character established as a competent, even competitive, liar, how are we to parse out the truth from their deceptions?
Cry_Wolf is the product of a process that may be either heartening or dismaying, depending on how you feel about the integrity of independent film. Director/co-writer Jeff Wadlow got the opportunity to make the film through a contest sponsored by Chrysler, which promised the winner a $1 million dollar budget for the making of a feature film in exchange for prominent product placement. Wadlow beat out hundreds of other applicants for the prize, and it’s not hard to guess how. He’s a smart but unpretentious filmmaker with solidly commercial instincts. There’s not much that’s original about Cry_Wolf, but that’s partly the nature of the genre. The slasher movie formula is among the most routine in Hollywood: teens in peril — check, creepy older guy — check, isolated location — check, incredulous authority figures — check. There’s little room for variation from the standard tropes; drop too many of them and what you have isn’t a slasher movie anymore (though it may well be something superior). As Randy Meeks says in Scream, “It gets too complicated, you lose your target audience.”
In a genre film, what matter most are the details, and that’s where Wadlow excels. He shows a sure, confident hand in the ways he evokes autumn on campus or captures the antagonism between insecure, backbiting adolescents. Though his visuals are sometimes overdone (as in a montage of the instant-message conversations that involves cheesy double exposures), he keeps the gore and violence to a minimum while still maintaining suspense. Cry_Wolf isn’t a particularly frightening film, but there are a few good scares and enough tension to keep the viewer interested. And for once the plot, though routine, silly, and at times predictable, is at least consistent; when the killer is revealed at the end, it isn’t a cheat. Everything you learned earlier still fits together, in fact it does moreso than before. For a more demanding viewer, that may not be enough, but after the big-cheat endings of movies like Hide and Seek and High Tension, I’ll take what I can get.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()