Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lying and Dying in ‘Cry_Wolf’ (2005)

A few years after SCREAM reinvigorated the slasher in 1996, competition shows were all the rage on American shores. Physical prowess and endurance were rewarded with large cash prizes and instant celebrity on shows like SURVIVOR, which bowed in May of 2000, and THE AMAZING RACE, which debuted a year later. Likewise, talent was rewarded with cash and – more importantly – opportunity. Talent manager Simon Fuller – onetime manager of The Spice Girls – saw an opportunity to create records and ratings and created a little show called POP IDOL in the UK in 2001 and its U.S. counterpart AMERICAN IDOL a year later in which the winner (and runner-up in most cases) received a lucrative recording contract and an unprecedented launching pad. Aspiring filmmakers found similar opportunity on PROJECT GREENLIGHT, which was created by Alex Keledjian and had the marquee-caliber names of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon producing. The winning filmmaker of PROJECT GREENLIGHT, which also bowed in 2001, was given the chance to direct a feature film.

This seemingly random history lesson in reality competition shows adds an important footnote in framing the inception of CRY_WOLF, which has its roots – financially, at least – in this early period of competition craze. Aspiring filmmaker Jeff Wadlow, a Dartmouth and USC grad and nephew of Katie Couric – won the 2002 Chrysler Million Dollar Film Competition, an Internet contest co-sponsored by Chrysler and Universal in which he and his producing and writing partner, Beau Bauman, were given a mini DV and a laptop and ten days to shoot and edit a brand new short film featuring a Chrysler car. Based on their success in making it through to the top five, the next round of the competition included a two-month filmmakers boot camp-style residency during which they shot a five-minute presentation piece called LIVING THE LIE, a modern-day retelling of Aesop's fable about the boy who cried wolf, starring Topher Grace and Estella Warren. That short was pitched to a panel of industry professionals at the Toronto Film Festival and snared them a feature production deal with Universal and a million dollar budget.

The resulting CRY_WOLF, released in September of 2005, essentially serves as Wadlow’s calling card to genre fans, with an impressive box office return on his modest budget of $10 million domestically and another $5.5 million internationally.

The story – co-penned with Bauman – centers around Owen, a British transfer student to the autumnally resplendent campus of Westlake Preparatory Academy. Owen quickly falls in with a group of privileged mischief-makers who meet at night in the boarding school’s chapel to play a strange variation of the Russian party game Mafia in which a designated shepherd secretly chooses a wolf in the group while the rest are deemed sheep. As the players try to guess the identity of that round’s wolf, each sheep has to make a convincing case / defend his or her honor while the designated wolf hones his or her casual deception skills to avoid detection. Essentially, the best liar wins. Collective boredom – so often the catalyst for subsequent slasher mayhem in movies like this – causes the group to raise the stakes, expanding the playing field to the entire school by creating an elaborate mythology about a fictional serial killer, tying it to the recent real-life murder of a local girl, and sending it out to the student body via an email that quickly goes viral.
Before you can log onto your AOL, instant messages heralding the imminent arrival of a killer matching the group’s description begin popping up on Owen’s computer and the rumor co-conspirators find themselves seemingly stalked like sheep for the slaughter. Red herrings abound as Owen and company try to figure out the masked Wolf’s identity – from a creepy caretaker who’s conspicuously loitering on the fringes of almost every crowd shot to Jon Bon Jovi’s (requisite rocker locks intact) smarmy chess-playing journalism instructor to an chunky fellow student ousted from the roguish clique during the last late-night round of their lying game.

Although Wadlow has a clear affinity for the slasher, with elements of genre classics like APRIL FOOL’S DAY and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME evident, CRY_WOLF is surprisingly timid for a slasher with the director favoring plot manipulation over archetypal formula trappings. While the film’s minimal gore and low body count might seem like a natural non-starter and the ambitiously labyrinthine plot twists and turns will ring decidedly more Agatha Christie than John Carpenter, this rather inventive giallo-style psychological murder-mystery-horror-thriller (how’s that for sub-genre specificity?) gets points for attempting to bring some ingenuity to the genre’s tired clich├ęs.

Where CRY_WOLF might lose points in terms of comparison against slasher films of the golden era 80’s, it ably gains more than a few when viewed through the post-modern lens established with Wes Craven’s seminal SCREAM. But while Craven looked inward and laughed boisterously outward at his source material, Wadlow looks inward but subtly winks with an almost indiscernible twitch of his eye at the genre’s predecessors from which he drew inspiration. The self-reflectiveness of CRY_WOLF is simultaneously better integrated and sharper than SCREAM’s meta elements, in effect paying a greater deal of reverence to the slasher fan.

Take, for example, the ingenious way Wadlow fashions his villain and the murderous legend surrounding him – with his victims carefully constructing him themselves using a well-established predetermined slasher criteria that includes visual image (orange ski mask, camouflage jacket), a favored weapon (hunting knife), modus operandi (lots of stabbing, disembowelment, and tongue removal), and catchy moniker (The Wolf). In essence, Wadlow makes his teen slasher fodder here complicit in their fates in that they give actual life to their killer through their careful assembly of his traits and then unleashing him onto the world through their elaborate Internet rumor.
Even the politically correct exaggeration of the ethnic diversity of Wadlow’s liars club, while adhering to the slasher’s requisite roll call of stock characters – the do-gooder hero/heroine, the love interest, the jock, the airhead, the slut, the rebel, the token black guy – is a marvelous nod to the self-reference necessary in the post-modern slasher film. But the best in-joke that Wadlow sets up beautifully is in the false foreshadowing of the teens planning to leave their prep school campus for a weekend of unsupervised debauchery at somebody’s remote lake house — and then don’t – is a delightfully clever middle finger to formula and a giant wink to the hardcore fan base. Of note, as well, is Wadlow’s subversion of the pervasive Final Girl trope, tasking Owen with the duties of last boy standing.

From the underscore in the title of the film, which prefigures the electronic communication that’s central to its plot, Wadlow’s other notable achievement with CRY_WOLF is his simultaneous use and subversion of technology within the slasher blueprint. While on the surface it might seem like modern technology – cell phones, Internet access, instant messaging – might dilute the sense of isolation necessary to create tension, Wadlow subverts that idea and proves that it’s access which is truly scary and imperils the film’s victims. Tapping into audiences’ well-founded fears of anonymous online interaction being a conduit for danger, technology here is more detriment than saving grace, with the teens essentially granting the killer access to their world through their high-tech gadgets and gizmos. Death by virtual invitation. Wadlow uses the same technology that would traditionally be used to expose the killer and again subverts its use to one granting the killer subterfuge by allowing him to lurk within the anonymity of the Internet, his computer screen as effectively cloaking his identity as his ski mask. Even the seemingly innocuous use of an iPod and a cheap pair of ear buds – here successors to the precedent blunders of forgotten keys, dropped flashlights, and inopportune underwear-clad excursions into rainstorms – prove to be dangerous miscalculations in Wadlow’s information-age slasher.

Although there’s no one amongst Wadlow’s group of apathetic teens who invent a knife-wielding psycho for giggles with whom to readily sympathize, at least the cast of CRY_WOLF is a few grades above average, with Julian Morris (whose genre credits now include SORORITY ROW, DONKEY PUNCH, and TV’s PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) taking up lead as final boy Owen; standout Lindy Booth (of WRONG TURN and 2004’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake); and Jared Padalecki (of HOUSE OF WAX, 2009’s FRIDAY THE 13TH reboot, and television’s long-running SUPERNATURAL) being the most distinguishable of the teens-in-peril. Cameo appearances by vets like Gary Cole (of the excellent THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN remake, TV’s THE GOOD WIFE, and myriad other credits including the mid-nineties series AMERICAN GOTHIC) and Anna Deavere Smith (NURSE JACKIE, THE WEST WING) and the aforementioned supporting turn by Bon Jovi (who’s dabbled respectably in acting over the years with a supporting role in the submarine drama U-571 opposite Matthew McConaughey and a ten-episode arc on TV’s ALLY MCBEAL among other credits) lend the needed adult gravitas.

Visually, the film hits all the right notes, with daytime scenes washed in fall-like oranges and reds lending to the academic atmosphere and nighttime interiors inside campus buildings rendered in the appropriate shadows and murk. Of particular note is an impressive scene set in a cavernous library equipped with energy-saving motion-detector lighting that’s used to excellent effect.

The main question that niggles at the film’s detractors seems to be whether genre eventually overwhelms ingenuity or vice versa. Arguably, for some, CRY_WOLF is a serviceable slasher flick disguised as a mystery-thriller; for others, it’s a mystery-thriller disguised as a slasher. Either way, most would agree that the film itself is (pardon the obvious pun) a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it’s left open to debate what clothes it’s wearing. 

Light on gore with a lower than expected body count, CRY_WOLF still deserves its passing grade based on the ambitiousness of its intricate storyline and its underappreciated degree of shrewd self-referentialism. While fundamentally a clone-like composite of every slasher that came before it – like many a good slasher are – CRY_WOLF gets an “A” for effort in trying to step out ahead of the pack.