‘The Wolf House’: Film Review

If an Orwellian fable were to be visualized by a surrealist in the vein of Salvador Dali, the result would look and feel something like “The Wolf House,” a jaw-dropping marriage of various animation techniques, chiefly stop-motion. A dystopian tale with haunting echoes of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Red Riding Hood,” this shape-shifting, trippy nightmare from filmmakers Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña startles and terrifies in equal measure, while putting forth an uncompromising examination of fascism in a way that only animation can do. Audiences will frequently ask themselves, “How on earth did they pull that off?” as characters and objects emerge, evolve and transform in a relentless rhythm — the whole movie is shot to suggest a single continuous sequence — while feeling disturbed, even frightened to their bones for reasons they won’t always be able to pinpoint.

That’s because the breathtaking yet abstract artistry of “The Wolf House” feels so strikingly unique. Perhaps comparing it to a David Lynch film can come close to characterizing the experience. And one’s viewing of it might greatly benefit from some Wikipedia-level familiarity with the history of Colonia Dignidad (the Dignity Colony), a remote, Chile-based Nazi sect founded after the World War II, which loosely lends the film its basic narrative. While it was supposedly formed to represent a simple agricultural lifestyle, the cult was known for its torture practices and murders, especially during the Pinochet regime, as well as its longtime leader Paul Schäfer, a convicted pedophile and notorious criminal.

While they are not overtly explained, these roots are briefly teased in “The Wolf House,” which is inspired by a real-life case from the Colony and cleverly masked as a propaganda picture, narrated by a Schäfer surrogate. An opening short film kicks off the mazy story. Painting an idyllic portrait of a hardworking clique that lives off the land (think of it akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village”), this segment serves as a warning statement against the hazards of escaping the commune, like a beautiful but often daydreaming girl named Maria did after costing her tribe three fugitive pigs. And so we embark on Maria’s psychedelic misadventures when she flees the pressures of her clan and finds refuge in a remote home. With no living soul on her side other than two of the pigs whose escape she facilitated, the lonesome Maria soon realizes her sentient shelter responds to her fears, desires and thoughts, modifying itself accordingly every waking second. There also seems to be a wolf somewhere out there, spying on Maria in an utterly Big Brother-esque fashion.

If the above description of solitary confinement seems spine-tingling or too close to the bone during the days of the Covid-19 isolation, wait for what else León and Cociña have in store. In a permanent loop of hallucinatory action aided by eerie sounds and musical cues, the duo recurrently establishes their own aesthetic reality, only to abandon and redefine it seconds later with jaw-dropping inventiveness. As both handmade puppet-like figures and animated drawings, pigs materialize from the floorboards of Maria’s house, but turn into a pair of kids with animal limbs later.

Everyday objects, sculptures and symbolism-rich contours emerge on the walls and windows (there is even one swastika in view for a split second), or rise out of sinks and toilet bowls, to then splinter, melt or burn and reveal their insides. Even Maria herself is altered and cracked open a number of times, as her image sways between a tree and a chirpy yellow bird. It’s an endless metamorphosis that unfolds like some kind of real-time art installation, and in all honesty, it can be a touch overwhelming to take in at times — which is why the digital release of “The Wolf House” is a blessing in disguise, as audiences can rewind to fully appreciate this awe-inspiring film’s layers of details.

Though beware of what these repeat viewings might reveal in “The Wolf House,” like the shocking speed in which the film’s atmosphere shifts from sweetly cozy to soul-sucking and back; an astonishingly timely, quarantine-specific psyche familiar to most human beings across the globe these days. And even scarier is what the tale exposes about the setbacks and horrors of a totalitarian regime; something you’d wish felt considerably less relevant today.

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