Domestic Decay: Our Review of ‘The Wolf House’

Domestic Decay: Our Review of ‘The Wolf House’

The magic of stop-motion has always been in seeing tangible objects and sets jerkily come alive right before your eyes. Through the laborious process of capturing hundreds of images of the slightest motions, inanimate dolls could take on vivid personalities and display relatable emotions. But as high-profile stop-motion animators have increasingly turned to CGI as an aid, some of that magic has been lost – the edges have been smoothed out, the imperfections glossed over and less of what we see exists outside of the digital realm. Revolutionary stop-motion houses like Aardman and Laika are now becoming almost indistinguishable from Pixar or Blue Sky or any other traditional 3D animated studio.

By contrast, the new Chilean stop-motion film The Wolf House (or La Casa Lobo) is an immediate wonder. The debut feature from Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León strips away any sense of digital seamlessness to take the form back to its messy roots. For their fantastical story of a young girl lost in a surreal cabin in the woods, the directors devoted five years of their lives building and shooting on painstakingly detailed and constantly evolving human size sets. While obviously bringing to mind the work of Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay, The Wolf House is its own beast, creating a hypnotic visual landscape that grabs hold of your eyeballs from the very first frames and doesn’t let go for a moment of its 75-minute run time.

The setup is simple – young Maria flees from her rural colony in Chile upon facing punishment for letting three pigs escape from their pen under her watch. Chased by a strangely disembodied “wolf” narrator, she comes upon a seemingly uninhabited small house in the woods, the perfect place to hide. Once inside, however, Maria falls down a rabbit hole of surreal domesticity, raising two pigs into human children who may or may not be literally sucking out her soul.

The Wolf House is a fairy tale reminiscent of the malevolent enchantment of Henry Selick’s Coraline, but in this case, it carries an even darker real-life backstory. There really was a German colony operating out of Brazil from the 1960s called Colonia Dignidad, which was notorious for its Nazi connections and its participation as a detention and torture camp during the Pinochet regime, not to mention the extreme cult level control it kept over its inhabitants. The colony was also a hotbed of child sexual abuse, led by a man who had fled his home country to escape judicial charges on accusations of child molestation, a fact that hovers like an unsettling fog over The Wolf House’s delicate atmosphere. Indeed, Cociña and León present their film as an actual historical production from the colony, through a clever framing device that uses seemingly authentic propaganda footage from the time of residents living together harmoniously and working happily in the fields. The narrator states off the top that he hopes the film can combat the perception that the world has of the colony, after the vicious “lies” that have been spread about their operations, but as Maria’s story gets more intense, the effect is more akin to a nightmarish child’s-eye POV of how an upbringing in the camp would have felt.

In accordance with this, the animation style is chiefly preoccupied with decay, as everything in the house, from the characters to the furniture and even to the walls themselves, are constantly melting away and transforming into new forms. Any time something beautiful emerges, it immediately dies and turns into a frightening papier-mâché abomination before being reborn again. These techniques are reminiscent of the early short film experiments of David Lynch but with a cranked-up freneticism. For all its unique aesthetic beauty, it’s a project equally at home as an endless loop at an art gallery exhibition.

I truly cannot stress enough how amazing this film looks. Its sense of wonder makes you feel like a kid again, in the most unnerving way possible.

The Wolf House is streaming now through KimStim’s Virtual Cinema.

This post was written by
After his childhood dream of playing for the Mighty Ducks fell through, Mark turned his focus to the glitz and glamour of the movies. He's covered the extensive Toronto film scene for online outlets and is a filmmaker himself, currently putting the final touches on a low-budget (okay, no-budget) short film to be released in the near future. You can also find him behind the counter as product manager of Toronto's venerable film institution, Bay Street Video.
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