"When does a lie become the truth?" That's the central premise of Cry_Wolf, the latest hip, self-referential American teen slasher, a sub-category of the horror genre that I believed - mistakenly, it would seem - had finally died out completely. The story of the boy who cried wolf is virtually as old as time itself, and as such is a solid foundation upon which to build a movie, but unfortunately Cry_Wolf rarely manages to exploit it in any meaningful way. The end result is yet another "Friday the 13th meets Dawson's Creek" melange, a combination that long ago exhausted whatever limited potential it ever had.
Owen Matthews (Julian Morris) arrives at a prestigious Virginia boarding school after having been kicked out several other establishments for a variety of offences. Very quickly, he falls in with the foxy Dodger (Lindy Booth) and her gang of practical jokers, whose confidence he wins by suggesting a brilliant ruse: that they capitalise on the recent murder of a student in the nearby woods by spreading the bogus claim that the murderer is in fact a serial killer planning another spree similar to the one he allegedly committed at another school. The gang circulate an email describing the killer's disguise (an orange ski mask), his many victims and the nature of their deaths, but quickly find that they have bitten off more than they can chew as someone decides to teach the tricksters a lesson by donning an orange ski mask and killing them off in the same manner as the deaths they fabricated...
On paper, the synopsis sounds pretty impressive, and a talented writer and director could have run with it to create a tight thriller while at the same time exposing the dangers of mass hysteria and rumour-mongering. Unfortunately, director Jeff Wadlow and his co-writer Beau Bauman are more than happy to fall back on the standard trappings of slasherdom, evoking all sorts of supposedly "post-modern" observations that were already old hat when the first generation of Scream clones were doing them and now sound positively archaic. "Serial killers are always men", "I love the phallic imagery" and "It's Halloween - it's so obvious it's perfect" are just a few of the many indicators that the writers are trying to be more clever than they actually are. (In fact, "Dude, you know how gay you sound?" is about as far as their ear for dialogue stretches.) And, like so many recent horror movies, Cry_Wolf tries to outsmart the audience by delivering a train of twists in the run-up to the final climax, most of which reek of half-hearted attempts to throw the viewers off track in any way possible. One, in particular, is an irritatingly easy way of tying things up neatly while absolving the hero of any guilt (you'll know it when you see it) and simply shows that the writers don't have the skill to deal with shades of grey.
This might have been forgivable if, like Scream, the film had actually delivered in terms of nailbiting stalk sequences and violent murders, but unfortunately virtually every potential to get the audience's blood pumping is squandered. Beyond the initial pre-credits murder of the first victim, there are no deaths until more than half-way through the movie, and the few tense sequences that exist are generally ruined because the "gotcha" scares are so blatantly telegraphed. There is one nice scene in which Owen is pursued by the killer and finds himself in the middle of a Halloween fancy dress party surrounded by guests wearing the same disguise as the assassin, but it passes by in less than a minute and is quickly forgotten. Instead, Wadlow seems more concerned with working out where his next licensed pop tune or montage of the school campus will go than with actually setting the audience on edge.
Barring the film's cinematography, which is at times quite beautiful and filled with all sorts of warm colours, making a change from all the desaturated, blue-tinted thrillers that have been turning up lately, the film's greatest strength is its female lead. Canadian actress Lindy Booth, fresh from roles in Wrong Turn and the Dawn of the Dead remake, devours the role of red-headed seductress Dodger with great relish. She has what no-one else in the cast has - screen presence - and also happens to be playing the only remotely interesting character in the entire script. The same, unfortunately, can't be said for British newcomer Julian Morris, who plays every scene as if he were reading his lines from an autocue and doesn't stand a chance of competing with Booth in their scenes together. I'm sure we're supposed to invest in him and the other kids, but they are so underwritten and their performances so half-hearted that it's difficult to care one way or the other when the bodies start piling up. One of the few bright spots in the supporting cast is Jon Bon Jovi, in the role of journalism teacher Rich Walker. (Yes, Jon Bon Jovi. Playing a teacher.)
Even at a rather brisk 87 minutes, Cry_Wolf feels too long. There is plenty of material to work with, but by ignoring the innate strengths of the central premise in favour of generic slasher conventions, Wadlow stretches his audience's attention to breaking point and never delivers on the promise of the setup. In the end, while far from a badly-made film, it is simply unremarkable, save for the alluring screen presence of Lindy Booth, who I seriously hope will go on to bigger and better things. Beyond her performance, and the at times eye-catching photography, there's virtually nothing to recommend here that hasn't been done better in countless other similar films.
Cry_Wolf arrives on DVD in the UK, courtesy of Optimum, in an uncut form which upgrades its theatrical certification from a 12 to a 15. Having not seen the cinema cut, I can't comment on exactly what has been added, but since the various glimpses of blood and guts, while brief, are relatively strong, I suspect that they constitute at least some of the additions.
In any event, Optimum, who continue to impress with their transfers (barring their standards converted Studio Ghibli releases), have given the film a fine presentation. The black levels are never quite as dark as they should be, but the colours are richly saturated and the overall look of the image is impressively film-like. Edge enhancement is not a problem, and the level of detail is very good overall, while the encoding throws up no unsightly compression artefacts. This is a very satisfying transfer and one that falls just shy of full marks.
The audio, meanwhile, is less impressive. The Dolby 5.1 mix is reasonably good, with a decent dynamic range, but, barring a few brief moments of rear action, it is surprisingly front-focused: the woodland chase scene which opens the film, for example, should have been the perfect opportunity for some surround effects, but it comes to nothing. Indeed, the generic teen pop songs that litter the soundtrack seem to be given priority over any of the sound effects. Otherwise, there are no major problems, beyond a slight lack of clarity in the dialogue at times.
An optional 2.0 mix is also provided for those with stereo speakers. Infuriatingly, there are no subtitles.
Optimum have served up a fairly decent package of extras, porting over all the features from the already available Region 1 release and adding the film's theatrical trailer.
The first feature on offer is an audio commentary featuring co-writer/director Jeff Wadlow, co-writer/producer Beau Bauman and editor/associate producer Seth Gordon. It's a pretty decent track, and the trio have an obvious (if unwarranted) enthusiasm for their film. The same crew also turn up to provide optional commentary on three deleted/extended scenes, which, if included in the final cut, would have padded out the film a little more but would probably have made little difference in the grand scheme of things. An alternate scene is also included, which consists of a slightly different variation on the "wolf" game that serves as Owen's initiation into Dodger's gang. Again, this scene features optional commentary.
In casting the roles, instead of being treated to a featurette we get a chance to see the audition tapes for most of the main cast members, and once again Wadlow, Bauman and Gordon provide optional commentary. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time I've ever heard an audio commentary for audition footage, and it actually works pretty well. A behind the scenes piece entitled "Enter the Sinister Set" (ugh) follows, in which Julian Morris takes us on a 13-minute tour of the production, highlighting some pieces of trivia (for instance, that no specific actor was hired to play the killer, with various members of the cast mucking in and donning the ski mask on different occasions).
Two short films directed by Wadlow before he made Cry_Wolf have also been included. The first, Tower of Babble runs for 22 minutes and actually manages to pack a pretty decent story into is relatively short running time, as well as being quite well shot. Even shorter, at 6 minutes, Manual Labor is less ambitious but proves to be quite amusing in a blackly comic way.
Bonus trailers for Dead Man's Shoes, Wolf Creek and Switchblade Romance complete the package.
Despite the film's shortcomings, Optimum have provided a decent DVD for Cry_Wolf. I suppose you might say there's no justice in the world...