The promotional materials for Wolf at the Door describe the film as “an ambiguous thriller.” Ambiguity can be great, but if you’re going to push the audience down a murky rabbit hole, you better give us compelling characters or some semblance of a story to follow. Otherwise, why should we meander along with you?
Writer-director Earl Wayne Crabtree II gives us Jerry, a dull corporate drone whose wife washes her depression down with wine every night and slaps him around once in a blue moon.
After one slap too many, Jerry wanders off in the wee hours of the morning and gets into a series of mishaps. Some are mundane, such as an incident in which he loses a bowling ball. Some are more mysterious, such as an encounter with an old-fashioned butler, which is clearly a nod to the bathroom attendant Jack Nicholson meets in The Shining.
Wolf at the Door is draped in familiar genre trappings, but it never fully embraces them. The premiere screening at Flix Brewhouse in Carmel featured posters and props presenting the film as the introduction of a new slasher icon. But what unfolded on screen was a hazy fever dream rather than a distinct vision in the vein of John Carpenter or Wes Craven’s work.
Crabtree clearly has a sense of style and a knack for creating an ominous atmosphere. But he wallows in that atmosphere rather than taking the audience on an emotional journey. The best horror films usually have a simple hook, such as an alien terrorizing a spaceship crew or a masked madman stalking babysitters on Halloween night. Those clear concepts grab the audience and then allow the film to branch out and explore broader issues. But Wolf at the Door starts in that broad territory and continues spiraling into a black hole of surreal elements.
As the film progresses, we never get a sense that Jerry’s night is really going anywhere. A threatening force seems to loom over him, but he basically just stumbles upon one strange person after another with no end in sight.
Along the way, we get to experience the pleasure of seeing warm, inviting Indiana locations transformed into sources of foreboding. Logan Street Sanctuary in Noblesville serves as a seedy nightclub and the bustling restaurant Copper Still is emptied out to seem like a chilly, haunted diner. The film effectively makes these friendly, familiar places feel otherworldly and unsettling. If only the Hoosier state served as the setting of a stronger story.
The film certainly has its fair share of flaws. But it’s ultimately encouraging to see movies being made in Indiana and audiences coming out in droves to see them. The premiere of Wolf at the Door was sold out, and the exuberance of the crowd was infectious and inspiring.
There is no ambiguity that Crabtree has talent. He just needs to apply his skills toward capturing our imaginations instead of leaving us bewildered. Let’s hope his next film isn’t an “ambiguous” genre entry but rather a work of Midwest movie magic with a vivid vision.
Wolf at the Door will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download tomorrow, just in time for Halloween. (Click here for more info.)