Halloween is fast approaching, and I make no secret about it being my favourite holiday. I did indeed go through the phase a lot of teens have where they watch nearly every horror movie they can get their hands on. I remember at one point in 2005 I’d watched nearly all of the classics – Friday the 13th, Halloween and the many sequels. So whenever I saw something new advertised, I’d do my best to either buy or rent it (yes this was back when physically renting DVDs from shops was still a thing). This one in particular I was really hyped for when I saw the trailer. When I finally watched it, I didn’t think much of it. However I did remember it over the years and decided to watch it back again – through Youtube video rental interestingly enough. So has my opinion changed?
Cry_Wolf is actually not, as its trailers would fool you into believing, a standard teen slasher film. It’s not necessarily a horror film at all, although it does borrow some of the familiar formulas from the slasher genre. The film is more of a mystery thriller. Owen Matthews is a transfer student to a prestigious private school. Right off the bat, he strikes up a friendship with the sexy and alluring Dodger Allen. Dodger’s ground of friends are quite the mischievous bunch, loving playing pranks on each other. Their boredom at their normal routine coincides with the news that a local girl has gone missing and was eventually found dead in the woods. They decide to come up with a new game to play: Owen sends out a chain email saying that this is uncannily like something that happened at his previous school. According to their story, a mysterious serial killer known as ‘The Wolf’ has murdered before – and this could be a hint that it’s happening again. As the teens enjoy their fun, someone starts sending threatening messages to them. Perhaps this Wolf isn’t as fictitious as they thought?
So I actually didn’t like this film when I first saw it. I saw it maybe once more a couple of years later, and still didn’t think that much of it. So I was pretty surprised at how good I found it on this most recent watch. There are a couple of negatives and I may as well address them now – as I warn you that this will be a pretty spoiler-iffic review. The film’s tone can be a bit jarring. A lot of the time it’s satirising a lot of the clichés in the slasher genre, but then sometimes it will get rather serious in places it doesn’t need to. The scene with the lying game for example is played extremely dramatically in a way I personally don’t think it needs to be. The scene is presented as so very serious and made out to be a really big deal – when it’s really just teens meeting up at night. The entire lying game scene is very out of place with the rest of the story’s tone – even with the acting from the rest of the teens. It’s just one of those odd things that stands out in an otherwise very polished film.
Another thing that stands out is something that surprised me – much like it did when I was reviewing Mean Girls. The generation of kids that were born in the 1990s and late 80s have already experienced the realisation of stuff from the 90s looking dated. And now we’re slowly discovering the same for the early 2000s as well. Within a few minutes, it’s surprising how immediately you can tell this is a mid-2000s piece. It’s mostly in the form of the technology used. While cutting edge and state of the art in 2005, it’s almost shocking to think how old fashioned it looks some ten years later. Namely The Wolf’s main method of operation is to send threatening messages to people through AOL instant messenger. The equivalent over here in Europe was MSN instant messenger, but it was still very much a mid-2000s thing. It came in between texting and social media, allowing for teens to interact with each other on a more personal level. Already this is a thing of the past, completely replaced by social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Owen starts the rumour by sending out a chain email too. It’s quite telling that there’s not a single mention of social media in the film – whereas if it were made today then Facebook would surely be their main tool to spread the rumours. Also the reason the film is set in a posh private school is probably because not everyone would have had access to that kind of technology at the time – as this was a period where not all teens had cell phones. There’s a rather unintentionally amusing scene where Mercedes sends Lewis a photo via camera phone and he has to wait ten seconds for it to download. And I can’t go another sentence without mentioning this likewise unintentionally amusing exchange from our two leads.
Dodger: Orange doesn’t exactly inspire fear…
Owen: Come on, it’s the new black.
So getting back to our leads, Dodger is played by Canadian actress Lindy Booth. I’ve mainly seen her in other horror films from my teen years – such as the Dawn of the Dead remake and Wrong Turn. I will say that she is most certainly a high point of this film. The Cry_Wolf TV Tropes page describes it as a ‘top drawer performance’ and I will agree with that. Booth brings a real spunk to this rather meaty role. There aren’t really a lot of opportunities for young actresses in horror movies. You either play the wholesome Final Girl who outwits the killer, or else the slutty party chick who gets butchered. But Booth gets to sink her teeth into a very complex and layered character here. Right from the start, you know there’s more to Dodger than meets the eye. Rather than being an interchangeable ‘guys I don’t think we should do this’ horror female, Dodger is a lot of fun. She keeps you guessing throughout the film, and part of that is down to Booth’s performance.
She’s clearly having a good time showing off Dodger’s scheming side, but she can also bring the vulnerable little girl in moments of truth. At least you think they’re moments of truth. Thanks to Booth’s performance, you spend the whole film not knowing whether to trust her or not. Or to be cliché, not knowing if she’s a sheep or a wolf. She reminds me very much of Thora Birch’s try as Liz in the British thriller The Hole. They’re both very deep and mysterious characters, and as I said earlier, there aren’t a lot of roles like that out there for young actresses. So it’s definitely refreshing to watch a horror film where the female lead is the most interesting of the lot.
Other good performances in the film come from a pre-Supernatural Jared Padalecki. He looks far too old to be a high school student but he brings some nice comic relief to the proceedings. This was one of many horror films starring him I watched during my teen years. You could say that he’s my generation’s Jamie Lee Curtis. But I digress. Another surprisingly good member of the cast is John Bon Jovi. I can actually remember seeing his name in the credits at age fourteen and going “isn’t he a singer?” Bon Jovi does not pass himself off as a high school student, but rather the teacher Rich Walker – and one of our possible suspects. He’s not as much fun in his role as Booth is, but he manages to keep you guessing too. The rest of our teens are much better than the standard slasher film cast. We have the benefit of a multi-racial cast who each have their own developed personalities. You actually feel as if you know the characters and they feel like actual characters – rather than just interchangeable murder victims. It’s a shame not many of them have gone on to become bigger names – since they all turn in very respectable performances.
Now we can talk about a horror film without mentioning the actual horror. Well again calling this a horror film is probably not the best wording to use. While it may have been advertised as a horror film, it’s more of a commentary on the genre. While not as satirical as Scream or The Cabin in the Woods, it definitely picks apart some notable clichés from slasher films. Notably in the year 2005, technology had progressed to an almost absurd level. This was the era of every home having a computer, and most kids knowing how to use the internet. Cell phones were likewise becoming a part of everyday life for adults, and a good portion of teens had them too. Between texting, email and instant messaging – the world was more connected than ever. So that put the kibosh on many classic tropes from the slasher genre. Your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere? Just call a tow truck rather than wandering around and stumbling across a serial killer. You’re attacked at home? Call the police or someone else on your phone, which is probably on your person. The director said that when they were writing the film, all these modern conveniences kept getting in the way of the traditional horror clichés. So along the way they decided to embrace them.
Rather than being a hindrance to a serial killer’s methods, modern technology can instead amplify the fear. The internet may connect us but it also allows the killer more access. Rather than just spying on you through a window, he can send threatening messages any time he wants. He can hide in a chatroom and conceal his or her identity easily. And it’s impossible to tell whether or not said threats are serious or just part of the same twisted prank. On a more superficial level, this does allow for some unique scenes. One of my favourite moments is where Mercedes sends Lewis a selfie – and he sees The Wolf approaching her from behind. There’s another good one where The Wolf supposedly attacks on Halloween, but the tension is upped because there are so many others dressed in the costume. As far as more conventional horror scenes go, the film does a good job with those too. Dodger and Owen are in the library and are convinced there’s someone in there with them – and the lights are motion sensors – so they wait in the dark to hide from whoever it is. Overall throughout the first two acts the film really builds suspense and tension in a way that not many modern horror films have been able to. It relies on creating a nice creepy atmosphere, helped by the right type of music and considerable restraint with the shaky cam.
I can’t really go much further in this review without giving away anything else. So be warned as there are SPOILERS from here on.
The tension the film builds up in the first two acts comes to a head in the third. We’re lead to believe that The Wolf is finally striking. Each murder seemingly happens as it did when they laid out the story. Owen is last on the list and goes to Mr Walker’s office…where he finds the very gun that killed the girl from the beginning. After a violent struggle, Owen shoots Walker. It turns out that the murders were yet another prank, though Owen is lucky to get off on a self-defence justification. But the film then reveals that Dodger was the real mastermind: the murdered girl was Walker’s girlfriend, killed by a jealous Dodger – who then cooked up the entire plan as a way to kill them both in revenge. It’s one of those twists that makes you look back over the rest of the film and try to wonder what happened when – and if the twist holds up if it was all part of the plan. There are admittedly plenty of little hints scattered throughout the film: Dodger talks rather callously about the murdered girl, using terms like ‘slut’ and ‘sleeping with the wrong guy’ – which we then find out is her trash talking the competition. The scene of her pretending to drown now comes across as a test to see if Owen would come gallantly to her rescue. And there’s also other little details – like mentioning Regina’s fondness for making fake blood, or saying that Lewis is an aspiring actor. Despite this foreshadowing, the plan seems a little too convenient. It seems as if it would have fallen apart had any number of unlikely things happened – other teachers staying late, Owen getting there too soon, Walker actually getting a chance to explain himself etc. But you actually do forget all of this momentarily when Booth switches from tears to a cold smirk and says “who would believe you?”
So Cry_Wolf didn’t seem to do too well with fans. There’s the criticism of the rather convoluted plot twist – despite the story trying to hint to it early on. There’s the overly dramatic scenes I mentioned above. But I think people didn’t like this film mainly because they got fooled by the advertising. It was marketed as a pretty straight slasher film, so that’s what people thought they were seeing – me included. What they got instead was a thriller that relied more on satirising a few slasher tropes. Slasher movies didn’t seem to be doing particularly well in the mid-2000s. The Columbine massacre and numerous other school shootings put the movie-going public off seeing teenagers getting killed for entertainment. And at that point the only slashers that did well were remakes of the more popular ones. The fact that this one was rated PG-13 likely didn’t help – thus putting off a few punters who’d be hoping to see some T&A on the big screen. In the film itself the PG-13 rating definitely adds to it – since the film creates suspense based on atmosphere rather than excessive violence. In spite of the gripes I had with some of it, I enjoyed this film a lot more than I did when I first watched it. Our actors are for the most part quite good, with Lindy Booth absolutely nailing things. There’s a good atmosphere and a great job done at building tension. So it’s definitely earned a 7/10 for the most part.