Sleeper Celluloid: Real Reviews of Fake Movies

The Boy Who Cried About Wolves: A Review of The Girl Who Screamed Wolf

Director: Tim Sullivan; Cast: Ethan Landry, Billy Wirth, Gwendolyn X, and Joe Don Baker.

This is not a call for censorship. So, if you’ve found this review through some outlet arguing for tighter controls on content, from watch groups promoting what they call “decency,” or via some spokesperson decrying the moral decline contemporary cinema’s contributing to, then please understand that that’s not where my campaign dollars go. Loyal readers will of course know the opposite to be more the case, yes? Am I not the guy who said Rob Zombie’s remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Bloodfeast didn’t go far enough? Did I not claim Nudist Colony Massacre IV was the true inheritor of Ingmar Bergman’s body of work? Have I not circulated my Cannibal Holocaust remake petition enough for you to know my tastes?

Still. Come on, people.

Ever since lycanthropy went legit, as they say—or came out of the closet or started baying at the moon or clawing at the door or whining at the foot of the bed or pick-your-euphemism—the parade of werewolf transformation sequences we’ve been subjected to has been almost comical, wouldn’t you say? How many ways can human skin bubble and burst?

And, it’s not that I don’t understand. Used to be, even a sub-par transformation sequence would take a day to shoot and cost as much as a used Honda Accord. Now that you can hire somebody to do it on-camera for a couple of cheeseburgers and the promise of work next week, though, all our drama and sitcoms have jumped on the werewolf bandwagon. And the box office—please.

The Girl Who Screamed Wolf has got to be the twentieth movie with that title in the last two years. The only reason it even popped on my radar at all is Gwendolyn X, everybody’s favorite maven, one of the few working actors whose tats are real, who can work a Kickstarter if she needs to, and who brings her own MPAA rating in with her. Granted, she doesn’t always make the best decisions, script-wise, but I’m not going to begrudge somebody for working, for pulling a check.

As for who she’s playing opposite this time, well, if his name mattered, I’d put it in parentheses (here). He’s a werewolf, that’s all that matters. Tall dude, clear-blue eyes, can’t seem to keep a shirt on his chest. Before werewolves became a protected species, so to speak, he probably couldn’t find work at the carwash. Now his dressing room, it’s the same size as the scream queen from Diva Slumberparty Blues.

And, this The Girl Who Screamed Wolf—remember when that variation on title carried with it the parable? When flipping the “he” to “she” even suggested a bit of the Cassandra myth, maybe even revealed our own cultural biases?

The studio doesn’t either.

Put a “she” in the title in Hollywood, and the audience expects either eighty-eight minutes of damsel-in-distress or an escalating series of unlikely wet t-shirt contests.

The Girl Who Cried Wolf tries for both at once. Which can work, don’t get me wrong. A shelf for everything and everything on its shelf, as they say.

But there comes a time. There comes a limit. Even for this boy.

First, the title doesn’t come close to applying. The “girl” crying wolf in the trailer we all saw, it’s not even Gwendolyn X’s character Tanya Bateson. It’s the neighbor girl, over in the first ten minutes to borrow a box of Jello mix. Remember her standing at the door, calling back to Tanya that there’s something out there, miss?

Don’t feel bad. Five minutes after delivering her line, I’d forgotten her too.

Leaving Tanya Bateson. And The Girl Who Cried Wolf’s, ahem, “story.”

Don’t let me pull the rug out from under you here, but it’s your typical low-budget home invasion kind of affair: Tanya Bateson is cat-sitting at a friend’s house, and, because her friend told her it would look good on her, she uses her friend’s hair dye, becoming platinum blond in the first sequence. This turns out to be a bad idea, as now she looks just like her friend, whose dangerous ex-boyfriend just got out of prison and’s supposed to be lurking around, thus the friend’s hasty exit.

You can see where this is going, yes? A handsome stranger at the door, Tanya Bateson unaccountably wearing a red-hooded cloak of all things, things escalating in the usual direction for a Gwendolyn X outing: steaming it up in the shower, the music dialed loud enough she can’t quite hear the claws on the window, various contrived reflections of her trademark silhouette.

Wash, rinse, repeat for eighty-eight minutes, yes.

What’s wrong with this picture, though, what I want to call your attention to, it’s that, whereas the spectacle is supposed to be Gwendolyn X and her questionable clothing decisions—you know what you’re getting with her—what actually gets all the camera time, it’s the transformations.

Let me lay them out for you:

  • there’s one beside the breakfast nook on the side of the house, in the big window behind Tanya Bateson eating French toast with syrup (imagine lots of crosscutting, here)
  • there’s one on the roof, by the chimney, with—get this—the full moon-as-backdrop
  • there’s a partial one in the shed in the backyard, with the kids camping out in the backyard next door listening, of course telling campfire stories
  • there’s one right by the mailbox, behind the completely unwitting late-night pizza delivery boy, who, as it turns out, was delivering himself
  • there’s either another one in the backyard or this is edited-out footage of the first backyard transformation. Either way, there’s a cat and an owl watching (you can already see their eyes, can’t you? never blinking?)
  • there’s one in the eventual bedroom the story gets to, with Tanya Bateson tied to a chair so she has to watch
  • and then there’s the final one, that either gets the animal-rights people up in arms or puts a lump of indignation in the ACLU’s throat: this tall dark stranger taking a butcher knife to the stomach and then having to transform to save himself

And, I’ll trust you to guess whether Tanya Bateson’s cat-owner friend is the stabber there, and whether she asked Tanya to house-sit as bait, so she could finally get even with her ex-boyfriend.

I’ll also leave it to others whether that stabbing is latex and a collapsing blade or what the studios are trying to call a “practical effect,” which is of course code for, “If we stabbed him, where’s the scar?”

No, what I want you to focus on for just a bit, if you can look away from all the on-line transformation videos, it’s the presence of seven “dramatically necessary” transformation sequences in the very limited space of one feature film. Now, taking into account that each sequence (hair, claws, fangs, all that blood, the creaking, the screaming, that thing with the eyes) goes for a healthy eight minutes, that leaves us… what? Thirty minutes for story? Wait, wait, no: got to subtract those pesky end credits. Twenty-five minutes for character development and plot, for nuance and particularity, for build-up and resolution, for emotional engagement—for, yes, those things we used to kindasorta get for our feature-film dollar.

I’m turning into one of those film reviewers, yes.

Remember when a solid werewolf film had one set-piece transformation sequence? Not necessarily because that’s all production could budget in, but because the transformation sequence, it needs to be a spike in the dramatic baseline, doesn’t it? It needs to be visual proof that this is real, that this is something we can no longer deny away. It needs to be a point past which the story can’t go back, can’t be the same as it was.

I’m talking An American Werewolf in London, yes. And, no, it doesn’t matter even one little bit that it’s turned out that particular transformation sequence was real, that they only faked like it was special effects. I’m talking about how it was used in the story. How that transformation was the aberration, the strange attractor if you will, around which the rest of the narrative now had to learn to spin.

In this latest The Girl Who Screamed Wolf, though, the transformation sequences, they aren’t aberrant at all. Rather, they’re the norm.

And, before you raise your hand, Pesky McGee, yes, there’s precedent, from the pre-lycanthropy days. 1941, The Wolf Man, when we were asked to thrill and gag at the spectacle of this “impossible” transformation, when we were asked to peek through our fingers at the transgression happening on-screen, at this unnatural mixing of man and animal, Doc Moreau.

Consider that less conditioning of the audience, though. Consider it more representative of our own nature.

In the same way we started fetishizing transformations as soon as special effects would allow them some semblance of the “real,” so had we, nearly fifty years before, smuggled the camera into the bedroom before even taking its price tag off.

I’m talking our own pornographic tendencies, people. And not the “uncovering the hidden”-impulse we all probably understand at some level, and possibly champion in certain environments, but the basic narrative structure.

Let me define for moment: pornography is a story where the “boring parts” are the flimsy excuses that deliver us to the next set-piece, that next—yes—money shot. A visual of that narrative form is the snake who just ate the Seven Dwarves: lump, flat part; lump, flat part; lump, flat part. And we usually fast-forward across those flat parts, yes? Why? Because they don’t matter. Because they’re not what we’re there for. We want the lumps, the bulges, the protuberances.

But those narrative lumps, those dramatic spikes, those choreographed, in-the-contract set-piece money shots, they’re not always sex, people. We need to all understand that “pornography” is a format, not the content. There’s hunting pornography, there’s real-estate pornography, there’s cooking pornography: whatever gets us to that next delectable dish, well, it’s good enough, right? So long as we do definitely get that dish, and in the highest resolution possible.

This is how the transformation sequence is being used now, werewolf fans. The stories are no longer pitched as human dramas that escalate and deepen and get recharged when combined with lycanthropy. The stories are no longer dealing with the savage tendencies inherent to this human condition. Now werewolf stories, they’re pitched as: we can do one transformation in the kitchen, and one beside the house—the lighting’s good there—and one in the backyard, and one on the roof if we do it fast, and can we work my cat in somewhere?

And then when the movie clocks in at animated-feature length—oops—you split one of those transformation sequences in two, get up near that all-important hour-and-a-half mark.

It’s an insult to the fans. It’s an insult to me.

You know what I want to see? Not a return to pre-lycanthropy times—you can’t go back, and I don’t harbor shifters any ill will—but what I want is a werewolf movie that hearkens back to when transformation was too expensive, meaning off-camera was the default setting. We used to laugh at a character stepping behind a tree in desperation, and some sad-sack German Shepherd trotting out the other side as a scary “wolf,” didn’t we?

But, as cheesy as that was, what it left room for was story. For surprise and reversal, for sacrifice and painful decisions. Bubbling skin is great, don’t get me wrong. Skin where we have to imagine the bubbling, though, it turns out that wasn’t so bad either.

I could even stomach those four-foot “wolves” of yesterday, if I had to. I mean, now that it’s out in the open what werewolves really look like, what they can do, wouldn’t it be nice to check back in to the fantasy for a couple of hours? Which, maybe that’s really the issue, after all. We go to the movies not for the real, but for the fake that feels real. Granted, right now we’re locked in a cycle of addiction to the all-too-real, to transformation sequence after transformation sequence, like there’s any real variation from one to the next, but I have faith, people. Not in the filmmakers, but in you, the audience. Once we stop giving our dollars to all The Girl Who Screamed Wolfs out there, the studios and distributors will have to adapt, will have to—get this—transform before our very eyes, into some new and unguessed-at creature.

Maybe even into a real storytelling industry.

That’s a transformation I’d watch over and over.

Born and raised in Texas. In Boulder, Colorado now. Forty-one. Blackfeet. Into werewolves and slashers and zombies. Would wear pirate shirts a lot if I could find them. And probably carry some kind of sword. More over at http://demontheory.net or @SGJ72.