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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

Cry_Wolf (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Jeff Wadlow
Cast: Julian Morris, Lindy Booth, Jared Padalecki, Sandra McCoy, Kristy Wu, Jesse Janzen, Paul James, Ethan Cohn, Jon Bon Jovi, Gary Cole, Anne Deavere Smith
2005 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and brief drug reference).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 17, 2005.

Early teaser trailers for "Cry_Wolf" were highly promising, painting a gritty, suggestively violent '70s-style feel within a modern-day story of an Internet prank leading to murder. An online-based slasher flick? Although it had been done before with 1998's crummy "Strangeland," this time there was hope that it could be done right. The idea in and of itself is not only ingenious, but also topical, playing up on the possible danger that exists in having the world at one's fingertips. Then "Cry_Wolf" was rated PG-13 by the MPAA and, in the same moment, my anticipation to see it plummeted. Kid-friendly PG-13 horror movies are worn out to begin with, I thought, but at least supernatural-themed pictures can get away with it. How, then, would "Cry_Wolf" fare when its killer-on-the-loose story was going to be neutered for a wide audience? Taking out the very reason people see such films would defeat the whole purpose.

Now, having just seen "Cry_Wolf," these jump-to-conclusion musings of mine about the integrity of Jeff Wadlow's first major directing effort must be rescinded. In order to discuss the film and its myriad problems without giving away its many mysteries, tiptoeing carefully around the subject is required. "Cry_Wolf," it turns out, is not a slasher film at all, but a high school-set thriller about a "boy who cried wolf" gag that slowly gets out of hand. In this respect, the picture recalls, maybe too much, a pair of other efforts: 2000's "Gossip" and a particularly smart 1980s holiday-set horror film that will remain nameless in order to not spoil things. That latter film, though, is still affectionately thought of, but generally overlooked—a much better and less insulting rendition of what "Cry_Wolf" tries to stuff down the viewer's throat.

The first hour of "Cry_Wolf" is truly engrossing as writer-director Jeff Wadlow and co-screenwriter Beau Bauman toy with the audience's perception in often unpredictable ways. Unfortunately, the final thirty minutes toy too much, to the point where one feels jerked around for no reason. As auspicious as the first two-thirds are—and Wadlow, who earned the chance to make the film after winning the 2002 Chrysler Million Dollar Film Competition, does show a raw, rapturous flair behind the camera—the climax self-destructs just as quickly and calamitously.

When a local town girl is found brutally shot and murdered, recent British transfer student Owen Matthews (Julian Morris) and his new set of rich, bored friends at private school Westlake Preparatory Academy conspire to spread around a rumor via the Internet that the suspect is actually a longtime serial killer loose on the campus. What begins as a game all in good fun for Owen, scheming potential girlfriend Dodger (Lindy Booth), roommate Tom (Jared Padalecki), multi-pierced Randall (Jesse Janzen), and the rest of their school chums soon takes a genuinely threatening turn. Owen is harassed by a mystery Instant Messager known as "Wolf," and begins seeing the killer in an orange ski mask that he and Dodger concocted lurking around campus. Their harmless lie, it would seem, is about to become a deadly reality.

"Cry_Wolf" begins as an unanticipatedly perceptive comment on the pitfalls of youthful abandon, the dangers of wealth, and the level to which gossip can spread and possibly destroy lives. Director Jeff Wadlow, taking an invigoratingly deliberate pace that draws you into the characters and their plot, makes this point loud and clear by the sixty-minute mark. From there, he had the chance to run with the scary opportunities open to a story as inventive as this one, but instead prefers to drive the aforementioned three points into the ground. "Cry_Wolf" falls apart as instantaneously as it draws you in, becoming insultingly predictable and frustrating as it repeats the same old twist from a number of other like-minded features. For a long time, the film is edgy, moody and sinister, but like a light switch being flicked off, there is an exact moment (immediately after a bravura sequence set on Halloween Eve) where what Wadlow has up his sleeve becomes obvious. From there, all amounts of suspense and fright dissipate in favor of a cowardly garden variety surprise that is neither surprising nor clever.

Like "Venom" (another genre effort being released on the same weekend), "Cry_Wolf" cannot be criticized for its stronger-than-usual performances in this type of teenage thriller, with newcomer-to-America Julian Morris a fresh, natural find as British new kid Owen Matthews. It is interesting to note that Owen creates the idea behind the prank, only to become the one who sees it getting out of hand and trying to right the group's wrongs. Lindy Booth (2004's "Dawn of the Dead") equally impresses in the difficult role of Dodger, a mischievous young woman who wavers between sincerity and hidden agendas with the sort of frivolity one decides a drive-thru beverage order. Dodger's tricky ways could have gotten old fast ("You all are playing checkers," she chides her comrades early on, "and I'm playing chess"), but Booth gets enough of a handle on the character that she stays sympathetic. There isn't a weak spot in the rest of the young cast, either—even if some look a little long in the tooth to be playing 17-year-olds—while the adults mostly stand along the sidelines. Jon Bon Jovi (2000's "Pay It Forward") does succeed, however, in not calling attention to his real-life persona as teacher Rich Walker.

Aesthetically elegant (the exterior locations at the University of Richmond in Virginia have a crisp, haunting autumnal flavor) and skillfully made, "Cry_Wolf" introduces a savvy new filmmaker in director Jeff Wadlow, who appears to be better than his written material permits. Squandering the capabilities of its plot, the film has a handful of tense scenes (one set in a library, another across a desolate campus while a Halloween party goes on inside one of the buildings) and then recoils from its natural next evolutionary step. Not giving the audience what they expect in lieu of a finale that goes the route of an R.L. Stine young adult novel is simply unforgivable. By the end, the air has long since escaped from the balloon, and all that is left is a disappointingly lame potboiler. "Cry_Wolf" at least has the perfect title; it not only refers to the movie's plot line, but also to the experience of watching it. The bulk of the low budget must have gone to funding the sheep's clothing.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman