Director: David Brückner (Germany). Year of Release: 2021
The Alptheater, the day before Halowe’en. An actress is rehearsing her part on stage. It’s an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm story, so she’s giving it the full screaming fits. One of the directors looks suitably impressed – the other less so. It is a children’s matinee after all, and you don’t want to be scaring the kiddies. But he’s wearing a leopard skin jacket and square glasses pushed way too far down his nose, so you know that he’s not long for this world.
As they leave the theatre, one of the actresses and the director with the leopard skin jacket notice that they’ve left their mobile phones in the theatre. She picks the door lock with a hairpin and they enter the dark theatre. They see their phones on a table on stage. As they go to get them, they see a figure dressed in, well it’s not a wolf costume exactly, more an indeterminate furry animal with Freddy Krüger hands. Whatever it is, they are soon both lying in pools of their own blood.
We are gradually introduced to the various characters. There’s the officious shift manager with Nazi control freak tendencies who holds the master keys. There’s his ex, who is completely over him – or is she? There’s the one who’s on her last day before resuming her studies. After the death of her father, she’s suffered from overwhelming stage fright, and is considering trying film acting instead. She is paternally indulged by the theatre manager who tries to convince her to stay on.
There are also a few minor characters who we don’t need to worry about too much. There are two interchangeable stoner stage hands, who are just as tiresome as you’d expect a stoner stage hand to be. And there’s the last minute help, who arrives unannounced. At one stage you think that she’s going to have a romantic incident with Emma, the one on her last day, but this never amounts to anything.
For the first half of the film, each of these characters wanders around the theatre, often on their own. No-one has discovered the pair who were offed in the opening scenes, so there’s a fair bit of us being scared for them while they have no idea that they’re at risk. Few of them have shown many discernible character traits, so it’s difficult to engage with them much as we watch them walk around.
The cast is picked off one by one. The usual rules apply – the lights fail, phone cords are ripped out of the socket, and there is no mobile phone reception. Whoever built the theatre appears to have forgotten any emergency exits, so when the officious shift manager loses the master keys, they are all trapped inside the building. It’s all pretty much horror film by numbers – it’s all carried out efficiently enough, but there’s nothing we haven’t seen elsewhere.
After the screening there was a Q&A with the genial director, David Brückner and a couple of the actors. They explained how they made it all on a budget of $25,000 while taking a break from their day jobs. The problem is that it shows. Now I am as big a fan as anyone of low budget films, and think that Hollywood financial excesses have played a large part in stifling originality. But spending less money does not of itself produce this missing imagination.
Brückner mentioned the usual suspects – Halloween, Scream, even the films of Dario Argento. All worthy role models, but thinking of these films just made you notice what was missing here. Whereas the namechecked films could offer an expensive script and actors who are, at the very least, “B” list, here we had someone stumbling around in a costume that wasn’t quite a wolf but wasn’t obviously anything else. Also, because of the necessarily small cast, it was pretty obvious from the get go whodunnit.
There is a proud tradition of very low budget horror films, which make a virtue out of a necessity and revel in their poor scripts and mediocre acting. These make an exaggerated stage wink at the audience, and together we take fun from the lack of Hollywood polish. Unlike these films, Der Wolf has ambitions towards being serious and important – and I’m not sure if it’s better for this.
Brückner said that he’d been asked why Der Wolf wasn’t playing in the Berlinale, which started this week in Berlin. His argument was because they didn’t take genre films. Now I have disproportionately disliked recent Berlinale front runners, and believe that Der Wolf is no worse than many of them, but it is really too routine to serve as an example of the sort of film that festivals should be showing.
I really enjoyed listening to Brückner speak, and there is enough in this film to show that it might be worth giving him a proper film budget and see what he does with it. If this works, the maybe Der Wolf will stand as an interesting example of how he took his first tentative step towards directorial greatness. Or he might spaff the money against the wall and produce a film which looks better but has the same lack of invention. But I do wish him success. He looks like he’d deserve It.