Wednesday, 1 April 2015

WOLFCOP - DVD Review by Greg Klymkiw - So-So Canuck Werwolf Worth 2ndLook at home

WolfCop (2014)
Dir. Lowell Dean
Starring: Leo Fafard, Amy Matysio, Jonathan Cherry, Aidan Devine, Sarah Lind, Corine Conley

Review By Greg Klymkiw


Now that WolfCop is available on DVD and BluRay via Anchor Bay Entertainment, it's as good a time as any to take a second look at this clever, but ultimately flawed effort that displays far more promise than what it ultimately delivers. The extras-laden home entertainment package and the film's occasional virtues certainly make the movie a worthy title to place on the shelves of any genre fan's horror movie section in their basement apartment.

The best item on the DVD/BluRay is the commentary track featuring writer-director Lowell Dean and the inimitable Emerson Ziffle, one of Canada's foremost makeup and special effects artists. On the plus side, both young men are very well spoken, amiable as all get out and throughout the running time, offer plenty of practical information on both the storytelling and filmmaking aspects of the entire production. In fact, the tidbits they parcel out - often screen specific - will be worth their weight in gold to those unfamiliar with the process of film production. To those who are well versed, much of it will feel old hat, but at least the facts are delivered clearly and succinctly. Elements specific to the process which relay to the actual exigencies of the production are also of value to ALL viewers.

The annoying aspects of the commentary are the usual suspects. The one that is extremely tedious is the, "this shoot was so hard" or "we only had 17 days to get this in the can" or "I had to pick the scenes I didn't want to compromise on" or the worst (and saddest of all) "this scene/sequence really needed [take your pick] two, three or more days".

This angers me beyond words. On a low budget film, there IS NO REASON FOR COMPROMISE. I say this with some authority as having myself produced a whole whack of no-to-low-budget features. The less money one has, the more freedom this affords. Furthermore, one utilizes lack of dollars to work into the film's aesthetic. As I noted in my original review, there are sequences in WolfCop that fail miserably because it's obvious there was not enough money. No excuse - my own, shall we say, achievements on this front aside - NO excuse is acceptable. It's nice for filmmakers to have commentaries to explain exigencies of production, but at the same time they're either betraying the flaws in the process of financing and/or the flaws in aesthetic approaches to lack of dollars.

The problem, I suspect, is the financing model of WolfCop - a horrendous dog and pony show that does little more than promote and extoll the virtues of the model itself, an entity called Cinecoup, which also benefits from considerable assistance from the hugely profitable, vision-bereft exhibition giant Cineplex Entertainment. It's a deeply sickening financing model which places undue pressures upon filmmakers to work their asses off for months creating a raft of publicity materials in order to garner online votes/support until eventually, about 100 films are whittled down to 5 finalists whom in turn are dragged to the Banff TV Festival where they make public pitches to a smug panel of "industry giants" until one film is declared the winner. This lucky film gets a cool million in financing and an automatic coast-to-coast theatrical run across Canada.

WolfCop was the first lucky recipient.

Through the glorious Cinecoup and the "generosity" of Cineplex, Wolfcop received a perfunctory theatrical release in mostly second rate cinemas in the chain. This was backed by a perfunctory ad-buy and, frankly, for a film like Wolfcop to succeed properly in a THEATRICAL market, it needed to open across the country on at least 100 screens with trailers and posters actually exhibited in Cineplex venues MONTHS before the release. Online awareness and "free" publicity is great, but hardly enough.

Even though I personally feel WolfCop was flawed, it's miles above most of the crappy American genre pictures Cineplex Entertainment fill their screens with. The box-office on many of these movies is hardly stellar, yet they gobble up screens unnecessarily (save to allow Cineplex the honour of wearing comfy knee-pads before their studio suppliers and forcing Canadian as well as non-Canadian indies into the horrendous new model of playing limited theatrical platforms, often day-and-date with VOD, etc.).

It was sad listening on the commentary track as the director happily exclaimed how wonderful it was to see the film in a real movie theatre that he frequented in his hometown of Regina. Call me a curmudgeon who's been around the block more than a few times, but what he seemed so grateful for didn't seem like too big a deal.

100 or more screens and GENUINE dollars and cents support would have been a big deal.

As noted above, the production financing was woefully inadequate. I feel for the filmmakers. The entire Cinecoup thing did little more than give them a crappy amount of money to make a movie that needed twice to three times as much and frankly resulted in a picture that is okay instead of genuinely great - on a par, say, with Joe Dante's The Howling which, by rights, it could have been.

One of the neat things in the extras are all the amazing promo videos made by the filmmakers. It's clear Lowell Dean and his team have talent to burn. What's sickening in this same section are the B.S. promo items featuring the smug, disingenuous corporate slime openly shilling themselves and their corporations in the guise of promoting the efforts of all the filmmakers. Let's not forget, that all the hard, free work the Wolfcop team put in to garner Cinecoup support was matched by several handfuls of other filmmakers. Those not chosen walked away empty handed. I feel for all of them.

Cinecoup promotes itself as the best way to get a movie made because it guarantees exposure to marketplace needs and a theatrical run. Big deal! One movie, poorly sold and exhibited does not make an acceptable model. (Let's do the math again - ONE MOVIE!) Given the traditional lack of support Cineplex bestows upon Canadian Cinema, maybe - just maybe - they could ante-up some of their profits and allow for more pictures and/or better production budgets, and most of all, something more than perfunctory in-house promotion - maybe they could start aggressively and months ahead of time.

Even more hilarious on the commentary track was the director defending his decision to have American flags on display everywhere and to pepper the film with cultural references that are American. Dean not so successfully defends this decision when he says that he was interested in creating a kind of border town never-never-land instead of proudly setting the film in Regina and Moosejaw where the movie is CLEARLY shot - albeit with American flags and all sorts of other American ephemera.

Nope. I don't buy it, kid.

Besides, he's not going to bite the hand that feeds him (albeit at feed-trough levels commensurate with that of Biafra). This quaking, quivering stance filmmakers take above the 49th parallel is very much a Canadian trait. I have no proof other than intuition, but I'm convinced where the infusion of American cultural references came from and it wasn't the filmmakers. Dean and Ziffle present so much on their commentary that reflects the thought and artistry they did put into so much of the film, that the aforementioned cultural explanations pale miserably in comparison. (You can read my expanded thoughts on the Canadian cultural elements in my review below.)

In addition to the aforementioned, the home entertainment version of Wolfcop includes a fun series of scenes left on the cutting room floor - they're damn fine, but feel like they didn't need to be in the movie in the first place. One element in particular is the knee-slappingly hilarious scene where the sexy, funny police woman finds a huge skin-shed penis and dangles it whilst quipping. It's ultimately not as funny or shocking as the scene in the movie where she does the same thing with the blood-drenched facial skin. The penis gag would only have worked if it had been structured into the narrative using the law of "odd numbers". To have the action only twice with different items wouldn't have worked. The film would have need three such instances. That the final product has one kick-ass hilarious shocker is perfect.

The DVD/BluRay of WoldCop is well worth buying. The package is well produced and the transfer captures the superb lighting, cinematography, production design, effects (all natural) and overall look of the film (save for those moments when budget and exigencies of production don't allow the film to hit a higher percentage in this regard).

Some might suggest I doth protest to much - that WolfCop has been successfully sold worldwide (by the genuinely visionary Canadian company Raven Banner), that the franchise will continue and that Dean and his team NOW have their futures mapped out for them.

Big Deal! All the aforementioned could have been true even IF the film was awful (which, it most certainly isn't). At the end of the day, the film could have achieved all the success and then some if it had been far, far better (which, it most certainly could have been).

And now, here's a slight rewrite of my original review of the film itself:


The world (at least my world) is full of B-movies with GREAT titles that don't deliver what I want them to deliver. Take, for instance, Zoltan: Hound of Dracula. Indeed, the movie serves up a hound, it's named Zoltan and yes, belongs to Dracula. So far, so good, mais non?


It's missing what I genuinely expected from its great title - a good movie. Sadly, the list of great titles that yielded bad movies is longer than the schwance of the giant Jack had to kill. WolfCop suffers a similar fate, but adds insult to my injury since it's got a lovely high concept within its magnificent title. In fact, the split second I heard that a WolfCop was on its way, I began to salivate like an eager Australian canis lupus dingo running across the outback from a campers' tent, a newborn clenched in its jaws and soon to be a tender, flavourful meal of succulent flesh, warm, sweet blood and delectable globs of baby fat.

Alas, all the slobber was for nought. WolfCop turns out to be not very good at all. Even worse is that it's not even a pile of crap. If it were truly awful, abysmal beyond all belief, I might be able to forgive and accept it for the dross it is - you know, kind of like Sharknado. Unfortunately, WolfCop's soul-crushing mediocrity, aimed squarely and unimaginatively at mere ephemeral marketplace needs, deserves no forgiveness. None! I realize this isn't an especially charitable stance for a former Altar Boy to be taking, but somehow, I'm certain my Lord Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter would accept my unforgiving inclinations, especially since He (via Lee Demarbre, the mad genius of Ottawa) delivered a terrific movie on all fronts whilst WolfCop delivers a great title, a few meagre pleasures and major-league disappointment.

The plot, such as it is, involves Lou Garou (Leo Fafard), his name being ludicrously close to loup-garou the French word for "werewolf". Lou is an alcoholic deputy in Woodhaven, a less-than-bucolic rural cesspool. His recent nightmares turn out to be real. At first, a wave of missing pets suggests some mysterious manner of foul play, but in no time at all, the carnage begins to escalate. Lou, it seems, has been afflicted with the curse of the werewolf. With the help of Willie (Jonathan Cherry) his conspiracy theorist and gun store proprietor buddy, Lou begins to investigate his, uh, problem and eventually uncovers an ages-old conspiracy which might actually lead directly to the town's corrupt Mayor Bradley (Corine Conley).

The Chief (Aidan Devine) of the local Sheriff's office has just about had it with Lou's drunken hijinx and exerts pressure on our hapless hero to investigate the mysterious murders - a bit of a problem, since Lou discovers his werewolf side is responsible. Luckily, none of the human victims are innocents, but are instead scumbags connected to the local gang of criminals. Still, murder is murder and it needs to be investigated and Lou's colleague Tina (Amy Matysio), the prim, proper and perpetual winner of the "Deputy of the Month" award also has her nose to the investigation grindstone. Amidst all the dark chicanery swirling around Woodhaven, Lou is quickly becoming the object of attraction for the comely local barmaid Jessica (Sarah Lind). Romance, as any horror fan will attest, is oft-impeded by lycanthropy.

All of the above swirls tidily - too tidily as the predictability factor is notched up too "high" - and we're treated to a mad night of crime-busting, mad passionate sex, the usual double-crosses from the obviously expected places and alliances formed from the least expected (though equally obvious) places.

There's a lot wrong with the movie, but it gets a few things right. First and foremost, the special makeup effects are out of this world. Eschewing digital enhancements, the werewolf look is achieved via real makeup and prosthetics. This is not only cool, but the movie kicks major butt during the transformation scenes. WolfCop has a lot of competition in the transformation department - most notably from The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and even the original Universal Pictures' The Wolf Man. If anything's missing, it's the underlying emotional resonance of the horrendously painful transformation sequences. This is not the fault of actor Leo Fafard, nor the F/X artists, but Dean's ho-hum screenplay.

The performances are uniformly fine. Fafard is a handsome, square-jawed hero with considerable humanity in his eyes and he works overtime to bring a semblance of believability to his role. Aidan Devine proves, yet again, why he's one of the best actors in Canada. Though he's saddled with a stock and underwritten role, he infuses it with his laconically sardonic qualities and one sits there wondering and hoping when he might get a few star-making turns that launch him into a genuine character lead not unlike that of a 70s anti-hero type such as rendered by Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider or hell, even Warren Oates. Amy Matysio makes for an intense deputy as Tina and I love how she sports a tightly-wound, semi-pole-up-the-butt crime fighter look, but lurking deep within is that hot babe itching to be free of her protective shell and let her hair down like the stereotypical and proverbial small town librarian type who's the sexiest minx this side of Bedford Falls. Matysio is also a terrific comedy actress and she delivers one of the funniest moments I've seen in any film in quite some time. All I wish to reveal is that it involves blood-dripping human flesh.

The man who comes close to stealing the show, though, is Jonathan Cherry. His conspiracy-theorist whack-job is broad, to say the least, but in all the right ways. He not only elicits huge laughs with the handful of good bits the script offers, but he even manages to bring a smile and/or a chuckle with some of the more egregiously on-the-nose humour. He's a great sidekick for Lou and I sincerely hope he's back for the film's already-announced sequels.

So, you're probably wondering why I'm bothering to kvetch about the movie. Well, let me tell you why. First and foremost, it's really disappointing that the film is set in some generic North American small-town. Given that the film is shot in two of Canada's cheesiest, sleaziest backwards cities, Regina and Moose Jaw, one wonders why the movie is simply not set there - in Canada! Canada is not only exotic to foreign markets, but can be really damn funny. It's a major cop-out to have seemingly bent to the boneheaded notion that Americans (especially) don't respond to anything that's not American. The major missed opportunity here is that in the province of Saskatchewan, the regional law-enforcers are the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Come on! Mounties are known all over the world and they're hilarious. Why, oh why, oh why the filmmakers didn't think to just set the damn thing in Moose Jaw (that's funny, too) and better yet, adorn Fafard, Devine and Matysio in faux-Mountie garb, is simply beyond me.

The prairies have long been home to one of the most beloved cinematic forces in WORLD CINEMA, the prairie post-modernist new wave of Canada (a perfectly-apt term coined by critic Geoff Pevere). In Winnipeg, this spawned the likes of John Paizs (Crime Wave, Springtime in Greenland, The Obsession of Billy Botski and Top of the Food Chain aka Invasion!) and Guy Maddin (Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Careful, My Winnipeg) and most recently, the astonishingly brilliant Astron-6 collective (Father's Day, Manborg and the upcoming The Editor).

Regina too has spawned a similar movement with the legendary Brian Stockton leading the charge (The 24 Store, which is essentially a much more intelligent and funny Clerks before Clerks existed and crossed with Slacker before Slacker existed, The Blob Thing shorts, his CFC short nod to George Romero The Weight of the World and his thoroughly whacked Wheat Soup that he co-directed with Gerald Saul). Other astounding prairie post-modernists from the Regina scene include former University of Regina professor (now at Concordia in Montreal) Richard Kerr (his The Last Days of Contrition is still one of the most powerful political head trips ever made in Canada) and Brett Bell who shocked the world with his stunningly hilarious and savage short Tears of a Clown: The Maredrew Tragedy, a film that totally beat Bobcat Goldthwait to the crazy clown sweepstakes when the comedian eventually made (the jaw-dropping) Shakes The Clown AFTER Bell's strychnine-laced gumdrop of sickness.

WolfCop had so much potential to mine this territory in its OWN way. One of the things that makes for great cinema (that can also be commercial) is to embrace one's regional culture in the telling of a story. God knows the SCTV nut-cases did this and even Americans did not shy away from the artistic bounty of the "regions". George Romero's greatest work was ALWAYS rooted in Pittsburgh, John Waters work was synonymous with Baltimore and Barry Levinson's finest films had Buffalo written all over them.

I LOVE GENRE PICTURES and know them like the back of my hand, but watching Dean's film made me so crestfallen over the fact that much of WolfCop felt stock and generic. On occasion, the clearly talented filmmaker seems to deliver just the right flourishes that the prairie legacy and its contemporaries are imbued with (the aforementioned hilarity involving Matysio's blood dripping flesh shenanigans being a perfect example), but by hiding the world he missed so many opportunities to make the screenplay, characters and narrative so much better.

On the flip side, the generic setting does seem to lean more towards America. We don't have Sheriffs in the traditional sense in Canada and though the supremely funny idea in WolfCop of a store devoted to Liquor AND Donuts could well be more of an American thing, it frankly feels far more rooted in the whacked Canadian prairie post-modernist tradition. Again, Regina and Moose Jaw are totally fucked places. Why not a liquor-donut store there? (*NOTE* I'm from Winnipeg. It's as big a hole as Regina or Moose Jaw and has just as many weird-ass locations. If WolfCop had been shot there instead, I would have been equally disappointed that the 'Peg's utter pathetic qualities weren't exploited.)

Canada - especially in rural or suburban settings - has also spawned some of the most sickeningly aberrant criminal behaviour in the world (Bernardo-Homolka, Dennis Melvin Howe, the pig-farming prostitute killer, the bus-riding cannibal, the cross-dressing Canadian Forces rapist-killer, etc. etc. etc.) and the notion that some kind of redneck Satanic league that spawns werwolves is totally Canadian - almost perversely and sweetly so. (God knows Astron-6 has been able to blend the tropes of genre with the country's revolting history of carnage.)

Alas, what we get instead is a stereotypical attempt at satirizing small-town American culture with a parade of homeless alcoholics puking and spitting up all over the place. One series of quick shots of homeless drunks on the streets of the film's fake locale was nasty without being funny, though it was clearly supposed to register laughs. I felt more embarrassed and even ashamed for the actors having to play these bit parts. Homeless alcoholics are not funny when they're treated with derision as they are here. (Does anyone still remember the Toronto Film Festival promos from that idiotic insurance company that made fun of poor people living in trailers? Disgusting.) And I'm not saying disgusting CAN'T be funny, either. Just look at how brilliantly the Astron-6 collective tackled this in Father's Day.

WolfCop's low budget also seemed to render a potentially great action-packed, blood-soaked set piece involving our werewolf cop and the gang of criminals into a totally cheapjack, flat-on-its-face sequence. Endless closeups with no wider or medium establishers turn one of the major climactic moments of the movie into a geographically-challenged and lame sequence that disappoints big-time. I'm blaming the budget only because Dean's compositions and shot-lists generally feel on the money and the cinematography and aforementioned makeup effects are well above and beyond the call of duty. As such, I actually might be blaming the film's producers for not moving mountains to make sure this sequence kicked major ass. On the other hand, if Dean didn't plan for a series of wider shots to ensure a spatial sense, then he's the one who erred.

What we've got here is a great idea, a talented filmmaker, a terrific cast and a creative team who could well have lived up to the overall promise of the piece. Alas, the screenplay lacks punch and genuine edge. The decision to render the setting generic is clearly unwise and finally, too much stock placed in ephemeral market needs rather than trusting in the inherent insanity of the piece. I imagine and hope all the promise displayed here is not wasted on the sequel, but instead manages to take the wonderful route enjoyed by Sam Raimi when he essentially remade The Evil Dead in Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn by not holding back on ANYTHING and delivering a movie that's still a masterpiece of utter madness.

With the WolfCop franchise, I can taste it.

Let's hope Dean's allowed to get it right on the next go-round.

THE FILM CORNER RATING (THE FILM): **½ 2-and-a-half Stars

In Canada - BUY Wolfcop HERE, eh!

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