Shamelessly borrowing elements from Deliverance (1972), Joe (1970), and Straw Dogs (1971), this violent melodrama pits a Vietnam-era deserter against an unhinged Gold Star parent, with various innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. As written and directed by Burt Kennedy, a solid helmer of midgrade action pictures, Wolf Lake unspools smoothly, with every scene focused, purposeful, and tight. Plus, with Rod Steiger giving a relatively contained performance as the deranged dad, the movie’s intensity level never falters, even during the many, many passages when logic falls victim to narrative expediency. The plotting of Wolf Lake is similar to that of a typical horror movie, and like many films in that genre, the whole premise hinges on someone remaining in a dangerous place despite being fully aware of the danger. Which brings up interesting questions regarding what sort of thrill Wolf Lake is meant to provide viewers. The story is too far-fetched to work as social commentary, and it’s too nasty to qualify as escapism, so watching Wolf Lake requires the viewer to revel in the suffering of others. The picture is made with enough skill that it cannot be dismissed, but at the same time, it’s creepy to imagine that Kennedy and his collaborators envisioned 90 minutes of rape and murder as a fun night at the movies.
Set in Canada circa 1976, the story opens with Charlie (Steiger) and his WWII buddies arriving at a hunting lodge for a getaway. The regular caretaker is away, so shaggy-haired twentysomething David (David Huffman) and his girlfriend, Linda (Robin Mattson), are looking after the place. Once it comes out that David deserted his Army unit, Charlie becomes enraged, because his own son died in Vietnam. Charlie tells David that he plans to kill him, but Charlie inexplicably remains until the inevitable violence explodes. First Charlie goads his men into gang-raping Linda, and then David fights back, leading to a war of attrition that leaves bodies everywhere. Kennedy’s strangest storytelling choice involves peppering the first half of the movie with flash-forwards of bloody finale. While presumably meant to juice tension, these flashes have the opposite effect, removing any mystery about what happens next. On the plus side, Kennedy manages other storytelling tasks well. In addition to staging action expertly, Kennedy keeps Steiger on a tight leash until it’s time to let the chronic overactor loose. Among the so-so supporting cast, Jerry Hardin stands out as the story’s requisite spineless toady.
Wolf Lake: FUNKY