Monday, 24 February 2014

Wolf Lake (1978)

‘Wolf Lake’ is a barely released ultra-rare post-Vietnam War backwoods survival thriller incorporating home invasion elements. It is often mistaken as a Canadian Tax shelter production due to the setting of the lakes in Northwest Canada but in fact was shot in Mexico with an American low budget of an estimated $970,000 by an all-American cast and crew. It is written and directed by the late Burt Kennedy best known in Hollywood for his screenwriting and directing work in the western genre from the mid-‘50s through to the mid-‘70s. It stars the late great Rod Steiger in a powerhouse performance and the also departed character actor the talented David Huffman who holds his own in a solid turn.

However, despite this red, white and blue all over the production the film’s geographical setting serves a specific purpose commentating on Canada’s non-belligerent stance on the war and the large amount of Americans who fled there to dodge the draft or desert. In addition, Kennedy’s approach to filming the material is in the exploitative style and tone of the Canuxploitation output of the era in order to achieve a disturbing and grim depiction of post-Vietnam trauma. Using Canada’s point-of-view of the period, having a deserter as a sympathetic character for its main protagonist (David played by Huffman) and shooting it in a Canuck B movie aesthetic the American writer and director casts a critical eye over the proceedings with an anti-Vietnam War message.

Set in the fall of 1976 a year after the fall of Saigon, Steiger plays Charlie a middle-aged hardnosed conservative type and former marine sergeant who fought in the Korean War. He travels to a remote cabin in the aforementioned location with three of his old army pals - Wilbur (the always-reliable character actor Jerry Hardin), George (Richard Herd) and Sweeney (Paul Mantee) - for a duck hunting vacation. Charlie is using the trip to help cope with the grief of losing his son in Vietnam. Upon arrival instead of being greeted by the owner of the lodge, a young man David (Huffman) and his pretty girlfriend Linda (Robin Mattson) meet them who the owner has gotten to take care of the place while he is away. From the off, Charlie and David are at loggerheads due to their generation gap and opposing political views. When Charlie finds out that David is a deserter of the very war that his son died fighting in, he becomes unhinged descending into a psychotic rage that elevates matters to terrifying heights entailing a weekend of violence as Charlie and his friends hunt down David and Linda that includes her brutal gang rape.

There are immensely tense scenes of confrontation between Rod Steiger and David Huffman. The former is one of the best ever at going psycho on screen - when he does, you believe it! He has a menacingly frightening presence here and also portrays all the emotions of a grieving father very convincingly. He is given some great dialogue delivering it with such conviction and seeing him going ape shit with a hunting rifle, makes for terrific entertainment. Huffman is strong too as David who stands his ground stubbornly refusing to run away from the dangerous threat of Charlie and others like him who would not share his perception of what he has done knowing that if he does not fight back he will be running away for the rest of his life. They are both ably supported by the rest of the cast with great acting all around especially from Hardin and Mattson.

The third act is full of suspense and thrills with the action set-pieces expertly executed. As exploitative as the manner of the rape sequence is, it is unpleasantly effective in depicting such atrocities that actually happened in Vietnam the very horrors that were the reason for David’s desertion but the results of which dictate that he cannot escape from the nightmare. Forced to live them again trapped in a vicious circle having to fight the same kind of men that committed the evils he witnessed. The very remote location makes for a constant feeling of uneasiness and all of this is encapsulated in a threatening bleak atmosphere throughout.

The film is not perfect and there are actually two different versions. There is the one that I’ve seen under this title of ‘Wolf Lake’ that has awkwardly placed flash forward sequences spliced within the narrative at certain key moments of conversation to signify what is going to happen later in the third act. The concept is to build suspense and tension by sprinkling these shots all through the first 60-minutes in anticipation of the forthcoming events and then the payoff comes but ultimately it fails spoiling any surprises that would have been in store for the audience.

The opening scene is actually also the final scene so we already have a good idea of what the outcome will be but starting where it ends it only emphasizes my previous point of a “vicious circle” as David has no escape from his recent past and is unable to redeem himself. At the actual end of the movie as it is about to fade out we hear the non-diegetic sound of a military marching band that harkens back to an earlier scene in which Steiger’s character Charlie states to his friends as they have a drunken sing-along that no war songs were written about Korea or Vietnam. After which, he suggests they should have a little fun with Linda and then joins in on the singing. Then at the end a military song cynically plays out after the senseless carnage David thought he had escaped from. The other version titled ‘The Honor Guard’ that was re-edited in 1980 omits the playing with structure conventions but has a different ending. In neither version though are these endings happy, as there are no winners here in a haunting, gritty and unpromising affair. If I ever get to see this other version, I will revise this review.

‘Wolf Lake’ might not be anything ground breaking but it is extremely effective reactionary filmmaking. It is an intriguing little film not deserving to wallow in obscurity since it went out of print on VHS in the early '80s and this can change with a Blu-ray/DVD treatment to get it out to a wider audience. Recommended if you can find it.

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2014 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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