Serial killer movies are now and everlasting. From the cheesy and low budget Sleepaway Camp to the ultra-serious and highbrow The Silence of the Lambs, they run the gamut, and one or two will be released every year long past the days when the military has finished using this reviewer's corpse in ballistics tests, and has moved on to a younger, more aesthetically pleasing corpse. The challenge to the fresh faced, low budget film maker is how to make a serial killer movie with an original twist or angle. Andrew Cymek, writer / director / and lead actor in Medium Raw: Night of the Wolf, makes just such an attempt, which involves a cool wolf suit and being trapped in an asylum with said serial killer. Cymek is to be credited for the attempt, but doesn't quite succeed.
Cymek plays Johnny, a police detective who as a youth saw his sister murdered by notorious serial killer The Wolf. (He is so called because he dresses in a metal wolf themed battle suit (which is actually quite cool looking) complete with steel claws and bear trap jaws with sharp, pointy teeth. And he carves the phrase, "Are you the woodcutter?" somewhere at every crime scene, inviting Little Red Riding Hood comparisons.) Now that he is an adult and detecting himself, Johnny jumps at the chance to investigate what appears to be a new Wolf murder, after a long absence. Along with his partner Elliot (John Rhys-Davies), who has spent his career tracking The Wolf, Johnny throws himself into the hunt, and manages to track down the killer by the tried and true method of guessing he might be hiding at the country home of the victim's grandmother. (No, really. He sees a picture of the missing girl's grandmother, and this leads him directly to The Wolf's hideout.) During the arrest, Elliot is killed, but The Wolf, a/k/a Harold Grierson (Greg Dunham), is caught and committed to Parker's Asylum after a lengthy trial.
As luck would have it, Johnny's estranged wife Jamie (Cymek's actual wife Brigitte Kingsley) is a psychiatrist at Parker's Asylum, and in charge of therapy for Grierson and a number of other delightfully unstable inmates. Her boss, Dr. Parker (William B. Davis), the son of the eponymous Parker, is a bit unorthodox, and has set up proximity collars that deliver electric shocks to patients if they get within two feet of the staff (which probably violates the spirit if not the letter of the law vis-à-vis the Canadian Psychiatric Association), but he collects African masks and runs a private mental institution housed in a gothic castle, so he can be trusted completely. Johnny and his partner Pete (Jason Reso) hatch a plan to sneak into the asylum to extract information on the location of Johnny's sister's body from Grierson, or murder him, whichever turns out to be more convenient. Unfortunately for their plan, the asylum loses power at the same time, which simultaneously traps them and the staff inside, while unlocking the doors for all the cells. Hijinks, murder and cannibalism ensue.
In the end Medium Raw is something of a mixed bag. The production design is phenomenally good, even if they do go a bit overboard on the filth covered walls in the asylum. All the sets look real and lived in, and as stated above, the metal Wolf body suit is very, very cool. Sadly, no other aspect of the film lives up to the same standard. The central concept is interesting, but falls short in the execution. The writing is fair, but marred by the regular use of cliché. (Phrases such as "We'll do it your way.", "We're in." and semi-pithy one liners abound.) Coupled with the muddled themes and a few logical inconsistencies, little tension or concern can be ginned up. There are also a some sound design issues, such as missing gunshot effects or hits.
But let's focus on the performances, which perfectly represent the metaphorical mixed bag. John Rhys-Davies and William B. Davis are old hands, and give good performances without breaking a sweat, albeit having to deal with the awkward bit of dialogue from time to time. Most of the other performances are unremarkable or mediocre. Cymek and Kingsley do most of the dramatic heavy lifting, and are passable but don't seem to be able to reach the emotional depths necessary to be truly authentic. Commonly in the film, characters are much more subdued than one would suppose real people would be when trapped in an asylum with several dozen psychotic murderers. For Medium Raw to really work, fully committed performances are necessary. These people should be swinging for the fences, but it feels more like a bunt.
And this brings us to Sandi Ross, the one actor who truly gives it her all. Ross plays the homey, down to earth, loveable cannibal Mabel. She is able to simultaneously exude the comforting aura of grand-motherliness, and talk about the best way to roast human ribs without drying them out. Ross effortlessly walks the fine line between over the top hamming and convincing, mentally ill menace. No sense of irony or winking is seen. She plays it straight, and does a fantastic job.
Alas, one outstanding performance and great production design is not enough to save a movie. Allowances can and should be made for the extreme low budget of the film, which Cymek discusses at length in his commentary, but this does not excuse a reviewer from his duty to provide an honest appraisal. Cymek's reach here exceeded his grasp, and he is not able to completely pull off this very ambitious project. But he makes a good effort, and succeeds roughly as often as he fails. This bodes well for his future career, and hopefully he will continue on this path and get better with every film. As for Medium Raw: Night of the Wolf, rent it.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks very good. The colors are muted, but the film is set mostly in an ancient asylum, so that fits quite well. Lots of darkness and shadows here, but the action is never obscured.
The audio is in Dolby digital 5.1 channel, and does a pretty good job of surrounding the viewer, creating a feeling of presence in the scene. Dialogue is always clearly audible, and English subtitles are included as well.
There are a number of extras included on the disc. They are:
This clocks in at 1:46, and includes an alternate denouement to the film, which won't be revealed here due to spoiler concerns. Cymek provides a voiceover discussing context.
Also with Cymek's voiceover, three and a half minutes of deleted scenes, mostly cut for pacing.
Eleven minutes of extended scenes, also with Cymek doing voiceover.
A pretty effective trailer, coming in at 1:32.
Audio Commentary with Writer/Director/Actor Andrew Cymek
This is the most substantial extra feature included, and Cymek is engaging enough. He discusses the many challenges and obstacles to low budget film making, with lots of interesting anecdotes and reflections. The film actually took ten years to produce, with lots of interims in shooting (including one long enough to film an entire other movie, Dark Rising). The commentary is a good addition, and has a lot of material for those interested in bare bones film production.
Medium Raw: Night of the Wolf is definitely a labor of love, but love is not enough to make more than a mediocre film. It looks very professional and complete, but not too slick or cheesy. It has the feel of a film with a much bigger budget. But the middle of the road writing and performances (With the very notable exception of Sandi Ross. More of her, please.) leave us with merely a slightly better than average film. It shows signs of good things to come from Cymek and company, but he is not there yet.