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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Wolf Lake (Blu-ray)
Wolf Lake (Blu-ray)
Kino // R // October 25, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 29, 2017 | E-mail the Author

Movies must be manipulative by design, but the really great ones can do it without us noticing. Less thoughtful fare like Burt Kennedy's Wolf Lake (1978) is so crudely drawn that its central conflict feels like expensive art supplies in the hands of a third-grade student. Made in the wake of more finely tuned suspense dramas like Straw Dogs and Deliverance, Wolf Lake uses one-dimensional characters and hot-button social issues to fan the flames of its heavy-handed narrative in record time. Within the first five minutes, WWII veterans Charlie (Rod Steiger), Wilbur (Jerry Hardin), George (Richard Herd), and Sweeney (Paul Mantee) arrive at a secluded Canadian cabin for a weekend of beer and hunting, only to find caretaker David (David Huffman) and his girlfriend Linda (Robin Mattson) instead of their usual buddy. Within the first twenty, Charlie takes a shot at David with his sniper rifle.

The reason? David admits to deserting his company in Vietnam, during a brutal war where Charlie's own son died in the line of duty...yet his son is still dead, and David is not. Charlie's grief and anger have been boiling over for years, and David is nothing more than an easy target. From here on out, Wolf Lake quickly turns into a tense game of cat-and-mouse, yet feels so blatantly provocative that viewers may have no choice but to be led around by the nose. Its lead characters are almost disarmingly honest, incapable of hiding their base emotions and gut reactions to smooth over any and all social situations...and yet they still seem surprised when all hell breaks loose.

To be fair, there's a capable thriller at the heart of Wolf Lake, especially considering America's social climate at the time. Yet Kennedy's film goes about it the wrong way: there are almost no well-developed characters in the bunch, and those that are get perpetually abused or killed for bad decisions, bad luck, or both. David and Linda are obviously run through the wringer more than anyone: he's tormented and bullied by Charlie at every turn, while she's ogled and threatened before a brutal attack sets up the film's bloody showdown. It's moments like this that reveal Wolf Lake's true nature: a film that wants say something important, but falls into the same hollow traps as C-grade horror and exploitation films. By placing its heavy-handed message first and characters a distant second, the film robs itself of any genuine substance once you stop to think about why these events are happening.

As a turn-off-your-brain thriller, I suppose Wolf Lake works well enough at times: the actors generally turn in good performances with a few exceptions (Jerry Hardin, who X-Files fans may remember as "Deep Throat", is somewhat convincing as the spineless Wilbur but awful at playing drunk), while the insulated atmosphere provides a naturally tense backdrop. Yet the film takes very little care in arranging its pieces, hoping that raw, unfiltered emotion will distract us from the lack of nuance or complexity. Most viewers will see through the trick immediately, and those willing to forgive its obvious shortcomings may get more out of Wolf Lake than I did. Kino's Blu-ray offers a modest amount of support, including a passable A/V presentation and two retrospective interviews.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in a slightly expanded 1.78:1 aspect ratio (I'm assuming the original framing was 1.85:1), Wolf Lake looks reasonably good in high definition with a few glaring problems. On one hand, it's hard to judge the film's visual merits: I never saw it theatrically or on DVD, so comparisons or comments about its accuracy are difficult. Of particular note are the extremely faded and almost bleached-out colors, which at times lean almost as brown as O Brother Where Art Thou despite the film taking place in the Pacific Northwest (then again, it was shot in Mexico). Either way, image detail is relatively strong and, despite a few contrast and black level fluctuations along the way, Wolf Lake is at least generally consistent from a visual standpoint. Dirt and debris are present but hardly obtrusive, and only a handful of scenes look to have had any level of noise reduction applied. Overall, what's here is mostly satisfying if you keep your expectations in check, but there's definitely room for improvement.

NOTE: The compressed, resized screen captures featured on this page do not represent Blu-ray's native resolution.

This Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio mix splits Wolf Lake's original one-channel audio into a 2.0 spread with relatively clear dialogue and sound effects. Though limited by its source material in some respects, this is still a very competent presentation that I'm glad wasn't given a gimmicky faux-surround remix. The dynamic range is decent enough under the circumstances and Ken Thorne's score makes its presence known without fighting for attention, but a handful of slight volume fluctuations might have you reaching for the remote every so often. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or captions are included, which makes a few scenes tough to decipher the first time through.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The static menu includes separate options for playback, chapter selection, and bonus features, with quick loading time and minimal pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes poster-themed artwork that omits the gaudy original tagline and looks nothing like the misleading bootleg DVD (above right).

Bonus Features

Just two Interviews, which seem to be exclusive to Kino's Blu-ray edition. The first groups together actors Jerry Hardin and Richard Herd (10 minutes), who briefly discuss the on-set experience and friendships that formed between the small cast. The second features producer Lance Hool (11 minutes), who talks about pre-production, financing, his career and formative years, and at least one of the literal conflicts that occurred after the film's initial release. It's nice to see a few extras here, despite the lack of a commentary or even the film's theatrical trailer.

Final Thoughts

Almost laughably provocative, Burt Kennedy's Wolf Lake has great atmosphere, a few fine performances, and plenty of tension along the way...but the end result rings hollow, largely due to the shadow of earlier and better films like Straw Dogs and Deliverance (and even later ones like First Blood). It pushes hot buttons for purely manipulative reasons, which wouldn't feel so obvious if not for the woefully underwritten victims (especially Robin Mattson's "Linda", who exists solely for window dressing and general helplessness). Still, the film's memorable setting and generation gap conflict carry some weight, which makes Kino's Blu-ray worth a look for die-hard fans and curious newcomers. But there's not much here in any department, at least enough to make Wolf Lake a keeper. Rent It.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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