The Wolf House (Cociña & León, 2018)

I don’t know all that much about the Chilean cult that haunts The Wolf House. A cursory search reveals far more than I want to know, with atrocity after atrocity being unveiled like stepping stones. It’s enough to churn your stomach. The directors of this stop-motion phantasmagoria don’t tackle this subject matter head-on, choosing instead to insinuate its evil through allegory and revisionist interpretations of familiar fairy tales. We have a wolf. We have some pigs. We have an abandoned house. And we have a girl seeking refuge from a terrible past. By now I’m sure your mind is cycling through the familiar stories. Mine did the same. What’s different is that the twists are much more malignant, and aren’t going to put the kids soundly to sleep. Not unless they want the nightmares to start pouring in.

The star attraction here is undoubtedly the animation, which economically takes advantage of minimalist sets by repeatedly painting and papier-mâchéing over them. The resulting effect is a stockpile of visual illusion of a most unsettling quality: walls become gigantic faces and moving corridors; hungry eyes watch over the inhabitants; rooms seem to exhale with each new coat of paint; furniture appears and disappears at random. The house seems to devour the papier-mâché characters, which look just as unsettling, with massive heads and phantom limbs that ravel and unravel repeatedly. The style is deliberately unrefined and constantly in flux, with finishing touches being given in the middle of scenes, and glistening strings being visible at times. The roughened quality of the final product does the trick, and makes you long for a safe place.

Chileans are probably the best audience for this, because they know the full extent of the horror and pain within the Colonia Dignidad, and can thus catch the more specific allusions embedded in this narrative. Those less familiar with its history will find certain scenes elusive, and will have to ultimately rely on the innovative animation as the primary source of appreciation. Which is not a bad thing, because the work put into this film is superb. Even when you don’t know what exact traumas are being recounted, at least you can feel them.