Many genre fans have a specific few years that defined their childhood. More often than not people who grew up in my time, we’ll say 1988 to 1995/6, seem to flock to one specific time in horror…that’s the mid-aughts. When I think about Halloween I can’t help but immediately think of getting pumped to see films like House of Wax, Wrong Turn, Thirteen Ghosts, Ghost Ship, and House on Haunted Hill playing on AMC’s FearFest or SciFi’s 31 Days of Halloween. Coming home from school to find these blue, orange, or greenish-hued films on TV filled me with so much joy. When I think of horror I think of mid-aughts horror. What is it about these films that checks the boxes for so many people my age? I don’t have the answer to that. For my post-festival return to Slasher Saturdays, I thought it would be fitting to talk about an underappreciated and unsung hero of mid-aughts horror. Let’s talk about Cry_Wolf.
This is High School. Nothing’s for real.
The mysterious disappearance of Westlake Preparatory Academy Becky (Erica Yates) shocks a small town. Owen (Julian Morris) is a listless British boy, transferring from boarding school to boarding school in America. His father’s deep pockets do nothing to hide his absence. At his latest school, Owen finds himself enrolled in an academy shocked with fear from the missing Becky. Within moments of his arrival, he strikes up a friendship with Dodger (Lindy Booth). Later that night Owen’s roommate Tom (Jared Padalecki) invites him to the chapel at midnight for a game with his friends. Owen is on the fence at first, until Tom tells him Dodger requested his attendance. The group of friends convene in the chapel for a round of Cry Wolf. Marked from the start, Owen drives a wedge between the friend group. From that fateful night, they decide to play their grandest game of Cry Wolf yet; a game where they are the wolves, and the student body are the sheep. The creation of this real-life campus killer descends everyone into chaos, and bodies start piling up.
Okay, if you’ve seen the film you know that my last sentence is a half-truth. If this film were to get the Dead Meat treatment the official Kill Count would be two. Just like April Fool’s Day, this film isn’t all it seems on the surface. Writer/director Jeff Wadlow, and writer Beau Bauman, tell a tale of unfaithful narration through a faithful conduit. The audience sees the film as the events unfold and only learns the truth when Owen does. This is due in part to some crafty storytelling devices and visual deception. At no point does it feel as if we’re being told a story in bad faith, the audience is never forced to retcon the set of events to fit the final Saw-like exposition scene.
One of the harsh truths fans of mid-aughts horror have to realize is how the films were written. There was this strange time in horror where it went from social commentary wrapped in a gory blanket to films “about” the horrors of the war(s) in the Middle East, and the terrors we were seeing through sites like rotten dot com, and others like it. While it’s true the mid-aughts did have films that tackled these complex and traumatic social commentaries, but at points, it was frequently bastardized and used as an out. One tactic a lot of these films took was snappy and “edgy” dialogue. Think Adam (Leigh Whannel) with his infamous line from Saw where he referred to his “feminist, vegan punk” girlfriend. Cry_Wolf, unfortunately, falls into this formula a bit with some overly edgy lines that definitely do not hold up. There are some homophobic slurs thrown, which creates a bit of a homophobic undertone, and there’s another slur used to demean someone’s intellectual abilities.
Visually the film is quite singular in tone and color. The majority of colors in the film are fairly basic and don’t do anything to stand out, but there’s a reason for that. When Owen and Dodger create their killer they describe it as wearing a neon orange mask. Not only does the orange mask feel simple and Americana, but it pops in each shot it happens to be featured in. Each scene is filmed under very soft lights, creating a sort of rated-R Dawson’s Creek vibe. With a mixture of clever editing and high frames per second, Cry_Wolf finds itself to be visually one note while simultaneously staying visually interesting. Many films of this time had that Dawson’s Creek feeling to them, but rarely did it visually feel as much of a teen drama as Cry_Wolf does. And at the end of the day, all Cry_Wolf is is a teen drama, where the drama gets extremely out of hand! A film like this doesn’t even seem too far from plausible. Pranks go south all of the time and a prank of this nature is the perfect equation for disaster.
Let’s talk about The Wolf, or wolves. Cry_Wolf might hold the record for most people acting as the “killer” in a horror film. Based on how many people were there for the original version of the lying game, and subtracting the friends who weren’t in on the prank, there could be up to 10 people portraying the killer. Even though we have multiple people acting as the killer it almost seems as if there was only one person playing The Wolf. The Wolf’s stature is tall and brooding, giving heavy school shooter energy. The orange mask really cuts through the visual mundanity of the film, and really sticks out in your mind. If you’re from a small town like me, then you are all too familiar with orange hunting hats/masks like this. I have seen this film roughly 10 or 11 times and it always surprises me when I go back for a rewatch and there is very little inclusion of The Wolf. This is in part to the incredibly memorable poster art, only featuring The Wolf, and the Saw-like editing that makes you think you’ve seen The Wolf more than you really have.
There are only two real kills in the film, and that’s fine. If you accept the “kills” you see throughout the film then Cry_Wolf succeeds as a slasher. It’s understandable if you don’t accept the story the film takes, and that’s a risk filmmakers like Wadlow take. That being said, when Owen and Dodger create the killer email we get a montage of kill descriptions. The email montage is really the only blood and guts we get, and it works for me. Taking a cue from Saw, Cry_Wolf takes the montage scenes and uses them as visual stimuli with harsh oversaturated, and overexposed images of The Wolf killing members of the friend group. After talking with a few friends who have seen the film, most of them considered the email montage scene as their tipping point; the montage either worked for them, or that’s where they gave up on the film. As stated earlier, this film looks and feels very similar to the style that Dawson’s Creek feeling a lot of shows and films would go on to steal. The inclusion of the Saw-inspired quick-cut editing, in the exposition scene, and the harsh yellow-hued murder scenes from the email montage do an excellent job of breaking up the plainness and creating a fun and unpredictable style.
Cry_Wolf wears its reveal on its sleeve but doesn’t fault you for not catching it. When the lying game starts Dodger gives us the rules: “Avoid suspicion. Manipulate your friends. Eliminate your enemies.” That’s exactly what Dodger does. Upon meeting Owen she realizes he’s really a good guy, and would go on to later say, “You’re a good guy, that makes you predictable.” When you realize Dodger killed Becky and set up this whole twisted game to get her revenge on her teacher Rich Walker (Jon Bon Jovi), that line sticks out like a sore thumb. Yes, this film is a slasher film, but it’s also a psychological horror film. And Dodger plays us all for a fool.
This film was fun to go back and revisit. It gives me that nostalgic October horror movie marathon feeling I so desperately crave daily. It has flaws, both societally and film-wise, but acknowledging the issues is the first step. Cry_Wolf is a film I like going back to and watching again due to the fun twist, the acting, and the chaotic energy it exudes. It’s by no means a perfect slasher film, but it’s just a really fun movie to throw on. Also, I recommend watching this film with someone who has never seen it before to see their reaction to the twist. It’s always a bloody good time.