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The thing about a good horror movie has always been the detachment, where we as a viewer get to watch the mayhem with bemused freedom of reality, the gruesome antics of the maniac(s) maybe chilling or even nightmare-inducing, but at least the stuff of fantasy. Layer in some reality, or truthfulness to the story though and things take a decidedly darker turn, one that makes watching the murder of innocents far less fun. And here lies everything that is wrong with this latest slasher film, one based on true events.
For some, the whole story behind the notorious cult killings orchestrated by the Manson Family in the late 1960s might be only the stuff of legends, but for many, it has lived on as a particularly disturbing act of violence that still resonants even decades later. With Wolves At The Door, such is the case, a film inspired by the brutal deaths of actress Sharon Tate and several others at a late night gathering in her home, though it never makes it so clear until the end, and tells the story with a mix of select facts and dramatic license. That it really happened and certainly as horrific as the film portrays it is troubling enough, but this strips any opportunity to enjoy it as most in the genre intend, and in fact leaves it teetering uncomfortably on exploitive and even a little distasteful.
It begins with what amounts to be the most effective moment of the entire experience, and, purely on a filmmaking aspect, a brilliant bit of caustic horror when a well-to-do middle-aged couple are awakened from their sleep by a series of knocks on their door, which leads to a truly unnerving sequence that serves as a sort of introduction to what is coming. It then cuts to a bit later where we meet a very pregnant Sharon (Katie Cassidy) having dinner with Abigail (Elizabeth Henstridge) and some male friends. They are spending one last night together before Abigail heads back to Boston, though little do they know how prophetic that ‘last night’ really is as they eventually end up victims of a group of silent, relentless home invaders packing kitchen knives.
Directed by John R. Leonetti, Wolves At The Door, letting aside the historical background, plays out with many tropes in place, ones that have time and time again proven effective as they tap into the baser fears, with plenty of jump scares and creepy noises, some to the point of parody, that is surely not intentional. Leonetti is actually quite good at staging some good jumps, patient and calculating, playing into some of the expectations, with a few chilling moments in stillness as characters move about the shadowed house. Alas, given the subject matter and who these characters represent however, and it begins to crumble, mostly because the movie has an utter lack of compunction when it comes to offing these young people, training the camera on extreme bouts of violence that perhaps Leonetti is purposefully hoping will provoke unease in his audience, and if so, succeeds.
Here though is where the film plays against itself, unafraid to fill the screen with horror but pulling back on the people they are killing. No one is given a last name, so right away there seems a conscious effort to prop up a buffer between the movie and reality, but more so, we know nothing about these people, have no chance to become invested in them and beyond that, learn nothing of the motivations behind the murderers themselves, with only a brief cameo of sorts at the end that only serves to confuse rather then enlighten. The killers are almost never actually seen, their faces in darkness or with lighting, appearing blurred so they are in fact faceless, robot death machines that even as their victims scream “Why?” offer nothing for them or us. It’s too bad because in all honesty, the performances are good.
Wolves At The Door might have been more effective as a standard late night girl-party slasher movie, another home invasion film that could have benefited from diving more into the clichés. As it is, it’s nothing more than a troubling, needless horror movie that seems aggressively maneuvering itself to be controversial without really understanding the potential the real story has.
Movie description: Wolves At The Door is a 2017 horror film loosely based on real murders that shocked the entertainment world and created a legacy around the man who orchestrated it.
Director(s): John R. Leonetti
Actor(s): Katie Cassidy, Elizabeth Henstridge, Adam Campbell