Wolves at the Door Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Warner Bros. UK
Directed by John R. Leonetti
Written by Gary Dauberman
2016, 73 minutes, Rated 15
DVD released on 24th July 2017
Katie Cassidy as Sharon
Elizabeth Henstridge as Abigail
Adam Campbell as Wojciech
Miles Fisher as Jay
Like many modern horror movies, Wolves at the Door opens with an introduction heralding its basis in reality. In this case, its events really did happen though, and in a remarkably similar fashion to how they are depicted here. That the film is so shy in revealing who they happened to makes it even more difficult to get a read on. Is it a true crime reconstruction? Inspired by true events rather than retelling them? An, um, homage to true crime? What is Wolves at the Door?
All is not fully revealed until the end credits roll, and the movie’s problems are only compounded, its audience left infuriated or, even worse, lied to. What many will dismiss as a mere Strangers rip-off hides a juiced-up dramatisation of the Sharon Tate murders of 1969, as masterminded by infamous cult leader Charles Manson. Is it a distasteful reconstruction masquerading as a home invasion movie, or vice versa? What is Wolves at the Door?!
Four friends, referred to only by their first names, hold a small party at a swish but isolated Hollywood Hills mansion in honour of one of them leaving the city. The party has barely gotten started before sinister barefoot strangers break onto the grounds and into the house, picking off their victims one by one. It’s standard home invasion movie fare, slickly filmed by Annabelle director John R. Leonetti, with all of the jump scares, false-starts and creepy nerve-jangling cues one might expect from such a genre piece. After the initial mood-setting murder, one of the victims is grievously wounded, another cornered and terrorised, while the nominal lead (Elizabeth Henstridge, doing her best without a character to play) sneaks about the house, biding her time before she can attempt an escape.
Without its baggage, Wolves at the Door would be a perfectly serviceable, slightly dull home invasion movie that we’d all have forgotten about already. But it’s not, and the real lives (and horrible deaths) of these people loom heavily over the action and traditional horror movie scares. Caught in the middle, Leonetti loses his own movie, struggling not to sensationalise while also shamelessly restructuring events to make them more cinematic. It’s faithful to the minutiae and changes big details at the exact same time. What is Wolves at the Door?!?
Where it does hold back, surprisingly, is in the depicted violence and bloodshed. At the same time as reshaping them for variety and pacing, the atrocities committed are vastly dialled back from reality, both because it’d be tasteless to ‘faithfully’ do so (it really would), but also because it’d be near impossible to do without descending into Maury and Bustillo levels of gore. Ultimately, Leonetti and writer Gary Dauberman baulk, giving up once the table is set, no real taste for what they started cooking.
By then, it’s too late. The movie throws reality out of the window, in favour of a fight sequence in which someone is smacked several feet into the air by an adrenaline-pumped heroine, and the movie’s most pivotal event takes place entirely off-screen (both a relief and a cheat). Its final half hour is so overtly fictionalised that one is almost considering shrugging off the residual outrage when the film has the absolute cheek to tie all this back to Charles Manson again, complete with last names and photos of the real people, including the murderers and Manson himself. Re-contextualising the events of the movie as solid fact, it sells its cinematic flourishes as truth, its outright lies as gospel. Worst of all, via a snippet of courtroom footage, it gives Charles Manson the last word after all. And all in the name of a cheap, lazy “the Manson family are coming to get you” chill.
What is Wolves at the Door? Wolves at the Door is dishonest, distasteful, depressing and disrespectful. It’s the bad movie everyone somehow thinks Quentin Tarantino is going to make. It’s cruel, exploitative and cynical. It doesn’t even have any Beach Boys on the soundtrack. It’s unsettling, genuinely nasty, and tense. It’s well made, mercifully short, and, at the same time, boring. It’s Helter Skelter by a guy who only read the first few chapters, then forgot most of the details but went ahead and made a film about it anyway.