It might be hyperbolic or unhelpful to label Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s “The Wolf House” as the darkest animated movie ever made, but merely describing this stop-motion nightmare should be enough to explain the impulse.
A grimmer-than-Grimm fairy tale inspired (and ostensibly produced) by Colonia Dignidad — the cult-like Chilean enclave founded by German fugitive Paul Schäfer, an insatiable pedophile who raped the members of his community, provided shelter to Nazi war criminals like Josef Mengele, and tortured Pinochet’s enemies in exchange for his support — “The Wolf House” takes the age-old story of the Three Little Pigs and filters it through the warped mind of a profoundly traumatized little girl until it no longer resembles a fable so much as it does the final minutes of “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.”
Like the aroma of warm cookies wafting out of a witch’s hut, “The Wolf House” begins with a disarming trap, as well as the most overt political overture of a film that so damningly skewers Pinochet’s dictatorship it only needs to do it once. Colonia Dignidad isn’t mentioned by name in the prologue’s live-action propaganda reel, but the archival material is too sinister to be confused for anything else. A cheery narrator talks over benign imagery of resplendent mountains and young Aryan girls caring for their Chilean neighbors. “The dark legend around us is due to ignorance,” the voice insists, blaming “the blind fear of a community that has secluded itself from temptation in order to cultivate our hearts.” Try our locally produced honey! It’s breathtaking. The clip ends with a thank you to León and Cociña for restoring the footage, and to the Chilean government for its financial support. It’s not the same Chilean government that funded the actual film shoot some 45 years ago, but the shoutout is still loaded enough to leave a welt.
From there, we’re spirited away into a hellish world of shadows, and it seems the “colony” is behind this footage too. “Once upon a time, a beautiful girl named Maria lived in our community,” reads the onscreen text, which goes on to tell us that Maria spent all her time playing with the animals instead of working, and was cursed to spend 100 days and nights in silence. So the little blonde child ran away into a nearby forest and hid inside the first house she could find. Our first impulse is to be scared for little Maria, and not only because her whispered voiceover mentions a wolf at her back. León and Cociña introduce viewers into the house from the girl’s POV as she wanders through the haunted gray halls like she’s stepped inside a playthrough of Hideo Kojima’s “P.T.”
The shifting interior of the building takes shape before our eyes, only to mutate every time we look at it. A physical wooden door opens into a blank room where two-dimensional furniture is being drawn on the walls as Maria watches it take shape. A window pane seems to resemble a swastika for a moment before it turns into a square, but that must be your mind playing tricks on you. After all, this is a stop-motion set that’s been sprung from the imagination of a young child, and the house is so inextricable from how Maria sees it that the girl herself is painted into the backdrop before she peels out of hiding and collects her body into a crude statue of paper-mâché and masking tape.
Her body seems to transform into a new material with every frame, so constantly peeling its skin that it soon loses any semblance of an original form. Instead, it becomes the process of transformation itself. That’s when you realize “The Wolf House” has been animated to resemble one continuous shot. What’s the point of cutting away when the world is as liquid and malleable as a waking dream, and everything Maria sees is filtered through the sickness inside of her?
Maria finds two pigs in the bathroom and decides to raise them as her children. She names them Ana and Pedro, and announces that “Maria is love and care” as they slurp away at the mounds of slop around her feet and morph into humanoid chimeras with their ass cracks sticking up in the air behind them. “I will teach you everything I know.” Even at this early juncture those words land on your ears like the gravest of threats, and their echoes only grow louder as the characters dematerialize and reassemble.
The kids become increasingly Aryan as Maria raises them in the only way she knows how, even as she tries to spare them the “punishments” inflicted upon her back at the colony. Her morale starts to sour all the same. Cockroaches are drawn into the walls of the pantry as it’s emptied of food. The family eats black tar for breakfast, and spews hard streams of bile out of every hole. Pedro becomes a disembodied head. Maria grows more controlling as the porous walls of the house make it hard to know if the wolf is still at the door, or if he’s found a way inside.
“The Wolf House” seizes on the notion that people aren’t products of their environments so much as environments are products of their people; it viscerally illustrates the all-consuming stain of sexual abuse until even the hairs on our neck can feel how trauma can warp everything it touches. The story here, such as it is, is less of a linear fairy tale with a tidy morale at the end than an oozing transference of concern from Maria to her kids. Few movies have more palpably conveyed the innocence of children or the nausea of tainting it, and fewer still have done it this fast. At 30 minutes, “The Wolf House” would have left people shaken — at 72, it might just make you feel sick.
If the “Fire Walk with Me” comparisons make themselves, not even that David Lynch masterpiece was this deeply suffused with the abject degradation of child abuse. It’s built into the very fabric of the world that León and Cociña have painstakingly created together here, and their work is so dense with evil that the film itself is swallowed into the maw of its own artistry. This is powerful and uniquely disquieting cinema that should reward the curiosity of those brave enough to seek it out, but you can only stare into a bottomless abyss for so long before you lose the will to keep looking. But even if your eyes glaze over, there’s no denying the horrible truth of how Maria’s story continues to play out. “The Wolf House” reminds us that fairy tales are powerful because, once upon a time, we were all young enough to believe them.
“The Wolf House” is now available on Virtual Cinema via KimStim.