Friday, December 30, 2016

Wolf Lake (1980)

It’s hard not to compare this outdoor thriller with Columbia’s OPEN SEASON, the Peter Fonda film. Both are obscure productions about middle-aged men on a hunting excursion into Canada who stalk a younger man and woman as prey. WOLF LAKE, written and directed by western veteran Burt Kennedy (SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF), is the better film with better defined characters and a more proficient layering of mood upon the action.

Rod Steiger (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT), who never wore a toupee that didn’t look like a dust bunny swept from behind his basement’s water heater, plays a war veteran who brings along Marine buddies Richard Herd (ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN), Jerry Hardin (THE HOT SPOT), and Paul Mantee (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS) on his annual vacation into the wilderness. Residing in the next cabin are bearded David Huffman (BLOOD BEACH) and his girlfriend Robin Mattson (BONNIE’S KIDS).

Put off by Huffman’s beard and the discovery that the young couple are living together and unmarried, the conservative Steiger, whose son died in Vietnam, blows off steam by giving the kids a hard time. But when he also learns Huffman is an Army deserter, the harassment grows meaner and uglier, pushing the pacifist Huffman into a STRAW DOGS scenario in which violence can only be countered with greater violence.

While WOLF LAKE, symbolically set in the bicentennial year of 1976, makes clear that Steiger and his buddies are the villains, Kennedy takes care to let both sides make their case. Huffman is no coward, but left Vietnam after witnessing horrific atrocities that made him question his and his country’s role in the war. Steiger, too often an unconvincing ham, is slightly more restrained than usual and completely believable as his rage boils over into psychosis.

Kennedy asks the audience to swallow a lot. Sure, Steiger’s character is tumbling into madness, but Hardin, Mantee, and Herd seem to be playing decent guys, and their sudden transformation into drooling rapists is hard to believe. Kennedy makes up for any minor plot discrepancies with a thrilling third act that finally lapses into cliche. Huffman, a drip of a leading man in BLOOD BEACH, is more effective here, easily holding his own with the blustery Steiger in their scenes together.

No comments: