The remote Chilean commune Colonia Dignidad was founded by German expats who came to the country in the wake of World War II (fill in the blanks there). Over the decades, this quasi-Utopian community evolved into a cult, and became a hotbed of crime and child sexual abuse. Under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-90), it was converted into a detention center where dissidents were tortured and killed. This grim history forms the backdrop for Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s animated film The Wolf House, which utilizes stop-motion to conjure a level of surreal grotesqueness that would make Jan Švankmajer blush.
The heavily metaphorical film follows Maria, a young woman who has just escaped from a Dignidad-like compound, and subsequently finds herself at an isolated house in the woods, seemingly home only to two pigs. Whether the house is haunted or Maria’s traumas expand from her mind to fill the space, it rapidly undergoes a series of transformations: the pigs become humans and nightmares emerge from the walls and floors. The Wolf House is thick with layered references to Chile’s repression under Pinochet, but it’s not necessary to understand any of them to get the full brunt of its terrifying, intricately animated imagery. The framing device is that this story is in fact one of Colonia Dignidad’s brainwashing materials, a fairytale expressing a warped moral warning children against venturing into the outside world.
Stop-motion is an incredibly time-intensive process, and León and Cociña took it several steps further than most animators. It was not shot with miniatures and dolls, but life-sized figures on full sets. (They frequently set up in various galleries and museum spaces, where patrons were able to watch them at work.) This enabled them to adhere to a unique style, wherein the camera is constantly moving and the film appears to unfold in a single shot. The effect is that of a nightmare that Maria — and the viewer — cannot escape. The characters and many of the props are constructed out of papier-mâché, an unusual animation medium that proves fitting to depict the fragility and malleability of a dreamlike world. The action freely flows between 2D and 3D, the characters alternately depicted as paintings on walls, live figures in the space, or in some unsettling in-between state. The Wolf House looks like no other film, which makes its horrific imagery all the more difficult to shake from your head.
The Wolf House (2018), dirs. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, will be available for streaming starting May 15 via KimStim. As part of the US virtual theatrical run, viewers can elect to support local, participating movie theaters.