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RATED Not Rated
STUDIO Entertainment One
RUNNING TIME 465 Minutes
• Unaired Pilot with Audio Commentary
• Wolf Lake: The Original Werewolf Saga Documentary
What if The Wicker Man took place in Twin Peaks and was about werewolves?
Lou Diamond Phillips, Tim Matheson, Paul Wesley, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Graham Greene, Mia Krishner, Scott Bairstow, Sharon Lawrence, and Bruce McGill
Seattle police detective John Kanin finds his world turned upside down when his girlfriend Ruby mysteriously disappears one night after leaving his apartment. After months of searching, an anonymous tip leads Kanin back to Ruby’s hometown, Wolf Lake, a place where the residents are hiding a dark secret…
Anybody who is a bit of a television nerd knows that TV is filled with countless little gems that only got one season (if not just a handful of episodes). Shows like Firefly, Invasion, Now and Again, Earth 2, Tremors the Series, Freaks and Geeks, Kitchen Confidential, Greg the Bunny, The Oblongs, Mission Hill, Sam and Max: Freelance Police, Action, Undeclared, Drive, FreakyLinks, and Perfect Couples stayed just long to embed themselves in the hearts of a few viewers before being cancelled. One season wonders are the reason I get excited when shows with uneven first seasons like Bob’s Burgers, Hell on Wheels, Community, and Parks and Recreation get renewed. (They’re also the reason that everybody needs to quit bitching about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
Wolf Lake is ostensibly the story of John Kanin (Lou Diamond Phillps), a Seattle police detective whose girlfriend Ruby (Mia Kirshner) goes missing the night he asks her to move in; he finds signs of a struggle in her car along with a severed human hand. After exhaustively searching with no luck he suddenly gets an anonymous tip that Ruby is in an isolated Washington town called Wolf Lake. Upon arrival Kanin finds a very strange little town with a high birth-rate (many instances of quint or sextuplets), an obvious secret, and a neo-pagan cult that seems to run everything from atop the hill. Pretty quickly he figures out that Ruby is being hidden somewhere and confronts the townspeople about it, which is when we are introduced to what the show is really about: a town of werewolves living in isolation to avoid discovery.
Willard Cates (Bruce McGill) is the uncontested leader of the pack, but he has terminal cancer. His son Luke (Paul Wesley) is too young to ascend to the role. Frequent trouble-maker/total jag off Tyler Creed (Scott Bairstow) is looking like the most likely candidate, seeing as he’s the least awful but also because since he kidnapped Ruby and is forcing her to marry him under threat of Kanin’s life. Willard and his wife Vivian (Sharon Lawrence) actually know about this and seem disinclined to stop it.
Sheriff Matt Donner (Tim Matheson) is also a werewolf, but he hasn’t changed in years due to a deathbed promise to his human wife. He and Vivian have a romantic history and it’s generally agreed by everyone that he would be the best pack leader if he wanted it, but he doesn’t. He just want to keep the tenuous peace and give his daughter a chance to be normal.
Donner’s daughter Sophia (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a half-human and may not even be able to make the change from human to wolf. She relentlessly teased by the other girls in her school about this, but Luke has an obsession with her, and she thinks he’s cute (but kind of a dick). She has a good rapport with Kanin even though she’s lying to his face like everyone else.
Somewhere in this mess is where Sherman Blackstone (Graham Greene) fits in. Sherman’s a bit of an engima; he’s the town’s only Native American citizen, he’s in pretty close with the werewolves but he doesn’t appear to actually be one. He’s the one who brought Kanin to Wolf Lake in the first place but he’s just as inclined to lie to him as everyone else. Sherman claims to be over a thousand years old and appears to have some sort of healing powers, he’s aloof and seems to be playing everyone off of each with little care for who lives or dies and in one episode is seen reporting his observations to a mysterious trio of men in bowling shirts.
Wolf Lake premiered on September 19, 2001 which those of you who were there at the time may recall was a bad time to be anything on TV that wasn’t about the 9/11 terror attacks. Of course that wasn’t the only issue of poor timing going on. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer/The X-Files fad was already winding down at this time and all eight people who loved Charmed had run out of fucks to give years prior; it was four years before Supernatural’s mediocre first season would slither its way into the hearts and minds of that coveted 18 to 34 demographic and bring about a resurgence in horror and science fiction TV shows. There’s also the fact that basing a TV show on the framework of Twin Peaks (a show that viewers quickly abandoned when it showed little interest in wrapping up its central mystery in favor of paying more attention to all the quirky people in the town) about werewolves (a notoriously hard-to-sell monster, even when they’re not trying to be sold as sexy, that requires an expensive effects budget to render in a way that doesn’t make them look silly) was a business decision that had a low likelihood of success to begin with. At best, this show had two seasons, possibly followed by a petition-driven third, to look forward to. But the universe conspired against Wolf Lake from the beginning and we got only nine episodes. Nine glorious, lovable, ahead of their time episodes to pour over and think of what could have been.
At this point if you showed someone Wolf Lake in a vacuum they would say it’s a quirky play on shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries (also featuring Paul Wesley), and movies like Twilight but of course Wolf Lake did it first. Oh, you don’t believe me, well let me show you some stills and you tell me if they remind you of something:
I cannot say for sure whether Stephanie Meyer saw this show and drew inspiration from it or not, but the make-up department and cinematographer of the Twilight series almost certainly did.
Sophia and Luke are Edward and Bella to a tee, they just exist in a world that’s willing to call them on their bullshit. Sophia manages to be a poor little outcast despite the fact that she’s a reasonably attractive girl with a charming personality but there’s a good reason for that here, all her peers are werewolves and she hasn’t turned yet; they see her as a lesser being because she’s not a full-blooded lupine. Luke has every awful quality of Edward Cullen: he’s possessive, whiny, arrogant, priggish, and super creepy but Sophia’s not so moony-eyed over him as to not call him on these traits and she often holds him at arms length because of this. The show treats Luke like a villain as often as not and it adds a great deal of complexity to his character as he does have his share of sympathetic moments and likeable traits. It’s why their relationship is so compelling, they obviously care about each other a lot but they’re both to immature to handle it and Sophia is mature enough to realize this. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Paul Wesley are the all-stars of this show just for bringing so much life to what could easily have been two of the flattest characters on the show.
The adults are another matter. The werewolf pack is mired in so many layers of nonsense it’s impossible to not want to shout at the screen. I cannot put into words how many times I wanted someone to stand up and say “Hey guys, why don’t we just leave? Ruby and Sheriff Donner managed to find human mates without innocent and maybe if we didn’t treat human beings like cattle they wouldn’t want to kill us so bad and then maybe we could stop murdering each other over the right to run one tiny section of a podunk town in the middle of the Pacific Northwest.” But their high-society B.S. does mark for arch entertainment like a weird cross between Peyton Place and A Game of Thrones, so I’ll allow it. Almost every single character looks like a hero or a villain depending on the episode with only Kanin and Creed sticking to their respective alignments with solidarity.
Lycanthropy is used for a number of metaphors like classism, racism, puberty, loss of virginity, addiction, sexual frustration, and tribalism. A lot of mileage is gained over nine episodes with one topic and often Wolf Lake does a more interesting job of touching on topics than the things it’s trying to emulate. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but it’s easy to overlook that it was doing things no other shows were doing at the time. It’s telling that this little forgotten show is packed to the gills with what are now considered to be industry tropes.
Part of the praise should be heaped on Carnivale creator Daniel Knauf who is listed as a consulting producer and directly responsible for two of the nine episodes. While it’s not as refined, you can feel Knauf’s influence on the story and the general feel of the show from the first episode.My opinion is that this show needs to be remade. Luke and Sophia would have to be recast since both actors are now too old, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has better things to do with her time, but all the other actors have nothing going on and I’m sure Lou Diamond Phillips would like to be able to pay for food and rent again.
There are problems with Wolf Lake, of course. Very little thought has been given to how this whole werewolf thing works. In some episodes they exhibit superhuman strength in human form or the ability to regrow limbs and heal wounds; still they’re susceptible to things such as bullets and poison. In the first episode it shows multiple women with litters of children yet all the main characters with kids only seem to have one or two; even among the adults the only character with siblings is Willard who has one brother. They seem to have telepathy yet it’s rarely used even in scenes where using it would directly benefit a character.
John Kanin is another weak link. Lou Diamond Phillips does a great job and the character is likeable and compelling, even his over-the-top intensity fits with the arch tone of the show, but the show just doesn’t really know what to do with him. We know where Ruby is by the end of the first episode even though John doesn’t and we know he won’t find her anytime soon, so the show progresses as its protagonist impotently loiters in town not solving the mystery he was sent there to solve and not believing or even suspecting that the towns secret has anything to do with werewolves. A few episodes in, Sheriff Donner hires him on as a deputy so he’ll have an ally when Tyler and his stupid Jonathan Taylor Thomas haircut make a play for his life; but since he doesn’t let Kanin in on any of the town’s secrets it seems more like he feels sorry for him and just wants to give him something to do.
Ultimately, Wolf Lake is a solid show for what it is. Of the nine canonical (more on that below) episodes, only one is weak and even it has some good moments courtesy of a side-plot involving Kanin tripping balls on some psychotropic stew. There is, however, no closure at all. The final episode appears to be a mid-season turning point of the story as Kanin and Ruby meet again (though Ruby’s a wolf so he doesn’t know it’s her) and Kanin maybe gets turned into a werewolf. We don’t really know how one becomes a wolf in this universe but the original plan for the series was to make Kanin a werewolf in the second episode after having suffered a wolf bite). It’s a good episode, but as a finale it’s extremely unfulfilling and doesn’t answer any of the big questions introduced. From a buyer’s perspective I would really only recommend this if you’re already a fan of the show or just like digging up forgotten TV oddities, otherwise you’ll just be kinda disappointed.
In addition to the nine episodes, this set includes the unaired pilot which is an entirely different show. Most of the main characters are there: Tim Matheson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead play the sheriff and his daughter Sophia, but both of them appear to be human and only vaguely aware of the werewolves. Paul Wesley still plays Luke, though he’s more of a bad-body type in the pilot and Bruce McGill still plays the werewolf patriarch but doesn’t seem to be Luke’s father this time around.
The pilot concerns a tribal war between two rival clans of werewolves in Wolf Lake who are concealing their growing number amongst the large population of reintroduced wolves put there by the forestry service. Lou Diamond Phillips is practically a side-character; a forestry agent who is secretly working for the FBI to see if the werewolves are a credible threat. The only character who doesn’t change is Graham Greene as a slightly less jovial Native American with healing powers who seems to be on everyone’s side at once.
The Twin Peaks similarities are even more stark in the pilot. We have the murdered girl, the nice-guy Sheriff who suspects its the local tough guy, and the sweet innocent girl who believes it wasn’t him. Lou Diamond Phillips is such an obvious Agent Dale Cooper clone that I expected him to start rhapsodizing about pine trees and coffee and talking into a tape recorder.
Just about every change from the pilot to the series is for the the better; film stock and cinematography improves, characters become less broad, the cast is reduced to a less disorienting size, and the writing improves a great deal.
This set has English subtitles on all the episodes as well as a short documentary and audio commentary on the unaired pilot by series creator/producer John Leekley and episode director Rupert Wainwright.
I did not see this show in its initial run but those who did have complained about the music on the DVD which as been changed due to licensing reasons. So if you particularly loved the soundtrack that may be a deal breaker for you.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars