In celebration of the week of Halloween finally arriving, I decided that my last review in this month of my Tim Curry film exploration would be a horror film. Now, I could have easily picked something from his stint on Tales from the Crypt, but another film caught my eye. Labeled as a horror-comedy, 2001’s Wolf Girl (alternately named Blood Moon) sounded interesting due in part to the popularity of the recent fourth season of American Horror Story. I don’t follow AHS, but the “freak show” set-up is certainly one that works as well in horror as it does at presenting sympathetic character studies of the people behind the acts. However, don’t be fooled by the labels I listed earlier: I wasn’t prepared at all going into this film. Wolf Girl is a hefty dose of character study, a little bit of horror, and none of the comedy. This doesn’t make the film bad per sé, but by no means would I call watching it a comfortable experience.
Right from the beginning the film is somewhat disturbing as we open up on a group of four kids—Krystal, Beau, Cory, and Wiffler—talking about how a wolf is suspected of killing one of the town’s cats. This group of kids, though, is comprised of a bunch of sociopaths who go around killing animals for “points” and almost use a slingshot to take out a rabbit before they’re stopped by a meek boy named Ryan. So, naturally, the asshole crew begins bullying Ryan. What an endearing cast. Luckily the scene shifts to a “freak show” coming into town, more specifically “Harley Dune’s Natural Wonders and Amazing Curiosities”. The asshole crew (as I’ll refer to them for the rest of this review) gets a look at the titular wolf girl and calls her a freak, and thus the tone of the movie is set.
At the show, Tara (the wolf girl) is already getting harassed by said asshole crew, and when her part in the show finally comes, they throw dog poop at her. After this mess, Harley (Tim Curry as, surprisingly, not a villain) begins worrying about how badly Tara has been treated, but only offers words of support rather than doing something to stop it. And the asshole crew gloats about their attack while walking back home through the forest.
A day later, Tara finds her way to Ryan’s house after being told he can help her. She is understandably apprehensive. But he reveals that his mother—who works for a cosmetics research lab which tests on animals that she then smuggles back to her home—has been doing research on depilatories (hair removers). Tara, who lives with hypertrichosis (a syndrome where excess hair grows all over the body), is willing to try anything to get a chance at a normal life—the fact that one mouse has had positive reactions to Ryan’s mother’s un-approved drug is enough for her to start treatments. However, side effects begin immediately: Tara starts to have visions of the forest (presumably what the one real wolf in the movie is seeing), and begins having hallucinations of her tearing apart animals and clawing people’s faces off.
The other members of the freak show begin noticing that something is wrong about Tara, yet since the show is doing better financially than it has in years, people are somewhat hesitant about bringing it up. Though the experimental depilatory drug is working, Tara’s side effects are getting worse. She desires normal life so much, though, that she lies about the side effects to Ryan, saying she has none, and brushes off the worries from her carnie family. Worse still is that the bullying from the asshole crew is getting progressively more dangerous; they even throw darts at her during a show.
Soon, thanks to the bullying, one of the crew ends up dead. After accidentally discovering Beau’s secret—he suffers from self-esteem issues due to having a micropenis—Beau chases Tara down into the woods and points a gun at her, willing to kill the girl in order to keep his secret. Yeah, he doesn’t survive the encounter.
Through all of this, it seems that in the face of lucrative profits, Harley begins to forget that his troupe is full of actual people, not “freaks”. He finds that this town really loves the fear aspect of the acts, so during that night’s show he amps up the puffery about how much of a freak Tara is. Tara, now hopped up on two depilatory doses she stole from Ryan after he told her he couldn’t give her anymore (it wasn’t safe), begins to choke Harley and ends up escaping into the woods. With more than good reason, too: the rest of the asshole crew immediately pin her as Beau’s murderer and, like any good monster chase, the town hunts her town with torches.
Krystal, who has been the main agitator of Tara’s bullying, runs into Tara first. She doesn’t recognize the wolf girl, however—the depilatory worked and all the excess hair on Tara’s body has been removed. Krystal gets closer and closer to hairless Tara, trying to figure out what’s up with this strange girl she met in the forest, but cannot react fast enough before Tara rips out her tongue. Ryan catches up with them soon after and tries to talk Tara down, but all she can see is the gun in his hand. The real wolf shows up for the showdown between the two and a gunshot sounds through the forest. However, when the metaphorical smoke clears, it’s the real wolf who died and not Tara. The townsfolk truly believe Tara was a real werewolf, but Ryan knows full well that Tara is still alive. She isn’t found, however, and is left alone to live as a wolf for the rest of her life.
Super fun comedy, right guys?
To be fair, it only seems to be Wikipedia that thinks this film in any way a comedy. Still, the drama in this film is thick enough to cut through with a knife. And while I can appreciate the themes it tried to cover, I’m not sure if it covered any of them particularly well. I think one of the more obvious morals is that “freaks” are people too, and I do think the film did a good job with this one. Everyone in the traveling act is maybe not nicer than the regular people, but they’re certainly more interesting. Take Athena for instance. She’s the troupe’s fat lady—advertised at coming in at more than 600 pounds. Yet while it would have been easy for her to become a joke character, she’s clearly one of the most emotional and loved people in the troupe. She cares deeply for her carnie family and Tara most of all, and the two of them forge a mother-daughter relationship. Though in private, she comes off as a little embarrassed of the things she can’t do because of her weight and that she must ask others for their assistance, she still manages to own her body and her sexuality by dressing up in fine clothes for her display. All of the carnies have this sort of depth to them, and it’s great to see them play off each other and genuinely care for each other.
Going along with this is something I’d put as a bullet point to the previous lesson: everyone is a freak. This they did not do particularly well. The only reason I even add it is because the writers of Wolf Girl seemed so determined to give every main character something that would make them seem freaky, especially the antagonists. Once it’s revealed, it’s clear that despite his tough exterior, Beau considers himself a freak for his micropenis. It’s something he can hide from the others, but the tears in his eyes as he hunts down Tara shows that he’s truly haunted by this aspect of himself that he feels he has to hide. This, I think, is a good example of how to show this lesson, especially because it shows so much of his insecurities and how much he realizes he’s like the girl he’s been bullying—even that he fears she may be better than him because she can live in the open with her “freakishness”.
However, Krystal’s case is much more insulting. From the beginning Krystal seemed like a “freak” to me because of how much she just didn’t care about hurting the people and animals around her, yet this wasn’t what the film chose to point out. No, Krystal’s freakishness seems to be her implied lesbianism. Once she meets hairless Tara in the forest, it becomes evident pretty quickly that Krystal’s hitting on the girl. As Tara gets close, Krystal doesn’t back away and when it looks like Tara’s going to kiss her, all Krystal says is “you wanna do it?” And then she gets her tongue bit out. Krystal’s freakishness could be read as her living without a tongue, since Tara doesn’t end up killing her, but the narrative has framed it so that people directly involved with the main conflict are punished for their perceived freakishness. Even after Beau’s body is found by the asshole crew, their only words are words of cruelty about his penis (which had been exposed). So, it’s fair to make the jump that Krystal’s comeuppance was due in part because her sexuality was “abnormal”. This is disgusting. And following along with this narrative, Ryan (the character coded as the weirdest of all the normies) suffers from the freakish quality of being kind to animals. Wow. What a weirdo. (Imagine me rolling my eyes here.) This message in particular is just all over the place, and is ultimately really harmful.
Lastly, one of the other major themes seemed to be a “beauty is the beast” kind of thing. None of the people in this film can stand being ugly in any sense of the word. Ryan’s mother—the cosmetic scientist—is obsessed with looking nice, so much so that she seems to walk around the laboratory without proper lab attire and with her hair down. She even goes so far as to say about the freak show that “ugly people shouldn’t be put on display for other people to stare at” and that “they should be allowed to stay at home”. Like, wow.
Furthermore, the only reason Tara was attacked in the first place was because Krystal and Beau found her disgusting. And, of course, the final part of having the so-called “prettier” hairless Tara be much more monstrous than she ever was with the hair on her body. I get it: pretty people are bad, but this kind of ham-fisted message certainly doesn’t add anything to the film. This is especially true when considering that Tara, who was repeatedly told she’s hideous, doesn’t get a victory in the end or any sense of closure. Sure, she kills her bullies, but she’s also ostracized by the town—or thought to be dead and should stay that way—and abandoned by her carnie family. She’s not a wolf and not a human, there is no place for her no matter how pretty or ugly she is. This isn’t a look at how pretty people are the most vile or even how beauty can make us do monstrous things in its name, this is just… sad.
Although I’m still arguing with myself about whether or not I liked Wolf Girl, another thing I must give it credit for is not utilizing the Romani stereotype that seems to be common in these sorts of things. And they had ample opportunity to as well. Carnies aside, it turns out that Tara is actually from Romania and was taken from there by Harley after her mother left her on Harley’s doorstep. Yet, this never comes up in anything more than passing. While being Romani and being Romanian don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, and it would have been nice to have a bit of that representation openly either way, I don’t trust this movie enough to believe that said representation wouldn’t have been problematic and insulting concerning either. I do think that ultimately Wolf Girl is a movie that is worth seeing, but much like the manga Oyasumi PunPun it’s not a movie that you’ll feel good finishing, or at any point while watching. It’s a trial to get through simply because of how brutal the teasing is and how hopeless the film feels. If you do consider watching it, however, please be wary if you have triggers for needles, guns, nudity, blood, or anything relating to weight and eating disorders. I wouldn’t call Wolf Girl graphic, but it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the world. And maybe that’s what I can recommend about it most.