Dinowolf/Dire Wolf (2009/2011) **˝
I don’t know which surprises me more, that Fred Olen Ray is still making movies, or that a monster rampage flick constructed exactly according to the SyFy formula (whether or not it actually premiered on that channel) would be among his better ones. Neither of those revelations is half as surprising, though, as learning that Ray’s decent late-period, SyFy-style monster romp was the one called Dinowolf. Seriously— DINOwolf?!?! As in, it’s kind of a wolf, but it’s also kind of a dinosaur?! I think we can all agree that the odds of a movie with that title having any value at all were pretty close to zero, but this is in all seriousness the best thing I’ve seen from Ray in a very long time— maybe even ever. It’s a quick, efficient, and thoroughly competent take on a story that the Fred Olen Ray of the 90’s would have quarter-assed his way through without a trace of embarrassment, and if that sounds like damningly faint praise, then I refer to you Dinosaur Island and Alienator to demonstrate just what an improvement it really represents.
A genetic research laboratory down the road from some middle-of-nowhere cow town has been making a monster at the behest of the US Army. Specifically, they’ve been injecting genes harvested from bones of the extinct North American canid known colloquially as the dire wolf into human stem cells to create something like a non-transforming werewolf. Lorenzo Cameron would be so proud… I can only assume that the aptly-named Dr. Renault (Ian Patrick Williams, from TerrorVision and Robot Jox), the mastermind of the scheme, was expecting either slower maturation or less problem-solving intelligence carried over from the human side of the genome, because his night-shift assistant, Tina (Dawn Ann Billings, of Trancers III and Warlock: The Armageddon), seems awfully surprised when the prototype wolf man lets itself out of its incubation chamber and kills both her and security guard Ed Reilly (Steve Lee Allen).
Reilly was a creature of habit, and when he fails to show up for breakfast the following morning at his favorite diner in the aforementioned cow town, his absence is noted by fellow creature of habit (actually, “OCD sufferer” would be closer to the mark) Sheriff Parker (Maxwell Caulfield, from The Supernaturals and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat). The sheriff’s efforts to check up on Ed will become his in-route to the case of the escaped werewolf. Meanwhile, Parker’s foster-son, Jim Martin (Super Shark’s Blake Griffin), is also drawn in during the course of his professional duties. He’s the local game warden, so obviously a big, weird animal on the loose killing people is very much his problem. Other featured townspeople— most notably Jim’s ex-girlfriend, Amber Watson (Kimberly Horner)— learn about the creature via the distastefully direct route of being attacked by it.
Naturally the army doesn’t like losing track of its werewolves, and just as naturally, the top brass would rather not own up to the Pentagon having a mad science sub-department. Colonel Hendry (Gil Gerard, of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Reptisaurus), the head of the dire wolf project, reacts swiftly to news of the monster’s escape. He dispatches Special Agents Reed (Kristen Howe) and Connors (Silent Venom’s John L. Curtis, who also went on to Super Shark) to the lab with orders to find the wolf man and bring it back alive. Needless to say, secrecy is a priority in this undertaking.
It’s rather inconvenient for the agents, then, that their arrival at the lab is followed within minutes by that of Sheriff Parker. Reed and Connors have just barely had time to ascertain that the only survivors among the laboratory staff are Dr. Renault himself and a technician named Jaime (Amber Krzys) when Parker barges in on them. On the upside, acting in concert with local law enforcement is probably the smart thing to do here, anyway. If Renault’s wolf man singlehandedly slaughtered everyone in the lab complex but him and Jaime, then it’s surely more than a match for two measly G-men— excuse me, G-persons. Reed and Renault snowball Parker with the unlikely but not outrageous story that the escaped killer is a genetically modified gray wolf that was being used as an experimental animal for cancer research, and secure thereby his and his staff’s aid in the hunt. Following the trail of bodies through the woods leads Parker, the agents, and the scientists into contact with Jim and Amber, and with the main cast thus fully assembled, Dinowolf gets down to the business of being one of the most perfectly by-the-numbers monster movies you’ll ever see.
By-the-numbers it may be, but Dinowolf is also strangely effective at times. A lot of effort went into establishing the little town as a setting, and although that effort doesn’t pay off to the same degree, the effect is akin to that of the similarly heavy background investment in The Car. Mind you, it helps that this is one of Fred Olen Ray’s better casts. In less capable hands, things like Sheriff Parker’s enslavement to his own routines or the love-triangle subplot involving Jim, Amber, and a doofus named Billy (Troy Holden) could have become very tiresome. Hell, just look at the other major subplot— the one about two Beavis-and-Butthead-like mooks who never outgrew their adolescent enmity toward Jim— for an illustration of how badly awry the whole movie could have gone with regard to the small town slice-of-life stuff. Another significant point in Dinowolf’s favor is the nearly exclusive use of practical special effects. It’s funny. For decades, horror and sci-fi fans have carped about the limitations of the man in the monster suit, but nineteen years after Jurassic Park kicked off the digital effects revolution in earnest, it’s clear that the old ways are best for nearly any filmmaker working below a shockingly high price point. Dinowolf’s monster suit is undeniably pretty weak, but it’s greatly preferable to a comparably underfunded animated wolf man, and Ray makes decent use of cinematographic and editing trickery to hide and/or minimize the costume’s shortcomings. That goes double for the gore effects, of which there are impressively many here. Dinowolf bucks the increasingly annoying trend of reliance on CGI gore, and in doing so proves that there’s nothing to be gained from resorting to digital splatter unless you have both the need and the resources for something like Harvey Dent’s burned-up half-a-face in The Dark Knight. The greatest strength of Dinowolf, however, is something that shouldn’t be worthy of special praise, but has inescapably become so. This movie has exactly the right amount of story to fill its running time, and vice versa. Neither hurried nor bloated, underdeveloped nor overstuffed, Dinowolf is more than just a swiftly paced film that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It is lean nearly to the point of athleticism, in a way that productions higher up the cinematic food chain seem quite simply to have forgotten how to be. It’s the surest sign, I think, that the majors spend too goddamn much money on their movies these days that it takes somebody like Ray— who once wrote a book about his personal heroes called The New Poverty Row— to make the kind of trim, nimble, middleweight films that the big studios used to turn out all the time.