Part of the appeal of animation is that it can depict anything that can be imagined outside of the bounds of physical reality, but in practice there tend to be limits on just how creative any given film can be: the hard limits of labor and money mean that, in general, the boldest, most radical work comes in short packages. This part of the miracle of The Wolf House: it is able to extend for 70-odd minutes the kind of intense work, done by just a pair of animators, Joaquín Cociña & Cristóbal León, that you typically only see in 5 or 10 minute bursts. And this in addition to having an unreasonably high degree of difficulty, in that the 70 minutes are made up of stop-motion animation that appears to occur a single fluid take, and while I would imagine there's at least some digital stitching and smoothing to make this all come together, that's still leaving a lot of room open to fuck things up.

And then, to top it all off, it consists of the most magnificently bizarre stop-motion animation I have seen in many an age. It's mixed-media, consisting largely of papier-mâché human figures and flat wooden walls with paintings moving across them, and sometimes the papier-mâché moves into the walls and seems to transmute into the paintings, and sometimes the paintings seem to wrench themselves off the wall into three dimensions, and sometimes the papier-mâché figures form from the ground up, as tendrils of colored paper writhe up snakelike to form the crude, rounded shapes of a body. While all of this is going on, the camera twitches and jerks erratically. I would love to know if this was planned out deliberately, or if the animators simply didn't bother to be too careful about not nudging the camera in between shots, but the effect is the same either way: the image has a rickety, vibrating quality, with the whole world feeling unsteady and unstable and ready to collapse at its foundations.

It is a nerve-wracking film, then, on multiple fronts: the shuddering camera, the slithery instability of the animated objects that lumber around like badly-revived corpses and keep shifting from one medium to another, the paintings on the wall that both define the shape of the house where this all takes place and pervert that shape by disguising the walls and blurring their boundaries. And of course there's the way that extremely long takes are always a bit nerve-wracking in and of themselves, with the high chance of fucking something up, and this film raising the stakes because of how much easier stop-motion animation is to fuck up than just about any other variation of filmmaking (of course, we know that it's not fucked up, because it wouldn't have been released for us to watch it if it was. But the sense of a high-wire act remains). And all of this applies as well to the story itself, which is the most nerve-wracking bit of all: this is a psychological thriller of the most harrowing kind, with the instability of the visuals perfectly matching the assault on a protagonist, María (Amalia Kassai), who is growing increasingly unsure if what she knows to be true is true, or if she should believe the seductive whispering of the wolf (Rainer Krausse) pacing around outside the house, with his voice seeming to emanate, in a hollow way, from the walls themselves.

At which point we should pause for a history lesson, because if there's one big shortcoming with The Wolf House, it's that the script by Cociña & Cristóbal & Alejandra Moffat is not even slightly interested in context. And perhaps a Chilean viewer wouldn't need context, but I sure as hell did. So in Chile, after World War II, a group of German immigrants founded Colonia Dignidad, a self-sufficient agrarian commune. I am not sure if Paul Schäfer was one of the founders, or if he simply rose to power once he arrived at the colony in 1961, but either way he was a Nazi pedophile, because the phrase "after World War II, a group of German immigrants", particularly if the setting is South America, generally means exactly what you would suppose it to mean. As dark as that sounds, it gets darker, for Colonia Dignidad spent much of the 1970s and '80s as a prison camp, torturing dissidents on behalf of Pinochet.

This gets us back to The Wolf House, which opens with a framing narrative that is, in context, the bleakest part of a bleak movie: a short live-action prologue suggests that this was produced by Colonia Dignidad, and that years later, Cociña & Cristóbal restored it (this is of course a fiction). So what we are watching, then, is meant to be the propaganda film produced by a torture ring to justify and celebrate itself, and the horrifying break in María's psychology that we witness over the rest of the feature is the colony's threat to anyone who would try to escape it.

For that's the plot: María has escaped a cult, finds a house inhabited by two little pigs, and hides there, increasingly besieged mentally and physically by the German-accented (and sometimes German-speaking) wolf that has tracked her down, and just wants her to return, for her own good, because they love her back there. The notion that this is meant to be propaganda is grotesque enough in its own way: a cult that would think this is appealing is a cult that would have such a monstrous, broken idea of what to do with the humans in its power that it's best not to think about it, and indeed watching María's breakdown as the wolf's words trigger wave after wave of chronologically and geographically disjointed visions pretty clearly indicates that what she has already suffered tests the limits of the human capacity to be abused. The pungent horror of this is strong enough on its own without the visceral madness imparted the material by Cociña & Cristóbal's crude, nightmarish animation, and the way that physical space simply doesn't work right, even though stop-motion animation, unlike other forms, is actually bound by the laws of physics.

This sounds, I am sure, more unendurable than it is, simply because the roughness of the papier-mâché figures and the pure fairy tale register of the narrative are about as far removed from realism as it is possible to be; and the layers of ironic framing that separate us from the actual Colonia Dignidad help to make the film a bit more of an intellectual exercise. But it still packs a hell of a wallop. María might be a smudge of a personality, a crudely-made doll, but the story she enacts is one that the film, with proper context applied, wants us to recognise as based in real-world atrocities, and that absolutely gives The Wolf House a sickening potency that goes beyond its success at pure, raw horror. This kind of floating nightmare imagery isn't new territory for animation, but stretching it out for 75 minutes is, and while there's nothing new in the film after the first 20 minutes or so, this never feels like a short that got out of hand, but more like proof that the visceral effectiveness of short experimental animation can be all the more visceral when you quadruple its running time.