Made For TV: Wolf Lake (2001)

Wolf Lake

When Wolf Lake debuted on CBS back in 2001, I recall not having much interest in it because they were using real wolves to represent the transformed individuals. I always preferred practical effects along the lines of John Landis or Joe Dante’s classic movies, An American Werewolf In London or The Howling. CBS cancelled it after five episodes, but UPN picked it up some months later and re-aired those five episodes along with the four unaired episodes.

It wasn’t until I saw Wolf Lake on the Chiller channel one afternoon that this show enticed me. Then a few months ago, I read that eOne Entertainment had grabbed the rights and were getting ready to release all nine episodes in a mass market DVD. The deal was sweetened when news broke later that eOne was going to add the unaired pilot and a documentary.

When I finally got a hold of it, I made the mistake of watching the unaired pilot first. I recommend to anyone who has never seen it, do not watch the pilot first, save it for last. Why, you may ask? Because the pilot is much better than the nine episodes that got made. There’s also a commentary on that pilot with creator of the show, John Leekley, and the director, Rupert Wainright. I had no idea Leekley was also responsible for the creation of that equally short lived series, Kindred: The Embraced (1996), and had also worked as a writer on the HBO’s animated Spawn (1997 – 1999) series. Leekly says CBS came to him about wanting to do a werewolf series, not the other way around. He doesn’t say on that commentary why CBS was not pleased with the pilot, but goes into some theories in the documentary. Regardless, when the show and characters were revamped from what was set forth in that pilot, he decided to leave the series.

The 36-minute pilot is really quite good, with cinematography that clearly shows someone gave a shit, and was directed by the guy who did Stigmata no less. It starts out at night with two hunters shooting and killing a white wolf in the woods. Its mate manages to escape, but when they get close enough to examine their kill, there’s the naked body of young blond girl lying on the ground. The hunters panic and go back to town. Her mate returns, transforms into a human and lies down next to her to die in the cold with her. But a man shows up and takes the unconscious boy back home.

The biggest name in this series is Lou Diamond Phillips and he shows up at the 12-minute mark, introducing himself to a diner full of hostile patrons. His name is Noah Cassidy, and he works for the Bureau Of Wildlife And Management and is helping to reintroduce wolves back into the wild.

Jeff Fahey even shows up in the pilot playing brother to Tim Matheson’s local sheriff. Fahey also has a wife and daughter that figure prominently in the supernatural proceedings. Leekley and Wainright provide a nice commentary on how they shot it and their concerns with the real wolves they were using. Leekley also goes on to inform us all on where the series would have gone had CBS not revamped it. The killing of that girl in the beginning basically sets in motion everything that would follow, which would have been a clan war between these two types of wolfen. Yes, the pilot and the series have a nice Wolfen vibe, mostly in the use of the real wolves and their night vision. Incidentally, the term is only used in the actual show once, in the last episode.

Moving thus into the series itself after this pilot was a kind of shock to the system. In my opinion, now that I have seen the pilot, it feels like CBS really dumbed things down. The nine episodes clearly feels more like a traditional TV show, where as the pilot, had Leekley been able to flesh out his vision, would have been more mythological and more like chapters rather than episodes.

The show puts Lou Diamond Philips front and center, playing a cop named John Kanin living in Seattle with Mia Kirshner, who ends up being captured and taken back to her family in Wolf Lake. He follows her there, and one of the subplots is him trying to find her. This inferior redo also adds Sharon Lawrence and Scott Bairstow to the show, while totally excising Fahey’s character and family. The primary story arc here is about the head of the Wolf Lake clan, Willard Cates, played by Bruce McGill. He is now dying and his eventual demise is going to set off a lot of bloodshed as others vie for his ‘top dog’ position. Even though I was able to get immersed into all nine episodes, I just couldn’t shake the memory of that awesome pilot.

The 28-minute documentary, ‘The Original Werewolf Saga: Behind-The-Scenes,’ eOne created for this collection interviews only John Leekley and actor, Paul Wesley, who plays ‘teen wolf,’ Luke Cates, a character that was carried over from the pilot. Both of them discuss the show in general and the fact that they’re still good friends to this day. They also give their own takes on why they think CBS killed the show with Leekley suggesting it was probably ahead of its time. He says if it were made today it would probably end up on cable.

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