Wolf Review: This Unhinged Pulp Crime Horror Won’t Be For Everyone

Wolf has a sick sense of humour and has only a passing relationship with reality, but you won’t be bored.

Ukweli Roach as DI Jack Caffery in BBC crime thriller Wolf
Photo: Hartswood Films Ltd,Sam Barker

If you have to admire commitment – and you do – then you have to admire Wolf, a new BBC detective series from the producers of Sherlock, adapted from the seventh book in Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffery novels. (Why start with book seven? Why not?! says Wolf, and then makes “Why not?!” its mantra for six unhinged episodes.) From its traumatised detective to its scenery-chewing baddies, Wolf is fully committed to the pulp crime genre. Don’t go in expecting realism. You won’t find it. 

You will find Ukweli Roach (BlindspotAnnika) as Jack Caffery, a London DI settling in back home after a few years working in Wales. Roach makes a plausible enough lead, and a useful straight man to counter the madness elsewhere. Not that Caffery doesn’t come with his own slice of that.

Caffery’s regulation-issue TV detective Unresolved Trauma is the childhood disappearance of his brother. After a sibling spat, 10-year-old Ewan ran off, never to be seen again. Jack’s convinced that their paedophile neighbour abducted him, a belief that the paedophile neighbour is only too happy to encourage by leering at Jack from across the street and winding him up with macabre pranks. Why? Well, why not?

In an extreme coincidence, Caffery’s push to find out what happened to Ewan 25 years earlier leads him back to a case he worked on the periphery of in Wales.

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Five years earlier in Monmouthshire, two teenagers were brutally killed in what became known as “The Donkey Pitch Murders”. Their killer was caught, confessed and imprisoned, and so why, on the anniversary of the deaths, is a local family targeted with a gruesome memorial? What do the wealthy Anchor-Ferrers (played by Juliet Stevenson, Owen Teale and Annes Elwy), their dog Bear, and visiting police detectives Honey and Molina (Sacha Dhawan and Iwan Rheon) have to do with it all? 

All sorts, it turns out. Not much of it… rational. This is a twisting tale that shouts “all change!” at such regular intervals so that you can never be sure quite what, or who, you’re watching. 

Why you’re watching it is easy – cheap thrills, mostly courtesy of Dhawan (Doctor WhoThe Great) and Rheon (Game of ThronesMisfits). These two are having an absolute ball. If you thought Dhawan went big in his role as The Master on Doctor Who… well, you’re right, he chewed the face off that part, but he clearly also left something in the tank for Wolf.

(Why’s it called Wolf, by the way? Why not?! There’s an explanation for the title in Hayder’s book, but it’s been excised here.)

Rheon too, is like a kid high on Robinson’s Fruit Shoots and let loose on his nan’s furniture. Channelling Father Dougal from Father Ted, he’s wide-eyed, unpredictable, and brings a wild energy to proceedings. He and Dhawan make an excellent, darkly comedic double-act.

I say darkly comedic because Wolf is one sick puppy. You thought a single snarling paedophile was enough? Double it. Add a drug-dealing cult leader with a thing for snakes, a Hazmat-suited killer who struts his stuff to 1980s hits, plus torture, human entrails, bags of bones, a crocodile attack, some shagging, a sword-wielding lip sync to The Marriage of Figaro, and more. The plot is as blood-splattered as the opening credits. Wolf’s whole approach is one of throwing enough guts at the wall to see what sticks, and what slides greasily to the ground.

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Enough sticks to keep things moving for six episodes. Case-wise, the investigation proceeds as you’d expect (if not according to any recognisable police protocol). Suspects are interviewed, then, when it turns out they were holding back, revisited again and again until the real story emerges. There’s a bloody denouement that brings together both story strands and leaves a Shakespearean body count behind it.

The whole thing works best when it leans into its heightened, outrageous and gruesome side. It falls down at any attempts to create pathos or lean into real emotional territory. A domestic abuse background plot is badly handled as a saviour narrative, and in the context of this specific zoo of human wrongness, any serious point this show was trying to make is undermined. The same goes for Wolf’s approach to mental illness which is alarmingly… retro, to put it kindly. 

You might well be puzzled, put off your tea, and left with questions after this pulp romp, but after a slow first episode, while it unspools, you should not be bored. 

Wolf airs on Mondays and Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC One from July 31. All episodes are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.


3 out of 5