Wendigo Movie Review

An old friend took a weekend trip with me to Rhode Island, deep in the woods where I grew up. When night fell, she became instantly terrified by the silence, gripping my arm and asking me to go outside the house and check whether there was anyone out on the lawn.

The imagination is a powerful tool, untrustworthy but also oddly protective. When you're a child, sometimes it's all you have to shield you from the hard, cold facts of reality. Eight-year-old Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, The Cider House Rules) is our perceptive guide into the world of the unknown during a long weekend trip to snowy Vermont. Real danger comes into his path when his father, George (Jake Weber, The Cell), hits a deer, leading to an apprehensive confrontation with angry backwoods hunters. These men with guns want some retribution for losing their prize -- the antler has been cracked. As Kim (Patricia Clarkson, The Pledge) tells her son not to worry, we wonder whether writer-director Larry Fessenden is taking us into unsettling Flannery O'Connor territory.

Wendigo is a slow, steady heartbeat of a horror film that emotionally keeps is in that scary place where bad things can happen. When the family eventually arrive at their cabin, threats linger discreetly under the surface. Walks in the woods, downhill sledding, even a visit to the local village all carry a nearly imperceptible sense of danger. When chopping wood, George turns to Miles and asks, "Do you know how to use an axe?" Be careful, or you might slip.

The thread of parental responsibility emerges as George and Kim struggle to be attentive to Miles, dealing with their own issues as an affectionate but occasionally disconcerted couple. Fessenden takes ample time to develop the family unit, allowing tender scenes like a spelling game between father and son ("Spell onomatopoeia!") to set up a relationship that becomes crucial when his story takes a sharp turn into the uncanny.

At nearly the midpoint of this taut ninety-minute nightmare, relief is found for Miles in the form of a chimerical monster he invents, based on an overheard legend. The Wendigo is an elemental spirit that appears in various guises, taking the shape of wind, trees, or a hungry deer-man with sharp antlers that roams the wilderness. All we can know for sure is that it can fly at you like a sudden storm without warning from everywhere.

When one of the disenfranchised hunters (John Speredakos, in a richly nuanced performance that avoids country bumpkin typecasting) starts lurking around the property looking for trouble, Wendigo transforms into a fever dream collage of frightening images. Miles channels his mystical creation as an instrument of revenge against the forces which might rise up against the family. Traumatic events come full circle in the eerily poetic finale.

Fessenden has built an impressive body of work with a trio of creepy low-budget horror titles. His eco-Frankenstein fable No Telling gave way to the sensual tapestry of dread found in his East Village vampire romance, Habit (one of the finest genre films of the '90s, something my editor would take me to task for, but judge for yourself). Completing the trilogy is Wendigo, ostensibly his "werewolf" movie. The first image is Miles smashing together two dolls, one of them the wolfman and the other a robot. Read the allegory as you will.

Beautifully lensed by the inimitable Terry Stacey (who found more benevolent sides of nature in Tom Gilroy's Spring Forward), Wendigo achieves a lyrical quality that comes close to the fabric of dreams. The peculiar stop-motion tracking shots through wilderness blur into a mosaic of haunting textures, complemented by the hard folk beats of Michelle DiBucci's score. Credit should also be extended to the surreal Wendigo designs (created by Fessenden, supervised by Tim Considine), hand-crafted effects that could never have been achieved through the limitations of computer generated imagery.

The greatest magic trick Fessenden pulls out of his hat is the stunning performance by Erik Per Sullivan, blessed with a face that conveys so much while seeming to do so little. There's something both old and young in his features, possessed with the bright-eyed intelligence of, well, maybe a young Larry Fessenden. Wendigo was inspired by a story told by the filmmaker's first grade teacher that scared Young Larry. Hey, thanks a lot, Lar -- you scared the shit out of me, too.

Human behavior can be disconcerting, even cruel. We grow afraid of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, so stories are created as metaphors or reflections to help us deal with it. Sometimes, humor can be cathartic, laughing at our own humiliation or pain, but Fessenden chooses to take us to a darker realm. Wendigo is a mirror of our psyche, the place we're otherwise too afraid to go.

She shrugs in the snow.

Comments

Wendigo Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: NR, 2001

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