AMAD-Horror Edition:Wendigo

18 Oct

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cinemagrade bChances are you might have heard of Larry Fessenden, and if you have, most of his buzz is probably coming off of this 2001 movie. Larry directed a creepy and sometimes off-putting vampire film called Habit early in his indie career and followed that movie up with this one. And after making Wendigo, he apparently became obsessed with the titular mystical beastie since both of his following efforts would feature the dark forest spirit prominently. The Last Winter was an eco-thriller with a ghost story wrapped around it, and his episode of Fear Itself, written by AICN’s Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, was a grotesque little tale with Doug Jones as a most hideous wendigo.

But for my money, it’s this little feature here that works the best. Wendigo isn’t solely about some monster in the woods, though. It’s really about the ways in which children see the world as they grow up and tells the story of a little boy coming to grips with the difference between the phantoms of his imagination and the harsher dangers of the real world. It’s an odd spooky trip and whole chunks of it play like The Shining done documentary style.

 Wendigo opens with a stressed-out photographer (Jake Weber) taking his family on a vacation into snowy up-state New York. Weber’s wife (Patricia Clarkson) and his young son (Erik Per Sullivan from Malcolm in the Middle) seem slightly distant to Weber, and there are suggestions made that his anger is out of hand; though this is more of an issue of Weber being harsh or inaccessible than some sort of Jack Torrance alcohol-fueled abuse. Almost immediately into the film, Weber is given a chance to test his anger management skills when his car hits and kills a deer and to add ignoramuses to injury a couple of backwater yokels roll up in their pick-up and menace the family. The deer that Weber killed is the same animal these would-be hunters had been tracking all day. Weber has difficulty in being emasculated in front of his family by the lead hick, played by John Speradokis.

 Speradokis is exactly the kind of local that films painting a foreboding view of rural hideaways specialize in. He has dug in well and good to his surroundings, creating a world view that doesn’t extend beyond his back porch and has as its gravitational center the legend of his own greatness. Every word and every action that intrudes into this world is seen as a threat and an affront; all invaders must be punished. He smashes up against the more naïve, gentile sensibilities of the visiting family and in this round he wins, even though he leaves the scene enraged and wound-up. Short of pummeling Weber while his boy wails in the car, this resident Cletus won’t find any satisfaction. While grateful for sidestepping an actual physical confrontation, Weber seethes at the injustice and insult he has suffered and finds himself fuming to his family later when they reach the cabin.

Wendigo operates from that first scene onwards as a collection of observed rituals and interactions. It has a quiet, mounting dread to it, like The Shining. There isWeber’s anger, his wife’s growing resentment at that anger, and  Miles'(Sullivan) anxiety and fear as his parents struggle through this. Fessenden is happy to spend time with the family well beyond the point of accumulating plot info or character backstory. Scenes of Weber and Clarkson making love to stave off the growing worry they face, or Weber gently reciting Frost poetry to his son as they hike through the white expanse of the Catskills wilderness establish the mood and structure of this family unit. They have issues, yes, but they are working through them and the bond is clear.

An early trip to a general store gives Miles the chance to talk to the native American shopkeeper who tells him the Wendigo legend. After that, the beast captures Miles imagination, and in his(and Fessenden’s) revisionist take, the creature becomes a part of the forest itself, incorporating the spooky claw-like branches of the surrounding trees and wearing the eerie head of the slaughtered deer as its totem.

 Violence eventually enters the picture–from an outside force that isn’t the Wendigo–and the entire thrust of the movie changes. What was building as a creepy family drama about displaced civility in a rural backwater becomes a hallucinogenic trip through Miles’ mind. The forest comes alive, and the Wendigo takes on the role of avenger, tracking those that would harm or disrupt the façade of innocence surrounding the boy. Speradokis’ angry hillbilly re-enters the frame, and finds himself trapped in a nightmare where something large and fearsome stalks him.

 At this point, some of Fessenden’s imagery becomes kind of silly, and the monster itself is a bit undercooked. It works as a savage metaphor and a spooky legend, but when we see the Wendigo standing on its own two hooves, it’s a little much to take. No matter, the wendigo is a side-step, a clever distraction from the real center of the film: Miles.

 

 

The plot and the theme of Wendigo revolve around Miles, and Sullivan’s performance is exactly what Fessenden needs to make his vision work. Miles’ elfin features and wan innocence contrast the growing trouble and threatening atmosphere of the forest. Life is changing around him, and all of the supernatural elements that populate the film may or may not be real. It’s possible that they are both the defense mechanisms of his young mind and actual manifestations, brought on by some unknown gift the boy may possess. As the storm rises, Miles is in both the eye of it and the pressure system driving it.

 Wendigo does the one thing that The Shining  failed to do, although in all other ways that film is more successful. It puts the power and the control in the hands of the young boy and it patiently observes the results. It’s a creepy and spooky film, but I left it intrigued by the ideas at the center regarding the resilience and strength of a child’s mind and soul.

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3 Responses to “AMAD-Horror Edition:Wendigo”

  1. Xiphos October 19, 2009 at 9:27 am #

    This movie really didn’t work for me since I felt the individual parts did. The writing was good so was the acting, cinematography and direction. Yet taken all together I was not thrilled with this movie. Oh well that’s the fun of talking about movies right?

    • Meredith October 19, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

      I agree, this movie didn’t really work for me either – it had a problem deciding what sort of film it wanted to be, and veered unevenly between different genres: monster movie, scary-hillbilly-in-the-woods movie, or psychological portrait of a young boy movie. I was disappointed.

  2. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 19, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    I can completely understand those viewpoints. The movie isn’t a complete success, and the constant turning of the plot and tone is actually a bit disorienting after awhile. However, all things considered I think the movie really does develop a compelling mood and atmosphere and the emphasis on the psychological aspects elevated the movie for me.

    So, I’d consider the movie a good attempt, but as you pointed out it isn’t a knock out of the park. I personally would have jettisoned the Wendigo plot thread and gotten to the ‘kid with powers’ plotline sooner. I’d also have reduced Speradokis’ hick. Odlly, the whole thing might work better if it were constrained to the family, much like The Shining.

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