Mysterious Skin: Review – Village Voice

Posted on 16. Jul, 2010 by in Mysterious Skin: Press, Press

The Village Voice
The Lost Boys
Skin and boners: Araki eschews pedophilia chic to shatter myths of youthful innocence
Dennis Lim

In Todd Solondz’s current Palindromes, the heroine claims to believe in the innocence of an accused child molester because, as she literal-mindedly puts it, “pedophiles love children.” Mysterious Skin, the new film by Gregg Araki, a fellow indie flamethrower and the designated bad boy of New Queer Cinema’s ’90s big bang, imagines a situation in which the opposite could conceivably be true: Is it possible for a child to “love” a pedophile? Not by any reasonable definition of love. But in daring to contemplate the unthinkable, Mysterious Skin proves that it’s possible to talk about pedophilia— indeed, to condemn it—without resorting to the histrionics of Fox News amber alerts, and furthermore to acknowledge children as sexual beings without echoing the rhetoric of NAMBLA literature. With remarkable directness and composure, it shatters the myth of childhood innocence and the deathless taboo of prepubescent sexuality.

Pedophilia has become the favorite party trick of the American indie— movies from Happiness to L.I.E. to The Woodsman are on some level predicated on a discomfiting, almost stunt-like empathy for the ostensible monster. But instead of humanizing the perpetrator, Araki humanizes the victims—or more precisely, complicates them. In so doing, he subtly erodes the monolithic, panic-based notion of pedophilia. His interest lies in the subjective experience of the abused—the radically dissimilar ways in which trauma can be transmitted and remembered.

Based on a 1995 novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin crosscuts between two boys in ’80s small-town Kansas, essentially strangers but united by a defining moment only one of them recalls. At age eight, Brian blacks out after a baseball game, and those five hours of unconsciousness increasingly haunt him as he grows into a gawky teen plagued by nosebleeds and nightmares about alien abductions. In stark contrast, Neil, the star of that same Little League team, has a sexual curiosity well beyond his years. His baseball coach (Bill Sage), a bronzed, mustached specimen, exerts the same woozy spell on him as his mom’s Playgirls, and the older man, sensing Neil’s inchoate attraction, does not hesitate to take advantage—a courtship over Atari and soda pop climaxes in a queasy seduction by cereal variety pack.

Long before Brian (played as a teen by Brady Corbet), the viewer understands that the lost time he attributes to a visiting UFO was a close encounter of an altogether different kind. Mysterious Skin keeps the boys suspended in divergent orbits, pulled along by their respective dysfunctions. The apparently straight Brian is something of an asexual puppy—as becomes painfully clear when he fends off the advances of a local paranormal enthusiast (a lonely kook played by the excellent Mary Lynn Rajskub). Meanwhile, the aggressively carnal Neil (Joseph GordonLevitt) takes up hustling—first in the desolate parks of his hick town, and then on the somewhat meaner streets of AIDS-scarred New York, all the while pursuing (and often enjoying) sex with considerably older men. His psychological profile is not exactly novel, but given the stunted societal discourse surrounding kids and sex, it still comes as a shock to realize that for Neil, the man who once abused him remains the first love he can’t get over.

For a movie premised on sexual trauma, Mysterious Skin is often disconcertingly sexy—and its eroticism has a surprisingly bracing effect. The film maintains its ethical stance without lapsing into moral judgment; there are no irrational blanket disavowals of sex. This may be because Araki, a true connoisseur of fleshly beauty whose camera seems to exist in a state of permanent arousal, is congenitally incapable of making an unsexy film. (The tricky early scenes with the well-underage performers make clever use of framing, montage, and voice-over provided by their older counterparts.) Few directors objectify their actors as unabashedly, and Araki delights here in reinventing a very game Gordon-Levitt, the former 3rd Rock From the Sun moppet, as a strutting dicktease (from a certain angle, he even brings to mind the director’s onetime muse James Duval). And for perhaps the first time in an Araki movie, the gaze squarely implicates the viewer, our rapt voyeurism contributing to Neil’s circumscribed identity as a sexual plaything.

Mysterious Skin is at times slack and schematic: The narrative relies on convenient oppositions and symmetries to retain its double-helix form. The supporting characters are written in shorthand: distracted or doting mothers and second bananas who may as well have “sidekick” tattooed on their foreheads. And Heim’s scenario, a semi-knowing composite of mid-’90s daytime talk show topics, transfers a little unsteadily to a time when recovered-memory therapy is more closely associated with falsememory syndrome. But as a filmmaker, Araki, always brash, has rarely been so confident, creating a shimmering mood that allows for multiple shifts in perspective and register. Jaggedly dreamy, tucked into an ambient cocoon of a score (by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie), Mysterious Skin suggests a reverie with multiple awakenings. Fittingly, the ending, which crescendos to a dizzying moment of mutual reckoning, offers catharsis but not escape.

Mysterious Skin: Review – The New York Times

Posted on 16. Jul, 2010 by in Mysterious Skin: Press, Press

The New York Times
Mysterious Skin: Seeking Adult Answers in Two Scarred Boyhoods

Based on a novel by Scott Heim, Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” tells the parallel stories of two boys growing up in a small town in Kansas in the 1980’s and early 90’s. One, Brian Lackey (played first by George Webster and then in his late teenage years by Brady Corbet), believes that the nightmares and nosebleeds that afflict him throughout adolescence are results of an alien abduction that occurred in the summer of 1981, when he was a shy, frail 8-year-old. That same summer, Neil McCormick (Chase Ellison, and later, Joseph GordonLevitt) was molested by his Little League coach (Bill Sage).

From the beginning, we suspect a connection between the boys’ experiences, and part of the film’s narrative momentum comes from their rediscovery of each other after 10 years. In that time, Brian, nerdy and socially awkward, has become obsessed with uncovering the truth, while Neil, in flight from their hometown and his own past, has become a gay prostitute, first at the local playground and then in New York.

Its subject matter may be grim – Mr. Araki addresses Neil’s early and later sexual experiences with unflinching candor – but “Mysterious Skin” is infused with remarkable tenderness and beauty. These are not words you usually associate with this director, whose previous films – including “The Living End,” “The Doom Generation” and one whose title I cannot quote here often valued shock over feeling and provocation over compassion. What those movies did have, sometimes to a fault, was a fearless, reckless honesty that Mr. Araki has not lost, even as he has acquired a deeper sense of story, character and emotion. “Mysterious Skin” is the work of a onetime bad boy who has grown up without losing his ardent sympathy for the wildness of youth. It’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Any film that deals with the sexual abuse of children risks being misunderstood, especially when it appears to depict that abuse on screen. It is clear that “Mysterious Skin” was written, shot and edited to protect the child actors from saying or doing anything inappropriate, but the audience nonetheless feels the full effect of Neil’s violation. Even more uncomfortably, since we see it from his point of view, we are privy to his complicated emotional response to the coach (whose name is never given), who is at once the predator who stole Neil’s innocence, the father he never had and the great love of his life.

The awfulness of these contradictions follows Neil as he grows up into a cold, beautiful hustler. His clients are older men (the first, a traveling snack-food salesman, has the word Daddy hanging from his rear-view mirror), and his transactions with them are both reminders of Coach and efforts to take belated revenge on him.

“Where most people have a heart,” says his best friend, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), “Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole.” Neil is affectless, remote and casually self-destructive, but charismatic and cool enough to keep Wendy and another friend, Eric (Jeff Licon), on his side, along with his doting, dissolute mother (Elisabeth Shue).

Mr. Gordon-Levitt – whom you may, if you look hard enough, recognize as the boy alien from the sitcom “Third Rock From the Sun” – conveys the dimensions of Neil’s damaged personality with ferocious understatement. A lesser actor – and a less confident filmmaker – might have made him into a psychological case study, but the power of the character comes not from his status as a victim but from his resilient individuality.

Mr. Heim’s lyrical, tough novel, also titled “Mysterious Skin,” lifts what could have been a conventional narrative of trauma and recovery (with equally conventional elements of the coming-out, coming-of-age story) into a vivid tale about the strangeness and awfulness of life.

Mr. Araki and his brilliant cast (which also includes Mary Lynn Rajskub as a self-avowed alien abductee who befriends Brian) lift it even further, into a gorgeous, heartbreaking and utterly convincing work of art. Its characters stay with you, and by concentrating on the lives of two very different young men, it seems effortlessly to illuminate a period and a milieu. To say that it is about child abuse is accurate, but incomplete. It is about the Midwest, about friendship, about the connections and disconnections between love and sex, and about a great deal more, all of it handled with clarity, simplicity and rare generosity of spirit.

The rich colors, perfectly chosen music and brief, precisely shaped scenes reminded me a little of Pedro Almodóvar’s recent films. (There is also an obvious thematic resonance between “Mysterious Skin” and “Bad Education,” Mr. Almodóvar’s latest picture, which was also about pedophilia and its consequences.) Mr. Araki, come to think of it, may turn out to be the American Almodóvar, an unruly provocateur in his youth who has, in his maturity, improbably discovered the beauty and dignity of classic melodrama.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Mysterious Skin: Review – New York Post

Posted on 16. Jul, 2010 by in Mysterious Skin: Press, Press

New York Post- Online Edition
“No Place Like This Home”
Lou Lumenick

GREGG Araki, a bad-boy founder of New Queer Cinema back in the ’90s, makes a terrific return to form with “Mysterious Skin,” his most mature, hauntingly poetic and disturbing film to date.

Working for the first time from someone else’s story (a novel by Scott Heim), Araki burrows deeply into the psyches of two 20-ish men whose lives were touched in very different ways by close encounters with a pedophile baseball coach (Bill Sage) a decade earlier.

Neil — brilliantly played by a newly buff Joseph Gordon Levitt, who will henceforth no longer be referred to as the kid from TV’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” — is a reckless gay hustler in his hometown of Hutchinson, Kan., with “a hole where his heart should be,” according to his best friend, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg).

Former teammate Brian (the excellent Brady Corbett) long ago left Hutchinson, but is still haunted by blackouts, nosebleeds and his inability to recall a nine-hour stretch after a game.

Brian theorizes — hopes? — he might have been abducted by aliens, but the apparently asexual Brian pushes away the advances of a handicapped fellow UFO fancier (Mary Lynn Rajskub) even as she pushes him back to Hutchinson to face his demons.

By this point, Neil has taken his roughtrade business to New York, where he has some harrowing encounters with older men (the setting is the early 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic), including a brutal bathtub rape in Brighton Beach that’s almost impossible to watch.

When a shaken Neil comes home to Kansas for Christmas, he takes Brian to the coach’s old home, where he shares memories in a sequence that’s as poignant as it is horrifying.

“Mysterious Skin” is not for the squeamish, but it is a beautifully crafted and thoughtful film that genuinely provokes.

Mysterious Skin: Review – Newsday

Posted on 16. Jul, 2010 by in Mysterious Skin: Press, Press

John Anderson

**** (U). Gregg Araki, erstwhile enfant terrible, channels his considerable talents into a heartbreaking story of lost innocence and epiphanies. Haunting. And, oddly enough, joyous. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet. Screenplay by Gregg Araki, based on the novel by Scott Heim. Directed by Gregg Araki. 1:39 (sex, adult content, violence). At Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., Manhattan.

Once described as “eager to offend,” Gregg Araki has made some very good and insistently abrasive movies that were occasionally more angry than organic: “Doom Generation,” “Nowhere” and “Totally — Up” were examples of a director wanting to rattle, rather than seduce, his audience. Some filmmakers have been said to have their fingers on the pulse of the public. Araki was always checking its spleen.

But with “Mysterious Skin” – the first film in which Araki has gone elsewhere for his source material (the acclaimed novel by Scott Heim) – the anger hasn’t been suppressed, simply made more profitable. In “Mysterious Skin,” the hardest of facts are presented the way a traumatized war-crimes victim might relate his or her history – sometimes without passion, sometimes with a kind of intoxication. Araki has put a protective, shimmering patina on a story of abuse and emotional dissonance and the result is an otherworldly, painfully honest movie.

The performances are dead-on. The young Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Neil McCormick, a character right out of the Araki film-family album: Cynical, damaged, unfeeling but emotionally delicate, he begins his hustler career as if there were no other way. Perhaps, Araki says, there isn’t: Neil’s seduction by his Little League coach (a wonderful Bill Sage) is horrifyingly logical: Coach makes the little boy, with no father and a slatternly mother (Elisabeth Shue), feel good about himself. Sex is a small price with a long payout.

Across town is Brian Lackey, who thinks that as a kid he was abducted by aliens. As Brian, Brady Corbet has a more understated role to play than Gordon-Levitt’s, but he balances the film out in an extraordinarily deft fashion. Neil and Brady’s inevitable intersection makes for one of the more shattering, resonant sequences in any film of recent memory.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

Wendigo: Conversation with Larry

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, Wendigo: Press

From the Director
December, 2000

“With Wendigo I’m trying to evoke the power of metaphor in our lives, the basic need to construct stories to deal with the shocks of life. Wendigo is like a puzzle or sculpture or mosaic of interlocking pieces which tell the story of a child jostled out of innocence as he becomes aware of the anger and aggression all around him. I wanted a spare story, a stylized shooting technique, and a monster that was gestural, so that there’d be no hiding the artifice of the story-inviting the audience to step outside the experience and ponder its meaning.

“The nature of the Wendigo, which is an American Indian spirit that has also been depicted in pop culture (in prose by Algernon Blackwood; a poem by Ogden Nash; in Marvel Comics, The X-Files, Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, etc.), is that it is described differently in every account. And so, like some religious parable, the creature’s indefinable quality makes it beg for interpretation. I came to it visually-inspired by a first grade teacher who told the story and made a lasting impression with his image of the creature: half man-half deer. There is something of the man-animal archetype that holds great potency for me (The film opens with a Wolfman doll).

“I approached the project as if I were embarking on an art installation, building first the elements of the creature with technicians, shooting footage in s8mm and DV, building models, and employing comic artist Brahm Revel to make a graphic novel of the story based on my script and real locations. I interested the independent producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte on the pitch that we could accomplish much on a low budget because of our extensive preparation, and that the special effects could be accomplished because they’d be more German-Expressionist than American-realist.

“We set up two crews, First Unit under Terry Stacey’s command, to work with the fabulous actors we hired through Walken and Jaffe casting. And an additional unit to film jagged interstitials and serene nature animations. This to convey the inner perception of the child, and the raging existence around us.

“We shot for twenty three days with a crack crew, in the cold, trying to live up to austere and ambitious shotlists, and winging it when necessary. For a snow movie, the warming weather was a curse. But reality was not the agenda.

“Post production saw the director in excruciating solitude, editing the images into a subjective dream, and emerging to begin one of the most critical collaborations of the film: The music and sound. It was up to composer Michelle DiBucci to establish a tone for the film in keeping with my vision, made concrete by two years of working with music that had inspired the images. By mapping out the film with temp tracks and sound effects, I try to guide my sound team towards the mood-the most elusive element of film, and the hardest element to translate from the inner vision. But DiBucci had access to a wide array of internationally recognized instrumentalists and a battalion of samples effects and was able to compose a rich, evocative soundscape.

“Labwork has been extremely complex, translating opticals from the AVID back to film and then reshaping the edit again. Like the Wendigo itself, the film shapeshifts constantly, and even after a preview screening at Slamdance 2001, there have been modifications.

Wendigo is third in a trilogy of revisionist horror movies that includes my other films Habit and No Telling. On a purely analytical level, 1 have this to say–Through genre, the language of Pop culture–I seek to step back and objectify the cliche’s in our stories, in particular our horror stories, so that we can see them freshly and think about the assumptions as well the truisms of these stories we retell, these archetypes that haunt our thinking.”

“For all its layers of potential meaning, Wendigo ultimately strives to be a mood piece. A visceral, linear ride. A small cinematic gesture. Not all films need to be ‘events.’ Along with the film, I’ll present a comic, because, since the dawn of the twentieth century, no truly populist work is presented in one format only. And check out the Wendigo on the web.”

Wendigo: Review – The Village Voice

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, Wendigo: Press

The Village Voice
J Hoberman

The nuclear family comes under another sort of terror attack in Wendigo, a nifty supernatural chiller by independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden. A Manhattan professional couple, commercial photographer George (Jake Weber) and psychotherapist Kim (Patricia Clarkson), along with their eight-year-old son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan), are en route to a winter weekend at a Catskill farmhouse when their Volvo station wagon hits a buck on an icy back road and a subsequent encounter with a hostile hunter (John Sperednakis) turns their getaway into a nightmare.

From the first scene on, Fessenden orchestrates the tensions within the isolated family-George’s barely suppressed anger, Kim’s resentment, the child’s fear of the aggression he senses around him. George frequently teases Miles by playing monster, and before turning in for the night, the boy has his mother check under the bed and inside the closets. (Sullivan’s tight, wizened face eerily expresses his parents’ middle-aged anxieties.) The old dark house may be rattling in the wind and riddled with mysterious bullet holes, but the locus of terror is the surrounding forest. Like The Blair Witch Project, Wendigo evokes the primal fear of the continent’s white settlers-it’s named for the malevolent spirit that haunts the woods in Indian legends.

This cannibal creature was used to grisly effect a few years ago in Antonia Bird’s gross-out, anti-militarist western Ravenous, but Fessenden’s Wendigo is a movie of suggestion and foreboding, most of it filtered through Miles’s spooked consciousness. The backstory is provided when the family drives to town for provisions (at a general store well stocked with toy guns and hunting paraphernalia) and a mysterious Native American informs the boy about the shape-shifting wendigo. To add to the historical guilt, George learns that a nearby town was flooded to make a reservoir for New York City. Fessenden finds a landscape of agonized-looking wooden Indians and totem poles, but it’s the cold emptiness of the Catskills that seems most uncanny-a vacuum into which the beleaguered family (and the audience) can project their fantasies.

Despite occasional intimations of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wendigo is more atmospheric than splatterfying. As the story turns violent, Miles’s hallucinations come to the fore. Among other things, we learn that Svankmajer’s Little Otik may also have been a wendigo: Grounded in Fessenden’s handheld camera, stuttering montage rhythms, and time-lapse photography, the engagingly primitive animated special effects contribute to a mood that’s sustained through the surprisingly somber conclusion.

Wendigo: Review – Premiere

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, Wendigo: Press

March 2003
Aaron Hillis
* * * (3 of 4 stars)

The Movie: Living in the shadow of The Blair Witch Project, writer-director Larry Fessenden’s art-house horror flick is swathed in a subtle, textural eeriness that few American films have scared up. Essentially a contemporary reworking of Deliverance, the story follows a family during a weekend getaway in the Catskills, where a traffic accident forces a clash between the city folk and some bumpkin hunters. The goose bumps really start rising when the film shifts to the point of view of the eight-year-old son, whose young psyche associates the tension around him with a Native American legend of a forest beast, the wendigo. Effective uses of time-lapse photography and lo-fi puppetry help weave a simple tale into a retellable campfire story, but a lackluster ending makes any mental replay of this sometimes-intriguing film a letdown.

The Disc: Fessenden, whose tooth-deficient smile reminds one of said bumpkins, takes himself a little too seriously in his on-the-street interview, and his audio commentary is too sparse to maintain interest. A behind-the-scenes look at the film combines storyboard art and some creature-making fun, which will hopefully make you forget about the film’s last-minute derailing.

Wendigo: Review – Variety

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, Wendigo: Press

February 5, 2001
Scott Foundas

A wonderfully suggestive creepiness permeates every corner of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo, a mostly superb bit of modern horror from the writer-director-editor previously responsible for the Frankenstein story “No Telling” and the urban vampire pic “Habit.” Together, the films comprise an accomplished, unofficial trilogy of urban paranoia, alienation and metaphysical dread. And while Wendigo lacks the near-epic introspection and longing of Habit, it is in many ways Fessenden’s most accomplished and accessible pic to date, making strong use of his fine cast and production values in a thoroughly intriguing exploration of our communal need for myths and their need for us. Pic, which should rivet audiences attracted to the more philosophical elements of The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, could build strong word-of-mouth if not misrepresented as a conventional monster movie.

Like the best, early work of George Romero, Fessenden is experimenting here with the overlapping of real and invented horrors, subtly introducing supernatural elements into a pragmatic setting. He gives us a family, traveling from Manhattan into snowbound upstate New York for a weekend’s vacation. And he gives us a father, George (brilliantly played by Jake Weber), who is a violent tempest of internalized stress and unexpressed rage, inextricably chained to his job as an in-demand advertising photog.

The strain on the relationship with his wife, Kim (Patricia Clarkson) is evident, and doesn’t go unnoticed by their young son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, also excellent).

When George, distracted, runs over a deer in the middle of an iced-over country road, he quickly earns the ire of Otis (John Speredakos), a member of the small hunting party that had been pursuing the now-injured buck. Otis becomes enraged and George, despite pretending otherwise, trembles in his wake.

Once the family has settled at a friend’s country home, the evident rural quiet and isolation immediately begin to erode. Otis (who lives on a neighboring property) somehow seems to be at the root of it all.

On its surface, Wendigo is easily classifiable as a supernatural horror pic with a withdrawn, solemn child and unstable father at its core. It is a scenario purposely meant to recall “The Shining” and “Poltergeist,” but it is only the beginning of what amounts to a questioning of our very conception of horror and fantasy myths. Covering the film with a panoply of textual and subtextual references to icons of cinematic horror, Greek legends and ethnic folklore, Fessenden rips a schism between existential non-belief and more diagrammatic ways of explaining the world. And in the most lyrical scene of the richly textured screenplay, George explains to Miles that all storytelling is but a way of giving meaning to the images and events around us, of distilling virtue from so much chaos and confusion.

The Wendigo, a Native American, shape-shifting spirit capable of taking on any form and combination of elements, is represented as the sculpture of a half-man, half-deer, given to Miles by a mysterious Indian shopkeeper. But really, the Wendigo is a continuation of the suggestion throughout the film of modern man at a crossroads — of all things primal at odds with all things developed, and of civilized man at odds with his own inner, animalistic self.

In pic’s second half, Fessenden further blurs the distinction between reality and myth, spiraling us into a harrowing deluge of panic and fright.

The beauty of Fessenden’s technique is that Wendigo can be interpreted in any number of ways, and the film is no less enthralling taken as an intricate windup machine of mechanized thrills, as an inquisitive piece of psychological reasoning, or as a deeply perceptive study of a family breaking apart.

In fact, if there’s a major disappointment to Wendigo, it’s only that by the time pic reaches its breathless conclusion, you’re left waiting for another act. Pic’s ending, while perfectly suited to the mythological storytelling being invoked (and sure to provide the fuel for lengthy post-screening debate) comes so abruptly, and on such an adrenaline-racing high, things could continue for at least another reel.

Given the emphasis the film places on the relationship between father and son, the relationship between mother and son, which only begins to take hold in the climactic final moments, craves deeper attention. Fessenden’s films have been so perceptive on matters of the male ego, one can only hope he might turn a similar attention to the female psyche.

Pic’s tech credits are outstanding, highlighted by Terry Stacey’s handsome lensing and the brilliant creature effects, partially designed by Fessenden himself, that combine a variety of stunning photographic manipulations with expressionistic, Jan Svankmajeresque animation.

Wendigo: Review – The Los Angeles Times

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, Wendigo: Press

Chilling Sprits Lend A Haunting Power to Wendigo
Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2002
Kenneth Turan

Larry Fessenden is a filmmaker with an uncanny gift for the creation of unsettling moods, capable, among other things, of bringing out the spookiness and menace inherent in a bleak winter landscape. He makes unusual, almost handmade art horror films, of which the eerie Wendigo is the latest example.

Wendigo is the third film (the excellent Manhattan vampire film Habit was the first, “No Telling” the second) in what the writer-director-editor calls “a trilogy of revisionist horror movies” that take a fresh, unencumbered look at some of the classic fright film themes.

In this, Fessenden is an interesting successor to producer Val Lewton, whose much-admired low-key 1940s horror films such as I Walked With a Zombie, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam have been enormously influential and admired. And, reminiscent of recent non-American horror films such as Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others and Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, Fessenden’s films depend on atmosphere more than shock to unnerve us. Wendigo is named after a terrifying creature out of Native American mythology that has been utilized by everyone from poet Ogden Nash to the creators of The X-Files and Marvel Comics. As described in the film by a mysterious tribal elder, this half-man, half-deer shape-shifter is “always hungry, never satisfied. There are spirits to be feared because they are angry. He who hears the cry of the Wendigo is never seen again.” If that sentence sends a bit of a chill down your back, you’ll appreciate this kind of filmmaking.

Certainly psychoanalyst Kim McClaren (High Art‘s Patricia Clarkson), her photographer-husband, George (Jake Weber), and their 8-year-old son, Miles (the self-possessed Erik Per Sullivan), are not thinking of dreaded mythological beasts as they drive through upstate New York on the way to a vacation weekend at a friend’s borrowed country house.

Then, suddenly, a large deer bounds out of the woods and is hit by their car. Almost immediately, a trio of ragged local hunters emerges in the animal’s wake, and their leader, the in-your-face Otis (John Speredakos) uses a pistol to kill the buck in front of an unnerved Miles. This causes a disturbing confrontation between the family and the hunters, which gets even creepier when it turns out Otis lives very close to their destination farmhouse.

Though they try, it’s hard for the family to have a relaxing time after what has happened, with Kim still angry and George, the kind of guy who has a deer on his sweater, not in his rifle sights, looking especially overmatched. The incident has the strongest effect, however, on young Miles. He’s a worried, susceptible child, prone to checking closets for dangerous creatures and in fact visited by ghostly apparitions when the lights go down.

Even in daylight, however, strange incidents begin to happen both around the house and in the town. Is this a case of excitable city folks being unable to cope with the solitude of rural life, or is something strange, something truly sinister, about to go down?

Working with cinematographer Terry Stacey and having the benefit of a wonderfully eerie score by composer Michelle DiBucci, Fessenden is the right director to capture the nuances of this sum-of-all-fears situation.

Making a virtue of necessity, Fessenden manages to use snow, light and wind to create a potent, chilling dreamscape. He employs jagged, almost experimental camerawork in the film’s creature sections, which he says he approached “as if I were embarking on an art installation.”

Though Wendigo has weak spots, including an ending that is not as satisfying as it might be, the film remains memorable despite its flaws. This is a properly spooky film about the power of spirits to influence us whether we believe in them or not.

Wendigo: Review – The New York Times

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, Wendigo: Press

The New York Times
February 15, 2002
Dave Kehr

A With-It Way to Jump Up and Say ‘Boo!’

The independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden has set himself a challenging project: to approach the themes and thrills of the classic American horror movies through a determinedly modern approach, as if John Cassavetes had been working for Universal in the early 30’s.

In his 1991 No Telling, Mr. Fessenden transposed the Frankenstein story to rural New York; his 1997 Habit found vampires in the East Village. In his new movie, “Wendigo,” the Wolfman legend becomes the basis for a story of family tension, class warfare and ecological revenge, set again in a snowy, isolated upstate village.

The McClaren family–Kim (Patricia Clarkson), a psychotherapist; George (Jake Weber), a frustrated commercial photographer; and Miles (Erik Per Sullivan), their 8-year-old son–are driving up from Manhattan to spend a winter weekend at a farmhouse borrowed from a city colleague. Just as they approach the property in their tidy little Volvo wagon, a wounded stag leaps out of the woods and smashes into their car.

The animal is followed by three hunters, evidently drunk and quite angry that George has inadvertently stolen the prize they have been pursuing for hours. Otis (John Speredakos), the most unruly of the locals, finishes off the dying animal with a shot from his revolver. George protests, but Otis pushes on, humiliating the city man in front of his wife (who fumes but does nothing) and son (who stares impassively at this first demonstration of his father’s vulnerability).

With this opening sequence, Mr. Fessenden introduces several ideas. There is the contrast between the civilized, soft urban male and his macho country counterparts. There is the tension created within the family by George’s humiliation. And there is the sudden appearance of nature, red in tooth and claw, and ready to rise up against the human violators, in ways that don’t fit into the city folks’ Disneyfied notions of a natural landscape of sweetness and sentimentality.

Dramatically, Wendigo, which opens today at the Film Forum, doesn’t do quite as good a job as Habit did of putting these ideas and archetypes into play. The script often seems to lose focus in side issues and protracted dialogue scenes. But the core emotions are strong and solid, which serves “Wendigo” well as it moves into the supernatural realm.

The Wendigo of the title is a creature of Indian mythology, an amalgam of animal, vegetable and human components that resembles a very angry tree. A mysterious Indian in the local drugstore offers little Miles a Wendigo figure carved from an antler, giving the boy implicit control over its destructive powers. And when the moment comes, provoked by another hostile act by Otis, Miles is imaginatively able to conjure up the creature and send it out to do his not-quite-conscious will.

As in his previous films, Mr. Fessenden carefully blurs the line between psychology and the supernatural, suggesting that each is strongly implicated in the other. The rampaging Wendigo may be a manifestation of Miles’s incipient Oedipal rage, but at the same time it is a force embedded in nature and history. Such abstract notions may put off fans of the genre in its most elemental, slice- and-dice form. But for those in search of something different, Wendigo is a genuinely bone-chilling tale.