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On its surface, Wendigo is easily classifiable as a supernatural horror pic with a withdrawn, solemn child and unstable father at its core.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.

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