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.

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