#31DOH Day 4: Wendigo(2001)
Our 31 Days of Horror continues with Larry Fessenden’s indie charmer – The Wendigo.
There is something to be said for mainstream horror. Higher budgets, better special effects, all around slick production values. They look great and you know what you’re in for. But, there is a downside too; predictability, generic plots, ad a cookie cutter style. I mean could you honestly look at random stills from recent movies like The Conjuring or A Quiet Place and tell them apart? Both are great movies in their own right, but modern mainstream horror has taken on a very distinctive style – that of being indistinguishable from one another.
Which is why I have a deep love for the recent indie horror scene. Indie horror experiments, it explores
new territory, it asks interesting questions. There is an inherent risk there though. It is easy to go off the rails into unintelligible weirdness. Or worse – to just be dull. Larry Fessenden has always been someone who is willing to take those risks.
Fessenden has been a figure of the indie horror scene for decades. Wendigo is one of his earlier films which I had always meant to watch but never gotten around to. Having watched it and sat with it a bit, I am still not sure how I feel about it – which is exactly how it should be.
Beware the Wendigo
The opening of Wendigo is a master class at simplicity and tension building. Jake Weber (Dawn of the Dead Remake)Patricia Clarkson (House of Cards) and Erik Per Sullivan (Malcolm in the Middle) star as a family on their way to stay at a friends cabin in the woods. While driving up wintery country roads they hit a deer and the cars slides off the road into a snowy embankment. Stranded in the frozen countryside things only get worse. Three hunters, who had been tracking the deer, arrive and tempers flare. The hunters are understandable upset having spent a long cold day hunting only to have their prey ruined. One of them, Otis, begins taking an irrational offense at the accident. The presence of the hunters, or more aptly their guns, and the isolated road ratchets up the tension to a palpable degree. Fessenden latches on to these themes of family, death, fear, rage, and vulnerability early only and explores them throughout the film.
Slow burn is the best type of burn
The second act is largely devoid of tension. It eases out into a slow and contemplative rhythm. It captures both a sense of love and family but colors it with a melancholy foreboding. The movie shifts focus from the parents fears and struggles to their son Miles’s internalizing of the events he witnessed on the road. Wendigo never lets us forget that the tension is there under the surface. The adults have compartmentalized it. They have moved on in many ways, Miles has not. It is a very true to life view of how families cope with stress. Fessenden has a particularly keen insight into a child’s way of dealing with fear.
Miles’s inability to process and cope plays heavily in the second and third act. Traditional sources of fear and discomfort (strangers, dark closets, basement doors) are played with artfully. However, Fessenden’s horror background puts this into a stark contrast with the rest of the story. His interpretation of the boys fear is effective and vicereral. It is a melding of traditional drama with the tools and themes of horror. People looking for jump scares and a body count will be bored to tears. People looking for character studies and compelling drama will find substance and intrigue.
Supernatural elements are introduced through the movie, but with a heavy dose of ambiguity. We are left questioning whether these are manifestations of a child’s coping strategies or actual events. While Fessenden’s efforts here cannot be understated, a lot of the movie rests on the abilities of a small cast. Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber are wonderful. There is a subtly they bring to their characters that projects a lot of unspoken tension and love. They represent an interesting set of contrasts and complexities that make up adult life that plays wonderfully against Erik Per Sullivan’s innocent Miles.
Roger Ebert criticized the ending of Windego saying essentially it squandered what Fessenden built in the first two acts. And here is where my opinion runs aground. I can see Ebert’s point, but I am not sure I agree with it. The movie does shift, somewhat dramatically, in the end. Where the first act was pure tension, the second was a contemplative family drama, the third act moves into more traditional horror. It blends the realism of the first act with slasher and supernatural horror themes and tropes. But, it is all through a very experimental and emotionally driven lens. The movie borders on Lynchian in its final moments. One could argue that some of the ambiguity is removed. But, I don’t think it hurts the overall message. The horror elements, scarce though they may be, highlight some of the dramatic themes here and really drive home a sense of resolution.
I really enjoyed this but I have to say again – this is not for everyone. Fans looking for spooky things that go bump in the night or buckets of blood are likely going to be disappointed. Yet, those looking for a more contemplative drama with horror elements, and don’t mind experimental filmmaking on a budget, will find this worth checking out.
Recommended for: Fans of slow burn horror like – The Witch, The Wicker Man, and House of the Devil. Also for fans of smart, low-budget indies like Mulberry Street, The Alchemist’s Cookbook, and Jug Face.