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May 24, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #177 - Wendigo

When I look back at the early part of the 2000s, one of the first things that comes to my mind is all the independent and/or "art house" cinema I found myself watching. I was a college kid with too little to do and too much internet to read, and I found my way to a lot of films that now seem rather drab and uninteresting to me. But this time period was not a waste by any means; I found plenty of relatively unknown films that I still love to death by spending my time at the theater and rummaging through the rental section at the video store. There were a lot of ambitious and effective low-budget winners that I found, but unfortunately very few of them came from the horror genre.
One of the primary exceptions to this rule is Wendigo, which was my first exposure to current indie horror producer/director/actor extraordinaire Larry Fessenden. Fessenden has been involved in a lot of FMWL's favorite things over the last ten years - acting in I Sell The Dead, directing former MMOTW The Last Winter, and producing things like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers under his Glass Eye Pix company - and along the way I kind of forgot how impressive Wendigo is as a dramatic, poetic piece of storytelling.
Jake Weber (Dawn of the Dead 2004) and Patricia Clarkson (lots of stuff) star as a couple who, along with their son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, aka the big ears kid from Malcolm in the Middle), head to a desolate house in the Catskills for a quiet weekend outside of the city. Anyone who watches horror movies knows quiet weekends are never quiet, but what follows here is not the cliche you might expect.
I'll get to the mythical creature from the title in a minute, but I'm going to do the same thing the film does and first mention the film's human aggressor. His name is Otis, and he's an unhinged country guy played by John Speredakos. Speredakos has shown up in a lot of films produced by Fessenden - including all four of the movies I mentioned when talking about the director - but his performance as Otis is a real standout in his career. Speredakos manages to pose a believable and realistic threat with little effort, and the conflict between his gruff character and Weber's passive aggressive father is easy to understand and incredibly tense. 
None of these characters are incredibly original, but the three adult leads are talented enough to give each of them depth. The real focal point of the film, however, is little Erik Per Sullivan as Miles. The son becomes caught up in the legend of the Wendigo, a shape-shifting deer-like creature that - according to a Native American man that only young Miles seems to see - is always hungry and generally destructive. Miles' focus on the creature blurs the line between what is real or not, and much of the film raises questions about whether Otis or the Wendigo is the bigger threat to Miles and his family. I'm rarely wild about child actors in cinema - too often have the tried to ruin an otherwise good film - but Wendigo packs a strong dramatic punch in part thanks to its youngest star.
Like he did in The Last Winter, Fessenden has a little bit of a monster problem in Wendigo. The creatures that we are shown in both films are not going to make their way into a lot of nightmares - partially due to bad special effects, partially because they're abstract and bizarre - but the director's eye for creating tension and building up concern throughout the film overshadows these flaws. As we get to know the characters there are very few moments that don't build some kind of conflict, and Fessenden's patient control over the film draws us in to the mystery. So what if he's got more "giant deer monsters" to his name than any director ever.
Fessenden's recent colleague Ti West has become the poster boy for the "slow burn" horror film, but Wendigo is a fantastic example of how to turn a family drama into a creepy thriller. If nothing else, Wendigo shows as that a strong set of characters, a moody setting and just enough conflict is all you need to create horror - and that once you've done that it won't matter if you create a monster by dangling sticks in front of the camera and chasing a child around the woods. There are still a couple of cheesy moments when the monster gets involved, but for the most part Wendigo works and the fantastic final act cements its status as as the all-too-rare perfectly mature horror film.

1 comment:

Marvin the Macabre said...

Hear, hear! Wendigo is a fine film, and everyone could benefit from more exposure to Larry Fessenden. I recently watched Habit, and liked it a lot, mostly becouse Fessenden as an actor is fascinating to watch. Its pacing is off a bit, leading it to drag toward the end, but well worth a watch.