(USA - 2001)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, Eric Per Sullivan, John Speredakos
Genre: Horror/Drama
Director: Larry Fessenden
Screenplay: Larry Fessenden
Cinematography: Terry Stacey
Composer: Michelle DiBucci
Runtime: 91 minutes

"Nobody believes in spirits anymore. Doesn't mean they're not there"

The films of Larry Fessenden take old horror myths and intelligently explore them in a modern setting. They are not modernizations of the classic tales, but rather revisionist films that look at what is true and assumed in these stories, at how our familiarity with them can effect our daily lives and the way we perceive certain events. First came No Telling in 1991, which looked at Frankenstein. Six years later, Fessenden created one of the top horror films of the '90's, Habit, based on vampires.

The Native American Wendigo myth is by far the least known theme Fessenden has used in his trilogy, but I find it the most interesting because it can take on any form, and may be part one form and part another (in this case it's half man and half deer). The consistency is that it's a powerful angry spirit with an unquenchable hunger, which means the rest is up for interpretation. It can be kept fresh without coming up with corny rule changes like we always see with the ways vampires and werewolves (when there were actually movies for people interested in the other classic horror characters) can be killed.

Fessenden is more interested in how people live and interact with one another than in "something happening". His characters seem natural and their details are good, but very few "events" occur in Wendigo. Everything stems from the opening scene where a wounded deer jumping into the path of the car sets off a culture clash between the New York city family escaping to the Catskill Mountains for a peaceful weekend and some local deer hunters that resent their home having been turned into a tourist attraction. The hunters seemingly could care less about the family or their car, which is now stuck off the side of the road, because they are too busy arguing over who should get credit for the kill. However, Otis (John Speredakos) complains that they broke a valuable deer antler, and enjoys various forms of menacing like standing near their car with his rifle in the air.

One of the problems with the film is that it doesn't want to be against the locals, so it's careful to make only Otis the bad guy. This should be a plus, but since the other hunters are around Otis some of the time he's causing trouble and probably at least know about the rest, it's hard to sympathize with them or see them as being much different. They look on while Otis makes the family wait a long time for an out of town tow truck to show up then rushes to get his chain on there and charge them $20 for 30 seconds of work (in addition to the $40 they now owe the other guy for showing up). Otis winds up not getting credit for the kill and takes this out on the strangers. However, until a revelation near the end (which still has nothing to do with the family he's bothering) it seems like his anger is misplaced more than that his friends are good people that are just different from the city folk.

The key to the story is Miles (Erik Per Sullivan), an 8-year-old child that is getting his first exposure to death, Native American territory, and arguably nature. Otis shoots the wounded deer just a few feet from Miles, which is really disturbing to Miles' mother Kim (Patricia Clarkson), but would be no big deal to any of the deer hunters' kids. There's a later scene that really captures the difference in lifestyle when the family of the guy that got the kill is outside carving up the deer and they must look like some kind of cannibals to Kim & Miles, out there in the dark with knives and blood everywhere.

One place the film really succeeds is as a character study. Although Otis, who turns out to be their neighbor, makes his presence felt from time to time, establishing the threat right away allows the film to go in a different direction and be more about the family coping with the scary situation and trying to move on. The bulk of the film is about a child using his imagination to deal with things he doesn't understand and his parents trying to figure out how to make him comfortable with the new events and surroundings.

Miles' parents are quite different. Kim is an intellectual type, a psychotherapist. George (Jake Weber) is a photographer that is more of a close enough type of joker except he's usually angry because he's a slave to his job and his clients keep making him redo everything for reasons they might not even know. Kim can see that George's temper and lack of attentiveness affect Miles, and she's finally got George to make an effort to change, to become more of a family man.

The big change though is in Miles when he encounters or makes up a Native American man who tells him the Wendigo myth and gives him a wooden miniature. It's scenes like this where Fessenden does a great job blurring fact and fiction, reality and myth. Miles shouldn't know about the Wendigo without someone telling him, but the woman is the only one that works in the shop and she charges Kim for it after the Native no one saw gave it to him. Miles was reading a book the night before that could have contained this information, but he seems to be in touch with the spirits now that he's in old Native American land, so it's up to the viewer to decide for themselves. Kim tells him she believes him, if it's true. Realism isn't what Fessenden is going for in the look of the film, but he understands the importance of it with the characters and situations.

Mood is really what makes the film work. If it doesn't put you in touch with the spirits you'll stay logical and believe there's nothing going on beyond a child's imagination running wild. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining was a clear influence on Wendigo. Much of the time is devoted to the surroundings - snowy trees and hills, Native American statues and carvings. Long tracking shots are one of the methods used to make them come to life, and many of the scenes have a dreamy feel to them. The key is not so much what technique Fessenden uses, but that the end result implies motion on the surroundings to the point we almost forget that the motion is just the car driving by them.

Michelle DiBucci's soundtrack adds a great deal to the mood. It's a very textured dreamy Native American soundscape that fades between native chants, wood and alto flutes, native percussion, a children's choir, a string orchestra, and various natural sounds such as wind. The score is effective throughout, but particularly when Miles starts feeling the life in nature and the Wendigo.

Another influence on the film is the very good John Boorman film Deliverance. The scene where George takes Miles sleigh riding and George falls off the sled but we don't know why or from what is excellently done, just as the scene where Ronny Cox falls off the canoe into the water was. Overall, the Deliverance stuff detracts from the film though because the family is what's interesting, not the crazy local Otis. Otis works well as the spark to set the story off and intermittently increase the tension, but the Wendigo never really works nor does the role of either in the basic rushed finale.

In general, this film suffers from having too much going on at different times, causing it to lose momentum. I like its ambition, but sometimes when you keep changing what you want to be you wind up not really being anything. The parts about Miles interpretation of the world works until the last 15 or so minutes, which are potentially too much a departure from the rest of the film. From reading the info on the Wendigo website, I think my interpretation of what happened is actually the opposite of what Fessenden was going for. It's good if people aren't sure exactly what happened, but in this case I'm not sure there's enough information to make what was Miles interpretation and what was everyone getting caught up in the Wendigo myth into a compelling discussion.

Thought he story isn't as well thought out as Habit, the look is greatly improved. This is an extremely atmospheric film, with excellent cinematography and all kinds of tricks that add to the experience rather than distracting from the story or masking the fact there wasn't one. There aren't that many attempts to scare, but the entire town is brought to life, which is more important and opens up the possibility for the film to be many things.

Editing, also by one man band Fessenden, is a big strength of the film. The transitions are particularly good. This isn't one of those annoying films that looks like a 90 minute music video, there are several examples of quick cuts that actually have purpose and add to the film. There's a transition from dinner to fun that's done through a montage of playing card close-ups. When Miles is reading the Native American book, we see close-ups of several pictures he's looking at. What makes shots like these good is we only see portions of the picture, but we see multiple shots of the same image, so it's like we see the section he's focusing on and only in the end do we fully understand what he saw.

I usually despise the special effects these days because there's nothing special about some fake Game Cube looking graphics being thick seamed into a film. Instead of accomplishing what they are supposed to, they tend to be the funniest part of the movie. Wendigo is a rare old school film that uses tangibles, a model and a guy (James Godwin) in a half man half deer suit. This could look bad, but doesn't because Fessenden, who even designed the creature, uses tricks including darkness, quick cuts, fast pans, and motion effects to disguise the fakeness. The way the scenes with the wendigo are done also adds to the dreamy feel of the film.

Many people don't appreciate this film, and I think it's more because of what they expected than because of what is there. Certainly it has some flaws, but in general the people that saw Habit and thus were expecting a film about relationships with the monster being very secondary enjoyed the film. The ones that disliked it came into it knowing nothing of Fessenden and were disappointed because the marketing focuses too much on the horror aspect, which isn't exactly there. If they said this was a film that tested the strength of a family by putting them in a setting where they were intruders it probably would have been received much better than focusing on how "bone-chilling" it was. What you expect from a film and what's there are generally two different things, especially these days when deceptive marketing is a trillion dollar business. In this case, what was there was good, but what many viewers brought to it just distracted them. Much like the Wendigo, the film is very open. Take from it what you will, but don't spend 90 minutes wondering when it becomes Blair Witch.



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