Wendigo

"Not enough people believe in spirits anymore..."

Wendigo is a disorientingly bizarre movie, a dizzying digital video oddyssey through the snowy woods of upstate New York. It’s advertised as a horror movie, but I don’t think director Larry Fessenden, known for the cult vampire flick Habit really intended it as one. Then again, there is what looks like a menacing deer spirit, and a vengeful hunter, and many eerie, Blair Witch-y shots of bare trees. There’s also one of the few horror movie (or is it?) families we actually want to spend time with.

Kim (Patricia Clarkson), George (Jake Weber) and Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) are going away for a quiet weekend at their friends’ country home. Driving up, and maybe a little lost, they hit a deer, putting their car out of commission. The deer was being chased by a group of hunters, and one of them is incensed that the crash ruined its valuable antlers. After a rather tense stand-off, the hunters help get George’s car out of the mud so that he can continue on his way.

This is the most straightforward scene in the movie, dominated by pedestrian, if effective what-happens-next suspense. Things get progressively weirder when our family reaches their destination. Miles begins to see things — a mysterious Native American in a local pharmacy, creepy things coming out of his closet door — all the while his parents suspect that Otis, the irritated deer hunter, may be playing a vicious game with them.

No plot description can possibly do Wendigo real justice; the movie is a collection of visceral, unforgettable images, haunting man-versus-nature themes, an immensely interesting family dynamic, as well as some of the best digital video cinematography I’ve ever seen. It’s true that Fessenden goes somewhat nuts with the twirling cameras, but there are moments that took my breath away. Late in the film, there is a long shot of young Miles treading through the snow toward something unexpected and terrifying; I can’t put my finger on why, but the simple way the scene is filmed is exhilirating. You’ll know it when you see it.

Fessenden may be an even better screenwriter than he is a filmmaker. Though I have my doubts about the film’s supernatural elements — this is one of the few situations where a horror movie could have used more exposition — everything that involves the understated, eminently believable relationships between the three protagonists is riveting. This is a movie nuclear family minus the melodrama Hollywood writers are intent on inserting; I bought into every line of dialogue and every quiet, introspective moment.

I didn’t know who the hell Jake Weber was either, but I’m now forced to pay attention. The Brit, who was apparently in Meet Joe Black, The Cell and U-571, though I could have sworn I’ve never seen him before in my life, turns in an impressive performance playing what is as close to a “Regular Joe” as movie characters get. Erik per Sullivan, who can be seen weekly as the obnoxious younger brother on Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle joins the ranks of astonishing “frightened children” in horror movies; I’m not sure he’s in the league of Haley Joel Osment, but there’s no doubt that he convinced me.

Wendigo is both entertainingly odd and oddly genuine. The elements that are scary come not from the plot but from Fessenden’s deftness with a digital video camera. And then there is the script, which ranges from funny to wistful to heartbreaking.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Score: C+

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Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

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Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

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Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

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Score: B+

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Score: B

Street of Chance

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Score: C

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