The success of “The Blair Witch Project” goes far to explain the relatively wide distribution of a film like “Wendigo,” the third modestly-budgeted modern horror film from independent auteur Larry Fessenden, which is the inaugural release of a new company, Magnolia Pictures (which is also gradually establishing a chain of specialty-film multiplexes in US cities, beginning with Dallas). The tale of an city family’s unhappy experiences in a supposedly inviting but ultimately threatening rural environment creates a genuinely creepy atmosphere and features some strong performances, but, like “Project,” it deteriorates down the stretch and closes on an ambiguous note that doesn’t quite satisfy.
The set-up recalls that of “The Shining,” with an urban family driving to an isolated area for a vacation. In this instance the parents are George McClaren (Jake Weber), a commercial photographer, and his wife Kim (Patricia Clarkson), a psychologist; along with their eight-year old son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan), they’re headed from New York City to a farmhouse upstate owned by a friend. While traveling through a snowstorm at night, their car strikes a deer being pursued by local hunters, one of whom, Otis (John Speredakos) fumes because his prize has been mutilated. He and George seem ready to come to blows, but eventually they separate, and the family reaches its destination. The desolate property, however, proves frightening, since the house has apparently been struck by stray bullets (there appears to be a sort of local firing range nearby) and Otis regularly passes by on his way home. Moreover, on a trip to town Miles is given a curious effigy by a mysterious Indian, a wood carving of what the shadowy figure calls a wendigo, a shape-shifting entity that has powers for both good and ill; and the boy becomes increasingly attached to it as he grows more fearful of the strange surroundings. Eventually tragedy strikes, and–although what happens in the final act could be interpreted in different ways–it appears that Miles summons up the wendigo’s supernatural force to respond to a terrible threat to his family.
There’s much that’s good in “Wendigo.” Fessenden and cinematographer Terry Stacey successfully create–on an obviously meagre budget–a mood of real dread, even if some of the devices they employ, like speeded-up shots of the shadows of clouds passing over the snowy forest, reek of film school. More importantly, the writer-director etches a subtle, insightful portrait of a strained relationship between father and son, with George, overworked and all too often absent from the tyke’s life, straining to reconnect with Miles during what was supposed to have been an idyllic respite from the usual grind. The actors respond with strong performances: Weber catches the dad’s near desperation at trying to reach the boy, while Sullivan, who plays Dewey on “Malcolm in the Middle,” puts his slightly odd persona to good use in a turn that’s mostly very quiet and controlled, but with occasional bursts of fright on the one hand and enjoyment on the other.
Unfortunately, there are drawbacks. The role of the mother has far less nuance, and Clarkson is comparatively stiff in it. Worse, the supporting performers are weak down the line. As the despicable Otis, Speredakos comes across like an out-take from “Brother’s Keeper.” Christopher Winkoop is absurdly amateurish as the local sheriff. And Lloyd E. Oxendine looks the part of the mysterious shaman who discloses the character of the wendigo to Miles, but his acting is poor. Once the horror aspects of the plot kick in, moreover, things grow increasingly elusive and confused. It would appear that the “monster” that emerges–a half-deer, half-human apparition that resembles the ghastly rabbit from “Donnie Darko” (and even more the figure of Herne the Hunter, the forest god who appeared in the old Michael Praed-Jason Connery TV version of “Robin Hood” in the mid-eighties)–is a product of Miles’ subconscious, summoned up by the kid to avenge wrongs visited on his family. As such it would be a backwoods version of the “Id” creature that walked the landscape of Altair Four in “Forbidden Planet” (1956). But all of this is merely suggested, not clarified, and the film ends abruptly, without a satisfactory resolution. The fact that many in the audience will leave bewildered and disappointed is yet another element “Wendigo” shares with “The Blair Witch Project.”
Still, Fessenden’s picture is a near miss: it showcases his real ability to build an atmosphere of menace and paint an incisive portrait of a troubled father-son relationship. It’s a pity that this talented fellow hasn’t quite learned how to mold his intriguing themes (culture versus nature, civilization versus the primitive, logic versus the unknown) into a coherent narrative that would match his visual skill. There’s much here to entrance the eye and engage the mind; but ultimately not quite enough to overcome the flaws in a picture which, like its titular entity, shifts all too uneasily from being powerful and strong to seeming thin and ephemeral.
“Wendigo,” incidentally, is being shown in some Magnolia Theatre locations digitally, rather than on conventional film. It’s nice to see the newest technology put at the service of a modest independent film, rather than a hundred-million dollar Lucasfilm blockbuster for a change.