Artisan // 2001 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 14th, 2003
Some myths are real
There is nothing more disappointing than a bad horror movie. When you want to be frightened, you want to be frightened, not irritated. Unlike the failed comedy or insipid drama, a really lousy terror tale just lies there, limp and lifeless on the screen, painfully going through its tedious motions until it literally implodes. Then it dies, unceremoniously, irking the viewer or fan on many levels. At least a misguided comedy has the "humor is subjective" excuse. Fear is supposedly universal. A drama can fail to connect because of the subject matter or the manner in which an issue or dilemma is presented. But when a filmmaker can't milk scares out of darkness, things that go "bump" in the night or lonely, barren woods, he or she has failed miserably and completely. For you see, horror is built on a carefully constructed premise, expertly handled in both tone and storytelling with a sprinkling of professional acting and supportive special effects. Wendigo, a much praised independent horror film, wants to do for Native American shapeshifters what The Blair Witch Project did for misguided documentarians with big butts -- to reinvent the scare genre artistically while maintaining the terror. Unfortunately, the only thing this dry, depressing experiment in tedium reinvents is that equally unappealing Jackalope from the Dave Coulier helmed America's Funniest People television show.
While traveling to a friend's snowy homestead for a weekend in the wilderness, the McClaren family car hits a deer and is forced off the road. While trying to sort out the damage, a group of hunters appears from a clearing, and one in particular (Otis) becomes belligerent. He is angry because the buck that was struck and killed was one he had been stalking for hours. Still, a dead deer is a dead deer, and he's about to forget the whole automobile angle when a beer-bellied compadre discovers the most shocking and horrible thing imaginable. No, it's not a Wendigo...the deer has a cracked antler! Otis goes into a tizzy and swears revenge.
That's right -- our main villain in the film is angry because of a CRACKED ANTLER!
Well, the family gets to the rather nice vacation house and finds that it has been shot up. Their sensitive little son, Miles, senses something is wrong (he must have that "shinning" thing) and dreams of rednecks with guns coming out of the closet. (Don't we all!) On a trip to the local pharmacy, Miles meets a shaman who tells him the story of Wendigo -- a shape-shifting beast that...well, that shifts shape. After a tragic sledding incident, it is apparently up to the little boy to summon the half man, half Bambi boogiebeast to wreak vengeance on the bad guy. Unfortunately, when the irate reindeer shows up, he looks a lot like a college student in a fur covered comforter and a wall-mounted taxidermist's trophy headpiece.
There are many ways to be aggravated and uncomfortable in modern society. Buy a CD by Styx...and actually listen to it. Consume some day-old sun-heated mayonnaise. Live in Tampa in the State of Florida. But a surefire way to achieve an untold level of exasperation and a truly wondrous experience of pain in the Panaflex is to sit thorough the artsy, but mostly results in fartsy feature film Wendigo by director Larry Fessenden. Never before has a movie founded its mayhem and misdeeds on a hairline fracture in a pair of animal horns. No matter how the filmmaker attempts to misdirect your attention from this fact, you will still scratch yourself and wonder, "Would all this really happen over Rudolph's biological hairpiece?" Hoping to add heft to the tone and atmosphere of his movie, director Fessenden decided to out-stark Sam Raimi and his A Simple Plan scenarios by making the acting and story as desolate and washed out as the surrounding snowy winter environ. Unless you indulge its premise and pretense from the very first frame, you will find yourself semi-conscious, wading through a self-indulgent, scary as a sock puppet cautionary tale about paying closer attention to those "Deer Crossing" signs along the roadway.
It's not that a good movie couldn't have been made from the setting and story of Wendigo. Indeed, filmmakers have long explored the backwoods of America for tales of terror and revenge at the hands of human (or inhuman) foes. But where Wendigo fails is in its execution. A horror film is like a mystery -- unless all the pieces fit together perfectly, like a fully functioning clock, you are bound to misgauge time and the attention span of your audience. The story here is not interesting, the locations only so-so foreboding, and about the only imagination evident is in the obvious optical shenanigans. But the biggest problem with Wendigo is that we could not care less if the characters involved become oversized flesh saltlicks for the angry elk that supposedly haunts the upstate New York woods. Everyone, from the future youthful co-star of Malcolm in the Middle (Erik Per Sullivan) to an obvious Englishman burying his accent in mostly unsuccessful Yankee doodling (Jake Weber), deserve to become folded, spindled, and mutilated into Purina Deer Chow. They are not likable, there is no reason to root for them, and since the entire premise of the problems between country folk and city slicker is that pair of busted head bones, it's impossible to take any of it very seriously.
Wendigo also commits several cardinal sins in the pantheon of horror film creation. As conceived by Pope John XXIII at his Vatican II counsel, these universal mandates indicate how misguided this movie is and how simple the fix would have been, if only director Fessenden would play fair and employ standard story tactics. Specifically, Wendigo suffers from:
#1 -- Not telling an original story
How's this for a unique premise: family is terrorized by angry locals who don't like their "kind" coming up from the city and exploiting their native land. Or maybe this is a tad more distinctive: a Native American evil spirit is resurrected when "townies" show up and spit all over their ancient culture and traditions. Or how about an unknown ethereal presence, called up by a naïve and innocent child that sweeps down to wreck its unholy vengeance on those who have been wronged. If all this sounds like selections from Charles Band's filmography, you'd be right. There is not an original concept at work in Wendigo, and this dooms the film from the start.
#2 -- Random events that do not make a cohesive storyline
One of the main problems with the narrative of Wendigo is that it tries too hard for a "life as it's lived" storytelling style. Scenes do not grow out of and into one another; events just happen randomly and are supposed to suggest normal everyday existence. But this flies directly in the face of the building of tension and the creation of suspense. Director Fessenden admits to wanting things to "just happen" on screen, to give the audience a taste of the mundane before plummeting them into the depths of horror. Unfortunately, all this technique does is confuse us, circumvent any atmosphere created, and make for aggravation, not trepidation.
#3 -- The notion that atmosphere alone will create dread
Being a sucker for the barren woods in winter, Wendigo sure looks purty. Nothing is better on screen than a huge dormant oak and snow covered wasteland devoid of even the footprint of nature, let alone man. And directors like Sam Raimi and the Coens have made good, creepy use of the isolation and monochromatic template available. But not Fessenden. He doesn't know quite what to do with his locations, shooting almost everything in medium shot. When, in a rare moment, a crane or long shot is employed, the film starts to rumble awake. But then the death knell close-up is over employed and the whole shebang goes back into hibernation.
#4 -- Angry dialogue that is not scary
Mom dropping the f-bomb and Dad feeling sorry for himself and deliberately scaring the spit out of his kid is not horrifying (unless it's at your family reunion or during Thanksgiving). But Wendigo believes that everyone in the cast (except the little boy) spouting curse words and chewing the scenery means there'll be a whole lot of menace going on. Anger management classes would probably be a better fix for the problems the people in this film have, rather than calling on a Chicopee Indian spirit that can transform into Blitzen at will. Every time one of the characters erupts, it's like Vesuvius to the Italians on that glorious day back in Pompeii: it comes as a complete shock and destroys everything.
#5 -- An over-reliance on camera tricks
Unless your name is Sam Raimi or Alfred Hitchcock and you are doing a piece on Norman Bates and his Motel Hell, a restless bunch of Deadites camping out in a Tennessee cabin, or a flock of sassy savage seagulls, you can't sell a quality horror premise with overtly fancy camera and exposure tricks. Is overcranking scary? How about a freeze frame Matrix-style 360-degree whiz around? Is it ever possible to make Benny Hill style fast motion movement creepy (unless it's Sir Benny himself doing it?). About the only successful non-chubby British director use of unique filmmaking technique was seen in Evil Dead II, and even then that film is more disconcertingly hilarious than balls-out frightening. Wendigo wants to scare your snow pants off. It only succeeds in exploring lens aperture levels and bizarre dolly effects.
#6 -- A lame monster that cannot be saved by fancy editing
If you gave Stan Winston a month, some of the most talented artists and technicians in Hollywood, and a butt load of cash, he may have been able to come up with something a little scarier than the bath matt covered Jackalope that passes for a monster in Wendigo. And yet this is not a real problem for director Fessenden and his low budget aspirations. Skilled framing, scene composition, and cinematic legerdemain can all work to make even the most zipper-backed beast made of crepe paper and bee's wax seem plausible, but when you offer extended close-ups of what looks like a pissed off animatronic from Disneyworld's Hall of Venison, there is no hope of making it believable, not even if you resurrected Sergi Eisenstein and had him re-splice your multi-cut crap into even smaller semi-seconds of screen time.
You see, Wendigo wants to get by on indie cred and hopes that slack can and will be cut for its low budget leanings and less than linear storyline. After all, it is art. Or at least it thinks it is. In reality, it's a self-indulgent bit of man/monster masturbation that really never had a chance out of the starting gate. After all, when you base a Deliverance meets Jack Frost horror story around a redneck seeking revenge for some messed up animal accessories, you were automatically doomed. It's just a bad premise. But there is still more blame to go around here. Artisan also kills any chance this film had of being effective or evocative by offering it in a very compressed, horribly cloudy soft DVD transfer. The image is just filled with those tiny tell-tale pixels of gray. You can't avoid them, since 50% of the film takes place at night and another 20% at twilight. The only time the image is crisp is during an outdoor, daytime sledding trek. But overall, even in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen presentation, the crucial artistic presentation of the filmed material is just bad. Now, Fessenden admits in his commentary that he used super 16mm stock when making the film. The reason why is simple: when blown up to 35mm, there would be noticeable grain in the picture, and this would help with the "atmosphere" he was trying to create. But the problems here cannot all be chalked up to the use of a lesser-sized stock. Mastering mistakes are at fault.
The sound, on the other hand, is first class. In Dolby Digital 5.1, you get a true sense of the woods and surrounding menace. Good use is made of that oddly named sonic device, "negative sound," and the spatial atmosphere evoked is excellent. As for extras, we are somewhat overcompensated, since the disc is filled with featurettes, interviews, galleries, and bios. Unfortunately, we are again plunged into the pool of self-indulgence and required to watch the haphazard making of documentary in a disconcerted funk. This 30-minute mess decides that the best way to tell an audience eager to learn how the film was made is to present a freeform, jumbled narrative amalgamation of backstage footage, test shots, and onscreen cues. The audience really has to work at it to learn anything about the making of the film here. An interview with director Fessenden is a little more enlightening, but since it's mostly a monologue, and not a real Q&A, we are treated to a very one-sided, self-serving presentation.
But he makes up for it in probably the most welcome and telling aspect of the DVD: the director's commentary. While it is not a constant narrative stream of description and ideas, Fessenden offers some interesting views on where the film came from, what he thinks it's about, his influences, and the hidden symbols and tricks. It's amazing to hear how he dumped parts of the original film in favor of a more ambiguous slant and "open" meaning to the film. He mentions an alternative "5th reel" which supposedly shows the Wendigo creature (as created by special effects) attacking Otis. He states that it had a "real 1960s guy in a suit effect" and should be fun to watch on the DVD. Unfortunately, it is not included here (unless you count a couple of random shots in the aggravating featurette). It's this extra that saves Wendigo from being a total disaster as an overall digital presentation.
There is an interpretation of Wendigo that (even though it seems a stretch and can't 100% be supported by the narrative itself) turns the film from a complete fiasco into an almost pseudo-interesting psychological study. Director Fessenden hints in his commentary track that one way to look at the events occurring is to wonder whether Miles could simply be making this entire movie up in his head as a response to the "complicated, gory, and angry" world around him. There may not be a monster after all. Like Bobby Ewing's shower or Betty and Camilla's idealized life, this could all be a vision in a child's twisted, overactive imagination. And that may be the case. The film is never specific or direct enough to clearly link the fantastic to the real. All the camera tricks and optical effects do suggest something metaphysical. And Fessenden confesses to altering shots and removing material to make this implication far more "plausible." Perhaps if this avenue had been pursued to its fullest, with even more trick photography and optical histrionics, this would be a better, more involving film. But as it stands, we are only left to determine the truth or lack thereof for ourselves.
When so much time and type has been wasted in browbeating Hollywood for failing to move beyond the formula and into the realm of the experimental or unusual, it would seem unfair to challenge Wendigo for the chances it takes and the inventive manner in which it wants to achieve them. But the difference here is that director Fessenden is really not doing anything new or unusual when it comes to making a monster movie, unless you consider dragging up a tired old Injun legend and sprinkling it with dark room daffiness new. Like The Cell, which recycled the serial killer through a fashion photographer's obsession with the gauche and gaudy, or The Blair Witch Project, which understood the potential payoff in the bamboozle and the baffle, Wendigo will be a "love it or kill it" experience for most horror fans. Those who find it refreshing and intense will be applauding each and every choice made by the cast and crew in its effort to evoke a true sense of dread and evil. Still others will wonder why praise is deposited upon something so devoid of even the basic monster movie moves. And then that old sense of frustration and disappointment will wash over them, just like the murderous spirit of the film's devilish doe. While there may have been something eerie in those upstate New York woods, it's pretty much a certainty that it had nothing to do with this aggravating, irritating film.
Wendigo is found guilty of being a less than suspenseful waste of a horror movie and is hereby sentenced to 20 years of watching the works of Argento, Romero, Raimi, and Craven. Director Fessenden is also found guilty and is sentenced to 10 years behind bars for using art for boredom, not art's sake.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Behind the Scenes Featurette
* Interview with Director Larry Fessenden
* Art Gallery
* Director and Cast Filmographies
* Official Site