Larry Fessenden is a filmmaker with an uncanny gift for the creation of unsettling moods, capable, among other things, of bringing out the spookiness and menace inherent in a bleak winter landscape. He makes unusual, almost handmade art horror films, of which the eerie "Wendigo" is the latest example.
"Wendigo" is the third film (the excellent Manhattan vampire film "Habit" was the first, "No Telling" the second) in what the writer-director-editor calls "a trilogy of revisionist horror movies" that take a fresh, unencumbered look at some of the classic fright film themes.
Val Lewton, whose much-admired low-key 1940s horror films such as "I Walked With a Zombie," "The Body Snatcher" and "Bedlam" have been enormously influential and admired. And, reminiscent of recent non-American horror films such as Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others" and Guillermo del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone," Fessenden's films depend on atmosphere more than shock to unnerve us. "Wendigo" is named after a terrifying creature out of Native American mythology that has been utilized by everyone from poet Ogden Nash to the creators of "The X-Files" and Marvel Comics. As described in the film by a mysterious tribal elder, this half-man, half-deer shape-shifter is "always hungry, never satisfied. There are spirits to be feared because they are angry. He who hears the cry of the Wendigo is never seen again." If that sentence sends a bit of a chill down your back, you'll appreciate this kind of filmmaking.
Certainly psychoanalyst Kim McClaren ("High Art's" Patricia Clarkson), her photographer-husband, George (Jake Weber), and their 8-year-old son, Miles (the self-possessed Erik Per Sullivan), are not thinking of dreaded mythological beasts as they drive through upstate New York on the way to a vacation weekend at a friend's borrowed country house.
Then, suddenly, a large deer bounds out of the woods and is hit by their car. Almost immediately, a trio of ragged local hunters emerges in the animal's wake, and their leader, the in-your-face Otis (John Speredakos) uses a pistol to kill the buck in front of an unnerved Miles. This causes a disturbing confrontation between the family and the hunters, which gets even creepier when it turns out Otis lives very close to their destination farmhouse.
Though they try, it's hard for the family to have a relaxing time after what has happened, with Kim still angry and George, the kind of guy who has a deer on his sweater, not in his rifle sights, looking especially overmatched. The incident has the strongest effect, however, on young Miles. He's a worried, susceptible child, prone to checking closets for dangerous creatures and in fact visited by ghostly apparitions when the lights go down.
Even in daylight, however, strange incidents begin to happen both around the house and in the town. Is this a case of excitable city folks being unable to cope with the solitude of rural life, or is something strange, something truly sinister, about to go down?
Working with cinematographer Terry Stacey and having the benefit of a wonderfully eerie score by composer Michelle DiBucci, Fessenden is the right director to capture the nuances of this sum-of-all-fears situation.
Making a virtue of necessity, Fessenden manages to use snow, light and wind to create a potent, chilling dreamscape. He employs jagged, almost experimental camerawork in the film's creature sections, which he says he approached "as if I were embarking on an art installation."
Though "Wendigo" has weak spots, including an ending that is not as satisfying as it might be, the film remains memorable despite its flaws. This is a properly spooky film about the power of spirits to influence us whether we believe in them or not.
MPAA rating: R, for a strong sex scene, language and violent images. Times guidelines: rich in atmospheric uneasiness but not overly graphic.
Erik Per Sullivan...Miles
Content Films presents a Glass Eye Pix production, released by Magnolia Pictures. Director Larry Fessenden. Producer Jeff Levy-Hinte. Screenplay Larry Fessenden. Cinematographer Terry Stacey. Editor Larry Fessenden. Costumes Jill Newell. Music Michelle DiBucci. Production design Stephen Beatrice. Art director Andy Biscontini. Set dresser Shelley Herbert. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-4010.