After making Habit, it would take Larry Fessenden six years to get another film into the theaters. Thankfully, the wait was worthwhile as Wendigo was a big step forward for Fessenden in technique and artistic focus. It offers a unique blend of family drama, Southern discomfort thriller and mythological horror that both horror fans and indie movie diehards are likely to find entrancing.
Wendigo focuses on a family taking a vacation at a rural home in the winter: George (Jake Weber) is the dad frustrated by work problems, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) is his sensitive son and Kim (Patricia Clarkson) is the therapist mom and wife who is trying to keep them going. Things get off to a bumpy start when the earn the ire of townie Otis (John Speredakos) by hitting a prize deer with their car but they try to enjoy the place, even though George is distracted by work troubles. However, there is trouble on the horizon for them in the form of an ancient Indian legend that takes root in the mind of Miles and might be manifesting itself in the nearby woods.
Like many a Fessenden film, Wendigo starts off like an independent drama with elements of horror sneaking into its nooks and crannies. Weber and Clarkson do compelling work nailing down the rhythms of two city people trying to put aside their problems in the country and Sullivan is likeably subtle as the daydreaming kid in the middle. Fessenden takes the first two-thirds of the film to get us immersed in the details of their interaction while keep the drama primed with uncomfortable moments of conflict or suspense, often involving the character of Otis (played with believable menace by Speredakos).
Patient horror fans who can roll with Fessenden’s gradual ratcheting of tensions will be rewarded with a really strong and creepy third act where the director opens up his bag of tricks. In trademark style, he plays things close to the vest as to whether the supernatural horrors are real or not but he creates a truly spooky atmosphere and deploys some horror shocks and creep-out moments using inventive, handcrafted approaches to achieving these effects.
The end result is as devastating emotionally as it is nerve-wracking, which is a testament to Fessenden’s ability to create a believable setting for his horrors through his cast. Fessenden gives them room to develop their characters and our investment in them as people creates a beautiful setup for the horrors to come.
More importantly, Fessenden has an intuitive skill for linking genre archetypes with primal, all-too-real human fears. In Wendigo, the ghost story elements are used to tease out themes like the disconnect between city and country living, what the idea of “manhood” means in a post-civilization world and how people can become so buried in their fantasies and day-to-day mini-dramas that they fail to see the real threats in front of them. Fessenden uses his horror elements to bring these ideas full-circle yet gives the audience room to think and develop their take on them — and that makes Wendigo a uniquely haunting proposition.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title just made its blu-ray debut as part of Scream Factory’s The Larry Fessenden Collection. The transfer hits the right mix of vivid detail and celluloid grain, with nice colors. Both 2.0 and 5.1 lossless stereo mixes are included: the 5.1 mix was used for this review and it’s an immersive affair that shows off Fessenden’s attention to complexity in his mixes.
The disc is also stacked high with extras. Two commentary tracks start it all off. The first is a solo track by Fessenden: he offers a very sophisticated running analysis of his characterizations and themes as well as offering appreciations of his cast, production tales and the homespun techniques used for the film’s setpieces.
The second track features Weber and Clarkson, who reflect fondly on the film from an actorly perspective and have a nice chemistry (the way they joke through the film’s sex scene is amusing). Speredakos pops up in the last fifteen minutes for a solo stretch where he mixes thoughtful appreciations of Fessenden’s work with production tales and thoughts on the acting.
“Searching For The Wendigo” is a 32-minute behind the scenes piece, structured like a diary of the shoot. It features plentiful on-set footage and some insights into how the film’s creature was created. Fessenden appears in an eight minute interview where he covers how he learned the Wendigo legend as well thoughts on his aesthetic and the role of escapism in films.
Next up are a few animated pieces. The first is a three-minute teaser for a proposed animated Wendigo show which looks like it could be an interesting venue for Fessenden’s eco-conscious themes. The other is “Santa Claws,” which mixes revenge of nature themes into a riff on Toy Story. A punchy theatrical trailer and a sizzle reel rounds things out: the latter is devoted to the theatrical Glass Eye Pix films and is appropriately creepy.