Saturday, January 15, 2011
#99: Wendigo (Larry Fessenden, 2001)
I'm a big Larry Fessenden fan, even though he's directed only four feature films in 20 years, and I hate one of them and have some minor problems with another. He's one of the few modern directors working in the horror genre whose films I anticipate, and he's a fine character actor, too. A true independent filmmaker (as opposed to "indie"), Fessenden has integrity and has so far managed to avoid the lure of Hollywood cash and the compromises that go along with it. He not only directs, but also writes, edits, produces, and sometimes acts in his movies. His four feature films are personal, character-based, independent dramas that use classic horror themes and cliches to parallel the ways we use religion and religious myths to help explain the horrible things in our lives. Fessenden has an idiosyncratic, distinctive visual style as a director and an expert sense of structure, pacing, and formal style as an editor.
Fessenden's first three features are an unofficial trilogy of classic monster updates. His first feature, 1991's No Telling, uses elements of the Frankenstein story to express Fessenden's discomfort with animal testing and is the only Fessenden film I dislike. His two pet causes, animal rights and environmentalism, often make their way into his films, but the political content overwhelms the story in this first feature. No Telling is an awkward, preachy film with weak writing and acting and an amateurish look, but isolated moments hint at the talent revealed in his later work. Fessenden followed his worst film with his best, 1995's Habit. Not only one of the best independent films of the decade but also one of the best vampire movies ever, Habit is an overlooked gem. A character-rich drama with elements of black humor and a creeping sense of dread throughout, Habit sometimes plays like some unholy but successful marriage of John Cassavetes or early Scorsese and George A. Romero. Can you tell I love this movie? Next came 2001's Wendigo, my second-favorite Fessenden movie, and his extremely loose update of the werewolf/shapeshifter genre (just replace wolves with deer). I'll discuss this in more detail later. His last feature was 2006's The Last Winter. Despite some serious flaws (a return to the soapboxing and preachiness of his first feature), The Last Winter also contains some of his richest visuals, a good cast, great atmosphere, and a stunningly bleak ending. A mixed bag, for sure, but well worth your time. His one flirtation with Hollywood filmmaking occurred recently. He was hired to direct the remake of Spanish horror film The Orphanage and wrote a screenplay with Guillermo del Toro, but he quit the project when the studio interfered with his casting ideas.
Though Fessenden's made only four features, he's been actively involved in film since the late 1970s. He directed several short films, works steadily as a character actor in small but interesting parts (Bringing Out the Dead, Animal Factory, Session 9, Broken Flowers, Wendy and Lucy, his own films), and produces independent features (River of Grass, Wendy and Lucy, House of the Devil, his own stuff). He has also written a how-to book about reducing environmental waste on film shoots and occasionally gives lectures about it.
As I wrote earlier, Fessenden's films use horror archetypes as a parallel to the way religious myth explains away life's horrors. The supernatural elements in his films retain an ambiguity. Unlike most other films in which the supernatural may only be occurring in the characters' minds, Fessenden's films (mostly) retain their mystery and dread. The ambiguity remains after the closing credits scroll down the screen. Both interpretations remain plausible. No Telling uses the Frankenstein legend to explain sanctioned animal abuse, Habit the vampire myth to explain alcoholism, grief over the loss of a parent, suicidal thoughts, and relationship problems, and The Last Winter a variation on the Wendigo creature to explain global warming, corporate greed, and environmental destruction. On the other hand, the girlfriend in Habit could very well be a vampire and that weird creature in The Last Winter really could be out there in the frozen Arctic.
Wendigo is Fessenden's most explicit exploration of the mythology theme. Mostly seen through the perspective of a small boy, Wendigo is about a child's attempt to understand the adult world around him and its anger, sadness, marital problems, mental illness, jealousy, and violence. That, and a weird part-deer, part-human, all-ass-kicking demon in the woods. Wendigo opens with a New York City family driving to the upstate country home of a friend. The family (Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and Malcolm in the Middle's Erik Per Sullivan) hit a large deer a few miles from the home and get stuck in the deep snow after sliding off the road. Shortly thereafter, a trio of hunters appears alongside the deer. They've been tracking it for hours and have already wounded it. One of the hunters, Otis (John Speredakos), kills the wounded deer. Tension flares between Otis and the family almost immediately. Otis is angry that the deer's antlers were cracked when the car hit it, and Kim (Clarkson) is angry that Otis fired his pistol so close to their car. Fessenden sets up two prominent horror cliches in this opening scene (city folk unwisely going to the dangerous country, the menacing backwoods hick) but, as usual, transforms the stereotypes into something realistic and strange. Otis is far from an inbred, slobbering hillbilly stereotype and closer to the resourceful, smart, mean-eyed, gun-loving, quick-to-anger bully I know too well from my own rural upbringing. The city family aren't stereotypical, either. They're entitled and pushy, yes, but mildly so. Their negative qualities don't solely define them. Their young son Miles (Sullivan) tries to understand the menacing outside world, the deer's death, and his own parents' problems, and we see these events through his perspective. As my wife astutely pointed out, whenever his parents talk directly to him, they are actually indirectly talking to each other, scoring points, pressing their arguments and disagreements, and attempting to quell their own and each other's insecurities. Miles turns these outside worries into internal nightmares and fantasies of supernatural creatures and the menacing Otis. The tensions between his family and Otis continue to mount, and then the Wendigo enters the picture. These elements come together in a tense, satisfying conclusion that doesn't wrap things up but doesn't make you feel cheated out of an ending, either.
Fessenden's work as an editor on this film is just as impressive as his directing. He skillfully weaves together long and medium shots, long takes, and contemplative passages with quick intercutting of closeups on Miles' toys, drawings, and nightmares. He has a big bag of stylistic tricks, but he uses them sparingly and effectively. He has a knack for shooting everyday objects in a way that imbues them with terror and dread. I also appreciated the tiny visual and verbal nods to The Wolf Man, Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Wendigo isn't quite as consistent or developed as Habit, but it's pretty damn good.