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I typically admire horror films that take the time to develop their characters and create personalities to root for before nasty stuff starts happening and people start dying in horrible ways. Larry Fessenden's Wendigo is a film that pays a lot of attention to a close-knit family of father, mother, and son, bestowing long minutes of screen time to everyday horsing around, bear-hugging, and acting cute. However, such a focus on character relationships is to little avail when the story surrounding them is something of a bust.
George (Jake Weber) is a caring but somewhat distant father who's on his way—with his wife Kim (Patricia Clarkson) and quiet, seemingly troubled son (Erik Per Sullivan)—to rural New York for a long weekend. Trouble begins immediately as the car strikes a deer along a backwoods road. Unfortunately, a group of hick hunters led by the gruff Otis (John Speredakos) has been tracking that deer all day, and Otis gets his panties in a bunch because George's car broke one of its antlers. The resulting aura of hostility remains like a fog over the first part of the film, but it feels increasingly disconnected from the story as we anticipate some kind of gradual knowledge about the wendigo. In the end, we have to wait too long for that knowledge, and the information we do get is too chaotic and fuzzy.
Wendigo starts off very slowly, taking about an hour to establish place and characters and mood, before anything really starts to happen. Some of that time pays off, but mostly the first hour is concerned with that nasty run-in with Otis, and its aftermath. The ominous Otis keeps making appearances as the family goes about its daily business, and we're never completely sure whether we're watching a Deliverance-type chiller or a supernatural thriller or a family drama. After a certain development halfway through, the plot seems to implode on itself, offering random scenes in place of a cohesive narrative.
The film contains some pretty cool photographic effects that are almost disturbing. But it also has many flash-edited camera tricks that seem completely out of place, more in tune with a music video. You also get Matrix and Jacob's Ladder knockoff shots, for no discernible reason. Nearly all the camera effects are gratuitous. Sadly, the effect of these tricks is opposite what the filmmakers intended. Instead of feeling dread and fear, I felt perplexed.
Which brings us to the titular monster. As we catch glimpses of a rickety bone thing in the early parts of Wendigo, the image goes all jittery and breaks into visual stutters, obviously to hide the crappiness of the physical effect. In later scenes, unfortunately, we get the benefit of fewer and fewer obscuring camera tricks, and a large, stiff Bambi-thing is exposed for us to laugh at. The effect is astoundingly bad, and serves as an example of how a special effect, even one glimpsed briefly, can sound the death knell of a horror movie.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Artisan presents Wendigo in a mediocre anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. The most damning aspect of the image quality is its graininess, which is the result of the film being shot in Super-16mm and blown up to 35mm. The movie therefore has a murky flatness. This is a low-budget film, and unfortunately, it looks it. Close-up detail is fine, and colors seem accurate. But shadow detail is mostly lost in a haze of grain. Blacks aren't particularly deep. The print is occasionally dirty and mildly damaged.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Dolby 2.0 Surround track. Both are unspectacular but workmanlike. Most of the sound is centered at the screen, with only occasional effects to be heard in the rear. Dialog seems accurate and is clear. Sometimes, the low-budget nature of the film makes itself known in the sound mix, which seems to vary in quality.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The disc offers a Director Commentary under the Setup menu. This audio track by Larry Fessenden is a chatty affair in which he talks about influences such as Stanley Kubrick and metaphors within the film, such as the boy's toys, which represent the central clash of city folk and country folk. The film is obviously intensely personal for Fessenden, as he constantly mentions items or events in the film that have an intimate connection to his childhood. Besides stories from his youth, other movies are a major inspiration for Fessenden. He frequently mentions movies that inspired specific shots or scenes—so frequently that Wendigo starts to seem overly derivative.
The first extra in the Special Features menu is the R-rated Trailer. This full-screen sneak peek makes the film look far more exciting than it actually is. But then, I suppose that's the mark of a good trailer.
Under Director and Cast, you can access mini bios for the primary cast and crew.
Next is the 32-minute documentary Searching for the Wendigo. This full-screen piece begins by telling us how the myth of the Wendigo has haunted director Fessenden for decades. It goes on to show monster-costume tests that will make you think of large stuffed animals that you might take home to your 2-year-old daughter. Then, we see footage of several scenes being shot. All of this stuff is presented without narration—a nice touch—but, damn, some of these models and physical effects will leave you cringing, thinking, What made these people think that cheesy monstrosity would work? On one hand, the production seems to have had a mostly professional feel. On the other hand, the low-budget nature of the production really shines through. I was reminded of Sam Raimi's or Peter Jackson's early attempts at special effects work, finding innovation in household items like paperclips and vegetable oil. Those effects were tremendous fun while being both creepy and cheap. Wendigo's effects boast only that last quality.
The Art Gallery contains a modest selection of promotional and storyboard art.
The 8-minute Interview with Director Larry Fessenden is the final special feature on the disc, but you should probably watch it before any of the other features. It's actually good preparation for both the film and the documentary. In his slightly Willem Dafoe-ish voice, Fessenden apologizes for (rationalizes?) the low-tech effects and discusses the Wendigo mythology. He laments the state of special-effects-heavy films, and yet Wendigo relies on them to a great extent. Interestingly, over his shoulder during the interview, you see a piece of graffiti that says "Kook."
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Wendigo disappointed me. Admittedly, its intentions are admirable, but its showy effects and atrocious monster—along with its failure to reach deeply enough into the mythology of the beast—wreck this effort. The DVD presentation ain't too bad, despite a mediocre transfer.