Fear Factor

In the woods of New York lives a creepy (or is it?) Wendigo

Writer-director Larry Fessenden's Wendigo takes its basic hook from the Native American myth of the Windigo, as it's more frequently spelled. (You say Wendigo, I say Windigo--let's call the whole thing off.) In its classic form, the Windigo is an evil spirit that possesses humans in the grip of hunger and turns them into soulless, marauding cannibals. A lot more ubiquitous and compelling than claptrap like, oh, that damned Mothman, the notion of the Windigo is rooted in recognizable human psychology, much like the vampire, the werewolf and most other truly enduring monsters. Indeed, there's a long-recognized "Windigo psychosis," and it's easy to imagine why: In cases of extreme isolation and starvation, the impulse to survive runs smack up against both human emotion and deep-seated taboos, leading to a dissociative state. To avoid feeling horror at their own savage actions, victims turn into ravenous killing machines.

Fessenden's story takes great liberties with the tradition. A strictly urban family decides to ditch New York City for a weekend at a friend's house in the Catskills. George (Jake Weber, who played Vince Vaughn's sidekick in The Cell), a work-obsessed commercial photographer, participates reluctantly. He's come along basically to please his psychologist wife, Kim (Patricia Clarkson), who thinks he needs more quality time with their 8-year-old son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, Dewey on Malcolm in the Middle).

But before they even make it to the cabin, they accidentally hit a deer that was about to be shot by a group of three local hunters. One of the hunters, Otis (John Speredakos), is hostile and unpleasant and all around scary; he's just raring to pick a fight with the city intruders. The situation calms down, but it gives the impressionable little boy the willies. He's at the age where he still has a kid's fantasy view of existence, while knowing enough of the world to recognize its real dangers.

Sketchy details: Wendigo botches the Native American myth.
Sketchy details: Wendigo botches the Native American myth.

As it turns out, his arguably neurotic fears are totally justified. Otis is a real creep, a downright threat. And there seems to be some spooky history attached to the house, a history that might have to do with Otis or, perhaps, with the Wendigo, as the filmmakers spell it. In fact, little Miles hears about the Wendigo from a mysterious Native American (Lloyd Oxendine), who gives him a Wendigo charm for protection. It's at this point that the film's point of view begins to cause trouble. That is, while we have been set up to fear the Wendigo, it suddenly takes on a potentially benevolent role.

Fessenden's last film, 1997's Habit, in which he also starred, was a similar revisionist look at a horror staple, the vampire film. In many ways, it was a straightforward update without a touch of the campy dismissal that sometimes informs modern-day vampire stories. With Wendigo, however, he strays much further from the most common versions of the myth, and it's a little problematic. If, in fact, he means to be commenting on the notion of the Wendigo, he leaves the audience behind, since the material is far less ingrained in American culture than the vampire. There have been perhaps half a dozen movies that have invoked the notion, most notably Antonia Bird's 1999 Ravenous, with Robert Carlyle and Guy Pearce. Thomas Pynchon's second published short story, the amusing "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna," employed it brilliantly. And The X-Files, in its exhaustive exploitation of every possible paranormal concept, also dealt with it.

Still, most viewers will need it explained, and the film somewhat bobbles the task. It may be the result of Fessenden's apparent ambition: He tries to keep us on edge by toying with our ideas of whether the real threat to the family is the supernatural Wendigo or the all-too-human Otis. Using a low-budget equivalent of David Fincher's disorienting, herky-jerky camera style, he creates a truly creepy sense of anticipation. But near the end, he opts for a sudden change of POV that confuses and alienates the audience. If the final sequences seem to be inspired by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, it must be said that even Kubrick, who reveled in demolishing film conventions, knew we had to stay with the little kid during the big climax.

Fessenden continues to do interesting work, and it would be nice to see what he could make with a decent budget. But the problem with Wendigo, for all its effective moments, isn't really one of resources. At its heart, the story seems confused, as though the director has given it one too many twists.

 
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