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With: Patricia Clarkson, Erik Per Sullivan, Jake Weber, John Speredakos
Written by: Larry Fessenden
Directed by: Larry Fessenden
MPAA Rating: R for a strong sex scene, language and violent images
Running Time: 92
Date: 01/23/2001

Wendigo (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Beast of Both Worlds

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not sure if we can officially call our current age a "horror movie renaissance" but things have indeed improved lately. My guess is that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson's Scream series shamed most filmmakers into discontinuing the usual slasher flicks.

Instead, filmmakers behind films like The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, The Others, Session 9, The Devil's Backbone and the new Wendigo have taken a cue from Val Lewton's great horror films from the 1940s, like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. They've realized that imagining, or anticipating, something bad happening is far more intense than actually seeing something bad happen.

Wendigo, which played at last year's Dark Wave festival and opens today at the Red Vic Movie House, is actually the third in a self-titled "trilogy of horror" by director Larry Fessenden. The first two, No Telling (1991) and Habit (1997), neither of which I've seen, are available on DVD. But Wendigo alone reveals the promise of a hugely talented filmmaker.

A family of three drives into the snowy backroads of upstate New York for a relaxing weekend. When their car accidentally strikes a deer, commercial photographer George (Jake Weber) gets out to see what he can do, while doctor Kim (Patricia Clarkson) attempts to comfort their young son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, best known as Dewey on TV's "Malcolm in the Middle").

Unfortunately, the deer is done for and the family is now stuck in the snow. Even worse, a trio of backwoods, redneck deer hunters find the deer and begin giving George and his family a hard time, blaming him for cracking the valuable antlers.

The tension mounts, but the family manages to escape. They arrive, cold and tired, at their weekend house. George finds a bullet hole in the window and patches it up. But he can't stop thinking about those hunters, especially the really sinister one -- the one they call Otis (John Speredakos).

While we're waiting for the other shoe to drop, little Miles meets an Indian man in a local shop who gives him a carved "wendigo" figurine, describing him as an insatiable beast that can transform himself into half-man, beast, or tree.

Now Fessenden has two beasts that he can suddenly use to attack the poor family -- Otis and the Wendigo. And yet he cleverly bides his time, all the while building an uncanny bond between the three members of this family. Their conversations and interactions are some of the most vivid and realistic I've ever seen in any kind of movie, much less the horror genre. It makes you want to laugh that certain Hollywood dramas try to build human relationships as their main goal and fail miserably, and here Fessenden manages to do it perfectly merely as a by-product of his horror tale.

But of course, we wouldn't have a movie unless both beasties eventually reared their ugly heads, and that's where the film predictably falters. Actually showing us a physical conclusion to the film's events after our imaginations have been working overtime can only be a letdown.

But Fessenden holds off as long as he can, and up to that point Wendigo is a superb movie, a horror movie that knows how to be scary but not at the expense of fascinating characters.

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