Wednesday, November 11, 2015

WENDIGO (2001) Blu-ray Review

Wendigo (2001) d. Larry Fessenden (USA)

Commercial photographer George (Jake Weber), his psychologist wife Kim (Patricia Clarkson), and their young son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) head up to the Catskills for a winter weekend getaway, but the trip is temporarily sidelined when a wounded deer stumbles into their path. When the dust settles, the animal is dead and their car stuck in a snowdrift, while the hunters hot on its trail emerge from the woods none-too-pleased to discover their quarry damaged by the collision. The most antagonistic of these, Otis (John Speredakos), speaks exclusively in sneers and veiled threats, and while the family escape the situation unscathed, the incident casts an ominous pall over their arrival at the cabin and the rest of the evening. The next day, Miles encounters a strange Native American gentlemen (Lloyd Oxendine) in town who, after giving him a wooden totem of the legendary Wendigo, a "hungry, angry woodland spirit," promptly disappears. A tragic sledding accident follows, setting in motion a series of (possibly supernatural) events that will forever change the face of the young family.

NYC filmmaker Fessenden followed his urban vampire tale, Habit, with this mystical meditation on Man vs. Man vs. Nature, trading in the stolen shots of the metropolis' dark underbelly for a snow-capped morality tale rich with bucolic unease. But like his previous feature, he's far more interested in character and ambiguity than a straightforward thrills-n-chills genre piece, and the slow pace and lack of "incident" may prove frustrating to some. For the patient and attentive viewer, however, there are rewards aplenty, with multiple interpretations of the onscreen events and Terry Stacey's (American Splendor, Adventureland) impressive cinematography delivering volumes of textured atmosphere.

As for the performances, there is nary a false note amidst the quartet of central characters, with Weber, Clarkson, and Sullivan a tight and believable family unit, one that is spiky and tumultuous, but undeniably loving and playful at its core. By contrast, Speredakos is a knotted collection of discontent and rage. We get to know these individuals through their relationship to each other, and Fessenden's script is delicately laced with hints of frustrations and disappointments and self-doubts that inform their every move. It's a marvel of economy; while some might cry "nothing is happening," I would argue that everything is happening right before our eyes - you just have to be willing to look. And know that what you're looking for may not be what you find.

Jaded modern-day viewers may find the titular creature's onscreen realization somewhat clunky, but for my money, designer Josh Turi's organic, low-fi, guy-in-suit approach fits in perfectly with the rustic setting and unflashy presentation. And just when you've grown used to the long, unbroken takes of the winter landscape, Fessenden (who also edited) and Stacey dazzle us with a flurry of montages or a magical nighttime 360-degree "Matrix" shot. This is a filmmaker who knows when to play the cards close to his chest and when to throw down the trump, as opposed to a constant barrage of increasingly numbing "wow" shots that lose all sense of impact. And yet, perhaps this is the reason that many fans remain unaware of the film, or if they have, it was courtesy of Adam Lukeman's aptly-named Fangoria's 101 Best Horror Films You've Never Seen.

Special note should be given to Michelle DiBucci's ethereal tribal-influenced musical themes, with Tom Laverack delivering the gorgeous acoustic closing credits number (as he has done for all of Fessenden's features), "Hold Out".

For Shout! Factory's Blu-ray debut (part of The Larry Fessenden Collection), we are blessed with lashings of supplemental features, some of which appeared on the initial 2002 Artisan DVD, such as the 30-minute making-of  entitled "Searching for the Wendigo" and the 10-minute interview with Fessenden on the origins of the story. However, for those who already own the previous release, there are several new slices of pie making the upgrade worthwhile. Foremost among these are the two newly recorded audio commentary tracks, one by the writer/director and the other featuring Clarkson and Weber, with Speredakos chiming in at the end. Fessenden's track is by far the more illuminating, pointing out visual clues and name-checking pretty much everyone responsible for any bit of onscreen business. (We also learn that it is his voice we're hearing as the Native American medicine man, as Oxendine, while an appropriately cryptic and mysterious physical presence, wasn't quite up to the rigors of ADR.)

Weber and Clarkson's track is fairly dispensable and repetitious, filled with pleasant but vague recollections mixed with oh-so-earnest gushings over the director's resourcefulness on a limited budget. When Speredakos appears for the last 15 minutes, he brings a refreshing energy and enthusiasm, happily unfolding the mishap-filled story of "distressing" his own wardrobe or recounting the totally unrelated story of Bela Lugosi's turn as the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and how the studio eliminated all references of the creature being blind, making Lugosi's stumbling characterization seem merely a clumsy acting choice. (I'm hard pressed to think of another occasion where an actor with limited air time devotes a substantial portion discussing another actor's performance in another movie altogether. Clearly we're hanging with the right guy.)

Additionally, there is the video pitch for the never-made Wendigo: The Animated Series, Fessenden's stop-motion short Santa Claws, and an updated (1991 - 2010) Glass Eye Pix sizzle reel.

Wendigo is available now from Shout! Factory (as part of The Larry Fessenden Collection, along with No Telling, Habit, and The Last Winter) and can be ordered HERE:


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