Into the Woods 

Wendigo’s world of childhood terrors

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002

When filmmaker Larry Fessenden was a kid, back before the proliferation of home video, he used to record monster movies from the TV onto audio tape. As an adult writer-director, he’s channeled his obsession into a series of seriously creepy reinscribed creature features -- the Frankenstein riff No Telling, the vampire movie Habit -- that explore how icons of terror figure in our personal and amalgamated psyches. In Fessenden‘s latest, Wendigo, the titular monster has its roots in Native American myth, and a pop resume that includes everything from The X-Files to X-Men. As Fessenden sees it, the eerie half-man, half-deer spirit of the wild is a fierce symbol of the elemental beastliness that lives within all of us.

Fessenden wastes no time in striking a malevolent tone. As the film opens, 8-year-old Miles (Malcolm in the Middle’s Erik Per Sullivan) is driving with his parents, Kim and George (Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber), from the city to a Connecticut country house. The monotony of the trip is shattered by a sudden collision with a deer that sends the car into deep snow and the wounded animal to the side of the road. As Miles watches silently from the back seat, a trio of hunters emerges from the woods; one, Otis (James Speredakos), administers a fatal gunshot to the fallen buck, then, enraged to see that his trophy‘s antlers have been damaged, provokes an angry confrontation with George. After a tense standoff, the family gets back on the road -- but not before Otis discovers where they’re spending their long weekend.

Like No Telling and Habit -- or, for that matter, any of the classic horror movies Fessenden adores -- Wendigo is a finely tuned mood piece, a model of menacing atmosphere. A born-and-bred New Yorker, Fessenden likes to get his characters away from civilization (Connecticut will do) in order to allow their wilder impulses to flourish. (“I just felt the abyss between me and that guy,” says George to Kim about his encounter with Otis, but as the film progresses, we see that there‘s little separating the two.) Nudged along by Stephen Beatrice’s production design -- with its drab palette and tangles of bare, antlerlike tree branches -- Fessenden fashions a dull, wintry landscape that contrasts sharply with the restive, hand-held camera deployed during tense moments, or with fluttering time-lapse sequences of furiously rushing rivers and spiraling forest views. In that barren environment, boredom becomes a breeding ground for mayhem: An only child, Miles is simply left with too much time to nurture scary thoughts -- and rouse them into life.

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Fessenden‘s films are clearly the work of someone who’s spent a lot of time pondering ghouls and their deeper implications, but they also come juiced by the same sort of aw-cool zest for scares that would drive a little boy to collect monster movies on audiotape. In Wendigo, the filmmaker‘s affinity for boyish things (the film was first plotted out in comic-book form) reminds us of how terror itself is born in the mind of a child. As Miles grapples to process the bestial male anger he witnesses, he looks naturally to the story of the Wendigo -- imparted to him by a mysterious Indian man at the local five-and-dime -- to explain what he cannot quite comprehend. The film’s best and scariest moments come when Miles is confronted with scenes that he translates into proof of the Wendigo‘s power -- the sight of the deer in its death throes, or of darkening woods that harbor all-too-imaginable evil. As Miles lies in bed at night, his overheated ruminations conjure a truly frightening series of images revolving around Otis, a closet and a rattling trap door. When Miles pads over to his parents’ bedroom for reassurance, he stops short of going inside. “Miles, are you there?” we hear Kim call before gently telling him to go back to bed. Miles remains in place, listening wide-eyed to his father snore and the clock tick, and in that protracted moment, we recall when we, too, stood stock still in fear, realizing with dread that parents were no longer going to be much help.

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