Monday, October 24, 2016

Ten Days of Terror!: Wendigo

Film: Wendigo
Format: DVD from Wilmington Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Different cultures and different indigenous groups have their own monsters and myths. Some of them seem strange to us simply because the mythic monsters we grew up with are what we grew up with. It makes them seem normal, and other cultures’ versions are weird in comparison. The wendigo myth—an ancient cannibalistic spirit that invades the bodies of men and corrupts them—is a purely American myth, and one that has been variously handled by filmmakers and authors in the past. In the case of the film Wendigo, we’re losing the cannibalism aspects of the classic monster here along with just about everything else it would seem.

Wendigo is clearly a horror movie, but it also doesn’t seem to know that until the final 12-15 minutes. Oh, there are a few moments where we get hints of horror movie, but nothing really happens that puts us all the way there until the end. And even then, we’re never sure that what we’re seeing is real. It could just as easily be the dream of one character or the hallucination of another. I know I’m tipping my hand here, but there are typically two possibilities for something like this. One possibility is a mystery to ponder. The other is an unsatisfying conclusion. We’re in the realm of the second possibility in this case.

A family consisting of parents George (Jake Weber) and Kim (Patricia Clarkson) and son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) have decided to get out of New York City for a long, rustic weekend upstate. Everything seems to be fine until the family hits a deer in the middle of the road. This accident, which certainly seems to be the fault of no one, causes local hunter and derelict Otis (John Speredakos) to threaten George and his family. See, he and his friends had apparently wounded the buck and had been tracking it, but being hit by the car damaged the antlers, which hurts the value. Eventually the family gets pulled out of the ditch and Otis and his hunting friends drive off.

So, things are a little weird…like there are bullet holes through the window of the house the family has rented, but they spend the night and everything seems fine. Or generally fine, except that George seems to be pretty high strung about things and also thinks that Otis has developed some sort of vendetta against the family. This, by the way, may be confirmed as we see Otis playing a little peeping Tom action while George and Kim are getting busy. Anyway, the family goes into town. Kay and Miles head into a pharmacy where Miles encounters an old native man who tells him about the wendigo myth and hands him a small figurine of the creature. It turns out that the man doesn’t actually work at the store, though, and may not actually exist. Miles leaves with the figurine, though, and that afternoon he and his father go sledding.

See, this all seems very normal and boring, and it kind of is despite a number of scenes that appear to exist only to create tension in the way they are filmed. During the sledding, George falls off the sled and Miles gets lost. Eventually, Kay finds her son and they find George, who was apparently shot even though there is no explanation for this. At the hospital, Miles starts to dream about the wendigo, and Otis might actually be the wendigo. Or not. It’s never really clear what parts of what we are seeing are real, Miles’s dream, or Otis’s hallucinations. Or all of the above.

And really, since there doesn’t seem to be a way to parse all of this, it ends up being pretty unsatisfying. I don’t mind ambiguity, but with Wendigo there is literally no way to find anything to grab onto here. If three people watched this film and debated real vs. Miles’s fantasy vs. Otis’s insanity at the end, each could make a compelling case, and none would have and specific piece of information that could shut the other two down. I literally don’t have a clue as to which of those possibilities is more likely. They all seem equally likely and equally unsatisfying.

It’s a shame, too, because Wendigo really wants to be good and interesting. It feels very much like it’s trying too hard. There’s a good story here somewhere, but it’s buried at the moment behind too much attempted cleverness and faux artistry. Just tell the damn story! Give us some good scares and a creepy myth, and we’re good to go. It’s find to add the touches and flourishes, but if there’s not much of a story underneath, then those flourishes are in service of pretty much nothing.

Patricia Clarkson deserves better, dammit. This needed a more substantial plot, or at least a more interesting place to go. Once we had that, then all of the spooky touches and flourishes might actually be in service of something worth having them.

Why to watch Wendigo: It’s a weird one if nothing else.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t feel like a horror movie until there are fewer than 15 minutes left.

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