How does myth shape our understanding of the world? Such is the question hiding in the heart of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo, a film that screened in gorgeously grainy 35mm on Thursday as part of the Boston Underground Film Festival. An artful examination of mythical storytelling, Wendigo succeeded both as a horror film and a character-driven indie drama about a young boy dealing with trauma.
A vacationing family consisting of father George (Jake Weber), mother Kim (Patricia Clarkson), and son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) leave New York City for a weekend in the countryside. Before they even get to their rental, however, a car accident involving a deer and a group of abrasive hunters shakes up the family, especially young Miles. On arrival, bullet holes in the windows and the recurring presence of the exceptionally creepy Otis, one of the hunters, betray the fact that this idyllic escape may not be very idyllic after all.
Told from the point of view of Miles, Wendigo functions primarily as a subjective examination of the grand imagination of childhood. More specifically, the way that children (and indeed, many adults) latch on to storytelling to explain a world that, in Fessenden’s words, is “arbitrary and scary” .With that in mind, Wendigo succeeds as a horror film that gently nudges the audience into Miles’ point of view, before unleashing oppressive, otherworldly horror on the now-fragile audience.
This otherworldly horror runs through the film’s veins. Through artificial-looking stop-motion, Fessenden fosters an atmosphere that delights in making the audience feel that something is wrong, that everything is just slightly off. It’s unsettling, to say the least. As if that wasn’t enough, the rhythmic, ethereal soundtrack and the lyrical editing give the film a trancelike quality. The sensation of slipping into the world is so subtle, but once it happens, there’s no escape.
The titular wendigo is borrowed from the legends of the Algonquian peoples, and appears throughout the film in varying forms — a conscious choice that further adds to the disorientation — but it’s not the center of the film. Instead, and this is a part of why Wendigo works, the film is more concerned with the relationships of the family. More than anything, Wendigo is a character-driven drama, and this makes the horror so much more effective. We bond with the characters and care about them, so that when bad things invariably happen, we feel it. It’s a style that is beginning to reappear within indie horror with the excellent The Babadook as an example.
Fessenden’s film is tuned in to the human frequency. It’s loud and clear. The supernatural elements are a backdrop that function as additions to the story, as it should be, and characters are front and center. The acting from all three leads is naturalistic and honest, and acting-wise, the film feels very similar to the style employed by the mumblecore movement. The special effects are few, but when they appear it’s not out-of-place. It’s fair to say that everything in the films stems from the character drama, not from an excess of plotting.
One of the most compelling elements of the film, besides the eerie cinematography, is the treatment of the natural world. Sped-up footage, poetic editing, and creative camera angles are frequently utilized together in the service of making nature itself appear demonic, overwhelming, and mysterious. Experimental sequences such as these occur frequently in the film, often layered with characters speaking or the previously mentioned tribal soundtrack. They are welcome additions that break up the indie drama with arthouse flair.
All in all, Wendigo is a great film, one that displays the power of expressionist horror to tackle grand themes and do so with emotional sensitivity and masterfully-executed atmosphere. On the official website, a relic of early ’00s internet, Fessenden states that the film “ultimately strives to be a mood piece. A visceral, linear ride. A small cinematic gesture.” There are elements that don’t quite work as well as the rest of the film — the ending comes to mind, which veers slightly towards convoluted — but watching the film in a dark theater, with a hush over the crowd and the subtle flickering of projected film, you get the sense that Fessenden achieved exactly what he set out to do.