I don’t remember when I first heard of the Wendigo – it may have been from an anthology like Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, the one with those creepy drawings. But there has always been something about the mythical ice beast, (the terrifying result of dark practices), that has intrigued me. Every time I head up north, I look at the chilling woods and wonder if there are spirits cleaving up there.

So you’d think I’m an easy sell for this kinda movie, since, as the title indicates, it is full of Wendigo. Want Wendigo? This movie has it. Alas, writer-director Larry Fessenden has about seventy minutes of tricks in his ninety-minute bag, and when they’re all used up, what seemed a tense and intriguing thriller becomes the stupidest thing since whatever played last Saturday night on The Sci-Fi Network.

Not to say that the let-down’s buildup is perfect. Wendigo tells the story of city folk in the country who get harassed by country folk they don’t understand. The city folk fall afoul of (or get the aid from, it’s hard to tell) an ancient Indian spirit, and no points for guessing who. The performances are fine: Family moments with the kid (Malcolm In The Middle‘s Erik Per Sullivan1) seem very real, yet they never lapse into a false sort of cuteness – they’re adorable because of the reality of the situation. And, little by little, we see the family’s internal conflict reach a breaking point, and how it is exacerbated by the external forces at work.

There’s a fine and subtle story here, but Fessenden has either a loss of nerve or a lack of vision because, in the end, everything gives way to convention. I doubt it’s a loss of nerve, because the film is rather unabashed, both in its strange supernaturalism and in the reality of the situations it presents. There’s also a surprisingly graphic sex scene, once a hallmark of the American horror movie2. So, a lack of vision is our problem.

The Wendigo is hinted at throughout the film, often with Blair Witch-like shots of trees. And, as the climax approaches, we get a clear vision of the spirit that is frightening and strange. But here the movie recycles some of the worst ‘bad horror movie’ cliches. At the end, it’s a boring monster chase, and our tension and worry for the sympathetic characters is gone. All of them may still suffer, but in the context of the film, they are left out of the loop. It does not help that this latter Wendigo, as opposed to the startling and strange vision from earlier, is about the stupidest-looking monster since It Conquered The World.

Fessenden also falls back on super-quick camera movements and fast cuts in order to keep the feeling of weirdness, even when his most effective shots are those without cuts – ones that give us clear views of things that may mean more than they seem. That is central to the horror film: insinuation of monstrosity where none may exist. Thus, the thudding, bland literalness of the slasher genre that has choked the horror film has actually killed scary movies, and has trained a generation to laugh at them, rather than feel them. Wendigo starts the golden path to real terror, but dives into silly literalism (even as the film seems to become hallucinatory) and derails entirely.

1I have fallen into the trap of assigning ownership to the young man in this TV show. I think that poor Erik should be his own man – not owned by the TV. But such is our modern life.

By the way, he’s a fine little actor, as are all the kids on Malcolm. That almost never happens on a show with young kids, and that’s why I like it.

2You always hear that sex and death are connected, but I find the connection more reflexive (as in, ‘everyone says it, so it must be true’) than clear.
However, for a couple of reasons, the use of sex in horror movies is integral to their effectiveness.

First, these films are largely exploitative. That is, a lot of what’s going on is just for cheap thrills. At least, that used to be the case – the modern teen slasher has decided that, yes, copious violence is ok, but occasional nudity is verboten. For the most stunningly idiotic example of this, see The Faculty. A naked girl walks across a room, with shadows just happening to catch her at every step so she can maintain her modesty. It’s as if the director thought he could protect himself from the idiotic content by giving the actress some ‘dignity.’ No dice, Rodriguez – I go to a bad horror movie for sex and blood. Eliminate one of them from the equation, and you’re not making gold crap – you’re making crap boring.

Second (and this is a long footnote), the horror movie is a religious genre at best. It’s about the gods we try to ignore, the great powers that exist to threaten us. That’s why the Devil’s appearance makes something a horror movie (almost always), and the appearance of big daddy G does not. Michael Myers is something of a god, just as explicitly as the Candyman is. And, since this religiosity is a primal one, primalism helps build the mood, and nothing is so primal as sex. Here, Wendigo is spot-on, particularly when it is revealed that the sex is observed by an outsider.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com