Most horror movies are pretty undemanding of their audience. Sure, it can turn people's stomachs to watch a masked super-killer rend his victims with power tools; sure, you may need to change your pants after the vampire jumps out from the darkness and goes "BLEAH!"; sure, you may have an uncomfortable moment or two as you walk past the graveyard, in darkness, after seeing that zombie flick. But generally, these scares are momentary things, harmless and easily dismissed. Individual moments in otherwise tame films may stick in our imaginations -- the downbeat endings of the Count Yorga series, for example, or the hideous kitten scene from the first of those films -- but these are just isolated moments in films that otherwise follow conventional formulas.
But there are films that root their horror in something much more substantial than the same old scare stories. Take, for example, The Exorcist: the extended version which played theatres in 2000 included footage of little Regan's battery of medical tests, scenes which were almost unbearable in their clinical cruelty. The horror of the demon-possession story which dominates the last section of the movie is made far more powerful by these earlier scenes, which force us to empathize with both mother and child, and give us a real sense of the physical and emotional toll the experience is taking on them. Then there's Night of the Living Dead, which confronts us with the inevitability of our death and dissolution. That movie's downbeat ending is more than just a tacked-on extra shock; it's an exclamation point... it's the slamming of a coffin lid on our illusions about our mortality. Or, for an extreme example, take Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, where the killings themselves are far less spectacular than those of your standard teen-kill flick... but where the stark, nauseatingly realistic tone of the film makes the audience feel like they're actually participating in the crimes.
In short: some horror movies hurt.
And this is a good thing: horror should hurt sometimes. We can't witness all that death and mayhem without occasionally being affected by it. For every hundred Final Stabs and Wishmasters, for every dozen Hammer gothics or post-Halloween John Carpenter outings, for every handful of Evil Dead movies or Suspirias, there should be at least one movie -- required viewing -- that brings the horror home to us, in ways the others do not.
It's not just film where we can find this sort of experience: the novels of Ramsey Campbell, for instance, generally open up vast, terrible vistas inside of me. I had no idea they were there until he revealed them to me, and I can never be the same with this knowledge. And yes, this is the sort of experience that I seek out.
I mention Campbell because he is, for me, the most terrifying writer who ever wrote. I find no comfortable distance between Campbell's prose and my imagination. What happens in his stories happens directly to me: it's my mind and my soul that slip away into nothingness along with his characters. I have been affected by other writers and their work in similar ways, even though some of these authors are not known as "horror" writers... selected stories of Abe Kobo, Mishima Yukio and Ian MacEwan have left me sick and trembling, questioning my feeble grasp on reality.
Once -- only once -- I have encountered this sort of catharsis in the work of the man who, for many, defined horror in the late 20th century: Stephen King. Years before King turned into the Maine Doorstop Manufactury, he wrote what I think is his finest achievement, the novel Pet Sematery. Pet Sematery confronts the entire American cultural attitude toward death, finds its weak spots, and uses them to hideous advantage. It's a book whose raw power wasn't even hinted at in the movie adaptation, which did a fair job of mimicking the gruesome details of the plot while avoiding the novel's cold, black heart. As far as I know, King still refuses to discuss Pet Sematery, and I think, in a small way, I understand why: here is a story so big and terrible in its implications that it's as dangerous to its creator as it is to anyone else.
While we're on the subject of Pet Sematery: toward the climax of King's novel, the beleaguered hero sees the Wendigo. The Wendigo is Native American legend, an ancient wandering spirit which drives men mad with its voice, and turns them to cannibals with its touch. Meeting the Wendigo in the woods at night would be horror enough for a whole book, but in King's novel, it's just one more little detail. The brief description of its towering presence, in the context of all the other harrowing visions and events of the story, does a better job of conveying a sense of near-religious awe than H.P. Lovecraft ever achieved. King's particular image of the Wendigo is burned into my imagination, and I doubt anything will ever replace it.
All these thoughts I had immediately after watching Wendigo. Larry Fessenden's film builds its horror on real human emotions -- fear, pain, anger, grief, and love -- and for that it should be commended. But when it comes to realizing the "horror" part of its story, it miscalculates badly. All the things which underlay the horror, and give it resonance, are all well-handled, but the bits which are supposed to frighten us... don't.
The story begins as a couple, George and Kim, are driving out with their little boy Miles for a vacation in the country. Miles is in the back seat, playing Monster Battle with a toy werewolf and a toy robot. The opening credits make much of the two toys, so I suppose we can glean some symbolism from them: while the toys are the same size, one represents a human being transforming into an animal; the other represents a human being transforming into a machine. Thanks, Larry, I think we get it: here in the hands of a child, we have a metaphor for the state of modern man (some day I have to work out for myself whether I still take statements like this seriously).
Suddenly, a deer runs out into the road: George can't avoid it. The animal leaves a bloody smear on the hood of the car and lands by the side of the road. George's Volvo also skids off the road, and gets stuck in a snowbank.
Right behind the deer follow a trio of hunters, who had apparently been tracking this deer -- a splendid trophy buck -- for most of the day. One of the hunters, the ill-tempered Otis, is extremely angry to see that the buck's antler has been cracked by the accident. George tries nervously to settle him down, but the heavily-armed Otis (who dispatches the wounded animal with a pistol as little Miles watches in horror) has nothing but contempt for the city people.
The family is at last able to put Otis and his friends behind them, before the shades of Deliverance or Straw Dogs can grow too strong. Unfortunately, circumstances will bring Otis and the family into contact with each other over and over again. First George, then later Kim notices that there are bullet holes in some of the windows of their vacation house. Next George and Miles see Otis drive his truck across the property. Miles, an imaginative child, has vivid dreams, in which he sees Otis coming to get him with his pistol drawn. Kim and George are too busy having sex to see the real Otis peering through the window at them.
It will come to light that Otis's family used to own the house where the city couple are staying. After some misfortunes, Otis lost his claim to the house, and had to go live in a trailer. As he sees the couple living in his house, his resentment builds.
When the family stops in the nearest town (Phoenicia, NY) for some groceries, Miles meets an old Indian man who gives him a carved statue of the Wendigo. The Wendigo, the man explains, is a hungry spirit, neither good nor evil. The more he eats, the larger he grows; the larger he grows, the hungrier and angrier he gets. Miles shows the figurine to his mother, but in the meantime, the old man has disappeared. The woman at the store counter insists that there is no one else in the store, and makes Kim pay for the old man's gift.
So. As usual, the White Man insists on payment for what is not his, something the Red Man gave freely. The old man's description of the Wendigo repeats on the soundtrack as Miles stares out the window on the journey home: we see the houses, stores and lumber mills as we hear again that the Wendigo is always hungry, and the more he eats, the hungrier... and angrier... he becomes. And, of course, later we will find that Otis is hungry, and angry, because someone has taken his land, and given it to still others to live on...
Yeah. Thanks again, Larry; we get it.
The setup is nearly complete: Kim (who is a psychologist) is still upset about the deer, and its effect on little Miles; George is still upset about his encounter with Otis; the whole family is upset about the way they always seem to run into Otis, even seeing him out of the corners of their eyes. Kim tries to reassure Miles by fibbing to him about the hunters and what they really do, but George cautions his son that terrible things sometimes happen in the world. Kim vents her anxiety by complaining that George isn't spending enough time with Miles, so George takes the boy out to go sledding.
And now, the stage is set for tragedy. There will be horror, too, almost as an afterthought.
Ready for some enormous spoilers?
All right. George and Miles are enjoying some Quality Time together when suddenly, something throws George from the sled. Miles' sled careers off into a tree; the boy picks himself up and walks shakily back to where his father lies sprawled in the snow...
In a pool of blood.
(How were any of them to know there was a rifle range set up just beyond the hill, where some of the locals -- Otis, for instance -- would go to get a little target practice? Maybe work off a little aggression?)
And now, what's happening? Is Miles about to lose consciousness, or is that really a strange mist that's blowing in through the trees? Miles runs to escape the mist (which might just be the blinding fog we sometimes see before we pass out). He seems to see the tree branches shape themselves into something terrible -- and then he faints.
Night has fallen as Kim finds Miles and shakes him awake. They find the bloody spot where George had fallen, but George is not there. As Kim finds the rifle range, and sees Otis drive away, she begins to fear the worst. When she gets back home, she finds the grievously wounded George -- impossibly -- sprawled in the driveway. Miles grabs his Wendigo talisman, and as they struggle to get George into the Volvo, Miles thinks he sees a terrible, angry spirit thrashing at his father's body.
As they ride the long distance to the hospital, George realizes he is dying; he tries to prepare his family for what he knows is coming. Once they get to the hospital, as they wait -- and wait -- and wait -- for the doctors to arrive and prepare, George says a long and painful farewell to his wife and son. While Kim tells the local sheriff about Otis and what's happened to her husband, Miles (still clutching the Wendigo statue) sneaks into the operating room. There, he seems to see something tearing at his father's flesh, stripping it from his bones... Miles faints.
While the boy is unconscious, the sheriff goes off to see Otis. He does a poor job of convincing Otis to come along quietly, though, and Otis kills him. However, there is something else in the woods; something hungrier than Otis...
It is suggested, though never made clear, that Miles may be seeing Otis' Wendigo, his spirit of hate and hunger, eating away at his father. However, it is also suggested that Miles himself is the source of an even more powerful Wendigo, which manifests itself first as the strange wind and mist. While the boy was unconscious, the wind helped to lift George and carry him all the way to the house, in spite of his terrible wound. Then, again while the boy is unconscious, the Wendigo comes for Otis, this time in the shape of both Otis' victims: half man, half deer.
Of course, you can never be sure if there even was a Wendigo on the woods, or if the shocking thing which drove Otis to swerve and hit a tree -- then made him run panic-stricken right in front of a police car -- was just an illusion, fear working on a guilty conscience. However, you can surmise darkly. And if this were all that needed to be said about the film, you might get the impression that Wendigo was a solid and serious (if sometimes overstated) horror movie. At heart, it is solid and serious, a worthy attempt at making a "scary movie" with a basis in real human emotion.
But then there are the scary bits...
The trouble is, the "scary" parts of the movie... aren't. No, really; they aren't, not at all. From the fast-motion nature footage, to the dry-ice mist that comes out of the woods, to the animated bone/stick things that appear and go "booga-booga"... it's just not frightening. And the worst part of all is the final form of the Wendigo itself.
For the most part, the thing is glimpsed only in fast-motion, blurred in poor light. When we do get a good look at it, it's pretty lamentable. Whatever you do, DON'T watch the "Making Of" documentary that comes with the DVD, or you'll lose whatever respect you have for the title monster. Once you see the test footage they shot of the guy in the suit, the movie will be ruined for you. You'll understand why they threw in all the extra video effects, and sped up the motion: the thing looks like it could use a flying squirrel sidekick. Even though a lot of work went into the Wendigo costume, when you see it in regular motion the result is BAD: Giant Claw bad. Sea Serpent bad.
Wendigo is two thirds of a good movie. The part that works is the part that usually fails miserably in horror flicks: the human interaction. It's a shame that the human story doesn't quite stand up on its own, without the horror elements of the film to give it a needed extra frisson... because the fantasy parts are a real disappointment. You'll remember George's first confrontation with Otis... and the way that Kim's badgering George to spend more time with his son leads directly to his murder... and the way Kim's psychologist-mom attempts to make everything rosy for Miles come back and bite her before the end of the picture... and you'll certainly remember George's growing realization, as he travels the long, long road toward the hospital, that he can no longer be saved. But you will probably forget the Wendigo itself before you get the movie back to the rental place.
Director Fessenden claimed he wanted his film to turn around some of the conventions of the horror genre. He certainly did, though I don't think the result he got -- a "scary movie" where the people carry the interest and the scares are perfunctory -- is exactly what he had in mind.