Kim (Patricia Clarkson) and Jim (Jack Weber) and their young son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, the elfin co-star of TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle”) are traveling from Manhattan to somewhere in upstate New York when their car suddenly hits and kills a deer. As Jim gets out to examine the damage, three hunters appear at the scene, drunk and pissed-off that the prey they had been stalking all day has been so summarily dispatched. One of the hunters, Otis (John Speredakos), is particularly surly, especially after he finds out that the deer’s prized antlers have been broken in the accident. Otis is a nasty piece of work in any circumstance, and we find out later that he has a special reason, apart from the dead deer, to feel hostile to these interloping city folk. But for now he seems like a character from a Northern version of Deliverance, violent and unpredictable, and a primal threat to Jim and his family.
Wendigo is a moody suspense film with supernatural elements which, for most of its running time, seem to be springing from young Miles’ troubled imagination. The title refers to an Indian spirit who’s half-man, half-deer (and seemingly part tree), an all-devouring entity who comes to represent Miles’ growing awareness of the world’s more chaotic, uncontrollable elements, an awareness heightened by the opening car crash and by the consequent looming presence of the malignant Otis. Miles already feels neglected by his father, a man who’s much too preoccupied with his work, and now that he also feels threatened he’s not sure that his distracted dad is strong enough to protect him.
The film works beautifully until it chucks all its eerie ambiguity for more straightforward horror-movie stuff, but even then the tree-deer-man Indian demon on the loose is secondary to the playing out of Otis’ tragic impact on Miles and his family. Writer-director Larry Fesseden (who has done two previous “art horror” films, 1991’s No Telling and 1997’s Habit) works hard at creating a naturalistic feel during the family scenes and an expressionistic one during the outdoor scenes, and he has devised a story that’s intelligent without being pretentious. It’s about how people often use their imagination to make sense of the world and how, even then, it doesn’t help.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.