Bully Pulpit

From the first scene on, Fessenden orchestrates the tensions within the isolated family—George's barely suppressed anger, Kim's resentment, the child's fear of the aggression he senses around him. George frequently teases Miles by playing monster, and before turning in for the night, the boy has his mother check under the bed and inside the closets. (Sullivan's tight, wizened face eerily expresses his parents' middle-aged anxieties.) The old dark house may be rattling in the wind and riddled with mysterious bullet holes, but the locus of terror is the surrounding forest. Like The Blair Witch Project, Wendigo evokes the primal fear of the continent's white settlers—it's named for the malevolent spirit that haunts the woods in Indian legends.

This cannibal creature was used to grisly effect a few years ago in Antonia Bird's gross-out, anti-militarist western Ravenous, but Fessenden's Wendigo is a movie of suggestion and foreboding, most of it filtered through Miles's spooked consciousness. The backstory is provided when the family drives to town for provisions (at a general store well stocked with toy guns and hunting paraphernalia) and a mysterious Native American informs the boy about the shape-shifting wendigo. To add to the historical guilt, George learns that a nearby town was flooded to make a reservoir for New York City. Fessenden finds a landscape of agonized-looking wooden Indians and totem poles, but it's the cold emptiness of the Catskills that seems most uncanny—a vacuum into which the beleaguered family (and the audience) can project their fantasies.

Despite occasional intimations of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wendigo is more atmospheric than splatterfying. As the story turns violent, Miles's hallucinations come to the fore. Among other things, we learn that Svankmajer's Little Otik may also have been a wendigo: Grounded in Fessenden's handheld camera, stuttering montage rhythms, and time-lapse photography, the engagingly primitive animated special effects contribute to a mood that's sustained through the surprisingly somber conclusion.

Der Arnold, the Fireman
photo: Warner Bros.
Der Arnold, the Fireman

Details

Collateral Damage
Directed by Andrew Davis
Written by David Griffiths & Peter Griffiths
Warner Bros.

Wendigo
Written and directed by Larry Fessenden
Magnolia
Film Forum
Opens February 15

Much Ado About Something
Written and directed by Michael Rubbo
Film Forum
Through February 26

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Much Ado About Something—showing, in a Film Forum first, as projected videoóis veteran Australian documentary filmmaker Michael Rubbo's humorously tendentious intervention into the who-wrote-Shakespeare controversy. Rubbo, who made a memorable portrait some time back of France's then "new philosophers," has a fondness for enthusiastic intellectuals riding their hobbyhorses. He's forever breathlessly stoking the excitementówhether getting Mark Rylance, artistic director of London's Globe Theater, to vent his uncertainties regarding the Bard's actual identity or encouraging a married couple's differing opinion on the 400-year-old controversy.

Suspecting the greatest literary cover-up of all time, Rubbo throws in with the supporters of Christopher Marlowe, detailing circumstantial evidence ranging from Marlowe's superior education and Shakespeare's busy schedule, through the "parallelisms" in their work, to the sonnets' repeated references to exile and the plays' frequent use of foreign sources, primarily Italian. Ultimately, the filmmaker offends the hardcore Marlovians by developing his own theory: Shakespeare and Marlowe were actually writing partners, with Shakespeare acting as the exiled (and officially dead) Marlowe's front. It's a pleasingly Hollywood notion that plays well with Rubbo's interpolated quotes from Shakespeare in Love.

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