Shape-Shifting Creature Features


Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo is a monster movie more sad than scary. It debuted at Slamdance in January, received a rave review from Variety and, according to the filmmaker, several serious feelers from distributors. Fessenden, however, was dissatisfied with the depiction of the titular monster and opted to reinvent it. With the revisions now complete, he’s hoping for a fall release.

“Since the Wendigo is a shape-shifter, I like that some people saw it in its original furry form,” says Fessenden. The new Wendigo is more skeletal, as if it were constructed from X rays of tree branches and deer antlers. Both versions were created through puppetry and simple camera tricks; he avoided computer images for aesthetic, not budgetary, reasons. “We’ll put both cuts of the film on the DVD,” continues the filmmaker, who takes a hands-on approach to marketing and distribution. A Wendigo comic book is already in production.

A Native American spirit, the Wendigo entered pop culture iconography via Marvel comics and The X-Files. “There’s even a Troma film,” says Fessenden, whose initial encounter with the frightening figure was in a story told by his first-grade teacher. “All my films go back to my childhood anxieties,” he observes. “When I chose the setting [upstate New York], I was remembering trips with my parents to Vermont.” But Wendigo, unlike Fessenden’s environmental thriller No Telling and his Manhattan vampire movie Habit, focuses on an eight-year-old child, touchingly portrayed by Eric Per Sullivan (Dewey on Malcolm in the Middle).

Having a child as the central character makes comparisons to The Sixth Sense and especially The Shining inevitable. And like Nicholson in the Kubrick film, the father in Wendigo is frustrated and angry. Fessenden, whose own resemblance to Nicholson has grown more marked over the years, briefly considered casting himself but opted for Jake Weber, who’s more of an average-looking guy. Weber’s vocal rhythms and inflections, however, are so close to the director’s own that it might seem, to anyone familiar with Fessenden’s work as an actor (he starred in Habit and Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass), like a kind of demonic possession, fully in keeping with the spirit of the picture.

“I embrace all the horror film clichés and references,” Fessenden explains. “The reason I gravitate to genre over and over is that, like religion, these metaphors protect us from the horrors of everyday life. The boy deflects the anger and aggression around him onto the Wendigo. It would be unbearable for him otherwise. But the Wendigo also personifies an existential dread we all share.”

Fessenden is aware that his brand of metaphysical horror runs the risk of pleasing neither the midnight-movie nor the art film crowd. Two years ago, he won the IFP’s prestigious Someone to Watch Award. On the other hand, none of his films have been accepted at Sundance. (In the category of shocking Sundance rejections, Wendigo is nearly comparable to George Washington.) “I know my career would be much more advanced if they got what I do. Sometimes I’m worried about pigeonholing myself as a horror film guy, and having to wait 20 years like Wes Craven to do anything else. It would be so bitter to be like those guys,” he says, knitting his brow in sardonic Nicholson fashion. Incidentally, Fessenden’s son, who was born a week before shooting began on Wendigo, is named Jack. “My wife, Beck Underwood, chose the name, and you’d have to ask her why.”

Last month, Miramax announced a new distribution scheme designed to make small, mostly foreign-language films available to U.S. audiences. Dubbed “The World Film Series,” it involves a partnership with the Landmark theater chain and also outside corporate sponsorship. The plan is to play 10 films a year for a minimum of two weeks each in 20 major markets. If this sounds familiar, it’s because, in many respects, the World Film Series replicates the Shooting Gallery Film Series, now in its second year. “It’s a testimony to the success of our program that people are trying to imitate it,” says Eamonn Bowles, head of the Shooting Gallery/Loews Cineplex Odeon series.

A Miramax exec explains that its new label would give Harvey and his acquisitions team the opportunity to show films they’ve loved at festivals but that are too “small” (lacking an obvious audience hook) to handle as a regular Miramax release. The World Film Series is supposed to kick off at the end of this year or early next year, but it may be derailed, at least temporarily, as the Landmark chain is in Chapter 11. Construction of the Sunrise Cinema on East Houston Street, which Miramax is counting on as its New York showcase, has been stalled for months. Considering this potential stumbling block and the scant attention Miramax has paid in the past to its own imprints (whatever happened to Rolling Thunder?), some skepticism is in order.

Screening on the festival circuit, Barbet Schroeder’s Our Lady of the Assassins found ardent fans who reported that it marked a return to the unflinching intelligence, honesty, and perversity of the director’s pre-Hollywood films, Maitresse and Barfly among them. Adapted from a novel by Fernando Vallejo, it deals with a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown of Medellín, Colombia, in order to die, but falls in love with a teenage killer. In Schroeder’s production diary, he says he lived for five formative years in Bogotá and had long searched for a project to do in Colombia. He describes the situation in Medellín as more extreme than the Wild West. A Paramount Classics release, the film won’t be in theaters until September, but portions of Schroeder’s diary are posted on the Web site of his company, Les Films du Losange . An extraordinary piece of reportage, it also puts a twist on the notion of filmmaking as a risky endeavor.

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