For his follow-up to the 1997 cult favorite Habit, writer-director Larry Fessenden returns to the art-horror genre with Wendigo, a skillfully acted and psychologically well-crafted but ultimately disappointing thriller about a comfortable middle-class family who must face rural desperation and a scary tree monster. Yes, Wendigo's regrettable title refers to a creature of Native American legend that's part-tree, part-creature, part-human, and all revenge-minded monster; it's a credit to Fessenden's filmmaking skill that for much of its duration, the film almost works. Leading a terrific cast, Jake Weber stars as a sensitive photographer and family man who travels with his loving wife (Patricia Clarkson) and smart, introverted son (Malcolm In The Middle's Erik Per Sullivan) to upstate New York for a brief vacation. But trouble soon arrives in the form of a group of belligerent graduates of the Deliverance school of rural menace, who take exception to Weber's big-city ways after his vehicle accidentally plows into a deer they've spent nearly a day pursuing. Rife with paranoia, Weber and his family attempt to cope with their hostile surroundings, but are threatened at every turn by their country-fried antagonists. Wendigo begins as a smart, unsettling variation on Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, as Weber and Clarkson attempt to find their footing in a foreign environment that mocks the veneer of gentility so central to their sense of identity. For much of its first hour, Wendigo sustains an atmosphere of barely suppressed tension and anxiety, due largely to the chemistry and realistic performances of Weber, Clarkson, and Sullivan (whose mixture of elfin vulnerability and otherworldliness is put to good use here). Wendigo doesn't lose focus until its last half-hour, when its title beastie assumes a new prominence and the film steadily descends down the path of unintentional camp. To his credit, Fessenden relegates Wendigo to the sidelines for the much of the film. But while the concept of a shape-shifting tree/human/animal-thing endowed with dark spiritual powers is rife with metaphorical possibilities, as a figure of menace, it ranks somewhere between Frankenberry and the computer-animated snowman of Jack Frost. Fessenden and his cast deserve credit for keeping such a ridiculous premise afloat for so long, but even their best efforts can't save Wendigo from veering fatally off course.
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