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City folk go on a nightmare getaway in 'Wendigo'

Friday, May 17, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

When will they learn -- those perennial city slickers who keep renting spooky old weekend "vacation" places on dark country roads? You'd think at least a few of them would've seen "The Shining" and taken a cue from Jack and Sissy. But no-o-o-o, they just keep on time-sharing remote hideaways-from-hell with supernatural occupants inside and defective neighbors outside.


RATING: PG-13 in nature for violence and language

STARRING: Jake Weber, Patricia Clarkson, Erik Per Sullivan, John Speredakos

DIRECTOR: Larry Fessenden

WEB SITE: www.thewendigo.com



Your heart goes out to them. Unless they're careful, their hearts may be going out literally to somebody -- or some THING -- else. Something like the "Wendigo," a vengeful Native American spirit that can be summoned to your aid or your doom, depending on its mercurial mood (and agenda).

Driving toward their destination in wintry upstate New York, George (Jake Weber) and Kim (Patricia Clarkson) just wanna relax and do some bonding with son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan), when suddenly -- WHAM! -- they hit a deer. Yecch. It's a bloody mess, complicated by the Volvo getting stuck in a snowdrift and the immediate appearance of three menacing hunters.

The passing of this buck infuriates them. They've been stalking it (and drinking) all day, in no mood to play AAA and assist these accidental tourists.

Just what you need in superstitious Indian country -- a bad omen. No thanks to the hunters, our family trio finally makes it to the house after nightfall, only to discover that Otis (John Speredakos), meanest of our hunting trio, lives right next door.

Now, this house shares something in common with every old house on every dark road in every thriller: None of its precious few lamps has anything brighter than a 20-watt bulb. They get through the night, but next day George and Miles (not to be confused with George Miles) have a sled-riding accident, and all Native American hell breaks loose.

I shouldn't make a mockery or mock the makery of "Wendigo," whose creepiness is rather well-fashioned by writer-director Larry Fessenden. It's not a campy schlockfest, and there's no gore galore. Fessenden approaches the Indian mythology with respect and serious interest -- a bit too serious -- and gets three serious performances from Weber, Clarkson and wistful little Erik Per Sullivan. Unfortunately, he lets Otis, the troglodytic villain, get out of hand. This guy makes the ones in "Deliverance" look positively soigne.

Ah, how dangerously thin is the line between plausible and risible.

Fessenden, in any case, deserves credit for some poetically beautiful images and for taking the tougher of two routes: He's going for suspense instead of horror.

Me, I'm going for an urban rather instead of rustic vacation.

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