by Marty Demarest

There's a fine line in horror films between violence that is terrifying and violence that is gratuitous. The distinction becomes increasingly blurred the younger the characters are. Perhaps it's because when we watch a horror film, we're all being taken back to an innocent age when we were willing to suspend our disbelief and give in to sheer, prickly terror. Harming kids onscreen cuts too close to the truth that we're trying to exorcise.

Writer/director Larry Fessenden understands the interplay between the children onscreen in a horror film and the children we become as we watch the movie. Wendigo, the third in Fessenden's "revisionist horror" trilogy, is much more than a simple slasher or monster movie. What Fessenden has crafted is a subtle exploration of the role of children in the rapidly degenerating nuclear family. There are echoes of primal violence, a la Straw Dogs and Deliverance, but the movie that Wendigo most resembles, is - strangely - E.T.

Opening with claustrophobic shots of a family (mom, dad, son) driving through the snowy Catskills, Fessenden keeps his camera low and shows us the cut-off world of a child riding in the back seat. When the car hits a deer and some locals arrive in pursuit, we're shown the altercation between the father and one of the hunters in skewed, unclear moments. It's as if a bad dream is happening, and we're not supposed to know how important it's going to be.

The early encounter with the natives sets in motion a masculine power-struggle, all seen through the eyes of young Miles, who is played with astonishing clarity by the young actor Erik Per Sullivan from Malcolm in the Middle. Told about a mythical creature called the wendigo, Miles sees the ensuing violence and familial tension in terms of nature driven by forces so far beyond human perception that the only logical way to see it is mythically.

There are some very good special effects here, including a haunting "bullet-time" frozen sweep across a hunting camp during a snowstorm, with each flake suspended eerily in the air. And the wendigo itself - because on some level there is one - is a well-realized monster, caught between plant and animal. But the best reason to see this movie are Sullivan's eyes, which convey every painful, confusing moment that childhood has bestowed on him -- echoing ours, as we thrill, terrified, alongside him.

Publication date: 07/03/03

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