Exasperation is the name of the game, as writer/director Jim Cummings shows audiences in his sophomore feature film effort, The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Cumming’s first film, Thunder Road, took viewers down a road of self-destruction for a character churned out of an authentic reality, however close the arthouse experience it remained. This film heads in a different direction, adding in genre tropes to great success. Now we are not only dealing with a man constantly suffering a bruised ego, among other deficiencies building out his insecurities, there’s also the threat of a possible werewolf to contend with.
Set in a small mountain town, panic erupts when a woman is torn to pieces during a full moon. While signs point to something supernatural, Officer John Marshall (Cummings) is not too quick to jump to wild conclusions. Instead, with support from level-headed Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome), efforts are made to investigate with caution, even as more bodies begin to pile up. But things only get worse for John, as he’s also dealing with the lack of respect given his way, the presence of his daughter (Chloe East), and his aging father, Sheriff Hadley (Robert Forster, in his final role), who is challenged by rapidly declining health.
As the star, and a part of a terrific cast all-around, Cummings easily trades off a look of professionalism for a vanity-free display of the mountain of issues he’s dealing with. It’s here where one could say Cummings has more or less inserted his Thunder Road character into a horror film. However, that’s not quite fair. For one thing, if it means having to watch more characters being called out for issues regarding the fragile state of their masculinity, that’s a fair trade.
Moreover, in 2020, watching John, a white police officer, be taken to task for the decisions he makes allows for what is likely an initially unintended display of unity with those asking for a level of accountability. Now that’s not to say John is an unlikeable character or that he’s not well-meaning in his pursuit of a heinous killer. However, watching a man juggle all of the problems he has, in addition to the difficulty of maintaining sobriety, once again shows how putting solid character work through the lens of a genre film has its benefits.
Still, even as a horror film, while easy to throw around the Coen Brothers when it comes to thrillers fueled by mystery and noir sensibilities, along with a healthy dose of dark comedy, it’s hard not to see Fargo shine through in some of the plot. Note that John is not even a factor in the plot until after we see a crime. Of course, operating on its own level means The Wolf of Snow Hollow charts its own path in attempting to match the plot with deeper layers concerning John Marshall’s state of mind, let alone the pre-conceptions this town has when it comes to establishing just what it is that is out there killing young women, specifically.
It can be tricky to balance a film like this, evidenced by the fact that werewolf films that add a layer of humor to them are not in large supply. Some of the few notable efforts are classics that have not been replicated – yes, I’m referring to An American Werewolf in London. That said, breaking away from what’s been attempted in the past, Cummings finds strong beats to play off of, which are generally rooted in drama.
Take Jimmy Tatro, for example. His character suffers, following the death of his girlfriend. Tatro is largely known for comedic roles, and while he presents himself here as a sad jock, essentially, there’s no reason not to feel for the guy. What he’s gone through provides little reason to laugh, but it’s in the presentation that speaks to wanting to enjoy the film for its comedic sensibilities while finding areas to respond to based on the genuine tragedies taking place.
A lot of that comes out of the filmmaking. The Wolf of Snow Hollow looks great. There’s a clear attempt to replicate reality to some degree, but one can see the very deliberate choices in the atmosphere from the opening credits alone, which put the snowy mountains and forests on display, signaling the sense of isolation, as well as openness of the surroundings. This plays well once the film begins to show more of this wolf-like killer, its enormity, and the danger it presents to a small community.
This beast’s visceral nature also speaks to the level of terror many horror movies are comfortable balancing with more relatable qualities in people. Not every horror film has comedy, but they do want to break the tension. With The Wolf of Snow Hollow, thanks to clever editing, the way certain characters are introduced, and the ongoing threat we know exists, there’s a lot to admire about a film that figures out the way to maximize entertainment without sacrificing the level of idiosyncrasies on display, defining the world of this film.
With assured confidence behind the camera and a great handle on character, Cummings has made The Wolf of Snow Hollow play as something bound to find an audience looking for a more offbeat take on the werewolf sub-genre. It only helps to have Forster adding such great character specificity as he does, let alone down-to-earth work from Lindhome to balance it all out. Still, so much of this film rests on watching Cummings having his emotions boiling inside him while attempting to solve this case. Whether or not a wolf somehow bursts out of his skull as a way to relieve that pressure, he’s game for building entertainment out of his capacity to struggle with more than just a dangerous beast.