A film review by Craig J. Koban November 6, 2020

THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW jjj
 

2020, R, 86 mins.

Jim Cummings as John Marshall  /  Riki Lindhome as Julia Robson  /  Robert Forster as Sheriff Hadley Marshall  /  Chloe East as Jenna Marshall  /  Jimmy Tatro as PJ Palfrey  /  Marshall Allman as Jeremy  /  Laura Coover as Monica Bravo

Written and directed by Jim Cummings

Writer/director Jim Cummings' THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW is an absolutely superb, darkly funny, and intensely enthralling small town horror comedy that plays like a weird and gloriously audacious cocktail of the regional idiosyncrasies of FARGO, the nocturnal terrors of THE WOLFMAN, and the deadpan comic absurdity of a James Gunn.  There have been too many films to count about werewolves, but very few build nail biting tension and macabre laughs as well as this one.  Cummings' second feature film (after the critically lauded 2018 effort THUNDER ROAD) shows him as a distinctively empowered new filmmaker that's unafraid of any genre challenge.  THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW certainly bares its multiple influences through and through, but the way Cummings uniquely homogenizes them altogether makes his take on the material anything but derivative. 

Cummings is also as good in front of the camera as he is behind it (he serves triple threat duty here as writer, director, and lead star), this time playing a struggling, but recovering small town deputy in John Marshall, who's introduced in the film attending a AA meeting with other fellow addicts.  "I'm not good with anger," he quietly tells the group, which will serve as a bit of ominously amusing foreshadowing to come.  John's been having an awfully tough go of it over the years.  He has a fractured relationship with an ex-wife that loathes him to the core, not to mention that his semi-estranged teenage daughter doesn't want to have much to do with him either.  On top of that, he's at risk of taking a nosedive back to the bottle at any waking moment when stress gets a hold of him.  You gain an immediate sense early on in THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW that this guy could snap without warning with the slightest of provocation. 

His police work life in the small snow covered town of Snow Hollow (not to be confused with Sleepy Hollow) is riddled with stresses as well.  His dad in Hadley (the late and great Robert Forster, in his last film role) is a calm spoken leader that commands great respect, but John is growing increasingly convinced that his father and boss' decreased health is getting the better of him in terms of doing his job ("You're gonna have a hard time getting this generation off of the stage!  Willie Nelson's still doing concerts," Hadley barks to John, to which he replies - in one of the film's many great deadpan zingers - "Yeah, dad, but Willie Nelson isn't doing a lot of heavy police work.").  Both of them are about to get a seriously disturbing walk-up call with the abrupt and brutal murder of a local woman in all manners savage.  The slaughtering and mutilation of this women seems animal related, with some on the force even hinting towards a supernatural origin, which all but enrages the powder keg that is John.  Hadley and John struggle to keep the investigation under wraps and the media at bay, but then another women gets barbarically killed in the exact same manner, and it soon becomes clear to many that something monstrous and out of the ordinary is at play, but the ferociously agitated John can't bring himself to concede that Snow Hollow has a werewolf problem, even with mounting evidence. 

 

 

Cummings isn't aiming for either straightforward horror thrills or farcical laughs, but rather a healthy marriage of the two.  Having his film set in a winter ravaged town in the middle of nowhere that's populated by a colorful collection of whimsical personalities has obvious and aforementioned echoes of the Coen Brothers, not to mention the werewolf elements at play are ripped from dozens upon dozens of other past features.  But Cummings is wise enough to pay respect to both divergent tones here, which is not as easy as it sounds on paper.  His film never goes for easy laughs or thrills in traditional or obligatory genre manners, but he instead tries to give his own unique spin on well worn and familiar conventions.  Best of all, Cummings rarely engages in ridicule of this bumbling menagerie of characters that permeate his town setting.  His doesn't paint them as black and white nincompoops.  The officers here make categorical mistakes, to be sure, and frequently are show butting heads like school children, but they're more or less shown as real flesh and blood citizens that are frankly in way over their collective heads as to how to deal with something so nightmarishly and unexplainably eerie.   

The opening sequences of the film are quite sensational too, as we're slowly introduced to the characters, the core relationships, and the town's eclectic and quirky rural community environment before radically switching gears into the grisly attack of the first woman, who previously was trying to have a romantic ski trip getaway with her boyfriend.  The limitless brutality of this first killing utterly baffles John, his father, and the police as a whole, which springs the overarching plot into motion.  That, and it ties perfectly into what Cummings is thematically aiming for here: One man grasping onto sobriety and his sanity while now having to deal with a series of mass killings that don't seem to be cause by an ordinary human prowler.  One of the sinfully funny pleasures of THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW is John's slow burn mental unrest and unraveling from all of the investigation stress.  He's called upon to be the voice of reason and order, but he gets progressively more hostile with even the slightest notion of werewolves being the culprit.  Chaos starts to get the better of this poor sap.   

John's fever pitched agitation with everything transpiring around him and his town doesn't take away from the film's great dynamic between him and his elderly and sickly father.  As the days progress and more stresses mount, John pathetically tries - and often fails - to keep his cool and stay collected, which spills over into his bond with Hadley, who Forster plays with such affable authority.  But Cummings doesn't make John into a loathsomely devolving nutjob either.  He's a good guy with temper and addiction issues that really needs to work on social skills, which is all compounded by being placed in a horrible murder mystery scenario with no easy answers or end in sight.  Cummings walks a slippery slope with his performance that manages to make his role relatable and uproarious while also coming off as  toxically dislikeable all the same.  One of the best supporting characters is Riki Lindhome's Officer Julia Robson, who plays an outwardly meek mannered and mousy woman of the law that secretly is the most tenacious and shrewd person in her whole department for being able to take in the vast horrors of this case and use deductive logic and reason to put clues together.   

Cummings also makes his titular setting look great on the cheap as well, and the cinematography by Natalie Kingston gives the snow riddled plains of this town and surrounding areas a mixture of arctic beauty and foreboding dread (as a person that has lived in awful winter conditions all of his life, I admired how commendably tactile the weather felt here...and it never once felt faked).  The atmosphere is rich and dripping with unease, which permeates into so many other scenes in the film where Cummings is able to generate tension in the most unassuming and unpredictable ways (see, for example, a small, but crucial scene between a mother and her infant with an off-screen and creepy stranger in a dinner).   Everything culminates and careens towards a chilling climax and standoff between John and - shall we just say - the villainous entity of the piece, and some will either love the reveal or find it underwhelming and conventional (I'm leaning somewhere in-between, and it might be the weakest element of the narrative).  But the entire build-up to this moment is handled with so much confidence and care.  THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW rarely takes the - ahem! - ice covered road most traveled approach as far as genre mishmash efforts go, and as a slasher flick mixed with a small town comedy of manners, Cummings displays what an adept and promising talent he is on multiple fronts.  

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