The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Jim Cummings (2020)
Director Jim Cummings made a splash in 2018 with his first full-length feature film, Thunder Road, an independent film that won the “best feature” prize at Austin’s prestigious South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival as well as other awards. In that film, which Cummings wrote, directed and starred in, he played a police officer melting down after a divorce and the death of his mother. In his latest film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Cummings does his Citizen Kane thing again, this time shaking it up by playing a deputy sheriff who is melting down following separation from his wife and the impending death of his father. Cummings seems to be type-casting himself. But you can see his latest movie, this time a horror/comedy genre flick, if you buy it for $15 on Amazon Prime. It’s also in limited release at theaters, but who’s crazy enough to do that?
Set in a snowy ski-resort community in the mountains of Utah, this latest film follows the attempts by John Marshall (Cummings) and the rest of Snowy Hollow’s Sheriff’s Department to investigate a gruesome string of deaths of young women involving grisly dismemberment and bloody paw prints. Are the women victims of a deranged serial killer, or perhaps a large human-killing wolf? Or, given the fact that the murders take place only under a full moon, are they perhaps dealing with a rampaging werewolf?
Marshall’s ability to focus on the case is complicated by a number of major distractions that amp up his stress level. First, he has the health of his father, the actual sheriff, to worry about. Sheriff Hadley, played by Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Mulholland Drive, The Descendants) in his final role before his death last October (the film is dedicated to his memory), has a severe heart condition but refuses to get medical help, and John is beside himself with worry and frustration. To add to those, his estranged wife drops off their 17-year-old daughter Jenna (Chloe East of TV’s Kevin [Probably] Saves the World), who is as resentful as a teenaged child of a newly broken marriage can be, to stay with him before she leaves for college. These outside pressures are there to exacerbate John’s inner demons: He is a recovering alcoholic with anger-management issues.
As the son of the sheriff, whose aversion to violence prevents him from getting closely involved, John feels he must take over the investigation of the murders, but his potential to become unhinged and the complaints of the townsfolk over the rising body count and the apparent lack of progress on the investigation make it more and more difficult for him to find the killer. He is only held in check by his partner, the highly competent and unflappable officer Julie Robson (Riki Lindhome of Knives Out), without whom it looks like nothing will ever get done, since John has too much life going on to bear the burden of the toughest case of his career at this particular moment.
Thus it’s no great surprise that John goes off the rails. It starts with his snapping at his fellow officers, some of whom simply want to give out speeding tickets and wait for the FBI to handle the case and, as the investigation continues, forensic folks who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear, like the fact that wolf hairs and teeth marks are being found on the corpses: He maintains his belief that there is a human perpetrator, and that there are no such things as werewolves—although, it must be revealed, the viewer is at one point granted sight of a huge wolf-like profile standing up on two legs.
And yes, John does go off the wagon, beginning with the guzzling of mouthwash and then graduating to harder stuff. As he enters this downward spiral, the film itself seems to spiral out of control. There are scenes that cut together in confusing juxtaposition, and it’s hard to be sure when some of these things are happening—was this scene before or after the last one? In one scene during this chaotic slide, John’s daughter Jenna is out in a car with her boyfriend during a full moon when the sheriff’s department has imposed a curfew, and the car is attacked. Jenna seems to have survived, but did her boyfriend? A body is found stuffed in a trash can Was it his? And what on earth is going on in the scene where John seems to have broken into the boyfriend’s house and ends up pouring milk over his face? I still don’t know what happened in that sequence. I suspect John doesn’t either, and that is the point, but it certainly was a disorienting sequence. And when we see John up and around and seemingly coherent again, he talks about his father, whom we have seen him send to the hospital after an apparent heart attack, and says “The last thing I said to him was…” Are we supposed to assume that Sheriff Hadley has died? I still don’t know that either.
Still, despite confusing moments like these, there is much to recommend the film. Cummings himself seems a bit over the top as an actor. But Robert Forster gives a memorable last performance as a gentle, kind and loving father and sheriff. But it’s Riki Lindhome who steals the movie. Working with a room full of a bunch of incompetent males and one sheriff’s son going through a nervous breakdown, she quietly keeps things on track and does her job with only side-eyes and long-suffering looks—and the occasional sarcastic side comment. As the roomful of men laughs at some inane comment after the second gruesome murder, she says quietly “Yeah, everybody laughs till she lays out the crime-scene photos,” scattering on the table the bloody pictures that help earn this film its R rating.
It’s a beautiful film to look at, as well, apart from the gore. The gorgeous mountain scenery of this ski resort would have looked amazing on the wide screen, and it’s a shame to be denied that pleasure, but kudos to cinematographer Natalie Kingston (Lost Bayou) for making this film a treat for the eyes—when it’s not showing mutilated bodies.
Kudos also to Cummings for the film’s meta-analytical reading of the werewolf theme, and werewolf movies, as the product of toxic masculinity. Broken he may be, but John knows that there is enough that is monstrous in the human psyche to make it unnecessary to posit mythical monsters, and refuses to let his colleagues pursue the “werewolf” theory. In a moment of epiphany, while driving with Officer Robson, he muses that perhaps werewolves and other monsters ae simply the invention of men trying to explain the perpetual violence perpetrated by men themselves upon women. “Hmph,” he says to his partner. “Do you think women have had to face this kind of danger forever?” Her “Well, duh!” stare is worth a thousand words.
You’ll probably get a Fargofeel from the movie, set as it is in the snow and focusing as it does upon brutal murder with a woman cop being the only one who seems to know what’s going on. And Cummings has said that the Coen brothers have been one of his inspirations. But the tone here does not seem as perfectly controlled as that particular film, and is, as I’ve said, sometimes confused. Still, this is a movie that remains entertaining while still having a good deal to say. Three Tennysons for this one.
To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/
You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1
Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.