The Wolf of Snow Hollow (AKA simply The Werewolf) is writer-director-actor-producer-and-everything-else-besides Jim Cummings’ highly-anticipated follow-up to festival darling Thunder Road. It couldn’t possibly be more of a left turn, though there are thematic similarities. Cummings is once again playing a small-town cop on the edge. He once again has a major freak-out, which involves a lengthy, and increasingly cringe-worthy, monologue delivered directly to camera. And, just like Thunder Road, Cummings’ story is tinged with dark humour, filled with realistically flawed characters, and ruthlessly effective.
The setting is Utah, the camera lovingly sweeping over some spectacular, snow-covered vistas as the film opens, while Ben Lovett’s brooding, ominous score alerts us to the fact we’re safely in horror country. Snow Hollow begins with a tussle in a bar between a couple of L.A. hipsters (one of whom is played by rising comedic actor Jimmy Tatro, of American Vandal and 22 Jump Street fame) and some local rednecks. After returning to their romantic cabin, the female member of their party is attacked and killed as the full moon looms beautifully overhead. Her body, it’s revealed, has been torn to pieces with only the poor woman’s vagina saved for later (perhaps to fashion a flesh-light out of, a cop quips).
Sent to figure out what the hell happened is recovering alcoholic John (Cummings), whose father (played by the late, great Robert Forster with oodles of rugged charisma) is the sheriff and refuses to give up the post in spite of his ailing health. John’s long-suffering second-in-command is Julia (Riki Lindhome, another actor known primarily for comedy having previously appeared in the likes of Modern Family and The Big Bang Therory, and most recently seen as a paranoid kook in Knives Out), who realizes sooner than he does that there’s something more sinister afoot in Snow Hollow. Could it possibly be…a werewolf?
The Wolf of Snow Hollow is an incredibly accomplished follow-up to Thunder Road, which was a much smaller movie in scope and focused more on Cummings’ performance. Here, he’s equally brilliant in the lead role but, given the space and budget to expand his vision, the talented multi-hyphenate creates a setting and a community that feels uncomfortably real. His character is an alcoholic, and a couple of the movie’s key scenes take place at AA, where John speaks to the assembled crowd about his struggles with keeping the monsters inside from coming out. It’s a neat comparison with the classic struggle of the werewolf that feels considered rather than exploitative.
The cast is strong across the board, from Cummings himself to Lindhome, finally gifted a meaty role she can really sink her teeth into (no pun intended), Tatro, whom it’s wonderful to see sulking under questioning again, and of course Forster, whose father-son dynamic with John is finely tuned. Equally sensitively drawn is John’s fraught relationship with his teenage daughter (played by Disney star Chloe East). There are plenty of grace notes in John’s charged interactions with others, whether he’s cracking jokes or cracking under the pressure. His character is multifaceted and his demons plain for all to see, but it’s in other characters’ responses to him that we begin to form a picture of who John truly is.
Snow Hollow is a dark, at times genuinely unnerving picture, with vicious, violent, and gory kills (all practically done, of course) and its wolf is a credit to Cummings’ twisted vision. Clearly a man in a suit, but in a charmingly tactile way, the werewolf is very scary and tall but also, again, inescapably human. Werewolf movies live or die on whether the creature itself actually looks real, and here the decision to utilize a literal man in a suit (which pays off later in a big way) adds a whole other layer of realism to the proceedings. Cummings’ inspirations were Fincher police procedurals Se7en and Zodiac, and it’s evident in the solving of the horrifying crimes at the heart of the movie, and the slow drip-feed of suspects (one of whom hilariously has a wolf tattoo), how much thought went into making this not just a strong werewolf story but a gripping mystery too.
Of course, this is a Jim Cummings joint, so the dark humor is plentiful, whether it’s the aforementioned joke about a flesh-light, the revelation John bought his daughter a can of pepper spray as a holy communion gift, or the townspeople’s hilarious reactions to the escalating murders (“I’m not paying any more taxes!” one argues, convincingly I might add). The fact that Snow Hollow is so funny doesn’t rob it of any scare appeal, however, rather it makes the film’s tensest moments hit even harder. Cummings seems aware of the ongoing ACAB conversation, too, giving himself one particularly memorable line about how cops who want people to stop criticizing them should “do better police work.”
Although Snow Hollow is a gorgeously captured cold weather movie, it’s warmly, richly photographed by cinematographer Natalie Kingston, in a similar manner to Wind River or even the Coens’ celebrated Fargo. The sound design is terrifically clear too, from a sliding door to the click of skis being attached to boots. Early on, a paw-print reflects the full moon before quickly transitioning into a coffee cup in a cool, in an artistic flourish that’s echoed later on as the full moon transitions into a water ring. There’s judicious use of slo-mo also, and the requisite creepy Christmas music plays a part, naturally, but isn’t overused. This is a movie that wears its influences with pride, but it’s also confidently, brazenly its own thing.
There’s little to complain about in Snow Hollow, save for the fact Cummings isn’t rocking the iconic mustache featured so prominently in Thunder Road (possibly because another cop in John’s unit has an impressive lip-tickler of his own on display). Other than that, this is a near-perfect movie and, just to sweeten the deal, it manages to tell a compelling, bloodcurdling story in less than 90 minutes, which is always a bonus. Werewolf movies have long been neglected and, although it’s too early to say whether Cummings’ unique, accomplished entry into the sub-genre will stand the test of time like its forebears, there are more than enough reasons to believe it will. As for what the incredibly talented writer, actor, director, producer, and whatever else he feels like turning his hand to does next, well, it’s certain to be another must-watch.
WICKED RATING: 9/10