Better the devil you know, so they say. After exploding onto the scene with one of the decade’s most breathless performances and impressive debut features, Jim Cummings has followed his claim-to-fame Thunder Road with an unexpected turn into genre thrills. But what may initially seem like a departure from the excoriating and earnestly humane exploration of modern masculinity proves just as incisive as his first, making The Wolf of Snow Hollow a rare gem in multiple manners. Cummings has not only defied the sophomore slump with his razor-sharp script and compelling direction of this minimalist flick, he has also crafted an ingenious hybrid of Coen-style comedy, Fincher-esque dread, and the time-honored, ever-spooky werewolf yarn.
Snow Hollow, Utah is a serene, chilly place inhabited by comely locals and frequented by self-possessed LA types. When one of these out-of-towners turns up gruesomely dismembered, local authorities are expected to solve the puzzling murder, and do it quick, so tourists will not be discouraged. The details of the case are startlingly violent for the area – the female victim has been torn to pieces, and certain private parts are missing altogether – so uncommon a travesty that the elderly Sheriff Hadley (played by the legendary Robert Forster, in his final performance) is forced to resentfully admit he may not be up to handling it himself. Cummings plays Officer John Marshall, Hadley’s son, who immediately thrusts himself into the lead in an effort to ease his father’s concern, but anyone who’s seen Thunder Road will already have an idea of how well a Cummings cop tends to fare under pressure.
Where that film found the pathos and devotion buried in its protagonist Jim Arnaud, The Wolf of Snow Hollow presents Marshall as a man entirely subsumed by ego and self-revulsion, such that he mistakes heroic leadership with feverishly barking orders and rushing to find short-term solutions to looming problems. For example, when officers on his team mention that many locals believe the attack was perpetrated by a wolf, or even a wolf-man, he brazenly dismisses it out of hand. Marshall claims he knows it’s not the work of an animal but of a man, and he moves to silence anyone who pushes back.
Part of the film’s horror is therefore derived from watching Marshall suffocate his team with draconian inanities, stifling efforts to actually stop the terrors taking place. His defensiveness and ribald outrage at being questioned only intensify as more mutilated bodies start appearing around town, leaving skilled officers like Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome) with no choice but to investigate on their own time. It may strike fans of Thunder Road as oddly familiar to watch Cummings play a strung-out cop with no self-awareness and an infinitesimally short fuse, but The Wolf of Snow Hollow widens the premise by incorporating genuine threat and observing the spiraling effects of this mortifyingly toxic masculinity at work in such a circumstance.
And what a threat it is. Aside from the compelling and well-crafted human drama, the standout moments of The Wolf of Snow Hollow come during its breathtakingly savage encounters with the creature in question. Without a doubt the best werewolf film in years, this may also be one of the best creature-centered horrors in a decent while, too. At first, these terrifying sequences seem like well-trodden territory, with classic what-were-you-thinking moves by hapless victims who should just get back in the car! But as the events play out, Cummings works with cinematographer Natalie Kingston, editors Patrick Nelson Barnes and R. Brett Thomas, and creature designer Michael Yale to find chilling new ways of making you jump the hell out of your seat or freeze with terror. Aided by Ben Lovett’s inventive and spine-tingling score from its first moments to its last, The Wolf of Snow Hollow remains diligently dedicated to crafting dread, tension, and scares with just as much ingenuity and wit as it provides character drama and comedy.
All these elements combine to fashion a horror film exquisitely well-suited to our age. Cummings does well to incorporate legendary methods of instilling suspense and tension, and he is clearly well-aware of the film’s debt to various genre cinema giants, from the Coens to Carpenter to Romero; he even pitched the film prior to its release as “like David Fincher’s Zodiac, as a comedy. With a werewolf.” But few filmmakers can capture masculinity quite the way Cummings does, particularly the pervasive masculine psyches of 2020 that have led us into an era of blatant disregard or disrespect for ethics, truth, community, compassion, and patience.
Naturally, these are not solely male issues, but within these vices Cummings has adeptly identified a caustic male rage at the state of the world that can be just as threatening, violent, cruel and horrifying as any monster. Subtleties in Marshall’s characterization suggest a chilling level of familiarity when he comes across the grisly result of savageries; the suffering of the victims, all female, seems to piss him off rather than cause him any sorrow. Marshall knows this type of rage when he sees it, because he understands it, as if it comes naturally, as if it is even to be expected. All the male characters, including Hadley and random passersby, drench their every move in layers of unnecessary and counterproductive bravado, usually through yelling but often simply through centering themselves in every given situation. When their ways of life and ways of understanding the context of their lives are threatened, usually by women, they tense, they growl, they lash out… like a certain creature. A devil we know.
There is a layered irony present as well regarding the sanctity of the police, and while racial issues within American policing are never given any direct lip service, there is a palpable lack of faith or affection between the cops and the citizens they supposedly serve and protect. While this matter could certainly have been probed further, this is not copaganda — when someone chucks a beer can at their cruiser, only Marshall is totally perplexed that a constituent would do such a thing, while the more conscious Robson is not at all surprised. This dynamic is one of many that make The Wolf of Snow Hollow astonishingly funny, in between all the viscera and psychotic behavior; one scene between Marshall and Ray the local librarian had me cackling for hours afterwards.
Cummings has succeeded in combining three or four different genres and tones where many filmmakers struggle to successfully pull off a mixture of just two. He has made a wonderful concoction on multiple levels, a horror/thriller/comedy/noir pastiche more challenging and complex than it lets on, but hugely fun and entertaining if you prefer to just get spooked, or if you’d like to howl with laughter this October.