The best creature features use their beasties as stand-ins for something deeply human, a narrative quirk mined to perfection in writer/director Jim Cummings‘ pitch-black horror-comedy The Wolf of Snow Hollow. The werewolf carving up local women in the small, wintery Snow Hollow is the monstrous embodiment of the impossible expectations bearing down on its sheriff, John Marshall (Cummings), already juggling law-enforcement with an ailing father (Robert Forster), rebellious daughter (Chloe East), and alcoholism threatening to rear its ugly head far more often than the full moon. Add a werewolf to the mix and its no surprise the result is something as impossible to quantify, genre-wise, as this film; The Wolf of Snow Hollow is deeply funny, and also deeply depressing, and also sometimes there are gnarly werewolf kills. A clash of tones this drastic can easily sink a movie, but in his second feature-directing outing, Cummings proves he’s a juggler. Fargo meets The Howling meets The Thing shouldn’t really work, and yet.
To be fair, Cummings is also re-utilizing a lot from his debut, Thunder Road, the 2018 SXSW Grand Jury Award winner that boosted the filmmakers’ profile a fair amount. Cummings basically plays the same character twice, a clinically anxious cop who is one stiff breeze away from fully losing it, a tragic Looney Tunes character that is, again, transparently Coen-esque. Like the film overall, it’s not a performance for everyone, veering wildly from slapstick to melodrama, often with such a straight face it’s hard to tell exactly when. But it’s also a character who works better in the context of The Wolf of Snow Hollow, surrounded by the type of vast, tangled woodlands that lend a hint of the surreal to anything, captured with bloody-snow vividness by cinematographer Natalie Kingston.
Cummings also surrounded himself with a hell of a cast. There’s an unintended air of melancholy hanging over Robert Forster’s character, seeing as it’s the actor’s final on-screen role. But he also, unsurprisingly, adds an elder statesman’s grace to his limited screentime as a policeman refusing to accept his time is up. For my money, though, the cast’s quiet MVP is Riki Lindhome (Knives Out) as Officer Julia Robson, the hyper-competent straight-man to Marshall’s manic energy. You spend a lot of The Wolf of Snow Hollow wondering exactly how Cummings feels about his character, a quick-to-violence cop largely unaware of the inner workings of the women in his life. But then you learn everything based solely on the look Robson gives Marshall after he looks up from a grisly history book and earnestly asks, “Do you think women have had to deal with shit like this since like the Middle Ages?”
The titular wolf looks great when it eventually steps into the moonlight, which is an understated miracle all its own. Werewolf movies are a hard visual tug-of-war; you gotta’ show the werewolf, but you also gotta keep it from looking like a Party City display. The Wolf of Snow Hollow‘s effective creature design adds some heft to what is, surprisingly, the weakest portion of the film. The mystery of who or what is massacring Snow Hollow residents isn’t as important as the effect it has on the town, so the third-act resolution rings a bit, well, hollow.
But the journey to get there is, truly, a wild one, emotional and hilarious and violent. It feels like an absolute clown move to talk about Best New Anything in a year as turbulent for new releases as 2020. But I can’t shake the feeling that, even in the normal-est of times, there wouldn’t be anything quite like The Wolf of Snow Hollow.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow will be in theaters and on-demand Friday, October 9.