Jim Cummings does a lot of teeth-baring and neck-straining as the small-town deputy with more than enough issues on his plate in “The Wolf of Snow Hollow.” For the inquisitive viewer, that may or may not be a hint to unraveling the creepier mysteries of this ambidextrous dramedy-thriller-satire, a movie with a beastly central metaphor so gleefully clear-cut it’s practically placed dead smack in the center of a full moon’s spotlight. The delightful thing is that that doesn’t much matter; a monster is terrorizing this community, but that isn’t necessarily where “Wolf of Snow Hollow” begins and ends. Cummings’s John Marshall is dealing with family strife, lingering alcoholism, anger issues, horribly bad optics at the sheriff’s department he works at—what’s adding a little werewolf carnage to the mix?
The second feature in Cummings’s young directorial career after 2018’s “Thunder Road” (like that film, here he’s pulling triple-duty with directing, screenplay and lead-actor credits), “Wolf of Snow Hollow” is a deliciously nasty little project that’s also slyly ambitious in the way it swerves between cinematic modes. When’s the last time limbs were ripped off while a girl administers to her father’s whiskey-induced delirium elsewhere in the same movie? Thematic connections abound in “Snow Hollow.” Admittedly, I was caught off-guard with how the film wears such a straight face while sprinkling in a dash of family drama, a splash of schlocky gore fest and a pinch of bureaucratic slapstick in the same pot, but the more the movie goes on, the more it becomes a flavorful stew than an overspiced one. Add in some punchy pacing (the movie’s a mere 80 minutes) and punchier performances, and “Wolf of Snow Hollow” becomes a perfectly entertaining watch for the Halloween season. And a thoughtful one too.
Much of the film’s potential comes down to adjusting to Cummings’s performance, which is dialed up to 11 even when he isn’t pleading with his debilitated sheriff father (Robert Forster, in a commanding final role) to go to the hospital or trading barbs with fellow deputies. Whether the badge is on or off, John – who we’re introduced to as he’s struggling to stay focused at an AA meeting – doesn’t soften words or hold a sarcastic comment to himself. He and everyone around him seem to be waiting for what will finally push him over the edge, to open up the kitchen cupboard his mind occasionally veers off to. What’s behind it? Well....it sure won’t help.
The final straw may very well be the torn-up/cut-open/ripped-to-shreds bodies that have started to pop up around town. Or, at least, the department’s utter inability to decipher what the hell is going on. “It’s a murder—it’s nothing new. Treat it like a murder,” John tells his colleagues near blood-misted snow banks, unwilling to concede to the obvious evidence that something more diabolical than your typical murderer may be afoot. It isn’t long before the townsfolk start whispering about a “wolfman” and pressure is mounted squarely on John to figure out what’s happening, allowing Cummings to explore themes of police ineptitude with unexpected incisiveness as they bumble through crime scenes and briefings. In one particular display of ingenious editing (Patrick Nelson Barnes and R. Brett Thomas are credited with cutting the movie), a montage of suspect interviews, funerals and crime scene blowups by John are spliced together so as to scramble the chronology of events, making it seem like he’s constantly behind on the next killing. It effectively accentuates his sheer helplessness, and allows us to be briefly caught in the stormy maelstrom of priorities that John is trying to escape with clenched teeth and ironclad ire. He’s a frustrating character, but he’s also frustrated with himself. And in the movie’s more somber moments do we glimpse the human trying to escape from under the beast’s fur.
For how small a scale the events of “Wolf of Snow Hollow” unfold on, the moody atmosphere is finely crafted. The suspense is precise in its calibration and Natalie Kingston’s work behind the camera has flair—and this is all a bit strange to observe for a movie that sometimes feels like it exists only to see how close it can tip-toe to the edge of full-blown parody without falling into it. The charitable viewer may even be reminded of David Fincher’s “Zodiac” in the procedural segments, and I think where “Wolf of Snow Hollow” succeeds is that it mostly earns the comparison (Fincher’s movie was also playful and morbidly comic about similar themes, after all).
Even as it occasionally shortchanges sincerity with playfulness, Cummings blends tones to create something that’s more often enticing than it is distracting, and that’s his biggest achievement here. Typically, lack of tonal focus is the byproduct of a director not knowing their point; here, thrillingly and refreshingly, in a movie whose title hints at the chaotic compromise of light and dark, whimsiness and bloodthirstiness, it is the point The tone-switching gusto also keeps us guessing as to where things will end up; for this critic, it was a legitimately and delightfully surprising place. Plus, having a vaping Jimmy Teatro is a nudge that we never have to take things too seriously. (The underrated actor gets to show off some of his dramatic mettle here as well.)
There might not be a 2020 performance I came around on as hard as I did with Cummings over the course of “Wolf of Snow Hollow”; he’s sometimes so uncompromising in the role that it can be hard for the movie to compensate. But in a story about controlling wild sides and managing chaotic dispositions, that seems to be the intent—Cumming’s stunningly conceived screenplay is an exercise in aesthetic practice-turned-narrative magnification. The execution is off-key at times, but in a tale about different kinds of monsters, the way John practically howls at the moon when lashing out at his ailing father, agape colleagues and defiant daughter emphasizes his scarred humanity instead of muting it.
"The Wolf of Snow Hollow" is rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughout and some drug use. It's screening in some theaters now, and is also available to rent on digital platforms.
Starring: Jim Cummings, Riki Lindhome, Robert Forster, Chloe East
Directed by Jim Cummings
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