Director: Jim Cummings
Screenplay: Jim Cummings
Cinematography: Natalie Kingston; Editing: Patrick Nelson Barnes & R. Brett Thomas; Production Design: Charlie Textor; Costumes: Anna Hayes; Score: Ben Lovett
Stars: Jim Cummings (John Marshall), Robert Forster (Sheriff Hadley), Riki Lindhome (Detective Julia Robson), Chloe East (Jenna Marshall), Jimmy Tatro (PJ Palfrey), Will Madden (Paul Carnury), Skyler Bible (Ray Guttierrez), Demetrius Daniels (Chavez), Kevin Changaris (Bo), Hannah Elder (Hannah Marten), Kelsey Edwards (Liz Fairchild), Daniel Fenton Anderson (Coroner Gary), Rachel Day (Brittany Marshall), Annie Hamilton (Brianne Paulson), Anna Sward (Carla), Chase Palmer (Brock), Howard Hong (Dave EMT), PJ McCabe (Townie), Bridge Stuart (Townie)
As the titles crawl past, and Jim Cummings’ name repeatedly appears – as producer, director, actor, writer, etc. – we seem to be caught in the loop of a lunar cycle. One’s mind immediately drifts back to Buster Keaton’s short The Playhouse, which skewered bombastic silent movie producer Thomas H. Ince for slapping his name all over publicity material for the films he’d produced, even when directed by others. But in Cummings’ case, credit must be given where due.
He impressively wears almost as many hats in this film as he did in his initial indie feature, Thunder Road, itself an elaboration on his award-winning 2016 short of the same name. Thunder Road, a companion piece to Snow Hollow, also saw him as another cop having a nervous breakdown, while trying to deal with daughter, family and job problems. That film garnered Cummings much admiration for his success at funding, helming and distributing it practically single handed. This would have been enough to engender a nervous breakdown in most anyone, but, unlike John Marshall, the alcoholic police officer he plays in The Wolf of Snow Hollow, who’s driven to his wit’s end by a spate of werewolf attacks over the Christmas holidays in his sleepy little ski resort town, Cummings himself came through unscathed. His latest movie is a zonked out original.
Though I don’t believe he was responsible for the editing, score or visual effects this go-round, one can still admire the gumption in Cummings’ determination to get across a highly stylized, personal vision of modern man caving, in the pressure cooker of an increasingly absurdist society. As his character pleads, “…You have any idea what you’re putting me through with this godd*mn stress?” Working in such classic forms as thrillers, police procedurals and buddy movies, he’s cherry bombing our clichéd genre expectations of what such movies should be, as Robert Altman did back in the ‘70s.The Wolf of Snow Hollow is the rare werewolf movie to get right back to the duality embedded in the concept of lycanthropy itself: that of the primeval beast still lurking within seemingly civilized man, patiently biding time, waiting to rear its head by the light of a silvery moon. The theater poster and Blu-ray cover art both sought to visually capture this concept of split personality. The Blu-ray has lead Cummings standing in mid-shot with the vibrant color patterns of alternating reds and blues suggestive of a wolfman in mid-transformation. The poster serves as a blindspotting test of a cop (presumably Cummings again) striding through the snow while his trail evokes the pareidolia of a wolf in contour.
The movie’s opening images, establishing the gorgeous Utah locations with their myriad mountain slopes, carry through on this same conceit. The camera flips the forested terrain upside down, much as the landscape was during the road trip in Midsommar, so that the pine trees hang from the top of the frame like menacing ice sickles. Or the dagger sharp teeth of some grinning hyena about to clamp down. These visuals split the screen down the middle along a horizontal line, creating another approximation of the duality coexisting within. From this, a link is being succinctly drawn between man and beast.
After the initial murder, which ends with the camera focused on the image of a wolf print in the snow, the victim’s puddled blood reflecting the distant moon, we’re immediately introduced to Cumming’s John Marshall, at his weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement of the local police station. This not so subtle segue certainly seems intended to point out the obvious synchronicity in the waxing and waning of the beast’s attacks, not so much to the phases of the moon, as in time to the cop’s own periodic drinking bouts. Much as the werewolf seemed tied to the monthly menstrual cycles of its human host in Ginger Snaps.
Here, the linkage sets up a delicious red herring from the outset, as we begin to wonder if the beast on the prowl, and the man on his tail, could not literally be one and the same, with John’s split from reality being brought about by all the attendant complications surrounding the murders. It’s an impression aided by Cummings’ jutting brow ridge and over-pronounced upper canines, which occasionally protrude alarmingly from his snout. He bears a stronger resemblance to Everett McGill, from Silver Bullet (1985), than Robert Forster, who plays his father in this film. And this despite Marshall’s fraught claims, while rubbing his mug in a drunken stupor, to have “My father’s face.”
Just as drinking was seen to bring out the inner monster in Anne Hathaway’s Colossal, it’s also alcohol which brings out the beast in Cummings’ Marshall here, one he’s successfully been able to suppress since becoming sober. He’s been in AA for six years, his battle with the bottle resulting in a broken marriage and loss of joint custody. As Cummings has stated in a behind-the-scenes interview accompanying the movie’s home release, “It’s also kind of a double entendre for somebody who has a mental breakdown every once in a while, and then has to come back. I think, if you’re a werewolf, for the most part, you spend twenty-nine days out of the month as a normal person, and then you kill people, and then you probably come to, feeling very apologetic and ashamed. And that’s kind of what it’s like falling off the wagon as an alcoholic…” Tellingly, his John’s self-help speech, about being “living proof that if you can just focus, and not let the monsters inside of you come out,” is itself preempted by his inability to remain focused long enough to finish delivering it, as his attention is increasingly drawn to the commotion erupting in the police station above, following discovery of the first body.
He admits to having violent thoughts recently he’s only just barely able to tamp down. As he relates, “Some nights I get so angry just thinking about it. I get these crazy ideas… not to hurt anybody, obviously, but just to have somebody acknowledge that I’m here.” As his speech indicates, even before the current crisis presents itself, a shaky Marshall is maintaining the most tenuous grip on sobriety, struggling to adhere to the 12 Step program. It would take only the slightest nudge to send him careening over the edge on another bender.For John, it’s his secret stash hidden in that cabinet above the microwave for emergencies, haunting the film in flash forwards, that holds the power to call forth the beast residing within, making it impossible for him to control his animal impulses. Alcohol provides a convenient release valve, just what he needs as the daily pressures keep mounting, reaching critical mass. Using it as a convenient excuse, he can let the dogs out, becoming a wild man, rather than the upstanding, law-abiding citizen, the arbiter of justice, his uniform demands.
Drunken, he’s a veritable scourge on the community, with only his badge standing between him being hauled into his own jail, to sleep it off in the drunk tank. And as he falls off the wagon, swilling down can after can of beer, then moving on to the hard stuff, with 90% proof mouth wash, and any other liquid to hand containing alcoholic content, the editors cut to interweaving shots of the bad moon rising, signaling trouble on the way.Given his increasingly egregious dereliction of duty, Marshall seems to be regressing into a lower order of animal life, a disgraced, whipped cur with its tail between its legs. In the throes of his spectacular downward spiral, his recidivist alcoholism begins to merge with a mid-life crisis, leaving him existentially bemoaning the current state of his affairs, with, “Thirty-nine years old, and I’m stuck in Summit County, being a f*cking assh*le.” During his morning police debriefing, to reconnoiter over the latest murder, even officer Ray Gutierrez (played by Skyler Bible) can detect the blatant signs that Marshall’s three sheets to the wind. Whispering under his breath that the boss seems to be suffering from a ‘hangover’ again, he amends his words, when challenged, only to the extent that Marshall has major ‘anger issues’ to deal with.During their subsequent spat, Officer Chavez (played by Demetrius Daniels) even dismisses him as “John McEnroe,” after the notorious tennis player who could never hold his temper. But the way the movie presents it, these attendant twin diseases of alcoholism and rage go hand and hand, two sides of the same coin. As John admits, “I’m not good with anger. Backseat drivers,” stressing the importance he places, as a man, on being in charge and in command at all times. And why he seems to lack any coping mechanism as events around him spiral increasingly out of his control. Assessing his own bad behavior, during his testament at the end, he freely admits he, “Started drinking again. Stress. I became a monster. Tough to be around. Hateful. I lied to my dad. Last thing I said to him…” A clever reworking of the actor’s unforgettable opening monologue in Thunder Road, this Alcoholics Anonymous meeting which kicks things off, again allows Cummings to ingeniously extemporize before a sober body, who somehow remains stone-faced in their scandalized disbelief, while he’s progressively breaking us up with peals of laughter. In Thunder Road, his policeman character, despite being overcome with grief, soldiered on in his dogged determination to deliver a heartfelt and sincere eulogy, in the form of interpretative dance, at his mother’s funeral. It was a well-meaning gesture that increasingly devolved into an embarrassing, several-pronged, public relations disaster. The actor’s verbal and physical comic timing during that carefully choreographed showpiece, originally filmed in an extended take, without cuts, seemed worthy of the great silent slapstick comedians. And his brilliant improvisational acting style is as much in evidence in his opening soliloquy here, which reveals so much about his character in such a small window of time.
Craning his neck in agitation, as if he had a crick in it, he stands with his stork-like frame slightly askew, rattling off the words he appears to be struggling to get out, as his jagged smile flickers on and off, frozen somewhere between a grin and a grimace. Cummings has the innate gift of delivering his screamingly funny lines with a completely straight face, his dead serious character oblivious to how absurd he’s actually coming across. Without doubt, these showstopping solos, performed in front of appreciative crowds, are his finest moments in his films. Again, as in Thunder Road, Cummings’ harried cop experiences a freefall into the weltering black hole of a nervous breakdown here, as he’s overwhelmed by the bodies that keep piling up on him.Especially at that second crime scene, when everyone seems to be coming at him from all sides. Panicking, he responds like a general under siege, driving them off, howling, “Not everybody talk to me at once, okay?” I can’t think of any other screen actor better than Cummings at projecting characters’ increasingly faltering attempts to maintain self-control. He appears to be persistently subsisting on the razor’s edge of either rage, tears, or emotional hysteria. Here he’s playing an alcoholic, having a nervous breakdown, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, who’s additionally forced to navigate a world as full of unnecessary aggravations and annoyances as anything out of W.C. Fields.Even hostile strangers accost him in public, such as that tirade one goes off on at the victim’s wake, holding Marshall’s department personally accountable for leaving a killer at large to murder again, rather than bringing him to justice. Unlike W.C. Fields, who derived subversive strength from his underhanded rebelliousness however, Cummings’ characters let the strain get to them, and snap. Despite the desire he expresses to his AA group, to continue his upward climb, becoming ‘a better person every day,’ we watch him progressively going downhill. By movie’s end, he’s so preoccupied by non-priorities that he initially fails to notice that his ailing father’s bed is now empty, when he bursts into the hospital room. Having hit rock bottom, John will even find himself turned out of AA, for drinking too much.
His maddening existence is comprised of a hen-pecking ex-wife, Brittany (played by Rachel Day), who belittles and rebukes him for not taking a bigger role in the rearing of their teenage daughter, Jenna (played by Chloe East), who’s planning on staying with him over the holidays, before starting college. When John tells her that he doesn’t want to make promises he can’t keep, about being able to spend more time with her during the current crisis, his seething ex assures him, “Oh, no. Our expectations of you are very low.” Understandably, he’s begun referring to Brittany in familiarly wolf-like terms, with, “My ex-wife, she, uh… Woof. She’s the mother of my daughter, could never say a cross word against her, but…” His estranged relationship with the bright, pretty Jenna, consists of her hardly seeming to tolerate him. She cuts her father to the quick by claiming she doesn’t want to have children of her own, when the subject comes up in conversation. Not after witnessing the miserable mess her own parents have made of the situation. When John tells Coroner Gary (played by Daniel Fenton Anderson), who he’s being restrained from trying to strangle, that, “I’m a father,” he’s assured, “No you’re not.” A resentful Jenna seems equally ambivalent about that designation, accusing, “I’ve been looking at the back of your head for the last 17 years, Dad!… I’m going to college and I cannot wait to stay with other people! I’d rather live with strangers than be with you!” She’s going through that rebellious phase where it seems like a good idea to slip out of the house after curfew, in the midst of a murder spree, simply to flip her dad the symbolic bird, by engaging in some illicit backseat petting. By purposefully endangering herself in this way, she’s not just intending to defy his parental authority, but to publicly mock his legal authority as the town’s chief law enforcement officer. Given such outrageous behavior, her father can, understandably, only respond irately, in fits and sputters, “… You’re supposed to be at home right now! You’re breaking curfew, making out with some guy in a f*cking truck, almost getting murdered in the street. God d*mn it! Do you have any idea what your mom’s gonna say about me?”In this woodsy, pine-paneled, rustic environment, heavy with the musk of flannel-shirted hunters, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, as with Cummings’ follow up, The Beta Test, in which he plays a wolfish Hollywood agent, proliferates with aggressive alpha-omegas engaging in testosterone-fueled microaggressions with one another, to establish pack dominance. Every man in the community seems to be biting each other’s heads off, so Wolves of Snow Hollow, in the plural, would be closer to the point. Consequently, it’s not just the volatile John who appears to be in need of some serious anger management. But rather all the men in his vicinity, who seem to be similarly suffering from this same malady. Toxic masculinity is being passed around from one to another like some old gypsy curse. The opening scene is revealing in establishing the general dynamic. A trendy, out-of-town L.A. couple, PJ Palfrey (played by Jimmy Tatro, from ABC’s Home Economics) and Brianne Paulson (played by Annie Hamilton), immediately cross swords with a rowdy pair of bearded and hirsute townies. Taken to task by PJ for casually tossing around offensive gay slurs, a showdown is initiated as they jostle for dominance, with PJ’s demand they watch their language, punctuated by his own unnecessary display of hyper-machismo. He dismisses the mangy, smaller hunter (PJ McCabe), by resorting to similar slurs, intended to malign his manhood, derisively referring to him as ‘tough guy,’ and even insulting his mama. PJ’s insistence on throwing down the gauntlet over a relatively minor affront, despite his girlfriend’s pleas, and the refusal of the equally hotheaded little hunter, who’s clearly out of his weight class, to back down, can only lead to a snow balling of insults and challenges, until fists start flying. This scene is set in a quiet pub, but these surly challenges could just as easily be taking place in some Wild West saloon, followed by a showdown at high noon to establish primacy, with room for only one alpha left standing in the territory. Like many others in the film, this altercation is inserted primarily as another red herring, placing in our minds the possibility that reprisals may be forthcoming, with the rubes resenting this intrusion from the big city into the sanctity of their backwoods hollow. But it serves its larger purpose as well, complete with a fitting image of a sausage being skewered on a serving plate, setting the stage for the movie’s satirical savaging of male pattern behavior. The film will later cut from the sight of our prime suspect’s butch canine companion, who stands mute witness to his master’s suspicious behavior in their trailer on the outskirts of town, to Brianne’s yappy chihuahua, which has now been adopted by PJ. It’s as if director Cummings were intending to emphasize those dog breeds associated with ‘real’ men, long established props to accentuate hulking masculinity, and the kinds of chihuahuas and effete French poodles considered effeminizing to be seen in the presence of. Despite initially haranguing the visiting cops about their lack of progress in the case, attempting to affect the same ‘tough’ façade we saw at the bar in the beginning, to our surprise PJ turns out to be a mama’s boy, despite being built like a linebacker himself. The one alpha we see trimming his creeping hirsute, as of determined to control the emerging animal within, he admits to still being an emotional wreck inside, unable to cope with the tragedy of what happened, or to put it behind him. As he relates, “They got a clinic out (in Orange County) for stuff like me.” Tears welling up uncontrollably, he’ll even collapse in his mother’s arms when the officers return Brianne’s belongings, unable to look at them.
In the world the film presents, a man’s masculinity seems literally measured in terms of size. The presumed killer (played by Jared Lynton, who we see only from behind, or in shadow, throughout the film), is a burly, 6’5”, antisocial meth head, muscled like an ox, with a wolf tattoo on his shoulder and priors for battery. While it’s the taller, more levelheaded hunter (played by Bridge Stuart) who diffuses the situation at the bar, apologizing for his diminutive friend’s behavior, rather than escalating things further.
During his tantrum at being kicked out of AA, John only agrees to vacate the premises when Dean, the man he’s just insulted, stands, and we see John’s eyes traveling up and up, intimidated by his imposing proportions. Even the killer is unmasked at the end by being asked to stand to his full height, which turns out to be taller than we could’ve expected, like that glowing eyed demon in the pitch black kitchen of Annabelle Creation (2017). Though it’s impossible to believe he’d spent his entire life stooped over, like Richard III, and inexplicable why no one in town ever noticed his stature before now. Slightly built and wiry, Cummings, who’s shaved off his hairy upper lip from Thunder Road, to further differentiate man from beast in this role, is really no more physically intimidating than that wee townie from before. And like him, he would appear to be suffering from an extreme Napoleonic complex as well, which makes measuring up even more imperative to his mind. Consequently, he overcompensates with a loud voice and combative demeanor. This excessively peppery little pipsqueak is like one of those antsy, fidgety guys who can’t sit still, and is constantly expending his excess energy in twitchy and ferrety ways, with Jenna even referring to him as Rikki-Tikki-Tavi at one point, after the mongoose in Kipling’s story.Cummings’ characters are constantly trying to publicly disguise the depths of their cognitive dissonance, but the cracks clearly show through, to anybody paying close attention. Brought up by his tough-as-nails father to believe real men shouldn’t be emotional or show their weaknesses, such uncompromising rearing methods have taken their toll. Consequently, Marshall possesses no coping mechanism to process his feelings in a healthy way, and so simply succumbs to them, like PJ. He leaves himself an open wound for all the slovenly, slurring, messy moods welling up inside him that he’s never had to confront directly before, and used alcohol to quell.Again, as in Thunder Road, Cummings’ character finds it rough sledding trying to cope with the loss of an aged parent, on whom he was still heavily dependent. Here, he’s suddenly being thrust into his late father’s shoes as town sheriff, with everyone looking expectantly, skeptically to him for answers now, despite his not being certain he can measure up to the old man. Not feeling properly seasoned for his new position or mature enough to be released on his own recognizance without parental guidance, he worries about his capability to function in this new capacity, in the midst of his emotional crisis.The role of John’s father, Sheriff Hadley, was one of veteran actor Robert Forster’s very last before his death, and it turned out to be a real gift to him. And Cummings, who initially expected Forster to turn down his script, made a real coup in the casting. As he stated in an Entertainment Weekly interview, “Robert was like the last cowboy, it kind of felt like on set… He was great, man. He was just so authentic. He saw my first movie and was like, ‘This kid is great, I’m going to work with this dude.’ He just kept on championing me.” Forster’s rarified presence certainly affords this movie, which has been touchingly dedicated to him, that extra patina of class. Recognizing the quality buried beneath the genre pulp, as he did when he played in Jackie Brown, and mining it for all the poignancy it’s worth, an old pro like Forster couldn’t have gone out in finer style.As this star of such cult films as Alligator, waxes nostalgic about the good ol’ days (around the same time that classic creature feature was released), we join him in recalling the pull of the years, and the glory of Forster’s acting when he was in his prime. In a fine monologue, where Forster sounds as if he were assessing his own film career by proxy, he reveals his character’s dogged determination to carry on, until they carry him out feet first. As he says of his heyday, “That was 40-something years ago. Went like that. You’re gonna have a hard time getting my generation off the stage. Willie Nelson’s still doing concerts…”Yet this larger-than-life father figure, who John had always looked up to and wanted to be just like, becoming a cop and subsisting in his shadow, is beginning to show the wear and tear. Despite his inability to meet the demands of his job any longer, he refuses to cotton to any signs of outer weakness, saying, “I may look old but I can handle it.” Working himself to death, admitting to feeling as if he’s been having a heart attack since August, Sheriff Hadley still refuses to accept he has a murmur, trying to keep the encroaching debilitations of his weak ticker a secret.
Refusing to say die, he puts on the same tough façade before his fellow officers that’s effected by the other alpha males in the cast. He’s determined to soldier on, like some wounded water buffalo, much as Forster soldiered on acting in this part, despite knowing he was near the end of the trail himself. Nearly keeling over while addressing his troops, once in private, he’ll desperately ask, “Did they notice anything? Did I seem together?” Yet the example this sets for his son, of taking it like a man by never showing you’re soft, is likely why John doesn’t bother to seek any professional help himself, despite being on the verge of a nervous breakdown.Rather than working from home, as John suggests, his feisty father resents the attempt to put him out to pasture, declaring, “You can’t steamroll me out of here with all this going on. That is ageism. No siree. Ageism.” While we admire his grit to stay relevant and active, we can see the toll time has taken, as he obstinately attempts to hang on. Staring at his computer monitor aghast, he pops another heart pill, exclaiming, “Oh, my God. What is this? Eleven new emails on this thing this morning. Jesus Christ! This is worse than my birthday!”Conservative, grumbling, “I won’t ask you to pray with me ‘cause of the godd*mn lawyers,” and old-fashioned, recalling, “good guys, locking up the bad guys. That’s the old crowd,” he’s used to crime that was held to a different standard in his day. It’s clear how out of touch with the times he’s become, hampering his ability to perform his police work, as the ramped-up degree of remorseless violence in the modern world leaves him at a loss. As he shudderingly observes of the murders, “This is scary. It’s new. I never saw a body like that.” He can tell this is no longer a country for timid and principled old men.Playing defense for his father, so he won’t be physically overtaxed, John makes clear that, “Everything goes through me, then Sheriff, then town hall, got it?” He’s pretty much taking over the duties of the office in absentia, a dry run to determine if he’ll be ready for the real thing when the time comes. As John watches his once seemingly invincible father slowly fade, he also increasingly comes to consider it his duty to slip into his other new role as head of the house and defender of the family honor. He finds himself wedged in a position many middle-aged viewers will recognize, trying to hold it all together, while simultaneously playing caregiver to both the older and younger generations simultaneously. He’s trying to juggle caring for his increasingly incapacitated, convalescing father on one hand, pleading with him, “No. Dad, stop. That’s it. I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. It’s over. You’re retired. I’m through.” And his rebellious, resentful daughter on the other, telling her, “Jenna, you can’t do this. I can’t be worrying about you like this. I’m at work right now.”
The contention that it’s man’s duty to serve as physical guardian, keeping loved ones safe from harm, is pointed up throughout the movie. PJ’s inability to hold his temper or his tongue at the bar, for instance, believing that proved how tough he was, actually demonstrated the opposite, by suggesting that he’s not thinking how his rash actions may be endangering his girlfriend’s safety, given Brianne’s final look of fear before the scene fades. Additionally, the husband of that third victim, though mentioned often, like realtor Paul Carnury’s wife, is nowhere in sight either time his wife and baby could most use his help. Consequently, John, as a protective father, and a cop officially sworn to ‘serve and protect,’ becomes all the more determined to be there, to ensure that Jenna doesn’t end up the final meal on the wolf man’s plate. Performing guard duty, like that valiant Indian mongoose earlier mentioned, he vigilantly stalks back and forth between the adjacent hospital beds of father and daughter, a sentinel waiting to meet any outside threat from man or beast. Attacking Jenna’s cowardly boyfriend, Brock (played by Chase Palmer), for abandoning his daughter during the assault, rather than staying and defending her, his worst fear realized, he’s behaving as he’s been taught any man should, claiming, “I was protecting the family.”
John feels as desperate about proving himself, by becoming sheriff of this small town, as Deputy Barney Fife ever did on the old Andy Griffith Show. But while clearly no more up to the task than Don Knotts was, John assures his father, “I got this,” only to have him adamantly respond “No you don’t!” Another reason why, despite his dour diagnosis, and the growing risk to his health, the Sheriff stubbornly refuses to pack it in, seeing his insecure son’s not quite up to taking over for him just yet. Jenna concurs, laceratingly laying into him after her father plays hero, saving her from attack. Characterizing him as a “F*cking wannabe,” she assures him, “Dad, you’re not the only person in charge of protecting the town. You’re not Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and you’re not Grandpa, okay?”
Just as Sheriff Hadley accuses his son’s arch nemesis, local news reporter Ricky (played by Kenneth Applegate), of acting like a nine-year old, John’s inability to fill his father’s shoes is made even more evident by the way he frequently regresses into his sub-adult state during his interactions with him. Such as unconsciously being lulled into talking about the police interviews he’s conducting, falling back into their same, established, parent-child paradigm when he’s trying to have a serious discussion about the state of his father’s health. Similarly amusing is his dead pan response, before getting all riled up, when his daughter reverses this same dynamic, applying some armchair Freudian analysis which, like the ending, seems culled straight from The Silence of the Lambs. As she suggests, “Do you think maybe this could be about your mom leaving you when you were a kid?… And maybe you’re thinking that, if you catch the guy, you’ll be able to prove her wrong?”I also like actress East’s very believable reactions, ranging from anger, disgust to fear when she stumbles across her father passed out drunk. Trying to put him to bed, he angrily responds, “Don’t tell me to go to bed. I don’t need a parent.” When that’s precisely what John would appear to need, based on the disgraceful way he’s behaving at the time. He even self-pityingly describes himself as an ‘orphan,’ as if he were still in need of fostering at his age. Equally revealing is John’s very childish, fifteen-year-old’s terror of what his father must think of him, when he detects traces of alcohol on his breath. Or when he’s pulled out of the room while arguing with Chavez, as if his father were separating children who can’t play nice together. He seems as much of a scared little boy inside as PJ does, when being cradled in his mother’s arms.A clean-shaven Cummings, with his high forehead, can affect the face of an innocent child on occasion, such as at the end when he walks right into the wolf’s den unaware, a lamb led to slaughter. But it’s crucial that he step up, rise to the occasion, as he’s forced to finally stand on his own two feet, as well as stand up to the imposing, muleheaded old man he’s always been intimidated by, indignantly declaring “I’m not doing this sh*t anymore! I’m not a child!” His father’s pep talk consists of telling him that “The team is with you. They got no dog in this fight. You want leadership? Lead.” While Detective Julia Robson (played quirkily by Riki Lindhome , from The Gilmore Girls and Garfunkel and Oates), tries talking him out of his funk with similar sentiments, “You wanna be sheriff? How about we start acting like one?” To have the film tell it, it’s only unconditional love for their daughters that proves the Achilles’ heel for any recalcitrant macho man. As in that story Sheriff Hadley tells of a hardened bank robber he was able to corral, by putting his baby on the bullhorn to talk him down. Uncomfortable with how fast his own kid is growing up, blossoming into a young woman, Cummings’ character, as in Thunder Road, again conveys an amusing array of paranoia, overprotectiveness, and fear for her safety. As he baldly states “… I just get nervous with the way that you dress… perfectly reasonably. I’ve just seen the way that people look at you. Women included. I think you’ll understand when you have children of your own.”Cummings is equally hilarious in his other awkward, ham-handed attempts to talk to this teenager he doesn’t really know, leaving his circular conversations dangling, as they did in Thunder Road, futilely waiting for responses of endearment from her that aren’t naturally forthcoming. Attempting to broach the topic of the danger she may be in with a sexual psychopath on the loose, while simultaneously not panicking her, his poor choice of words has all the squirm inducing ickiness of a nervous, unprepared parent initiating a discussion on the birds and bees. In Thunder Road, Cummings’ daughter was much younger, but aging her up here makes perfect sense, since all the dangers he imagines lying in wait for her around every corner, become much more imminent. Having given Jenna a fire extinguisher-sized can of pepper spray as a communion present, assuring her, “It’s okay. You’ll never need it. But I want you to promise me that you’re gonna find it and keep it on you at all times,” he fears that the closer she gets to becoming a woman, the more imperiled she’ll be in a predatory world of male wolves that sexualize her, seeing her as easy prey. He’s intent on keeping his baby safely cocooned from all the attendant hoots, whistles, wolf calls and worse. Like the iconic Clarice Starling, she’s the innocent little lamb he needs to keep safe from harm, to be able to sleep soundly at night. This is what motivates John to leave his daughter the gun he’ll no longer be needing at the end, alongside a drawer full of condoms, for “protection” against all the big bad wolves just lying in wait out there.
Like reporter Ronnie, who accosts Sheriff Hadley outside the police station for answers following the first murder, upset because he has ‘a 9-year old’ to worry about himself at home, his own daughter’s safety remains paramount in John’s mind. Which is why he makes that unconscious slip at the first crime scene, mumbling, “I have to call Jenna,” sensing the monster to be a direct threat to his own daughter, the movie’s Little Red Riding Hood character, as much as the other women in the community. This knowledge brings the horror of what’s happening home to John in a very personal way, amplifying his desperation to bring the beast to bay.John describes the murderer’s tactics in terms of sexual conquest, noting that, “It’s a hunt. It’s a thrill for him. She’s a trophy.” And interestingly, Cummings doesn’t attempt to make it seem as if this objectification of women was a mindset unique to the killer’s psychopathy alone. Quite to the contrary. Even when John sits around with his cop buddies at the diner after work, rather than not speaking evil of the dead, the conversation instead rudely references her missing bits being used as a ‘fleshlight,’ and such sample vulgarities as, “My heart goes out to the boyfriend. It’s like the ultimate blue balls story, fellas.” Rather than authority figures setting an example one could look up to, their coarse, blue language smacks of juvenile locker room talk, reducing them to the same level as any other rowdy, frat boy wolf pack. The movie is very much about the uncorked rage men like John feel at former wives, current wives, women in general. Cop and killer, wolves in sheep’s clothing both, suffer to varying degrees from hatred, mistrust of, and resentment toward the female sex. Both, at different times, will be given the floor, to rail against the ball and chain of matrimony. And they’re not alone. Resenting being kept on a short leash while eyeing the waitress serving his table, for instance, Chavez asks, “Why the hell did you let me get married?”To which Bo (played by Kevin Changaris) responds, “I told you not to. We all told you.” John however pipes up, offering a response most men didn’t have to worry about in times past, when women were expected to stay home and mind the house and kids, claiming that one, “Can’t be married and focused on your career.” Affording us further insight into why his own marriage didn’t work out, leaving him bitter and Jenna resentful for his never having been there. Tellingly, director Cummings intercuts the murder of the second victim with his character’s lunch date with his ex-wife, verbal sparring that includes such zingers as, “How much coffee have you had today? Can we not do this at Bonanza’s? Jesus Crist, I have a nicer time at Abu Ghraib.” Despite the comic overtones, this juxtaposition indicates how deadly their emotional dual is meant to seem by comparison. John can feel the urge to kill rising, as Brittany explains to him how to do his job – “They say if you don’t catch the guy within the first 48 hours, you’re not gonna catch him,” – pointing out what she sees as his further shortcomings. Clearly struggling to maintain his ice cold cool, he fixes her with emotionless eyes and an indifferent expression, then instantly feigns a happy face whenever he shifts his attention to his daughter or the waitress. This interaction purposely evokes our memory of the opening scene at the bar, and due to the nonsequential editing, likewise proceeds discovery of another murder victim. Marking it as just another sampling of the sort of masculine microaggression motivating the wolf man’s own rage kills. When the murderer does ultimately slip up and give himself away, as Julia had accurately predicted he would (telling John, “Hate to say we’ll catch him but, we’ll catch him. He’ll slip up. Most times it’s them.”), it’s due to his inability to refrain from revealing his darkest feelings about the female sex, ominously explaining why he’s no longer married with, quote, “I was once but… she couldn’t hack it.” Adding additional layers to this theme, those hunters we initially meet at the bar condescend to Julia, when she’s sent to interview them, behaving in a way they would be too cowed to in the face of a male authority figure, with the weight of a badge behind him.Showing her the receipts snapped on his phone to prove his whereabouts, then hurriedly snatching it back after she ignores his direction not to swipe right, the more diminutive townie gets all hopped up once it dawns that this isn’t a simple courtesy call, and he may be a person of interest in the case. Closing down their conversation, he uses the same words, “Have a nice day,” he claimed to have said to that out of town couple. But he gives this innocuous sendoff such a sarcastic edge, that his tone reflects poorly on him, rather than alleviating suspicion. He even dismisses Julia as a “b*tch” as she’s departing, while ensuring she’s still in earshot, his foul language making him sound that much more fit for the pound.
As Marshall comes to realize, uncertainty about his role as a man, as a father, son, cop, in an increasingly changing society, where even his insulated town is being inundated by the more broad-minded tourist trade, makes it imperative for him to change and evolve, if he’s ever going to become a proper role model for his daughter. Consequently, he bones up at the local library on the persecution of females throughout history, educating himself so he can surmount his own inability to deal with women like his ex-wife on a commensurate level. Waxing philosophic to Julia about what he’s learned, he asks “So what is a werewolf? It’s actually just men. These guys who get angry every once in a while and take it out on women. Because they hate them. There’s no magic, there’s no transformation… The victims are always women and the killers are always men. Why is it always women? You think women have had to deal with sh*t like this since the Middle Ages?” It’s a shift in John’s caveman thinking necessary if he doesn’t want to end up in that same dark state of mind as the killer, succumbing to those homicidal thoughts he’d openly admitted to harboring at film’s beginning.
The sexualized form of violence evident in the film is likewise targeted toward women, the killer objectifying them as ‘trophies,’ to serve as symbols of alpha male ‘conquests.’ But The Wolf of Snow Hollow makes an admirable effort to depict the unfortunate victims as something more than simple statistics, bringing out innate aspects of their humanity so that audiences can identify with, and actually care about, what happens to them. Rather than deriving a cheap thrill from their creative kills, as in other splatter films, the viewer here is instead afforded a rooting interest in their fate.Only the first victim, Brianne, comes close to conforming to horror convention stereotype. Being overtly sexualized in a manner that even manages to incorporate an obligatory hot tub scene. But she’s purposely exaggerated for satirical effect, as the horror archetypes were in Cabin in the Woods, to undermine audience expectations about the sort of thriller we’re going to be watching. While both Brianne and PJ are flippantly depicted, initially, as vapid West Coast caricatures, deeper shades of sadness fall over the film like a funeral shroud, as we come to find he was actually planning on proposing to her the night of her murder, making it that much more painful that her life was ended, when it was on the cusp of a new beginning. The second victim, Hannah (played by Hannah Elder), a ski instructor at the local mountain resort, has returned to the abusive boyfriend her co-worker thought she was done with, only because he’s the sole man in the area who’s shown any interest in her. And, not getting any younger, she’s fully aware of the distinct dearth of other romantic options in such a rural environment. Hannah’s unwillingness to cut loose her abuser, makes it seem as if she were masochistically asking to be hurt, almost inviting her own unkind fate. Only the third incident, involving that sweet wife and mother, Liz (played by Kelsey Edwards), seemed clumsily handled, and emotionally tone deaf. As well as repetitious, since the second murder had also been intercut with a tangled series of comically aggressive antics involving John at the funeral, and sophomoric spats between him and the coroner. These spliced in scenes appear to have been stupidly inserted in such a way as to negate the horror of what actually happened, so audiences won’t feel as enraged, or come away as deeply upset. It’s the only time in the entire film that the comedy feels forced and over the top, everything just full of discordant rhythms and bad vibes. And it’s a double pity, because the staging of this homicide, which may remind some of the French werewolf film, Brotherhood of the Wolf, proves horrifyingly evocative, with the snowy cinematography of Natalie Kingston at its most spectrally beautiful.“The streets should have been bustling with tourists, but not today,” state the local news broadcasts concerning what they’ve dubbed the “Snow Hollow Horror.” Smarting from not being given an official statement, waved away with, “The Sheriff’s Department has declined to comment to Eyewitness 5,” the local coverage spitefully colors the story, reporting on how the murders have, quote, “left a stain on a small town and its law enforcement.” And full blame for the deleterious effect the murders are having on the local tourist trade, is laid directly at the new sheriff’s doorstep, with everyone fearing, “the reputation of the fun-loving ski capital of the town,” is as unlikely to be rehabilitated as Marshall’s own good name.But as it was with his cop character in Thunder Road, John is determined to redeem himself in the eyes of his community, by panning out his loopy theory that the crimes are being committed by man rather than beast. Stating categorically, “No, it’s not an animal. You’d need a knife or specialized claws. You’d need thumbs for that…,” initially he sounds like the only rational person on the case, cautioning “It’s a murder. It’s nothing new. Treat it like a murder.” While everyone else assures him, first, that it’s a bear, before moving further and further outside the realm of possibility. “It was a full moon again…” the spacey Chavez points out. “It’s a wolf. Or maybe it’s a werewolf… I’ve been watching a lot of History Channel lately…” Only to have a fed-up John explode, “Cut it out with that Rozwell sh*t, Chavez!… Let me just make this perfectly clear. There is no such thing as werewolves. They’re imaginary. Our killer is a guy.” With even his father recommending they call in an exotic animal expert, John sticks to his guns, remaining adamant, “No, it’s a man. When do I get to be right about something?” The fleeting, tantalizing glimpses director Cummings shows us of the beast however, makes it impossible not to agree with his local detractors, and concede that John is barking up the wrong tree. So, it’s a real affirmation of his policework when his gut instinct eventually pans out.
When John reaches the end of his tether, and has to officially retire the sheriff, asking Carla (played by Anna Sward), at the front desk, to call an ambulance, and heads out, it’s specifically to fulfill his father’s last wish for him to hunt down the beast on his own (“Go get him!”). His inability to carry out this final request results in another relapse – “I told him I’d catch him and I didn’t. I looked him in the face and I told him I‘d catch him and I was drunk.” Its only once John believes they’ve caught the killer, fulfilling his promise to his father, that he feels reinvigorated, and ready to turn the next page, throwing out the coffee cup he’d just filled with alcohol, in order to return to the job clearheaded. The toxicity of the poisonous brew he keeps imbibing, and the degree to which it hinders his ability to function with a sharp mind, is made plain when the killer himself plays devil’s advocate during their final tête-à-tête, fiendishly asking, “Mind if I spill something in your coffee?” A wicked witch tendering John his preferred type of poisoned apple, we’re led to believe he intends to lace it with cyanide, in order to terminally debilitate him, in the same way his alcoholism always has. Or serve as anesthesia, numbing him senseless to the slicing and dicing we fear is coming.Though the subject crops up in the most unexpected of places here, Cummings clearly has the concept of improper police conduct caught in his craw. And since few themes seem timelier at the moment, one really can’t complain about the subtle commentary he’s embedded in his latest outing. As noted in an inverse.com interview, “It’s easy to see (Cummings’) two movies as well-timed critiques of America’s police system.” For instance, the name up in letters on the local convenience store marquee, asking viewers to “Pray for Brianne,” sounds suspiciously close to Breonna, as in Breonna Taylor, the black EMT shot while sleeping during the issuance of a no-knock warrant. It was a name frequently evoked throughout the 2020 protests against police brutality.And though The Wolf of Snow Hollow was shot over a year earlier, in March of 2019, it’s hard to believe the appropriation of such an unusual, yet familiar sounding name (also used for paramedic Jamie Dornan’s missing daughter in Synchronic this same year) was simple coincidence, given the context. As Cummings related in an AFI Conservatory interview, about writing Thunder Road, “It was the beginning of when the BLM movement, when it was really taking off on Facebook, when I was writing it, so it was like the summer and fall of 2015…” So, clearly the concept of police reform was foremost in his mind at that time, and has continued to inform the way he sees and shapes his material.
In a day of national reckoning, when Americans are reimagining policing, and can no longer look at depictions of law enforcement in popular entertainment quite the same way we once did, Cummings takes a devastatingly satirical tack in his representation of police bumbling and incompetency. As it was with his cop character in Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow satirizes law enforcement with a razor-sharp comic zest unseen since the days of the Keystone Cops. Courtesy of this comic lampoon, in which its dense lead can rhetorically question, “Who would wanna throw a beer bottle at a cop car?” Cummings plainly intends to acknowledge the current conversation concerning the necessity for police reform, in a way that makes this movie seem, if anything, even more relevant today than when it originally wrapped over a year ago. As John himself states “This is what everybody’s talking about right now. You want people to stop talking sh*t about the police? Do better police work!” PJ will similarly sneer, “I thought you would have found this guy by now. See, this is why people talk sh*t about the police. Sorry, but… How many people on your team and you still haven’t found this guy?” Even the killer dismisses the cops’ collective acumen with, “You’ve gotta get your sh*t together. I could’ve f*cking solved this by now.” When the cops reconnoiter at work in the morning, their meeting devolves into a squabble, which, like the opening scene at the bar, almost ends in another macho challenge to take things outside. Furthermore, these experts foolishly discount the evidence offered by that young mother, Liz, who’s certain she was approached by the killer at the diner. During an amusingly assembled montage, she’s lumped in and dismissed alongside all the other crazies and wackadoos volunteering seemingly specious information. Meaning her perfectly valid intuition, which will subsequently be borne out, is discounted out of hand, as the overemotional fears of a hysterical woman, resulting in her death. As that irate mourner accused John at Helen’s wake, “Where were you? Yeah, f*ck you. Where were the cops? Sitting there in your little suit. When are you gonna get this f*cking thing, huh?… Don’t be (sorry). Find it! Find it!”
So, it’s understandable that John, even after the killer’s been caught, would keep beating himself up over his department’s shoddy police work. While performing his sad pilgrimage to return all the holding evidence to the victims’ families, on his wedding anniversary no less, further evidence of his failures, he’s either chewed out or spat upon by the bereaved families still mourning the loss of their loved ones. Learning that the killer was a local, within arm’s reach, who lived in the same geographic radius as the first victim, he impotently claims that, “I would’ve caught the guy.” To which a supportive Julia insists, “You would not have caught the guy okay? You would’ve gotten killed… We got him. You still win when the other guy knocks the 8-ball in.”
While racism isn’t raised as an issue in the Never Never Land of this snow white ski resort, The Wolf of Snow Hollow still makes a dogged effort to examine legal ethics and police misconduct, to ascertain that amorphous thin blue line distinguishing a good officer from a psycho cop. The movie questions the sort of psychology we should want wearing a badge, with all the massed authority, potential for abuse, and lack of accountability that golden shield confers. Through the character of John Marshall, we’re offered a legacy case meant to represent the concept of institutionalized policing as it’s been passed down, through the generations, father to son.Snow Hollow’s police department is plagued by incompetent officers of the slapstick sort. Like Bo, whose dunderheaded idea of avoiding a local panic is to tell the community that there’s been a chemical leak. Or, unthinkingly shout out undercover forensics’ findings, to the unspoken edification of the Eyewitness 5 news van on the scene. He’ll even throw a hilariously unprofessional hissy fit on the way out the door, when his transparent ploy of buying his boss off with a gift basket, fails to stave off the inevitable termination. John takes certain, measured steps to weed out the most egregious of officers, barking the command, “Do your job! Do your job! I am begging you! Do you have anything else to do today? No? Good, then do your job! It’s like kindergarten!” He makes a point of firing utter incompetents, like Bo, and tells the equally inept Roy, “You are a bad police officer. You should’ve pursued computer science because you are not good at this.” As he assures the public librarian, who startles him awake after a full night reading up on werewolfery, “Had that been another member of my team, what you just pulled right there, that could’ve ended in a shooting.” Clearly policing should not be a threat to innocent civilians in this country, so there’s something meant to be seen as askew here.
When news reporters conduct street interviews with the local yokels, we hear them tactlessly advocating for the worst forms of vigilante justice, proffering the opinion, “I’d say… you gotta find this guy or girl. I don’t know, I don’t know what it is. But you gotta find this guy, you take him out. ‘Cause I’m not paying any more taxes in this town.” Even John makes a similar slip of the tongue, unwittingly advocating for extrajudicial killings, before quickly catching himself, claiming he’s going to find the guy and, quote, “…and I’m gonna kill…and we’re gonna bring him to justice legally and together.” But as John comes to find by film’s end, having subsisted in an alcoholic haze over the course of his meltdown, he’s become every bit as negligible to the police department as the other cops he’s been making examples of along the way. His private turmoil increasingly spills over into his professional life, as he implores his family, “Do not call me at work. I am at work,” making it impossible to stay focused on the job at hand. The stress builds up until he has to pop, physically assaulting Bo, Coroner Gary, even crossing that thin blue line and becoming a criminal himself when he breaks into Brock’s house. Wearing his makeshift home invasion gear, he’s maced by the kid’s mom (Colleen Baum) with the same sort of pepper spray he once gave his own daughter for protection against the sort of man he’s now become. Though we’re inclined to dismiss all these early signs, because they’re played for laughs, eventually we can’t help acknowledging the obvious. Irresponsible, unreliable, with his hair-trigger temper and itchy trigger finger, viewers are aware, as John himself comes to realize, he’s not the sort of person one should want patrolling the streets, or the type to trust to uphold the law. This is decisively confirmed when John takes to heart the advice an emotional PJ had given him: “Hey officer, if you do find him, don’t arrest him. Shoot him. Shoot him till you can see the ground through his face.” By making the monster so scary, the movie manipulates viewers into wanting to witness this same sort of violent retribution ourselves. And while we understand, within the context of the story, why the Cummings character must do what he does, we also realize we need to demand a higher standard of behavior from law enforcement officers than we’d possess ourselves, under similar circumstances. We know one man with a gun and a badge shouldn’t be playing judge, jury and executioner, taking the law into his own hands in his treatment of suspects – guilty, innocent or otherwise – while in his custody and care. Going all Dirty Harry as he does, purposely emptying his pistol into the wolf, rather than following police procedure and bringing him in alive, John comes to find he can’t separate his personal feelings and implicit bias from his professional policing and, so, has no right on the force. Given his overly aggressive, self-destructive behavior, the only way this policeman can be reformed is by his turning in his badge. In light of the link established, from the outset, between cop and killer, the movie implies that the police system in America changes people into vicious beasts, by attracting and admitting only the most brutal sorts into its ranks to begin with. It’s only by hunting down the physical manifestation of the monster rampaging inside himself, that John can likewise soothe his own savage beast, setting aside the bottle. So, despite being gutted against the wall, like a mounted hunting trophy himself, John feels reborn on New Year’s Eve. Committing this cathartic killing makes a brand new man of him, one who feels purified by the falling snow, having found inner calm and peace with the world, by ensuring there’ll be one less wolf in the world for women like his daughter to worry about.
The sheriff position his father had held so long, and everyone assumed would naturally be handed down to John, almost by dint of the lineage embedded in his last name of Marshall, is instead passed outside the male line to Julia, who has slowly and steadily demonstrated to us how much more she warrants it, through her carefully methodical, by the book police work. Requesting that John extend her the professional courtesy of addressing her as “Officer Robson” when on the clock, she can slurp down her pasta dinner at night, utterly unperturbed by the gruesome crime scene photos laid out before her, when shut out of the all-boys club discussing the murder case at the diner. The way she cheerily coerces the convenience store clerk into removing the unflattering marquee, by casually pointing out his car tags are expired, buys that gift basket for Bo, hoping he won’t get sacked, and expresses admiration for the way the second victim attempted to stave off her attacker, saying, “She fought like hell. Took a lot of hair off him,” tells us that she deserves to be in the position of Sheriff, far more than John who’s in line only by nepotistic right of succession.One can feel the movie morphing, as if from wolf to man, over the course of proceedings, into something deeper and more sociologically meaningful than your typical, philosophically bitesize horror movie. But I have reservations about setting expectations too high by recommending The Wolf of Snow Hollow so highly. I wouldn’t want eager viewers to be anticipating something more than it can deliver. Like John’s wife, it would better serve potential audiences to have very low expectations going in. Indeed, I responded so strongly to it myself specifically because my own bar for the film was set at the altitude of a limbo stick; at ground level.
I only rented The Wolf of Snow Hollow to take advantage of a two for one Redbox deal, being in the market for a cheesy, B-thriller I could painlessly toss off in one night, and return the next morning. And since the movie’s title made it sound like something produced by the Syfy channel, I figured it would meet with my needs. Knowing nothing of Jim Cummings at the time, I didn’t anticipate much was in store. So imagine my surprise when, instead of a movie viewing experience on the level of just Another WolfCop (2018), I found myself absolutely floored, and spent the rest of the night immersed in online research, trying to figure out why I’d never heard of this accomplished, yet seemingly obscure comedian before, given his wellspring of talent.
Thanks to Cummings’ warped vision, The Wolf of Snow Hollow seems a brilliantly off-color oddity of a horror film. Technically, it’s a more proficient, professional looking piece than the earlier Thunder Road, which isn’t surprising considering their ridiculously disparate budgets. It’s complimented by Kingston’s truly lush cinematography, that captures the Utah slopes in a way that makes them resemble an impressionist snowscape at times, and at others a miniature tabletop tableau. In hindsight, rather than something off Syfy, the title seems intended to invoke Sleepy Hollow, with its own lethargic backwoods setting, and seemingly supernatural predator, who turns out to have been bunk all along. Which would make Cummings’ character akin to Ichabod Crane. While the film’s chock full of titters from start to finish, in truth, it’s too serious to be considered a real thrillomedy, in the traditional sense. Many commentators have compared it to the surreal Twin Peaks (the rebooted series also featured Forster as town sheriff). But to me, if anything, Snow Hollow, with all its blood draped white powder, most strongly evokes the Coen brothers’ original Fargo (1996), with its equally satirical comic tone inlaid over the investigation of a series of crimes set in the frosty deep freeze, that progressively turn dead serious. Fargo is most notably recalled perhaps when Julia brings down the wolf at the end, as efficiently as pregnant Frances McDormand brought down that seemingly invincible, ax-wielding Paul Bunyan at the end of the earlier film. In addition, Cummings himself has sited other influences as far afield as The Howling and the films of the Duplass Brothers. And one can detect faint echoes of mid-90s X-Files about it as well. There are heavy samplings from other films, with the ending especially seeming lifted wholesale from The Silence of the Lambs, which was also distributed by Orion Pictures, and was experiencing a resurgence at the time due to its 30th anniversary re-release. So, given all these myriad influences, it’s odd Snow Hollow should feel as quirky, offbeat and original as it does.Except for the one or two miscalculations mentioned, the precision point editing of Patrick Nelson Barnes and R. Brett Thomas seems spot on, deviously leading us down wrong paths and twisting turns, to throw us off the scent. This movie does a great job at dropping a lot of false leads along the way, asking the viewer to participate by doing part of their own policework, assessing suspects, dismissing some and putting others on our watch list. So much so that I think it fails to properly emphasize the actual killer as much as it should along the way. So, upon one’s initial viewing, things don’t clearly snap into place the way they logically should, lessoning the dramatic impact of the final reveal. The editing might be at its sharpest and most exciting during the well-staged car attack, which begins with Jenna thinking the woman in the house across the way is calling the cops to report her and her boyfriend for public indecency, only to find her pointing off toward some unseen danger approaching from the opposite direction, like that ambush during Elizabeth Moss’ escape at the beginning of The Invisible Man (2020). With the windows all fogged up by heavy breathing, they can’t see what’s coming. Which just heightens our terror when it finally arrives. It’s every Hook-Hand, lover’s lane, urban legend horror story you’ve ever heard of, with the beast springing to full life in response to the pheromones filling the air, the moral of the tale again serving as cautionary warning, for horny teens.Perhaps preoccupied by the other hats he was wearing, writer Cummings leaves some gaping holes in his screenplay, making us scratch our heads. Most glaring of all is the identity of that fourth victim, whose body is burned in a brush pile by the meth head, as if he were attempting to destroy evidence. There’s a passing reference to a Helena Gaines (“Remember her?”), but for the life of me I was never able to clearly recall who this person was supposed to be, or when she’d appeared in the film.The killer’s taxidermy shop seems to have been pulled in from Psycho, a haunted gingerbread house that pops up out of nowhere. It seems as anachronistic in this little ski resort as that Gothic castle looming over pastel suburbia in Edward Scissorhands. And I could’ve sworn that Guitterrez had claimed to have interviewed the killer’s wife, and been chewed out in their rock garden, despite the killer’s own later giveaway that he’s not married. And the connection between the killer having worked at the local high school, where he must have first spotted his victims decades back, is never really brought into play to pan out. It’s unfortunate that no scenes were written between Jenna and her grandpa. We never even see them together, except when they’re in adjacent hospital beds. And for all we know, this could be a CG composite. John’s rivalry with the local news caster, Ricky, who he never tires of needling, is a hilarious standing joke sustained throughout the picture. Pushing back against the aggressive reporter for his hostile questioning of his father, John settles his hash by publicly reminding everyone he’s actually as big a lush as he is himself with, “see you in the basement Wednesday, Ricky.” Or, cottoning in his final testament before their AA group, that during certain stages of his breakdown, “… I had hateful thoughts toward Ricky and his whole family.” Moments like these indicate an entirely diagrammed and detailed back story for these two characters, that never made it into the final draft.
The title purposely leaves us dangling about the supernatural nature of the wolf of Snow Hollow. His fully articulated fright suit, created by Michael Yale and Lauren Wilde, looks great in half-light, as Cummings plays the same game Spielberg did with Jaws, just showing us bits and flashes of his monster in suggestive shadow, until stunning us into murmurs of ‘awwww sh*t’ with the hair-raising full reveal on that sheet of ice during the second attack. But it seems improbable that anyone would want to be hampered down by such impractical layers of pelt and latex, as have been contrived for the wolf to wear here. Equally inexplicable is the construction of that head apparatus which is about as bulky as the criminal’s ‘mask’ in the original silent version of The Bat, possessing no peripheral vision but strong enough to clamp down and leave bite marks.Because of problems like this, The Wolf of Snow Hollow is nothing out of the general run, though it is graced by two truly superlative performances in Forster and Cummings. Jim Cummings, particularly, gives another of his quirky, off-center, highly individualistic interpretations. Not professionally trained, his rhythmed, cadenced performance style is like no other actor’s. So much so that he seems to be vibrating at a different, higher wavelength than the rest of the cast. Throughout, he seems equal parts loose and formless, and intuitive and improvisational – altogether brilliant and unique – a complete original. His acting style possesses the electric spark of an exposed live wire, with an internal motor that keeps Cummings incessantly hopping from one unexpected and inventive new idea to the next, without ever petering out or repeating himself.
Perhaps Robin Williams matched him best with his rapid-fire, hyperkinetic sense of comic timing, switching characters and personas like a radio constantly flipping channels. Others have compared Cummings to the young and manic Jim Carey, whose spastic-limbed, highly physical performing style seems far different to me. Maybe it’s their identical initials… Cummings’ specialty instead seems to be a slow building burn, trying to maintain his authority and composure as his life keeps skidding out of control in increasingly insane ways around him. As it was in Thunder Road, Cummings’ character here employs his motormouth to coverup nagging insecurities, working up a head of steam that keeps building to a boiling point, until he explodes, popping off in a remarkable panoply of inappropriate behavior.
His latest opus confirms Cummings as a true renaissance man for our modern moviegoing times. Among up and coming actors, only Cooper Raiff’s accomplishment with S#!thouse this year can really compare. A large part of Cummings’ success in the two movies he’s released so far, can be attributed to the fact that the actor in him knows just what is wanted from him by the director in him. And there’s something ouroboros about this circular seeding process that requires accounting for in one’s critical assessment. Cummings’ directing and writing skills aren’t at the same level of development as his acting, which can intuit the nuances in his scripts which the other performers in the cast wouldn’t have the advantage of picking up on themselves, since they didn’t write their own material.
As with many insecure comics, in his Thunder Road, Cummings, the director, ensured Cummings, the actor, remained center stage throughout, so there was no possibility of his film taking on any larger emotional scope. The Wolf of Snow Hollow, on the other hand, seems like a more self-assured film, in that Cummings has attempted to open his material up a bit more. By not focusing quite so exclusively on his own character this time out, to the detriment of the film, the rest of his cast are allowed to be funny occasionally as well. He’s been particularly generous in allowing vet Robert Forster to assume center stage in several scenes and outshine him. Consequently, things don’t feel quite so much like the onanistic exercise of a one-man-band this time round.
It’s a bit premature to be making any definite judgement calls on the unorthodox career Cummings appears to be carving out for himself. But based on his two initial efforts, with their similarities in writing, theme and situation, and the virtually identical character he’s created for himself to play, right down to his profession, personal neuroses and family struggles (only their mustaches appear to differentiate them), I’m not certain if he’s a genuine auteur, working through some deeply personal creative issues, or if he has but one theme to strum on his Stradivarius. But whichever it is, he’s been extricating some delightful notes from his acting instrument, calling forth infinite variations on the theme.
Slipping easily between unconscious high comedy, to the deepest depths of genuine sorrow, with every emotional beat in between ringing true as a tuning fork, he maneuvers around his broiling mass of conflicting emotions as masterfully as a virtuoso. He seems downright inspired. If I were to compare Cummings’ genius to that of a modern-day Chaplin, the comparison needn’t be dismissed as pure hyperbole. After all, his first feature, Thunder Road, was virtually a reworking of themes from Chaplin’s The Kid. And few actors, besides the slapstick legend, have displayed this same effortless, truly remarkable affinity for blending moments of comedy and pathos. While that drolly sardonic sense of humor remains Cummings’ first talent, he’s equally adept at drawing tears in scenes of heart-rending drama, as he demonstrates in his interactions with Forster here. To watch him flit seamlessly from outraged anger to wounded vulnerability to highwire comedy, is to watch the method acting of a maestro at work.
Artists like Chaplin and W.C. Fields, all the golden age comic legends, played virtually the same character for their entire careers. And what fool would argue that they needed to stretch their art to expand their range? Having established his perfect screen persona, Cummings likewise needn’t feel boxed in by this character, a very distant cousin to James Ransone’s offbeat Deputy So & So in the Sinister films. If he can maintain his high, obsessively inventive energy level, Cummings could easily go on mining hilarious variations on the theme, playing cops of every state, then every nation – rangers, troopers, Mounties, bobbies, border patrol, fish and game wardens, bounty hunters, detectives, secret service, customs agents, CSI – it need never end. With the subject of police reform having moved more and more center in the public conversation, and with body cameras placing cops under ever closer public scrutiny, it makes perfect sense that Cummings’ characters should be emotionally unraveling, at the rate they do, under the amped up performance pressure.
Movies like Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, which Cummings makes and promotes himself, aren’t just sterling showcases for the director/actor/writer’s tour de forces. They’re Kickstarter campaigns, go fund me startups for his own acting career, ways to raise money and catch the eye of future producing prospects. They’re the equivalent of visual resumes, putting out there for all to see what he can do, while leaving himself open to further offers for his services, a proactive equivalent in our internet age of actors listing themselves as ‘at liberty’ on IMDb. Based on the level of talent on display here, all Cummings should need do is sit back and wait for the offers to start rolling in. If you’re anything like me, given all the hilarious comic asides, littered throughout the film like a trail of animal tracks, Cummings’ performance in The Wolf of Snow Hollow will leave you howling.