Although he’s an individual of mounting reputation in the world of indie comedy, The Wolf Of Snow Hollow is actually my first introduction to the work of Jim Cummings. I’ve heard nothing but terrific things regarding Thunder Road, and as a consumer/critic/infinite slave of film, it always feels unforgivable to simply admit that you’ve gotten side-tracked by anything and everything else instead of watching something that has a palpable ‘future cult classic’ buzz around it. I shall certainly get to it after my forty-five thousandth re-watch of some obscure and downbeat existentialist crime drama that nobody except me likes, believe me.
This regret-cum-anticipation has been uniformly bolstered upon watching Cummings’ sophomore feature-length effort. Writing, directing and starring as he had done previously, Cummings displays a comprehensive flair in this idiosyncratic and deadpan take on a small American town full of oddballs that is blighted by a series of vicious killings, substituting the knackered methods of slapstick and scatology for good, old-fashioned character-driven weirdness.
As the film opens, we are introduced to PJ and Brianne (Jimmy Tatro & Annie Hamilton), a likeable young couple who have embarked on a serene romantic getaway to the titular town, PJ figuring that the quaint and niveous little stretch of nowhere would be an idyllic location to pop the question. After a tense run-in with a couple of locals while dining out, the twosome retreat to their rented cottage, Brianne venturing outside in the night only to be brutally murdered by an unseen figure.
Naturally, this hitherto unseen level of cruel and random mutilation seriously spooks the residents of Snow Hollow, the town’s assortment of busybodies, weird loners and cranky old coots all angrily hand-waving about the presence of something inhuman and openly lambasting the failure of the local police force to immediately apprehend the culprit, increasing in intensity as more and more women are butchered.
Bearing the brunt of all this hysteria is Officer John Marshall (Cummings), the exasperated son of the local sheriff who must contend with a tempestuous relationship with his ex-wife and teenage daughter Jenna (Chloe East), the nuisance-level incompetence of several colleagues and also the fact that he’s a recovering alcoholic. Throw in his aforementioned father (the brilliant Robert Forster in his final role) being a stubbornly proud senior in declining health and it’s safe to say that Officer Marshall’s cacophony of stress may drive him back to the bottle if his family, combatant locals or the serial killer/possible wolf-thing doesn’t end him first.
Having been thoroughly disappointed by a glut of lacklustre and forgettable comedies throughout the year (the last one I found great was Palm Springs), it is a genuine relief to once again be presented with something that is actually very funny. Cummings has a natural talent for self-direction and he and the rest of the cast possess a pitch-perfect timing for the script’s offbeat, farcical tone. The humour is manifested in wordplay, blasé reactions and strangely inappropriate tangential dialogue that indicates we are dealing with a town where everyone is essentially off their rocker, cops included. The highly-strung Officer Marshall has several sporadic temper tantrums that are hilarious in their bullet-fast rhetoric and unpredictability, the supporting players matching Cummings in the ability to build great momentum in apropos-of-nothing conflict that does absolutely bugger all to help proceedings, a comic device that is very easily misfired and irritating but the gang here know exactly what they’re doing.
At 83 minutes, the movie zips by very nicely and never outstays its welcome, and during this compact running time, it manages to suffuse its bonkers atmosphere with an undercurrent of poignancy that is deftly fitted into the package. Tonal shifts can be a bastard to pull off when you’re mixing comedy with more serious elements, but the familial tension at play here is subtly sweet and believable without devolving into saccharine Kodak moments.
Forster is a belter in his swan song performance as Officer Marshall’s mad and cantankerous father Sheriff Hadley, his quasi-senile blathering and ornery refusal to retire despite a heart condition adding a lot of laughs, but never at the expense of genuinely thoughtful interludes where John cracks under the pressure of having to worry about him on top of everything else. The same can be said of his conflict with college-ready daughter Jenna, resentful via her perception of John as an absentee father who only gets involved in her life when it involves lecturing her. In the final analysis, he’s actually a pretty good father and son when he isn’t being plagued by the temptation of booze, haranguing residents or, y’know, the fact that some weird person/animal is eviscerating the young ladies of Snow Hollow. And of course, it would be remiss not to mention the focal murder spree that’s got Marshall and Co. in such a clusterf**k. Courtesy of a nicely quaint and creepy score by Ben Lovett and Natalie Kingston’s impressive cinematography that takes full advantage of the snowy open space at nighttime, the sequences featuring the titular villain are effectively disturbing and suspenseful. The final reveal is also hilariously ridiculous and in lockstep with the movie’s objective overall.
‘Fargo with a werewolf’ is a moniker that I’ve seen doing the rounds, and while it is an arguably too-easy nutshell that could set the film up for unfairly high expectations, I can see what they’re getting at. The humour is dryly goofy and ironic and it works, and like that 90s cult classic it balances deadpan absurdity with violent and disturbing pathologies that should derail it as far as intuition is concerned, but that thankfully isn’t the case. It’s a solid, amusing and ultra-quirky fiasco that I enjoyed very much, and I feel no contention in asserting that it’s one of the year’s superior comedic outings.