Sheriff John Marshall is standing in front of his fellow AA members. “I’m not good with anger,” he says, and from the way this lawman is acting and the manner in which he’s addressing a number of folks offscreen, you know this is an understatement. He’s not good with controlling his anger. John has problems with his ex-wife, problems with his teenage daughter, problems with that dipshit town coroner, problems staying sober, problem keeping a lid on his temper. There’s an edge to everything the guy says and does; even when he’s standing still, he sort of thrums with barely contained rage. Plus there’s a slightly bigger problem John has to contend with as well. Someone in his sleepy hometown of Snow Hollow, Utah, is murdering folks. The savage nature of these killings, along with the fact that these grisly homicides happen during full moons, suggests that … well, some locals are saying it’s a werewolf. The evidence isn’t exactly ruling out this outlandish claim, either.
Should viewers experience a feeling of deja vu upon being introduced to The Wolf of Snow Hollow’s hero, we’re here to say: It’s not just you. Played by writer-director Jim Cummings, Sheriff Marshall bears a strong resemblance to the cop at the center of his 2018 movie Thunder Road, one of the most exciting out-of-left-field debuts of the last few years. Building off Cummings’ award-winning short film of the same name, his feature starts with an unbroken 12-minute shot of a police officer having a nervous breakdown at a funeral, complete with a modern-dance interpretation of the title’s Bruce Springsteen tune. Marshall is like a once-removed cousin of that damaged soul. They share the same halting, don’t-push-me-guy cadence, and more than a few deep-rooted issues. The Alcohol Anonymous scene is even initially framed similarly to Cummings’ showstopping Thunder Road opening. And if his first movie suggested he was a potential poet laureate of male repression, this follow-up confirms it’s an ongoing theme. The question becomes: What happens when you drop that unstable, hair-trigger type into the middle of an ’80s horror-movie homage?
There’s a heavy Reagan-era slashers and Stephen King-ish vibe to Snow Hollow, as randy tourists go from hostile encounters with townies to hot tub canoodling to one ending up a blood-splattered corpse. Marshall and his fellow police, notably Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome) and the retiring Sheriff Hadley (the late, great Robert Forster) — who’s also John’s dad — are vexed by the crime, what the bite marks and the female victim found missing her vagina. Her boyfriend (American Vandal‘s Jimmy Tatro) isn’t much help. Neither are the locals who ran into the couple that night. Soon, more bodies start showing up in the same mangled state, and we the audience get several good looks at a giant, lupine killer. The town definitely seems to have a nasty lycanthrope problem on its hands. You just hope the sheriff can stop whoever it is before his own backslide into bad habits turns him into a mouthwash-swilling, self-destructing wreck.
It’s the personal demons rather than old-fashioned monsters that get you, see, which is one of two central tenets of Cummings’ genre exercise/portrait of a fuck-up mash-up. (We’ll get to the second in a moment.) And if that double-stuffed idea doesn’t always gel via this particular combination, it’s not for a lack of storytelling expertise or filmmaking technique on Cummings’ part. This doesn’t hit with the lightning-bolt impact of Thunder Road; then again, precious few films do. Yet it doesn’t exactly qualify as a deflating sophomore slump, either. The gent makes the most of those scene-setting aerial shots that glide over country roads and crime scenes particular to scarefests from a certain era and of a certain vintage. (Please give cinematographer Natalie Kingston and your second unit director pay raises, thank you very much.) Ditto a particular eerie encounter between a stranger and a mother in a diner. Without giving away the climax, it’s safe to say that Cummings can stage a stand-off milked for maximum tension, cleverness and wit.
And while Cummings himself is a solid performer, albeit one with a set of recognizable tics and tricks now, the man knows how to write for and work with actors. Everyone will talk about Robert Forster’s gentle, gray-haired dad, partially because it’s the actor’s last role — how we miss him already — and partially because he channels the same kind of late-career authoritative sensibility he gave to everything from Breaking Bad to Twin Peaks: The Return.
But it’s Riki Lindhome who quietly walks away with the entire film. Best known as one-half of the musical-comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates and a familiar face from a number of TV shows and films, her Officer Robson is the brains of the department — if only her male colleagues realized it. A quiet, observant presence, she’s forced to take her fair share of shit from abusive suspects. Yet this woman in uniform knows how to work the system, has a seen-it-all cynical streak (“Yeah, everybody laughs ’til she lays out the crime-scene photos,” she mutters after a joke, and before revealing some sickening 8 x 10’s) and understands how to get things done. Lindhome doesn’t play her mousy, nor does she go full Marge Gunderson. It’s more of a great reactive turn. Driving with Marshall to interview a suspect, she listens as he floats a theory about monsters being an invention of men trying to cover up their own misdeeds. Do women still have to deal with that kind of patriarchal nonsense, he asks aloud. The subtly are-you-serious look she shoots him is priceless.
Which is a good segue into The Wolf of Snow Hollow‘s second conceit: You don’t need to have supernatural creatures in your midst to have monsters on the loose. There are enough bad men on display in this film to suggest any number of potential human forms for its beast, and enough dismissive comments, misogynistic asides and XY-chromosome creepiness that the werewolf factor feels more like a symptom than the disease itself. It ends on an overheard comment that suggests one obvious hunter down, an endless supply of less identifiable predators to go. Thunder Road bowed out with a man finally staring down his own toxicity and being determined to do better. This film hints at the notion that the problem is much, much bigger than one bad guy.