Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Boys Becoming Men, Men Becoming Wolves: on The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Werewolves Within


Wolves, even werewolves it seems, travel in packs. One hardly gets just one werewolf movie. In nineteen eighty one the pack included Wolfen, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London.  (As the links indicate I have blogged about each of them, but for a thorough account of the year of the wolf I recommend Drew Strombeck's piece on the LA Review of Books) More recently, we had The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Werewolves Within quickly follow each other in the last two years. Two is less than three, but what is impressive in this case is that they are not only both horror comedies, to varying degrees, but are also both movies that use werewolves to address a different monster, masculinity.

Both movies are structurally very similar. They focus on a law male authority figure, a deputy sheriff in Snow Hollow and a park ranger in Werewolves, who finds himself dealing with grizzly murders in a small, isolated, and snowy town. Murders that may or may not be those of a werewolf. In each film the investigation and confrontation with the werewolf is also an investigation and confrontation with the constraints of masculinity. 

The Wolf of Snow Hollow opens with a scene that underscores this conflict. The scene is a small town bar, as two local men leave the bar one of them uses a homophobic slur. This catches the attention of a vacationing couple and the man confronts the locals, but the conflict dissipates. The couple retires to their vacation rental in the ski town and it is there that the woman becomes the first victim of what could be a werewolf as she returns from the hot tub.

The film focuses on John Marshall, a deputy sheriff played by Jim Cummings who also wrote and directed the film. When we first meet him he is in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. As the film progresses we see that alcoholism is not only struggling with alcoholism, but is also going through a divorce. John's father is the sheriff (played by Robert Forster in what I believe is his last role). The fact that John's father is both his boss and his father places John in a crisis of authority as he tries to take over the investigation from his ailing father and overwhelmed father. At home John is dealing his own crisis of authority as his daughter is anxious to start her new independent life at college. These crises of authority are also crises of care, as John tries to protect his father and daughter from the threat of a monster. John is unable to get them to listen or respond, and throughout the movie he is a picture of impotent mail rage. He yells and berates his coworkers, even punching one, and starts drinking to the point where gets blackout drunk collapsing and destroying his oven.

Meanwhile, the attacks continue, "the werewolf" attacks several women in the town tearing them apart, and removing parts of their body, one women's head, another's vagina, reducing them to parts. The film tries to sustain the ambiguity of whether or not this is a real werewolf as long as possible, but does so oddly. The audience sees the attack, which seems to involve a human like wolf, but these are intercut with the sheriff's department investigating the crime scene the next day, as they debate whether or not it is a real werewolf. Many horror films try to sustain an uncertain ambiguity for as long as possible, as characters wonder is there a real monster, ghost, demon, or whatever for as long as possible. Snow Hollow makes an interesting choice in having the audience see a werewolf, or what appears to be one, while the main character berates anyone who suggests such a ridiculous idea. John's authority not only collapses with the people on the screen but the audience as well. The film also occasionally cuts to a man with a wolf tattoo living in a trailer. He is the number one suspect, but all of this is a ruse. [Spoiler Alert] The real killer is a taxidermist who has made a werewolf suit. The two story lines, John's collapsing life and the department's investigation converge on the same point, that man is the monster. 

The film ends almost as it begins. John drops his daughter off at college and as he leaves her protected the best he can, with condoms and a handgun tucked away in her drawer. As he walks out of the dorm he overhears two seniors describe the freshman class as fresh meat. He pauses for a second, almost to confront them, but walks on. In some sense he is caught, positioned between the anger and outbursts that nearly ruined his life and the violence of men that defined his investigation. He does nothing. For the most part the film seems to share his view. The only change is that Julia Robinson (Rikki Lindhome) is now sheriff, suggesting perhaps a change from the collapsing patriarchal order. 

Werewolves Within claims to be based on a video game, but some people might be more familiar with the party game of werewolf, (otherwise known as Mafia), a game of distrust and suspicion that is the source of the video game, and the film. (I admit that I have played the party game, but never heard of the video game). Like Snow Hollow, Werewolves has a male authority at its center, Finn Wheeler (played by the amazing Sam Richardson). Finn could not be more different than John. He is a happy guy who cites Mr. Rogers, and whose girlfriend broke up with him for being "too available." 

After a brief killing that sets the scene Finn arrives in the small, secluded town of Beavertown as its new park ranger. After a storm and a power outage leaves everyone stranded, they huddle in the town inn for safety in numbers. This sets the scene for the distrust, fear and accusations, that characterize the game. However, in this version the distrust is motivated by a gas company's plan to build a pipeline through the town. This divides the small town into those who would gladly sell some land for money and those would rather preserve the town and surrounding wilderness as it is, and can afford to do so. Man only becomes a wolf to man when there is money on the table. 

Many of the deaths, most of the deaths in the film come from the way in which people turn on each other, and the ready availability of guns. [Spoiler Alert] When it is finally revealed that the werewolf is Cecily the town's mail carrier, she makes it clear that this was her plan all along. It is easier to get the town to turn on each other out of suspicion and distrust than it is to hunt and kill them, and the chaos and destruction generated in one night will keep her in meat until spring. Finn nearly ruined this plan, he is too nice and too trusting to be taken into the conflict. However, that does not mean that he cannot be duped. In perhaps the best line in a film that has quite a few good lines, Cecily explains to Finn why he never suspected her:

"Yeah. Werewolves are real.Women who read Walden while drinking kombucha and getting turned onby your Yellowstone stories, they're a fantasy. "

Finn is a nice guy, a very nice guy, but his fatal flaw is that he believes, as many nice guys do, that the niceness entitles him to particular things. He never wonders why the cute mail carrier wants to make out with him on the day that they first meet. It is hard not to side with Finn, and in the end his model of masculinity is less destructive than what we have seen, and it ultimately saves the day by getting even the creepy lone trapper to act more neighborly. However, as nice as Finn is he still believes in the spontaneous ideology of masculine niceness which attaches that to certain rewards. He still expects to get a sandwich for it (that will make more sense after you see the film, and of the two it is the one I recommend). 

The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Werewolves Within are less interested in their monster (the first does not even have one) than in the way that our ideas about masculinity make it difficult to see the real monsters. To quote Cecily again, "Gender is a construct." The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Werewolves Within reveal why we might want to construct it differently. I will let Tracy Jordan play us out. (Yes, this is the second time I have used a 30 Rock line for a post title)

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