A Heart-Healthy Horror Film: The Wolf of Snow Hollow

After recently screening Werewolves Within, I felt inspired to revisit The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Both films achieve sophisticated comedy genius that melds genre convention savvy and innovation with political poignancy. They are two of a small handful of films that have felt to me pitch-perfect for engaging the pandemic conditions of their releases unflinchingly yet hopefully. For now, a focus on how The Wolf of Snow Hollow manages this balancing act.

The broad term I’d use for what makes The Wolf of Snow Hollow pop is its thematic intensities. By thematic intensities, I mean the moments in the film that elevate both the dramatic energies of the narrative and the thematic significances, often multivalent, that attentive audience members might produce. The Wolf of Snow Hollow excels in featuring thematic intensities that range across a continuum of complex humor. Our laughter is almost always invoked in sync with trepidation or guilt or hope or a host of other affects. The film’s thematic intensities typically emerge with smart horror genre convention embraces and innovations.

A group of police officers holding shotguns and wearing bullet proof vests gather around their sheriff played by Robert Forster.

Translating deep knowledge of genre tropes into filmmaking acumen attests to the assembly of an adept team, from the performers on-screen to the writers, directors, producers, prop builders, costume designers, and so on. The modest-budget, indie production conditions of a film like The Wolf of Snow Hollow leave sparse room for folks on the creative team who don’t lend their shoulders to creating a compelling cinema experience that is at once familiar and wildly strange. Finally, and most impressively to my mind, the film’s thematic intensities point the way to critical insights crafted for the audience without reducing the film to a particular set of meanings. Put another way, The Wolf of Snow Hollow cannot simply mean anything to any individual spectator, but its self-aware directions make the film’s fabric engaging and invitingly pliable.

Three thematic intensities stand out: the dawning awareness of structures of power, in this case of patriarchy in particular; the power of horror to analyze and subvert addiction; an the timely confrontation with one’s own mortality by Robert Forster in his final feature role.

Ever since Carol Clover published the brilliant Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film in 1992, gender discourse and dynamics have inhabited the foreground of many horror aficionados and creators. Folks like Stephen Graham Jones explicitly and implicitly invoke Clover’s analyses inside their horror fictions. In The Wolf of Snow Hollow, the most explicit gender thematic intensity disrupts the narrative flow when Officer Julia Robson (played by Riki Lindhome) breaks the fourth wall with a glance that asks spectators to acknowledge that we just heard the same words come out of her college Officer John Marshall’s mouth as she did. Those words were a clueless wondering, prompted by his research into the history of werewolf lore, whether women have a history of being structurally oppressed.

A police officer sitting in the driver's seat of their vehicle extends a meal in a tupperware container to the person in the passenger seat.

Breaking the fourth wall is a perilous cinematic move, particularly when the point is to underscore a political insight. And I’ll admit that on a first watch, this felt gimmicky. On a second watch, however, I appreciated the intricate impacts of the moment. Sticking to the sequence itself, Officer Robson’s non-verbal glance implicates our presence at the scene of Officer Marshall’s epiphany without telling us how precisely she’s processing it and thereby asking us to agree with her. Her pause creates an eddy in the narrative stream that invites the audience to interpret. It’s like the film hit the brakes for a second and sounded a “Gender Alert” bell to get our attention, yet it’s up to us to tease out the mix of this man being utterly flummoxed by the possibility of patriarchal power across time and space and his instant readiness to mansplain the theory to her. A simple verbal utterance, a “well, duh” for example, would have bracketed the thematic intensity as a mere comic quip. The silent communication, however, leaves space for hope. It enacts thematic intensity in line with how many teenage boys who watch horror, perhaps, experience a similar epiphany about gender exploitation. Such epiphanies are wonky, but they may also be necessary missteps along the way to swerving off the path of patriarchy.

This thematic intensity emanates to the rest of the film, too. In close proximity to the fourth-wall break is a montage sequence of Officer Marshall hitting the books at the local library to research the cultural origins of and fluctuations in werewolf stories and symbolisms. It’s the act of taking horror seriously and conducting open investigative research that produces before him a pattern of patriarchal power structures. In our current moment, when the procedures and results of research often get erased by political persuasions, it’s refreshingly hopeful to watch a police officer in a film seek out evidence-based truth, regardless of what that truth might mean so long as it helps him protect the public.

Robert Forster as sheriff looks disturbed sitting at his desk.

What’s more, this geeking out over lycanthrope origins and rises and falls in popularity models cool and productive endeavors that fans and academics alike can conduct. Quantitative and qualitative approaches to zombies and vampires across time and cultures already exist. Check out Sarah Juliet Lauro’s work on zombies or Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear” on the more scholarly side and loads of blogs and memes on Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) being set in a shopping mall.

Werewolves are yet to receive such robust research treatment. Maybe the recent stir calling for the public release of John Steinbeck’s unpublished werewolf novel will boost momentum to such work and the insights, including gender dynamics, that werewolf studies will surely generate.

The second category of provocative thematic intensities in the film is addiction. Horror is a genre ready-made for delving into human struggles with addiction. Just think of the many times Stephen King has unleashed the potential of the genre to take us inside the lived, embodied experiences of addiction. The Shining, for instance, doesn’t hold back from the devastation to self and others and the capacity for love and hope that can come bundled with addiction. The supernatural horror setup of the story makes possible a dual perspective of inside the addiction and a critical distance outside of it—not just from those around Jack Torrance but within his own mind as he grapples with the internal and external forces and their convergences.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow puts addiction under a microscope with horror-comedy in mind, quite different from King’s depictions. I recommend spectators not mistake this as a weak choice on the filmmakers’ part. The film situates Officer Marshall’s addiction within the entangled events of his life. Addiction is caught up in a reciprocal relationship with the failure of his marriage and his problematic parenting choices. Addiction is part of the ecosystem of his life, so it’s not a piece simply to be excised or exorcised. What’s more, the film positions his addiction along a trajectory with a backstory of bottoming out and seeking help. Marshall’s irascible snapping at the other folks in AA with him plays comically in a way that feels genuine to the character and that communicates rather than internalizes the struggle and work he’s trying to do.

Movie poster for The Wolf of Snow Hollow

What I find deeply impressive is that the addiction thematic intensities prompt spectator psychological analysis of Marshall to understand his addiction and attempt to work through it without direct diagnostic exposition scenes. For my horror money, the direct diagnosis scene at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho is awesome in its slipperiness, but that’s for another post. Here I’ll say that the addiction intensities echo the gender ones as they pull us in with a mix of emotions and an invitation to interpret what goes unlabeled, unarticulated.

At last, there’s the fact that The Wolf of Snow Hollow is Robert Forster’s final feature performance. As Sheriff Hadley, Forster plays a career law enforcement professional whose identity is bound to his work right up until the character passes away. The Sheriff is characterized as a good police officer, dedicated to public safety. Yet his lifetime of dedication cuts a couple of ways. To the good, Hadley’s insistence on ending the werewolf terror in the town models civic concern, albeit tinged with shortcomings in the actual detective skills he and his team possess. To the bad, Hadley’s clinging to work identity and public service overrides actions for self-care and effective leadership in coordinating the investigation. At times, the Sheriff seems to know very well that he’s using the badge to ward off confronting his imminent mortality, yet at other times the film suggests the spirit of self-sacrifice.

As with the previous thematic intensities, there isn’t a single explanation or diagnosis. Sheriff Hadley and the other characters in The Wolf of Snow Hollow complement each other in a horror film of nuanced character portraits. The result sidesteps conventional genre expectations of character arcs fully entwined with the central narrative conflict and resolution. Over the course of 85 minutes, we get to join Forster as he creates a new figure in horror-comedy within a film that holds a lycanthropic labyrinth beneath its seemingly simple surface. 

Looking for more on pandemic horror? We’ve got you:

“Old Strangers Invades Pandemic Politics”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Written by Andy Hageman

A masked man appears in shadow.

Sleep, Baby, Sleep in Slasher: Flesh and Blood ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ (S4E4)

A family of four in a dark bathroom stare at the camera in terror.

We Need to Do Something Is a Vicious Family Nightmare