Take the genre out of Jim Cummings’ The Wolf of Snow Hollow and what’s left is a movie that’s functionally similar to Thunder Road, his 2018 comedy-drama about a cop wading through divorce and the passing of his mother. Both take place off the beaten path, both orbit around a down-on-his-luck lawman struggling in his job and his role as a dad, and both find pitched hilarity in uncomfortable, tragic circumstances.
Separating them is the not-small matter of lycanthropy. The element’s effect affords viewers a new lens for appreciating werewolves while letting Cummings expand on the themes explored in Thunder Road. Maybe this is the course the rest of his career will take: cops and vampires, cops and zombies, cops and mummies, endlessly searching for harmony in sadness and shock. Regardless, the mix of Cummings’ recursive interests and monster-within-man tropes makes for viscerally pleasing viewing.
Snow Hollow police officer John Marshall (Cummings) unsteadily balances Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with the travails of raising his teen daughter, Jenna (Chloe East), looking after his ailing father, Hadley (Forster), maintaining diplomatic relations with his ex, and keeping a lid on his volcanic temper. When a woman (Annie Hamilton) is torn to shreds on a weekend visit to John’s ski resort hometown, just moments before her boyfriend (Jimmy Tatro) planned to propose to her, John stretches to his limits and beyond in his pursuit of the killer, who everyone concludes with baffling swiftness is a werewolf rather than a man. His peers’ and subordinates’ stumblebum character and the ass-backwardness of Snow Hollow itself act like gasoline as is. The consensus that the town is under attack from a mythical creature is the straw that makes the vein in John’s neck go taut with anger.
Cummings plays a reasonable “both sides” game here: John has reasons good and bad for blowing up at Snow Hollow’s coroner, at his left-hand officer Julia Robinson (Riki Lindhome), occasionally at Jenna, and usually at Hadley. Hadley is not only stubborn as an ox, he’s also Snow Hollow’s sheriff, and his heart’s in such bad shape that most of his duties fall on John’s shoulders. Worse, nobody in town respects the cops, showing their disdain when possible. The townsfolk’s collective contempt for their police force may be Cumming’s acknowledgement that as of right now, most of his audience likely has little goodwill for the police, either, yet in the writing and acting, he keeps John sympathetic. He’s a hothead and an asshole, but he has a growing pile of unenviable personal troubles plus seven feet of fanged hell tearing people up in his sleepy hamlet. A monk would snap under that much strain.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow lands in the space where horror and humor meet, mining laughter in mourning and custody battles. Cummings’ laughs are the sort that signal discomfort: His punchlines are razor sharp, which make the movie’s surrounding unpleasantries go down more easily. Watching a policeman get physical with anybody who sufficiently pushes his buttons induces squirms. When fellow officer Bo (Kevin Changaris) accidentally says too much about the murders in front of reporters, John calls him over to a snowbank and starts smacking the poor schmuck around, a moment that would tip over into pure darkness without the aid of a lighthearted soundtrack and the slapstick of their scuffle. Regardless, the point is made: John’s on edge, and his edge is surprisingly amusing.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow captures its profound, messy snapshot of human nature in one of its first scenes. John, speaking to an AA crowd assembled in the police station’s basement, praises the 12 steps, saying that without them he wouldn’t be where he is today. “I’m living proof that if you can just focus, and not let the monsters inside of you come out, if you can just concentrate on the 12 steps and becoming a better person every day…” He’s distracted, naturally, by the sound of silence coming from above, and immediately makes his way to the first crime scene. It’s a great gag and summary of John’s fight to be better and to prove himself as a man and as a cop, which inevitably leads him away from self-betterment. The further he gets, the more violent the film gets, and the more violent the film gets, the more that cycle perpetuates.
In a different film, this might lead to an extended consideration of who is the true monster? Wolf, or man? But no, it’s the wolf. (Cummings fully shows the creature around 20 minutes in.) He keeps the carnage mostly in writing, and in writing is enough: Watching his characters react to descriptions of the attacks is satisfying on its own merit. Maybe graphic violence would throw off the film’s genre equation. The wry, snappy banter gives The Wolf of Snow Hollow a prickly skin, and the restrained application of FX gives it tension. At just under 80 minutes, that economy is key. It’s not so much that the horror is elevated as controlled. But rather than clang with the innate savagery of the werewolf niche, Cummings’ command over his material gives the film a certain freshness. He tames the monster in the man so that the man is all that’s left, for better and for worse. John isn’t perfect, but an imperfect man need not be a beast.
Director: Jim Cummings
Writer: Jim Cummings
Starring: Jim Cummings, Robert Forster, Riki Lindhome, Chloe East, Jimmy Tatro, Kevin Changaris, Skyler Bible, Demetrius Daniels
Release Date: October 9, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.