The Wolf of Snow Hollow. 2020.
Directed & Written by Jim Cummings.
Starring Jim Cummings, Riki Lindhome, Robert Forster, Chloe East, Will Madden, Annie Hamilton, Jimy Tatro, Hannah Elder, Kelsey Edwards, & Skyler Bible.
Vanishing Angle / New Form
Rated R / 83 minutes
Comedy / Horror / Thriller
★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
I’ve never particularly loved TV shows or films that place a cop character’s issues above those of victims in a story. In 2020 that sentiment has only deepened, between U.S. police continuing to murder unarmed Black people by the dozens to the RCMP leaving Mi’kmaq fishers unprotected against white violence. The Wolf of Snow Hollow isn’t a bad movie. In fact, it’s trying to do a lot of interesting work in terms of its portrayal of toxic masculinity through a lens of small town policing. The work’s sadly lacking, and the major problem with the film’s portrayal of masculinity gone awry is that, like in so many other stories, the wrong characters are centred. Jim Cummings does a fine job dredging up important issues with a cleverly written screenplay. It’s simply that his cop protagonist gradually learning to respect women—and people, or rather civilians, in general—is framed as the most important piece of the story when the women themselves, the ones who suffer most from misogyny and toxic masculine behaviours, are relegated to the role of tools to help the protagonist along on his journey of masculine self-discovery.
John Marshall (Cummings) is a cop in a snowy rural town. His father, the soon-to-be retired Sheriff Hadley (Robert Forster), is ill though doesn’t quite want to let go of the reins. John has a lot of responsibilities, including his teenage daughter Jenna (Chloe East) who’s growing up, despite his issues with her becoming a young woman. Tragedy starts to strike their town when bodies begin turning up during full moons, starting with a woman hideously murdered. While John does his best to ignore supernatural explanations for the murders, he soon starts to wonder: is the vicious killer a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or an actual werewolf?
The concept of exploring a man whose masculinity is poisoned by patriarchal ideals would work if there were more attention paid to the effects of his behaviour on women. Officer John Marshall is the centre of this story, and though his daughter, along with his colleague Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome), are big parts of the plot their perspectives are left largely on the outside while the male perspective is kept front and centre. By the film’s finish, John has clearly gone through a transformation, or at the very least begins to actively question his behaviour, both his alcoholism and destructive masculinity. All that said, his revelations are portrayed as of ultimate importance, and in the background are the women’s lives he’s affected with his misogyny, not to mention the women who lost their lives to a lupine serial killer. Nice to see Officer Marshall learning a lesson. Would’ve been nicer if a man finally learning that women are autonomous human beings wasn’t the film’s big antihero. Yes, I know: I’m a real party pooper (you must be new here). Misogyny and sexism as fodder for horror-comedy is a strange choice, particularly when those issues are only legitimately tackled halfhearted.
The film’s eponymous town, Snow Hollow, is a microcosm of small-town America. In particular it’s a look at the culture of violent masculinity and misogyny that thrives in small towns everywhere, though this depiction certainly is America-specific—we’ll get back to that shortly. There’s early setup regarding toxic masculine behaviour when, during the opening scenes, one man’s called “faggot” in a conversation about fights, and then, true to form, it nearly starts a fight. The most significant, nasty moment comes when we see a scene with John and his fellow cops at a diner. They talk about the recent murder, and one of the cops says it’s “the ultimate blue balls story, fellas.” The cops all show a flippant attitude towards the killing of a woman here. One of them mentions his “heart goes out” to the boyfriend for the loss of his girlfriend’s body, specifically her sex organs, not the woman whose body was viciously destroyed.
Later, John perpetuates all that toxicity at home with his daughter. He tells Jenna: “I just get nervous with the way that you dress.” He slut shames his daughter in advance of anything actually happening to her, equating how a woman dresses or acts with how men will treat them. On the other side, John displays the typical attitude of a patriarchal male in his need for revenge, wanting to avenge the women made victims by the serial killer by murdering their killer when it’s more about his male desire/need for revenge rather than justice for women; doubly troublesome given he’s a cop wanting to play judge, jury, and executioner. Things explode further when John goes to commit an ill-planned, immoral attack on his daughter’s boyfriend as some desperate measure of masculine control over the love life of his teen daughter.
Apart from solely destructive masculine behaviour, John’s a violent arm of the law, a cop with little self-control, and the bare minimum of self-awareness that rears its head late in the story. And it’s part of the general white culture in Snow Hollow, obviously. “See something, say something” is on a sign at the local store. For those who don’t recall, this was the slogan of Homeland Security after 9/11, aimed at (white) Americans to urge them to report supposed, or potentially, terrorist activity. It largely only affected Muslims in America. The slogan implies people doing bad things in America can’t be white Americans, it must be ‘outsiders,’ the Other; same as in Snow Hollow, where John and others won’t entertain the thought that the killer’s from their town. We later get the line “I‘d have a better time at Abu Ghraib” from a white man who wouldn’t be one of the brown men being tortured there but instead one of the torturers.
It’s compelling to see all these American issues related to law enforcement institutions turn up in The Wolf of Snow Hollow, a film centred around a cop who responds to stress and criticism most often by use of violent force. He’s combative with co-workers on the police force. He slaps around the coroner at one point, too. The library scene stands out most, in this light. John’s busy reading when a librarian scares him, and he remarks that this “could‘ve ended in a shooting.” The problem is that while the film attempts to be critical of a character like John, it never wholly refutes his behaviour or actions because so much of it is played off as comedy. The film successfully paints a portrait of right-wing rural America and its many issues. Although John never quite faces the reckoning he deserves for this to be efficient satire.
“… and not let the monsters inside of you come out …”
The werewolf has long been a historical scapegoat for the rage of the toxic male, and one scene touches on this well. A single line, as well as Julia’s reaction it, sums this up succinctly: “You think women have had to deal with shit like this since the Middle Ages?” The things society doesn’t want to face, talk about, or even recognise become the inexplicable aspects of a culture which wind up being explained with folklore. Snow Hollow, a tiny town, is reminiscent of the little villages that appear throughout werewolf tales, such as that of the Beast of Gévaudan—villages too frightened to admit one of their own could be the murderous culprit behind a rash of dead, mutilated corpses, preferring to place the blame on a man cursed to transform into a werewolf, not on a normal, everyday man. Even without werewolves, people want to assume it’s an outsider when horrible crimes are being committed in an insular community instead of admitting to themselves that some men are nothing more than brutal animals.
John’s a less violent werewolf: a man who mistreats the people, in particular women, in his life when he gives in to the beast lurking within him. His beastliness is twofold: he’s an alcoholic, and has clear rage issues. There’s even a ‘transformation’ scene where Jenna witnesses her father become a beast when she finds him in her room drinking and raging with wounded self pity; a perfect parallel to the typical werewolf transformation scene we witness in traditional horror flicks, except here John doesn’t grow a snout and sprout fur, rather he rambles and yells at his daughter before smashing a beer against her mirror. He luckily comes to understand his faults only after uncovering the true identity of the werewolf serial killer, eventually seeming to comprehend that he, too, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, just not one committing murder.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow is not a poorly made film, neither is it so badly written; it’s poorly conceived. There’s a searing piece of satire buried deep down in Cummings’s screenplay, and if he turned his obvious talent into a more biting criticism of all the things his film seems poised to criticise this could’ve been an excellent piece of work. Julia Robson does a lot to offset the film’s hypermasculine vibe, and Lindhome’s an underrated talent, giving her character as much depth as possible. She’s in the film a good deal, but not focused on enough. It’s also nice to see Forster here, though his character could’ve been used to far more effect. There’s already a father-son plot that works, yet the screenplay never legitimately digs too deep into the idea of the complicated legacies fathers leave to their sons and how those legacies can serve to breed toxicity.
Cummings is apparently obsessed with cop characters, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow suffers because of it. He portrays John as a flawed character with his heart in the right place as he does his best to seek redemption. He’s actually a violent, sexist cop more concerned with how he and his fellow cops are perceived than with actually giving victims the justice they deserve, whose antiquated patriarchal views are challenged only when a series of women being gruesomely murdered. So, ultimately, those ripped up female bodies in the killer’s wake serve to personify the mountain John must climb to reach his existential destination. All the elements for a significant dissection of toxic masculinity are present—the werewolf allegory is actually incredible—they’re just too disconnected, and their examination never goes much further than skimming the surface. Let me be clear: I understand John Marshall is meant to be flawed, and we’re meant to question him, but playing a violent, sexist cop for dark laughs is a questionable venture in 2020 when there’s little to no real catharsis in the end, only violence and self-pitying, brooding men.