On paper, a horror/western sounds like a weird combo. However, in writer/director Chris Canfield’s Black Wood, it somehow works. The film is a clever and frightening take on the Wendigo legend and a tribute to the South Dakota land he knows well. This is a movie with a heck of a lot of spirit.
Black Wood stars Tanajsia Slaughter as Dowanhowee, a Native American woman tormented by her past, after a bunch of cowboys with white masks shot her young family member (daughter, maybe?), who returns as a ghostly figure of sorts and a spiritual guide. Dowanhowee inadvertently gets caught up with the ruthless, money-hungry Dutch Wilder Gang, led by the man of the same name, played by Bates Wilder. She kills one of the gang members and reclaims her horse, which he stole. However, she’s soon captured by the gang and led into the mysterious Blackwood forest, home to the Wendigo, a tortured Native American spirit in this particular tale.
This is a film where the South Dakota land and the stories of the Lakota feel very much alive, and it’s a credit to Canfield’s writing and directing. This movie is steeped in Native American lore particular to the tribes from that region. The writer/director grew up in Wyoming, near the Black Hills of South Dakota. He was raised on a ranch, and it’s clear the stories he heard and the land he tended served as major inspiration for this film. It feels like it’s part love letter to that region. Further, the costumes and even the Lakota dialogue are authentic for the latter half of the 19th Century. This isn’t a film sloppy in its detail. Credit to the costume and set designers for doing their research here.
For most of the film, the Wendigo is shrouded in white mist, but the crew didn’t spare any expense on the gore. This is a creature that rips apart its victims, feasts on their guts and bones, and even strings up their horses. It’s nasty and vicious and commands a lot of the scenes it’s in. You never know when or where it will strike, and its body count is quite high by the film’s conclusion.
Some characters, namely the gang members, feel like mere fodder for the Wendigo, but Dowanhowee and Dutch intrigue. Initially, they’re enemies, but they bond over their need to survive. They come to rely on each other, despite the fact they don’t even speak the same language. This change happens gradually, and watching it play out is another one of the film’s strengths. Dutch, too, carries his own trauma, so by the end, you come to understand his point of view. These are two well-crafted characters with a lot of pain and a lot of history guiding their actions in the present.
Overall, Canfield has a solid feature here. Blackwood immerses you in its world and a land rich with history and Native lore. Though the film is never simplistic, there is a message here about seeing beyond differences and understanding each other’s humanity. For gore and horror hounds, this rendition of the Wendigo should entertain. This is a nasty yet nuanced take on the famed creature and a dark journey into the Old West.
Black Wood opens in theaters on July 22 and will be available digitally on July 26.
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