A genre thriller with personality to spare, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is the rare horror offering that provides more character than carnage. Buttressed by a cast that deserves their own long-form series, the film by writer/director Jim Cummings isn’t content to just serve up a T&A gore smorgasbord, probing instead at ideas related to toxic masculinity, police reform, substance abuse, and parenting in the age of FaceTime. Tense, scary, and full of heart, when Cummings has all the pieces moving together in the same direction the movie hums with an effortless rhythm that largely makes up for deficiencies baked into the third act.

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When one half of a couple gets literally torn to pieces at their Airbnb rental in the quiet ski community of Snow Hollow, local sheriff’s department deputy, John Marshall (Jim Cummings), assumes command of the investigation. The thing of it is, John’s opening scene in front of an Alcoholics Anonymous group paints him as unstable at best and an emotional timebomb at worst. Everything from John’s body language to his vocalization of a fantasy involving a bulldozer and his ex-wife’s house point towards trouble on the horizon with the wrong man in charge.

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This dance between humorous and frightening is a well that “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” returns to time and again as the bodies continue to pile up. The overarching conceit of the film is the investigation into the murders and the approach towards an answer for who is killing all these people, yet it is John’s slow descent towards rock bottom that underpins the narrative and is the most compelling element of the film. Struggling with his bottle addiction, a tough ex-wife, a restless teenage daughter, his ailing father the sheriff (Robert Forster), and a town desperate for answers, John begins to come apart.  

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Cummings has a knack for writing and playing characters whose manic disintegration takes on a darkly humorous bent. Like a tragic Larry David, the audience cringes at the character’s insanity while secretly identifying with their underlying logic. Cummings’ terrific 2018 debut film “Thunder Road” featured a similar lead with many of the same tics and emotional problems as John Marshall, and what works in “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” owes something to the bottling of this magic. This can only bring ‘Snow Hollow’ so far, however, and as the murder mystery lurches towards a resolution, the particulars of the script betray the larger effort.

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The “who/what” of the central mystery is indeed resolved, but the “why” of things is never made clear and is only further confused by a last-minute twist that adds little to the overall effort. What’s more, the script seems to lose track of its characters from time to time, with John’s dad (Forster) and fellow deputy, Julia (Riki Lindhome), drifting in and out of the narrative despite their importance to both the investigation and John’s mental state. By the end of everything the pieces are more or less in place, yet the path there is at times lost.

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That said, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” does a lot more right than wrong, and Cummings’ knack for writing dialogue that zeroes in on an idea or emotion like a water pick see it through to the finish line. The coy humor of silent desperation seeping out of John’s every pore is deployed with surgical precision in the film and elevates it beyond the standard genre fare. Cummings has crafted a film that balances humor with the tragically absurd, yet still manages to work in moments that grapple with toxic masculinity, police reform, and the struggle of addiction.

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John is a complex, contradictory and self-destructive character who can’t understand why someone would throw a bottle at a police car, yet still has the presence of mind to scold a fellow deputy when he says, “You want people to stop talking shit about the police? Do better police work!” He’s a guy who can make clear-headed decisions about a crime scene investigation yet still impulsively slaps people who contradict him. He’s a terrible boss and something of the police force’s own personal out-of-control monster. It’s hilarious, terrifying, and revealing all at once, and it could only come from the mind of an auteur who has a lot to say and only so much budget and time to say it.

Wisely dropped in the midst of the spookiest month of the year, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is a blood-soaked ode to neurotic insecurity and arrested development. Cummings delivers once again with his trademark manic, tempest-in-a-teapot-energy aimed at genre horror in a pivot that should please “Thunder Road” fans, even if the pieces don’t always line up with the same precision as that freshman effort. Making great use of the snowy landscape and some cracking moonlit action (the film is a gorgeous one to look at), Cummings has given fans something nice to chew on until his next journey down the road or hollow.  [B]

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” lands on VOD and in select theaters on October 9.