Nomi (Angela Way) has some dark feelings, even if she may be concealing them on her holiday in an isolated family property with friends. She still feels devastatingly sad about her mum and dad’s recent divorce, feels guilty that she is spending Christmas away from them, and feels bitter that she has had to pick up the pieces and to field recriminatory calls from both parents, while her ‘baby’ brother Thomas (Cameron Petersen) has remained disengaged from the whole affair. While the emotional fallout from all this has driven a wedge between Nomi and her boyfriend Max (Alexander Loomis), Thomas has managed throughout to maintain a sickeningly sweet romance with his girlfriend Samantha (Nalani Wakita). In writer/director Dionne Copland’s feature debut Cold Wind Blowing, these four, plus flirty, gothy Casey (M.J. Kehler) and obnoxious arsehole Nick (Griffin Cork), end up staying together in the house on Cypress Hills in Western Canada for two long cold nights, as something circles outside.
A group of co-eds, a cabin in the woods, and a monstrous, invasive presence. It is a formula as old as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) – but Copland, working with an even smaller budget, has a few tricks of her own. For starters, there is the beast that beleaguers these childhood friends. Even though it is realised visually with little more than a cheap combination of deer skull and fake claws, frenetic, impressionistic editing allows it to assume a surreal, almost Svankmajer-esque quality in the dark, while some very mannered sound design (blending animalistic howls and growls with human laughter and even speech) renders it utterly unnerving. The only thing remotely similar is the mutant bear from Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018), but this sniggering presence is far more calculating and malevolent.
Although it is never formally identified in Cold Wind Blowing, there is good reason for supposing that this creature is a wihtiko, the Seskatchewan version of the wendigo. After all, the wihtiko, a legendary monster of the cold and the winter, is local to this area, is etymologically associated with owls (in the film, the monster audibly shrieks, while even the house’s telephone has a bizarre owl design), and is eternally famished (“It was hungry,” Nomi will later say after a violent encounter). It is also known to possess humans, which might explain the strange visions that Nomi has in the film, as if sharing the monster’s point of view. Those under a wihtiko‘s influence experience intense avarice and hunger, and can be driven to kill, even cannibalise, other people. More recently this First Nations myth has become rationalised, with modern psychiatry recognising a culture-bound syndrome, dubbed ‘Wendigo psychosis’, whose symptoms include insatiable greed and a compulsive craving for human flesh.
Certainly the fiim’s sextet of vacationers is a greedy, selfish bunch: Samantha shoplifts a chocolate bar from the gas station store; asked to help prepare supper, Nick remains seated, commenting, “I will help eat it”; Nomi tells Casey, “My feet are perpetually cold, and I will be hogging all the blankets”; Max is so presumptuous about getting Nomi back into the sack that he has pre-emptively purchased condoms for the trip; always sexually appetitive, Casey makes moves on Nick before having sex with Max (knowing that he has just split up with her best friend). And before the creature has made an appearance, the theme of cannibalism is adumbrated in a scene where Nomi accidentally cuts her finger and Max then licks the blood away. Here the monster appears merely to manifest drives and attitudes already present in these characters – and angry, aggressive Nomi, who lashes out at each and every one of her loved ones over the course of the film, and who is so conflicted that at one point even her reflection in the mirror is at odds with herself, becomes the focal point, inward and outward, of the creature’s attack. For if the monster is also a metaphor, Nomi is both its vehicle and its tenor, its vessel and its vanquisher.
So as the ravenous entity prowls outside, we suspect that a part of it is already inside. After all, the wihitko is merely viciously realising the rage that Nomi directs at her brother. For, after a nasty argument with his sister, Thomas stomps off alone into the dark to get firewood – but it is only when Nomi rejoins him that he comes under horrific assault. Later when Nomi heads out to confront the creature, she is shown limping with an axe through the snow. This is a complex, polysemic allusion. For of course it naturally recalls the crazed Jack Torrance heading out into the snow to chop up a member of his own family in the climax to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – and when Nomi faces the monster, it indeed assumes the form of her younger brother, the object of her greatest love and hate. The same axe-dragging image also appears in David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017), as its protagonist goes to do battle with a monster which may be real, or may just be the delusion of a man who has murdered all his friends, but still fancies himself the dragon-slaying hero of his own confused story. A similar ambiguity permeates Cold Wind Blowing, as Nomi’s increasingly peculiar actions can be explained either by the presence of a real wendigo, or merely by her own psychosis (of the wendigo – or some other – variety).
[spoiler alert] Scrappy around the edges, a little overlong, and at times showing the limitations of its budget, Copland’s film nonetheless finds its own weird wintry vibe. With its main title not appearing on screen until some 54 minutes in, this is an off-kilter story of an unhealthy group dynamic collapsing in on itself during the season of good will. It merges eerie folklore with unhinged psychology to conjure a creature that might just be an imagined externalisation of a young woman’s mental breakdown as, one way or another, she ultimately leaves behind those whom she perceives as only ever taking from her. Certainly the choice of David Lynch’s song Cold Wind Blowing for the closing credits (and as the inspiration for the title) suggests the sort of psychogenic fugue that so often features in his films. It is hard, in the end, to say what really went down in the febrile atmosphere of that snowbound cabin, but what we do know is that only one person emerges, bloody, elated and distraught— and this conclusion, though manically triumphant, brings only the coldest of comforts.
© Anton Bitel