Review: ‘The Wolf of Snow Hollow,’ starring Jim Cummings, Riki Lindhome, Robert Forster, Jimmy Tatro and Chloe East

October 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert Forster, Riki Lindhome and Jim Cummings in “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” (Photo courtesy of Orion Classics)

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow”

Directed by Jim Cummings

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional U.S. city called Snow Hollow, the darkly comedic horror film “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A hot-headed police officer, who wants to be promoted to sheriff, has to contend with an angry ex-wife, a strained relationship with his teenage daughter and widespread speculation that a werewolf is committing a series of murders in his city. 

Culture Audience: “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” will appeal to people who like horror films that have heavy doses of sarcasm, some slapstick humor and underlying social commentary.

Chloe East in “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” (Photo courtesy of Orion Classics)

Because so many horror films follow a certain formula by having extremely heroic protagonists and extremely evil villains, some filmmakers are starting to break out of that formula by having deeply flawed protagonists who aren’t concerned with being likable role models. “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is one such film that mostly succeeds in breaking out of this formulaic horror mold, because the lead character/protagonist is a recovering alcoholic who relapses on the job and has a lot of unpleasant personality traits. Jim Cummings is the writer, director and star of “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” which skillfully mixes an old-school horror mystery with modern anti-hero sensibilities.

In “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” Cummings plays John Marshall, a fast-talking, irritable 39-year-old police officer who works in a fictional city called Snow Hollow, where the local economy is fueled by skiing and tourism. During a busy ski season, a string of murders happen that could ruin Snow Hollow’s safe reputation. Making things worse, witnesses have reported a werewolf-like figure near the scene of the murders, which only take place during nights with a full moon, so there are rampant rumors that a werewolf is on the loose.

John doesn’t believe in werewolves, so he’s determined to not only catch the apparent serial killer but also prove to everyone that a human has been committing the murders. John has ambitions to be promoted to sheriff, because the most recent person who had the position—Sheriff Dave Hadley (played by Robert Forster)—has retired. Dave also happens to be John’s father, although it’s not explained why they have different last names. It’s mentioned in the movie that John’s mother passed away years ago.

Even though Dave has officially retired, he still shows up for work and is in denial over some signs that he’s having health problems, such as a possible heart murmur. John urges Dave to get medical treatment, but Dave is too stubborn to listen. John has his own health problems too: He’s a recovering alcoholic. One of the movie’s first scenes is of John at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, where he confesses that he’s still angry at his ex-wife Brittany, who’s the mother of their 17-year-old daughter Jenna.

Out of respect for Dave, the police officers still act as if he’s the sheriff when he shows up for work. Unofficially, John takes charge of the murder investigation, which also includes Officer Julia Robson (played by Riki Lindhome), who is much more even-tempered and methodical than John. John’s way of working can best be described as “abrasive” and “impatient.” He often yells at witnesses, other police officers and anyone else he thinks is acting stupid. He also orders people involved in the investigation to do their work faster, even when they tell him that certain procedures can’t be rushed.

One of the people who clashes with John is the city coroner (played by Daniel Fenton Anderson), who insists that the medical findings show canine bites on the murder victims. In addition, large wolf footprints are found near the murder scenes. Every time John is faced with evidence that the murderer might not be human, he flies into a rage, because the murder victims’ bodies have injuries that could only be inflicted by someone who probably had a knife or some other cutting weapon.

For example, the first murder victim’s body was found with her vagina removed. (It’s not shown on screen, but the state of the victim’s body is described when police officers arrive at the crime scene.) All of the murders victims are female, and John doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.

The first murder victim is Brianne Paulson (played by Annie Hamilton), a tourist who was staying at a local private lodge with her boyfriend PJ Palfrey (played by Jimmy Tatro), who discovered her mutilated body outside of the lodge. The police question two local men who got into a small verbal altercation with PJ earlier that night in a restaurant where PJ and Brianne were dining. The men were being drunk and loud in the restaurant, and one of the men used a homophobic slur, which offended PJ, so he asked them to keep their noise level down.

The friend who was with the homophobic man quickly diffused the situation that could have turned into a brawl, and the two men left the restaurant without incident. The two men also said that they had alibis because they were bar hopping for the rest of the night and had the receipts to prove it. PJ is also questioned as a person of interest, and he maintains that he has nothing to do with the crime and didn’t see the murder happen. There’s no evidence that he committed the murder, so PJ is not arrested.

The next murder victim is ski instructor Hannah Marten (played by Hannah Elder), who was killed while PJ had already left the area. PJ is cleared as a possible suspect for Hannah’s murder, but he’s still on the police’s radar for Brianne’s murder, even though it’s looking more and more like the recent killings are being committed by the same murderer. The next victims are Liz Fairchild (played by Kelsey Edwards) and her baby daughter Miley (played Taigelee Wayne). The killing of a child brings even more urgency and pressure on the police to catch the murderer.

In addition to dealing with the stress of the investigation, John is having family problems. John and his daughter Jenna (played by Chloe East) have a rocky relationship because she’s angry about him being an inattentive parent. John’s ex-wife Brittany (played by Rachel Jane Day) also has a lot of bitterness and resentment toward John, and she sees herself to be Jenna’s primary parent. Considering that John is an alcoholic with a bad temper, it’s easy to see why they might be angry with him.

Over a tension-filled lunch at a local restaurant, John tells Brittany and Jenna that he has to work longer hours than usual because of the murder investigation. Jenna is about to enroll in a university in January on a ballet scholarship, and she was hoping that John would be there for her on the day that she moves to her dorm on campus. Brittany puts John on a guilt trip to make him feel like a bad parent, until John practically explodes in anger and promises that he will be there for Jenna on her moving day.

The pressure of the investigation and another tragic event eventually lead John to relapse back into his alcoholic ways. Who or what is the killer? And will the killer be caught? And will John redeem himself and get sober? Those questions are answered in the movie, which infuses the horrifying scares and mystery with some dark humor that is sometimes politically incorrect. The humor works because it’s actually what people might say if they feel comfortable enough to say it around certain people.

For example, there’s a scene where John and some of the other male police officers are discussing murder victim Brianne Paulson’s mutilated body that had her vagina removed by the murderer. Officer Chavez (played by Demetrius Daniels) comments, “My heart goes out to the boyfriend. It’s the ultimate ‘blue balls’ story.” In another scene, Dave gives a pep talk to his fellow officers and says, in reference to legislation requiring the separation of church and state: “I won’t ask you to pray with me because of the goddamn lawyers.”

Compared to other horror movies, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” doesn’t get too gruesome with its violence. The visual effects are adequate, but the movie is more effective in its subtle and not-so-subtle commentaries on overzealous cops and how police could abuse their power during an investigation. Although the supporting actors are good (including the late Forster, in one of his last film roles), “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is really a showcase for Cummings and his talent as an actor, writer and director.

Cummings keeps a fairly brisk pace for the movie, which doesn’t let his John character completely off the hook for how he mistreats people. There are a few scenes where John gets some well-deserved payback from people who won’t put up with his nonsense. “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is a mostly entertaining comedic horror movie, but it will also make people think about the types of cops who are corrupt and bad-tempered, compared to the criminals they are supposed to catch.

Orion Classics released “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on October 9, 2020.

Review: ‘Bad Education,’ starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney

April 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in “Bad Education” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/HBO)

“Bad Education” (2020)

Directed by Cory Finley

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily on Long Island, New York, and partially in Las Vegas, the drama “Bad Education” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Indian Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, the movie tells the story of corrupt administrators and their accomplices, who embezzled an estimated $11 million from the school district of Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York.

Culture Audience: “Bad Education” will appeal primarily to Hugh Jackman fans and people who like dramas based on true crime.

Hugh Jackman and Geraldine Viswanathan in “Bad Education” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Bad Education” follows many familiar tonal beats of true-crime movies, but the riveting performances of Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney elevate what could have been a somewhat mediocre film. Based on true events that happened in 2002, “Bad Education” portrays the investigation that led to the downfalls of several people involved in an embezzlement/fraud scam that stole an estimated $11 million over several years from the high-school district in the upscale suburban city of Roslyn, New York. It’s said to be the largest prosecuted embezzlement in the history of American public schools.

The two people at the center of the crimes against Roslyn High School are school superintendent Frank Tassone (played by Jackman) and assistant superintendent/business manager Pam Glucklin (played by Janney), who work closely together and also cover up for each other. As it’s eventually revealed in the movie, they cared about more than just increasing the prestige level of Roslyn High School, the high-ranking  jewel in their school-administration crown. They also cared a great deal about increasing their personal wealth using illegally obtained school funds, mostly by billing the district for lavish trips, homes, cars and other personal expenses.

In the beginning of the film, which is effectively bookmarked with a similar scene at the end of the film, Frank is introduced like a rock star at a school assembly, which has gathered to celebrate Roslyn High School’s achievement of ranking at No. 4 in the U.S. for being the highest academically achieving high school. The school has reached this level under Frank’s leadership, and his goal is to elevate Roslyn High School to No. 1.

Frank’s friendly charm and winning smile have made him very popular with his co-workers, parents and students. By contrast, Pam has a prickly and dismissive personality, but her strong alliance with Frank has given her a lot of clout in the school district. Their boss is school board president Bob Spicer (played by Ray Romano), who is Frank’s biggest champion.

One of the school’s goals is a skywalk proposal, which would build a multimillion-dollar skywalk bridge to link the school from end to end. A bright and inquisitive student named Rachel Bhargava (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) is tasked with doing an article about the skywalk for Roslyn High School’s newspaper, The Beacon. At first, when she does a very brief interview with Frank for the article, she thinks it’s going to be a boring puff piece.

Rachel thinks so little of the assignment that she even tells Frank that it will be a puff piece. His response: “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece. A real journalist can turn an assignment into a story.” It’s unknown if the real Frank Tassone ever said those words to any of the real student reporters of The Beacon who broke the news of the embezzlement scandal, but those words will come back to haunt Frank in this movie.

While preparing the article, Rachel needs to get some facts and statistics about the skywalk construction proposal bids that the school district received from contractors. She has to get permission from Pam to access those documents, which are in a very cluttered storage area of the school. While Frank was accommodating and gracious in giving his time to Rachel, Pam is impatient and condescending when talking to Rachel for the article. Pam gives Rachel the room key to access the requested documents, but warns her that the area is so messy and disorganized that it will be challenging for her to find the paperwork that she’s seeking.

The storage area turns out to have a treasure trove of documents that Rachel’s assigning editor Nick Fleischman (played by Alex Wolff) happens to notice when he accidentally knocks some of the papers out of her backpack when he impatiently tries to stop her while walking down a school hallway. (It’s one of those moments in the movie that probably didn’t happen in real life, but was fabricated for dramatic purposes.)

Nick thinks she may be on to a big story, so Rachel finds out through further investigation that the documents have a lot of proof that invoices charging a fortune have been billed to the school district, but many of the companies listed on the invoices don’t exist. Rachel gets help from her father David Bhargava (played by Hari Dhillon) in doing the grunt work of making calls to investigate the legitimacy of companies that are listed on the school invoices.

Why does Rachel’s father have that much free time on his hands? In a minor subplot, it’s revealed that he lost his job because of accusations that he was involved with insider trading. In the midst of investigating corruption at her own school, Rachel at one point asks her father if he really was guilty of insider trading. His answer serves to telegraph Rachel’s decision to report what she’s found out.

What happens next has a domino effect that exposes elaborate, longtime schemes orchestrated by Frank and Pam. Because of this high-profile case, many viewers might already know about the outcome. However, screenwriter Mike Makowsky (a Roslyn native who graduated from high school seven years after the scandal) and director Cory Finley infuse the movie with enough suspense and sly comedy to make it a slightly better-than-average telling of a crime story.

“Bad Education” takes a sometimes sardonic look at how manipulative and cunning Frank was in covering up his crimes. He was a man of many faces—literally, since his vanity facelifts and meticulous application of makeup are shown in the movie—and many secrets, which he covered up with a web of lies that eventually unraveled. Even in his personal life (Frank was a closeted gay man), he deceived the people who were closest to him. The movie is also a takedown of the weak-willed enablers who knew about the corruption, but were complicit in covering it up because they didn’t want to lose their jobs and they wanted to keep up the appearance that they had an ideal school district.

Frank also mastered the art of deflection, so that when he was under scrutiny, he was able to turn it around on potential accusers to make them afraid of getting in trouble for not detecting the problem earlier. He also used, to his advantage, the administration’s fixation on increasing the prestige of Roslyn High School, which tied into many administrators’ ulterior motives of raising the property values in Roslyn too.

Janney doesn’t have as much screen time as Jackman does, but she makes the most of characterizing Pam as being more than just a selfish and greedy shrew. The movie shows how she was generous to a fault in sharing her illegally funded wealth with her family. That generosity would turn out to be her downfall, since she allowed certain family members to use school credit cards to fund their lavish personal spending. The family members who were also part of the widespread scam included Pam’s husband Howard Gluckin (played by Ray Abruzzo); Jim Boy McCarden (played by Jimmy Tatro), her son from a previous marriage; and her co-worker niece Jenny Aquila (played by Annaleigh Ashford), who relies on Pam for financial help.

All of these family members are dimwitted in some way—they didn’t do much to hide their identities in the paper trail that exposed their crimes—but Jenny is portrayed as particularly loathsome. At one point in the movie, even after some of the crimes were exposed, Jenny tries to take over her aunt/benefactor Pam’s job at the school. Jenny also makes a pathetic and botched attempt to blackmail Frank, who quickly puts Jenny in her place and reminds her that she’s no match for him and his devious manipulations.

When Pam’s world starts to unravel, Janney uses subtle cues in showing how this character’s carefully constructed façade starts to crumble, as her perfectly posh, enunicated English starts to give way to a very working-class Long Island accent. Pam is so obsessed with keeping up appearances that she makes the mistake of being too loyal to Frank when things start to crash down on them.

“Bad Education” is a very Hollywood version of a seedy true crime story. In real life, none of the people were as glamorous-looking as the actors who portray them in the movie—although, in real life, the embezzlers spent money as if they were Hollywood celebrities. The movie accurately shows that people got away with crimes of this length and magnitude because they were able to fool others by having a “respectable” image. The ending scene effectively illustrates that Frank’s inflated ego and arrogance led him to believe that he was a legend in his own mind—and the results were reckless crimes that destroyed school finances, careers and people’s trust.

HBO premiered “Bad Education” on April 25, 2020.