Actually, the indie horror flick didn't kick off with The Blair Witch Project. Director/writer/actor Larry Fessenden was reinventing the genre as a low-budget art film with No Telling (1991), a revamping of the Frankenstein story; then Habit (1997), an underground classic about an urban vampire. Now Wendigo, the third in the trio, takes us on a scare-trip through the wintry wilds of upstate New York. Profitting from a fatter budget, Fessenden has cast polished, compelling actors. And he infuses new life into the horror genre: Dispensing with high-technology, he weaves a creepy spell by crafting a kaleidoscope of puppetry, sounds and cinema legerdemain.

George and Kim McLaren (Jake Weber and Patricia Clarkson), a burnt-out yuppie couple, are heading for a weekend respite in a Catskills farmhouse with eight-year-old son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan of "Malcolm in the Middle"). Of course, the son's name evokes the spirit-infested Miles of The Turn of the Screw. Sure enough, the kid's playing with some eerie figurines that portend the ghastliness ahead, and it's soon apparent that his fantasy-flushed perceptions are steering the film. Dad accidentally hits a deer and swerves off the road. A trio of local hunters emerges from the woods, incensed that the city folk have struck their prey. One redneck, Otis Stuckey (John Speredakos), is especially menacing, though eventually the guys haul the McLaren's car from a ditch.

Up at the farmhouse, a bullet hole in a window suggests that r 'n r may not be on the menu. The family clings to its normal routines. Mom and dad go at it in front of the fire (observed, unawares, by peeping Otis), while Miles, in bed upstairs, has nightmares peopled with antlered devils. In town the next day, a mysterious Indian hands Miles a figurine of Wendigo, an Amerindian shape-shifting creature, half-beast, half-god, who may be seeking vengeance after the local Indians were displaced by the reservoir. When Miles goes sledding with his father, George is mysteriously shot.

A pity, because after the great windup, the film loses its ominous edge and descends into mayhem in the tiresome bang-bang style of studio thrillers. The supposedly scary money shot is just some weirdo in a deer suit. The movie is also marred by a hyper camera that jumps back and forth as if manned by one of the locals on speed, and shooting on Super-l6 blown up to 35mm creates enough grain to bake bread. But to his credit, Fessenden is a master at milking the seemingly benign for maximum scariness--as in an early shot from behind of Kim's fur hat silhouetted against the car's window, converting it into a bestial head. Fessenden's stark, wintry woods harbor untold threat. Rarely has a director made light--the gradations of dusk, overcast daylight--convey such sinister moods. Jake Weber delivers a spot-on turn as George, so mellow and low-key he scarcely seems to be acting. His style harmonizes perfectly with the film's mission of finding horror in the mundane.

--Erica Abeel