A Wounded Fawn is a delightfully weird and lo-fi work of playful horror.
There’s not much left to do with serial killer narratives these days, but that hasn’t stopped writer-director Travis Stevens from trying anyway. With A Wounded Fawn, his follow-up to last year’s fairly well-received Jakob’s Wife, Stevens has created a phantasmagorical horror film that renders a killer’s subjective interiority as an expressionistic nightmare of mythological proportions. It’s a low-budget effort, and obviously shot under Covid restrictions. But the sparse locations, minimal cast, and inventive cinematography (either 16mm or a fine digital approximation of it) add a lot to the overall ambience. The film begins with a prologue; alongside extreme close-ups of a unique sculpture, The Wrath of the Erinys, voiceover narration details the history of these three figures — “Megaera, the grudging, Alecto, the unceasing, and Tisiphone, punisher of murderers,” the narrator helpfully informs us. We are in fact at an auction house, the voiceover revealed to be the auctioneer, and a bidding war for the sculpture breaks out. A woman wins the bidding, and as she returns home to inform her employers of their victory, a man rings her doorbell. She reluctantly opens the door to Bruce (Josh Ruben), who apologizes for disturbing her in the middle of the night and explains that he represents clients who will pay her double what she just spent on the sculpture. She’s cautious, but intrigued by the offer and the stranger’s unassuming good looks. But as soon as he enters her home, Bruce begins hallucinating visions of a large figure with an owl head that seems to induce a paroxysm of uncontrollable urges. In the first of many nods to classic Giallos, he murders the woman with a spiked glove, then absconds with the sculpture into the night.
Chapter 1 opens with museum curator Meredith (Sarah Lind) chatting with her girlfriends. We quickly glean that she has been dealing with a bad break-up involving an abusive boyfriend, and after taking some time off is now ready to start dating again. In fact, she’s met a very nice man and is already going away for a romantic weekend with him to a secluded cabin. The man is Bruce, now sporting a slightly altered appearance and a peppy, high-energy attitude. He simply cannot wait to get Meredith alone. The audience knows why, of course, and there’s plenty of dramatic tension as we watch Bruce and Meredith interact, viewers well aware of his nefarious intentions and waiting for Meredith to come to her senses. Stevens wrings maximum discomfort from this slow build-up, as the couple begins their long drive to the woods. Like Hitchcock’s definition of suspense — “when the spectators know more than the characters in the movie” — alert viewers are keyed in to Bruce’s momentary lapses in decorum while waiting for Meredith to notice these red flags. Things continue to escalate once they reach his “cabin,” actually a beautifully-appointed modernist condo full of fine art. Bruce begins having visions of the cowled, owl-headed specter again, while Meredith catches glimpses of unsettling things herself — disembodied voices tell her to flee, while ghost-like figures flit in and out of her peripheral vision. It’s a relief when she finally gets fed up and demands that Bruce drive her to a hotel. He finally acquiesces, agreeing to take her to the nearest town. But while she packs her bags, she spots the missing sculpture just as a friend calls her and tells her about the murdered woman from the prologue. It’s not quite a spoiler to reveal that Bruce finally attacks, spiked glove and all, and that Meredith fights back.
The preceding synopsis describes roughly the first half of the film, but the confrontation between the two is essentially a foregone conclusion. It’s in Chapter 2 that things get much weirder, and much more interesting. Nursing a head wound, Bruce endures a series of attacks from the now fully corporeal Furies, seeking vengeance for Meredith. Or has she herself transformed into one of them? Or is it all a figment of Bruce’s demented imagination? It’s a thrilling experience, with Stevens and cinematographer Ksusha Genefeld utilizing all manner of analog lighting tricks to turn the forest into a nightmare landscape, full of eerie reds and blues emanating from the darkness. The Furies themselves are delightful lo-fi creations, elaborate costumes that eschew showy special effects — this is a shoestring production after all — for creepy, old-fashioned masks and jittery, off-kilter movements. It’s simply a lot of fun, and all leads to a pitch-black, laugh-out-loud final shot. Between A Wounded Fawn and Jakob’s Wife, Stevens is carving himself out a nice niche of feminist-oriented horror, a welcome change of perspective in a still typically male-dominated genre (although there’s been much progress in this front, to be fair). Hostile men are everywhere, and Stevens’ characters aren’t having any of it. Good for them, and good for viewers.
You can stream Travis Stevens’ A Wounded Fawn on Shudder beginning on December 1.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.