2022 has been a fine year for horror and Travis Stevens‘ A Wounded Fawn is among the very best of a bumper crop. After putting a vampiric spin on middle-aged disaffection in Jakob’s Wife, the versatile writer-director goes for broke with a stunning two-act serial killer shocker steeped in surrealism, madness, and Hellenic feminine revenge. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but is undeniably one of the most distinctive genre offerings of this, or practically any other year.
Bruce Ernst (Josh Ruben) is a charming and erudite art aficionado who also happens to be a vicious psychopath, driven Son of Sam-style to murderous deeds by infernal visions of a figure he calls The Red Owl. He meets curator Meredith Tanning (Sarah Lind), a woman still traumatised by an earlier abusive relationship. Beguiled by the charismatic and cultured Bruce, Meredith relaxes enough to agree to a weekend away to his luxurious modernist cabin in the woods. It doesn’t look good for Meredith, but the trip turns out to be as much of a nightmare for Bruce as it does for her as all hell breaks loose in a wash of hallucinogenic imagery and Greek myth-inspired vengeance.
Like Jakob’s Wife, A Wounded Fawn works so well as it prioritises character over spectacle, or at least fully establishes its protagonists before the spectacle begins. From the opening scene Stevens immerses the viewer uncomfortably in the mind of Bruce. And if his psyche is not a fun place to be initially – Red Owl and all – it only careens downhill once the tables turn and things get very weird. It’s a convincingly Janus-faced turn from Josh Ruben (no slouch as a filmmaker himself), carefully calibrated in act one and derangement personified in act two as Bruce’s earlier victims return in the form of the Erinyes, or the Furies.
We’re not privy to quite such a thorough psychological portrait in the case of Meredith, but Lind is equally adept here, depicting a harrowing internality as a steady procession of red flags make it clear she’s in a boiled frog situation that’s about to bubble over. It’s a delicate balance playing someone who’s previously been a victim, but refuses to be one again. It would be easy for Meredith to be a generic badass – a trait too often mistaken for a feminist take on the horror heroine – but Lind allows Meredith’s trauma and vulnerability to inform her behaviour and actions in a believable way, leaving a vital core of empathy and humanity. It’s important to remember the danger and urgency of her predicament, even when the film flies visually so far into the realms of the fantastical.
A Wounded Fawn has been compared to another startling film from 2022, Mimi Cave‘s Fresh. Indeed, the basic premise is very similar as a young woman has to deal with the murderous intentions of her romantic interest. Yet in its initial focus on Bruce and his predatory methods, Stevens’ film brings to mind Nicolas Pesce‘s kinky, giallo-tinged psycho-thriller Piercing. But whereas that film has the stylistic trappings of the giallo, Pesce keeps a rigid grip on his narrative. A Wounded Fawn leaps gleefully into the abyss of mood and chaos that the best of Argento, Martino et al emphasise.
It’s difficult to get across just what an experience A Wounded Fawn becomes. It’s a film that’s written with a real intelligence – awash in references to female surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning, the myth of Orestes, and the Dadaist movement – yet it gloriously demands the same sensory response provoked by the art and literature that inspired it. It’s a film that’s felt on a primal level rather than an intellectual one. It revels in its pulp aesthetic like the Erinyes revel in retribution; 16mm photography with a richly tactile grain, production design (by Sonia Foltarz and costumes by Erik Bergrin) that makes a virtue of a low budget, and a sensibility that clearly adores the grindhouse as much as the arthouse.
For some, the descent into an almost primordial insanity will be a major flaw; an indicator of a film wriggling away from the grasp of its creator. But for the right audience – to retain the theme of Greek antiquity – it’ll be pure cinematic ambrosia; not just one of the most memorable genre movies of the year, but one of the most singular and striking films full stop and its messiness, chaos, and really peculiar sense of catharsis are all part of its unruly brilliance. One isn’t merely keen to see what the estimable Travis Stevens has up his sleeve next; it’s hard not to salivate at the prospect.
Available to stream on Shudder now