Even setting aside his impressive track record as a producer, horror filmmaker Travis Stevens has already proven himself a remarkably versatile teller of scary stories. His debut feature Girl on the Third Floor is a gore-laden, intense riff on the haunted house genre, while his follow-up Jakob’s Wife is a black comedy with a fresh, Barbara Crampton-led take on vampire legends. Then there’s A Wounded Fawn, which is something altogether different.
Co-written with Nathan Faudree, Stevens’ third feature as a director is a complex, beautiful, wonderfully imaginative serial killer story that’s as metaphysical as it is psychosexual. Its setup is familiar, so much so that the tools at Stevens’ disposal can verge on the predictable. But as the film takes a turn into what it’s really about, A Wounded Fawn reveals that there’s something much darker and stranger than a by-the-numbers killer-in-the-house tale at work here, and what starts as familiar quickly becomes one of the most memorable horror films of the year.
Meredith (Sarah Lind) is a museum curator who’s finally starting to embrace dating again, and she thinks she may have found the right guy in Bruce (Josh Ruben), a fellow art-lover who also happens to have a secluded cabin perfect for a weekend getaway in the woods.
It has all the makings of a romantic re-awakening for Meredith, and she’s particularly impressed when she sees the cabin and Bruce’s art collection, which features a legendary Grecian bronze that may or may not be a replica. What the audience already knows that Meredith does not, though, is that Bruce is a serial killer, a man driven to maul women to death by a strange presence only he can see. It’s clear that Meredith is falling into a trap, but as the struggle between predator and prey begins, Bruce finds that the night is going to be much more complicated than he thought.
The intimate setup of A Wounded Fawn means that much of the film unfolds in a single location, with two major characters and an assortment of strange, mythological figures who may be real and may be entirely in Bruce’s addled mind. That gives Stevens the unenviable task of having to maintain a sense of dynamism and visual depth over the course of a film with only a few things to look like. He proved he can do that kind of storytelling with Girl on the Third Floor, and his skills have clearly matured even further into the realm of expressive, endlessly unnerving psychological terror. The film is shot in 16mm, which gives it a grain and texture that few other films in recent years have achieved, but Stevens goes beyond the simple appeal with his aesthetic design. The color temperatures feel like something that could have easily been found in a cinema in the 1970s or on a rack at the video store in the 1980s. The reds are really red, the faces rich with contrast, the balance of cool and warm twisted just so to enhance the crimson hues of both the violence and the strange visions haunting Bruce throughout the film.
And those visions are ferocious, chilling and endlessly evolving to great effect. Production designer Sonia Foltarz and costume designer Erik Bergrin have clearly embraced Stevens’ willingness to get weird as the night wears on and both Bruce and Meredith are wounded, struggling to make it to sunrise. From masks to animal heads to one especially strange sequence that can best be described as “metaphysical surgery,” it all sticks in your head like an urge you’d rather ignore, sending chills up your spine even after the credits roll.
The two lead performances only enhance this sense of inescapable, wonderfully nuanced dread. Lind is remarkable as Meredith, playing the slow-burning tension of someone who doesn’t know anything is wrong, then knows something small is wrong, then knows she has to fight for her life with a depth and power that heightens the emotional grip of the whole film. Her eyes are deeply, endlessly expressive, giving us so much with a look that you can’t help but be invested in even the most mundane moments. Then there’s Ruben, who plays into the dark comedy of Bruce’s situation in ways that will remind you of the great Bruce Campbell, while also layering in plenty of emotional nuance to his killer, who’s fighting himself as much as he’s fighting his would-be victims.
It all combines to make A Wounded Fawn one of the year’s strangest and most rewarding horror experiences. If you’re willing to take this dark, weird ride and go all-in on Stevens’ descent into mythological terror, you’ll be thinking about what you just saw for weeks.
Director: Travis Stevens
Writer: Travis Stevens, Nathan Faudree
Starring: Josh Ruben, Sarah Lind, Malin Barr, Katie Kuang, Laksmi Hedemark, Tanya Everett, Marshall Taylor Thurman, Leandro Taub, Neal Mayer
Release Date: December 1, 2022 (Shudder)
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.