Any movie that advertises itself as a cross between Twin Peaks and White Christmas is going to grab my attention. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by Bing, Rosemary, Danny, and Vera-Ellen getting off the train and being told by General Waverly, “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic”? It writes itself.
The One Who Watches, directed by Nicholas Sunsdahl, who co-wrote the script with Molly Josefson, premiered at the Zinema in Duluth on December 11.
After some old geezers spout platitudes over their cups of morning coffee, Dr. Jesse (Jesse Whiting) is sitting at the end of a dock, with his back to Windigo Lake, working on his novel. In the lower right corner of the frame, an axe head; behind him, an empty canoe floats by. Portends abound.
Dr. Jesse is a college professor who has moved to a town where there are séances in the park and plenty of hauntings in the woods—where he is staying, of course.
He stumbles upon auditions for Windigo Lake Community Theatre’s new musical production (filmed at Duluth’s Scottish Rite Temple, with its gorgeous forest drops), and Jesse gets the lead role.
At this point, we quickly understand the movie math: The locals putting on the show represent the White Christmas part of the equation, and the quirky townspeople represent the Twin Peaks half. Missing is a third cinematic reference point to bridge those two worlds.
A copy of Waiting for Godot sits atop a pile of books on Dr. Jesse’s desk, which becomes a major clue to the theatre-of-the-absurd aspect of this film—much more so than any existentialist pretensions.
“Anyone can act,” declares Jean (Sean Elmquist) the in-film director, although apparently no one can run the lights. At this point, you should be thinking Pirandello rather than Beckett.
Whiting plays the straight man to both the cast and the scenery, which works because the laughs come from the antics and songs of the other characters, but it is problematic in terms of the plot. Dr. Jesse has little to say. Beyond his pronouncement that he is working on a book about mysticism from the logical perspective, there are few clues to his backstory or his mind.
If Dr. Jesse is the protagonist, Jean is the antagonist, which would lead to expectations of conflict between them, but we know way more about Jean from his cryptic comments and his odd choice of a campfire song.
The auditions and rehearsals for the musical are the most entertaining parts. Mary (Chelsy Whittington) has prepared a rumba number for her audition, and Trevor (Andy Matson) had the lead in Jean’s last production and is ready to step in if Dr. Jesse should falter.
The high point comes with the catchy “O’ Way Up North” musical number, sung by Lumber Jackie (Gina Quick) and Lumber Jill (Sarah Fuhs).
The cast shows up at Dr. Jesse’s cabin in the woods, which has to be closer to the title character than back in town at the theatre, right? About a third of the way through, as I was trying to decide if there really was a specific plot I should be paying attention to, I got the idea that we had met the title character and it was us.
The One Who Watches needs additional scenes to develop Dr. Jesse’s character and the conflict that leads to the conclusion. I had the sense that everything had been set up and we were getting to how it was all going to play out in the second half, except there were only seven minutes left. Including credits.
When the axe showed up again, I knew we were in the endgame and I was pretty sure I knew where the movie was going—albeit, based more on tone than logical consequences. “How” was still up in the air and “why” remained the really big question.
Recognizing the filming locations is fun, like the view of the lake from New Scenic Café. Bonus points if the establishing shot of St. Scholastica did not fool you or if you recognized that Dr. Jesse’s office is at UWS.
The cinematography edges the film beyond standard B-movie expectations, with some nice double exposure effects and a simple but effective black-and-white nightmare sequence. The editing is considerably more ambitious that most amateur productions.
The music is in keeping with the combination of the bizarre and the comic, although the balance ended up more towards the former than the latter, to my surprise.
So, make yourself a Blue Ox (whatever that is) and listen to Polka Pal Rick bringing the hits to those night owls burning the midnight oil. But be forewarned: The One Who Watches will leave you wanting more.