“You know what, I’m very proud of it. [Horror is] a bastard genre and I stand by it. I think the world is a frightening place and people should be shocked out of their complacency. Now the irony is, I don’t know that everybody thinks of horror that way, but I think of it as a confrontational genre, a way to scream from the rafters, ‘Look at humanity, it needs fixing, it’s a mess, look at how we treat each other.’ So I use it as a punishing genre!”
— Larry Fessenden, Interview with SciFiNow
Though this runs dangerously close to hyperbole, if you bear with us it will hopefully be clear that it is said with the utmost sincerity: Larry Fessenden just may be the most important and under-appreciated figure working in horror today. The key word, here, is figure because Fessenden can’t be pegged down to a single occupation. He is more than just a writer, though he’s penned numerous important scripts; more than the director behind those scripts; and more than the producer of not only his own films but some of the best independent cinema in and outside of the genre. Fessenden is a sort-of indie film mogul; his presence is felt in front of and behind some of the last decade’s most viable works.
When looking at his own work, however, — especially his first few feature films — Fessenden is also perhaps the single most overlooked 90s American auteur. Looking back is an important aspect of film criticism and, with their new Blu-ray box set The Larry Fessenden Collection, Scream Factory has given us the perfect opportunity to reappraise four of Fessenden’s early films. From No Telling — Fessenden’s second feature film, a retelling of the Frankenstein myth — to 2006’s The Last Winter, this box-set solidifies more than just Fessenden’s unique vision, it reveals within his work a strong thematic link: though Fessenden is draw to the supernatural (and often spiritual), his films tend towards the horrors of human progress.
In the 90s, when mainstream Horror cinema (particularly in America) was at one of its most stale moments, Fessenden was crafting deeply affective work that examined society through a personalized lens. He presented something wholly new for American Indie horror, by intentionally side-stepping many of the tropes that plagued US films. This meant avoiding overt gore and nudity in favor of psychological-driven horror. While the world was praising Tarantino and the Coen Brothers for shaking up crime cinema, Fessenden’s similar contributions to horror were and have been nearly ignored. Fessenden has lamented on this fact numerous times over interviews, stating that places like Sundance — where Tarantino and the Coen Brothers’ names were cemented in history — paid Fessenden no attention. In his mind, they only desired horror in an ironic, token way, choosing a select few films to play at midnight for the purpose of laughing at them. Fessenden’s esoteric style didn’t fit that formula and, because of this, the festival ignored him.
A Complex FrankensteinNo Telling, Fessenden’s second feature film — following his debut, Experienced Movers in 1985 —, kicks off the collection and sets the bar quite high. Fessenden’s modernized retelling of Frankenstein, No Telling follows Lillian and Geoffrey Gaines, who escape the hustle and flow of Manhattan to enjoy some peace in a countryside farmhouse. But it’s not all pleasure. Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie), a painter, and Geoffrey (Stephen Ramsey), a corporate scientist, use their stay as a chance to finally focus on their respective work. However, when Lillian finally begins to take an interest in Geoffrey’s work, her discovery proves horrific.
No Telling admittedly features many of the pitfalls characteristic of early/debut films. This is most obvious in relation to the film’s ideological function. Even Fessenden admits (vis-à-vis the included commentary track) that some of the hammier aspects of the film’s critique of society he later edited out due to their excessive nature. What remains, however, is powerful denunciation of animal experimentation and the exploitation of farmers for corporate interests. It could be argued that this dual intention in the film is somewhat muddled but Fessenden does a fine job at connecting their tissues in a strong enough manner that it never feels underdeveloped.No Telling sets itself apart from nearly every Frankenstein-esque horror film, in that Fessenden’s scientist never once considers human experimentation. It’s a tale of vivisection horror and, because of that, it is all the more harrowing and realistic. While slight exaggerations may exist in the film, this behavior exists in our world and, worse, is accepted…all in the name of progress. This will become a trope for Fessenden’s work, the critique of progress. What is the result of society moving forward? In movements forward in technology, Fessenden seems to argue that we lose our connection with the natural world and is where Fessenden most derives his view of horror.
One of the refreshing aspects of No Telling, is that the majority of the film plays out more like a drama than anything remotely resembling the typical horror film. Rather stunningly shot with sweeping camera movements, No Telling invests itself in the minutia of everyday life, while slowly visual metaphors begin sweeping into frame. Fessenden has a way of equating the everyday realities of life with the grotesque. An average picnic becomes a trove of waste and excess; a nice meal transformed into a bloody carcass. These subtle jabs fill the film’s runtime, so that by the time of its horrific denouement, the viewer is prepared (whether they realize it or not). No Telling begins developing the aspects of Fessenden’s work that will reach a point of perfection in his next three films.
Self-destruction as AddictionIf No Telling can be read as a somewhat externally-fixated film, Fessenden’s follow up, Habit, is nearly the polar opposite. Habit is perhaps Fessenden’s most personal work, although its hard to say that any of films aren’t direct representations of his thoughts and concerns. The story originates as a shot-on-video short film that Fessenden crafted while still at NYU and is based on Fessenden’s own struggles with addiction. As Fangoria Editor-in-Chief, Michael Gingold, discusses in the included booklet, you can read many of Fessenden’s work as being variations on the classic horror cinema monsters, and Habit continues this trend by offering one of the best alternative spins on vampire folklore to date.
In many of the same ways that George A. Romero approached Martin, Habit is less concerned with actual vampiric mythology than it is using the framework as a way of breaking down personal psychology. Fessenden stars as Sam, a semi-functioning alcoholic whose problems have caused a breakdown in his personal relationships, including severing ties with his long-term girlfriend. In one of the film’s first scenes, Sam meets and becomes transfixed with enigmatic woman named Anna (Meredith Snaider) at a party. In a drunken stupor, Sam loses track of Anna and spends the next few days desperately trying to reconnect. When he is about to give up hope, fate (or otherwise) lands Sam back in place with Anna, when he runs into her at a street carnival. That night, the two begin a romantic affair that turns dangerous, as Sam begins to suspect that Anna might be a vampire.
The question of Anna’s nature is never really answered in the film and this is not for lack of effort. There is enough developed in the film’s run to make a strong case for numerous different outcomes and answers. This ambiguity works because the question of Anna’s being is ultimately not that important. The film is far more concerned, and rightfully so, with the ways that addiction (be in to substances like drugs and alcohol, love and sex, or blood) can be destructive. Through Fessenden’s careful direction, Habit becomes one of the most traumatic depictions of destructive behavior on screen. This is a topic often broached by many straight-laced indie dramas. While some of the best of these are able to develop deeply personal, affecting projects, they can be hamfisted and appear as nothing more than vanity projects. Fessenden, by utilizing the fantastical elements of the horror framework, avoids so many of the obvious clichés, favoring a more nuanced film. As its star, Fessenden is rather powerful; his honest portrayal lays bare his soul for all to see, developing a hyper-personalized form of cinema that is rarely seen. We often look at the Sundance films as a sort of qualitative rubric for 90s cinema, so much so that it can arguable that it even developed into a style over time. Habit easily stands up next to any of the Sundance-winning films of the 90s, and remains one of the strongest independent features of the decade, be it horror or otherwise.
Ancient Spirits Erode Modern WaysThe final two films in this collection, Wendigo and The Last Winter, form a sort of thematic series focusing on the Native American folklore of the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a being believed to be equally human as it is beast. In the folklore, the Wendigo is a representation of gluttony, greed, and excess but Fessenden takes the myth in a slightly different direction with Wendigo and The Last Winter.
The titular film — as well as Fessenden’s first foray into the lore — is one of his most challenging films. Despite the film having a strong, albeit small, fanbase — Gingold goes as far as to call it his masterpiece — Wendigo has more or less been lost in the annals of film history. There are reasons this is probably the case. First of all, as mentioned, Wendigo is perhaps Fessenden’s most exhaustive work. If his work can be characterized by a strong interest in not only human minutia but psychological and spiritual horror, Wendigo takes those interests and ramps them up to another level.Like No Telling, Wendigo follows a city family’s relocation into rural settings, only this time that relocation is treated in a far more developed manner. When on their trek ‘home’ the family accidentally hit a deer that local hunters have been tracking for hours, which causes them to become the victims in an escalating, dangerous confrontation. As mentioned, Wendigo again sees Fessenden utilizing the invasion of foreign land — something that he will perfect in the following film — as a key principle for his narrative. Unlike No Telling, however, that encroachment is dealt with in far more complicated manners. This is what makes Wendigo such a powerful film — and what makes its current score of 5/10 on IMDb such a travesty. Full disclosure, on a personal level, Wendigo is perhaps my least favorite of the four film included but that is far from saying that it is in any way not a stunning achievement for Fessenden. Its one that I can easily see being my favorite with more watches because it is a film that demands to be unpacked. Because of its lofty goals it remains one of the most important pieces of Fessenden’s filmography. At worst, Wendigo is a beautifully flawed film but the case can be made that its flaws are often also its strengths.
As the conflict between George (Jake Weber), the family’s patriarch, and Otis (John Speredakos), a disgruntled hunter who despises George because he believes that he destroyed his hunt, Fessenden begins to weave in the Wendigo lore. Like Habit, the presence of the Wendigo is as much a reality of the film’s narrative as it is a purely-metaphorical analogy used for commentary; Fessenden leaves room for interpretation, rather than forcing it down explicitly. Wendigo doesn’t have a lot of real weaknesses. It’s definitely esoteric in its delivery and, again, not something that would typically be thought of as being horror, but its also a rather bright, multi-tiered analysis of modern society. Fessenden does not weave a story of Manichean polar opposites. George is not wholly good and neither is Otis entirely bad. They are both reflections of society and, it seems for Fessenden, that the true evil lies in the ways that modern society disassociates them. There is a thematic link to the displacement of Native Americans, that is further developed by the continual displacement of people due to modernization. George’s family, while principally the heroes, is not left unscathed. They represent the ills of an upwardly evolving society continually exploiting those that choose to live a life more connected to their land. And, Otis represents the horror of humanity, self-interested and fueled by hatred. What makes the film truly work, however, is that Fessenden weaves this all through the perspective of a child, (played by Malcolm in the Middle’s Erik Per Sullivan), adding another layer ripe for dissecting. Wendigo is not an easy film to absorb, in fact it may be Fessenden’s most difficult, but it’s a film worth investing the energy into.The Last Winter is less challenging. In terms of setting, its shares a lot of common grounds in terms of atmosphere to The Thing, depicting an isolated core of oil workers stranded in the middle of a snow-covered landscape. However, beyond the growing paranoia of isolation, the similarities between the films become less and less solid as the film develops. Released in 2006, The Last Winter comes three years after the War in Iraq began and at a time when the price of gas seem only to escalate more and more every year. The discussion of our need for oil was in vogue; it was even colloquial. This is the idea that informs this film; again, a scathing indictment of the exploitation of the natural world in favor of the advancement of society.
Like all of the films in this collection, The Last Winter is a pure message film. It solidifies the auteurist bent of Fessenden’s career, each of his films exploring similar concepts through different lenses. Similar to Wendigo, what allows The Last Winter to transcend is Fessenden’s unwillingness to succumb to the pressures of simplistic characterizations. Ron Perlman puts in one of his career’s best performances as Ed Pollack, the hardheaded leader of the workers. Perlman stands in for as close as the film is willing to get to an antagonist but it never delves into conventional territories. It’s a complex performance that may not leave him likeable but he certainty remains identifiable and even charming. Perlman’s Pollack is akin to No Telling’s Geoffrey Gaines, his actions are wrong but he cannot be fully blamed. These men are the results of a society gone wrong. Obsessed with progress, humanity moves away from nature and, in doing so, the horrors of the world are created. These horrors, however, remain fixed on humanity, so while there is an element of spirituality at play, it is always reliant on the interaction of humanity: the ancient Wendigo may exist to punish evil, but it is aspects of humanity that beckon them to the surface…Final Thoughts
Fessenden prefigured the style of horror cinema that would basically define the last decade. It’s smart, idea-driven work that pays homage to the history of horror rather than stick its nose up to it. It should come as little surprise, then, to see his name tagged as a producer for some of these very films — House of the Devil and Stakeland to name two. Now, it’s possible to see just how comfortable his films sit in tandem with works like It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Babadook — these recent indie darlings that have captured both horror and mainstream audiences by surprise. What is even more complex is that Fessenden, while overlooked and underappreciated, was not critically ignored. Roger Ebert (not necessarily always a friend to the horror genre) gave Fessenden’s third feature, Habit, three out of four stars, stating that he was a “talent to watch.” But who was watching? To this day, Fessenden has still yet to be given a serious play at working with a mainstream budget. Short of working on co-drafting a script for a proposed remake of The Orphanage with Guillermo Del Toro, which never came to fruition, Fessenden remains an outsider of sorts. Maybe this is for the best because it is possible that his vision would not translate well, when more money and meddling is involved. But, that his only shot was stopped short of even happening is a damn shame.Fessenden’s reappraisal has been a long time coming, but its finally here. Scream Factory have had a rather strong year but this collection smashes all other releases out of the park. There were a few hiccups along the way, including the slip up over announcing featurettes that did not end up making it to the discs, but beyond that, this collection is a stunning presentation of his work. With fine looking transfers across the board, a wealth of special features (including numerous Fessenden shorts, which come highly recommended), a sturdy slipcase featuring the always-fantastic artwork of the Dude Designs, and Gingold’s short but effective essay lining the illustrated booklet, The Larry Fessenden Collection is easily a contender for one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year.