Dread Central‘s Anthony Arrigo examines THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION:
When Scream Factory announced they’d be releasing a collection of films by acclaimed auteur Larry Fessenden, my reaction was one of excitement and slight concern. Excitement because I genuinely look forward to nearly every catalog release put out by Scream Factory (most of the newer films, however – like the IFC Midnight stuff – have been less than stellar); slight concern because it felt like I hadn’t done my due diligence as a horror fan; namely, watching anything from Fessenden’s early filmography. Other than being aware of Wendigo (2001) and its minor cult status, I hadn’t seen a frame of Fessenden’s work outside of Beneath (2013), a creature feature which got a release from Scream Factory last year. I hated Beneath, and so I went into Fessenden’s oeuvre with relatively low expectations.
That was a mistake. Right from the get-go, with No Telling (1991), it became clear Fessenden is a man who makes deeply personal films, raw & full of emotion, with horror merely an undercurrent complicating already troubled lives. He fully embodies the auteur theory by writing, directing, editing and sometimes acting in his own films. And he’s actually a pretty decent actor, too. Everything seen on screen comes directly from his mind, with no compromises or studio interference. There’s a real sense of cinema verite to his work; his characters look and act like real people in real situations. This is personal, introspective filmmaking without pretense.
Fessenden’s first feature, No Telling, examines the effects of man and technology on animals and the environment, as told through the relationship among three people. Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie) and her husband, Geoffrey (Stephen Ramsey), have recently moved to a country home so Geoffrey can continue his medical research in peace. He does animal experimentation to test new drugs and their effects; she’s a painter. At a local auction they meet Alex (David Van Tieghem), an activist and environmentalist who is passionate about stopping pesticide use in the county. Lillian and Alex become fast friends, a relationship helped along in no small part by Geoffrey’s constant dedication to work. He almost never leaves his laboratory, located in a small building just outside the main home. While Alex and Lillian’s friendship begins to grow into something more, Geoffrey’s work grows, too… only more sinister. Unable to acquire fresh specimens as quickly as he wants them, Geoffrey has taken to abducting local wildlife and even pets to satisfy his quota. When Lillian learns of what Geoffrey has been doing in his lab, she finds herself torn between a new lover and the man to whom she still feels devoted.
The semi-official subtitle to this film is … Or, the Frankenstein Complex. It’s fitting given Geoffrey’s line of experimentation, something not made entirely clear until the film’s climax. The culmination of his work isn’t entirely important, rather it is the lengths to which he is willing to go; his complete disregard for life – that is part of the film’s focus. As his workload increases his emotional availability and openness toward Lillian greatly decreases, straining what was clearly once a strong relationship. When Alex enters the picture, Geoffrey seems less jealous and more pleased that someone is around to keep his wife away from him and his work. He is wholly consumed by his obsession with surgical advancement. Not even Lillian can open his eyes to the damage he causes.
I found the characters here to be believable, responding to circumstances like real people. There are no big gaps in logic here. Each of the actors does a great job presenting a different personality in this triumvirate of emotion, though I did find Ramsey to be a bit flat. I suppose that’s how Geoffrey is supposed to act, but part of it felt like Ramsey wasn’t able to convey some of the needed subtleties. Fessenden puts to use some inventive camera placement with pulls/zooms to add nice stylistic flourishes. Some might find the film’s slow, contemplative pace to be positively glacial; I found myself engaged with these characters and the creeping horror that permeates the picture. All in all, a promising debut.
Four years later, Fessenden returned to one of his short films made in 1982 and expanded it into a feature of the same name. Habit (1995) is about as far from a traditional vampire tale as you can get, and it might just be one of my favorites in the subgenre for that reason. Here, Fessenden stars as Sam, a world-weary lush who just recently broke up with his girlfriend and lost his father. One night at a Halloween party he meets Anna (Meredith Snaider), an enigmatic little minx who reveals little about herself outside of a clearly insatiable sex drive. She and Sam begin a passionate romance primarily based around frequent copulation. So intense are their sexual escapades that Sam is blithely unaware of her bloody indulgences, although being three sheets to the wind doesn’t help his acuity much. Anna is a mystery to Sam. She never eats or drinks and he only ever sees her at night. As friends around him begin to disappear, and a general malaise begins to affect him heavily, Sam suspects Anna might not be much of a normal girl at all.
Of all the vampire pictures I have seen, this one feels the most realistic. Anna is a bloodsucker operating in one of the biggest cities in the world. She sees Sam less as an ideal partner (which is his assumption, at least sexually) and more as an easy mark given his tendency to drink heavily and remember little. Her androgynous appearance and frequent solidarity make blending into the millions-strong crowd of NYC a breeze. Sam, meanwhile, is just a guy trying to make peace with himself in this world. He drinks to his own disadvantage, drifting from one day to the next, yet he’s a pretty deep dude, too. He’s thoughtful and affable, with a solid core group of friends. This is in stark contrast to his messy personal life, which is in a constant state of rapid decay. It’s a wonder Anna didn’t become belligerent drunk each time she siphoned off Sam’s supply of inebriated blood. The vampirism is second fiddle story-wise, though, with the real focus here on Sam’s discontentment with life. Habit, much like No Telling, uses the horror angle as a hook while making the meat of his story about a fractured life.
For his third feature, Wendigo (2001), Fessenden continued with his themes of man vs. nature, though this effort is decidedly more subdued and pondering, even more so than his previous two films. A family of three – father, George (Jake Weber); mother, Kim (Patricia Clarkson); son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) – head out of New York City and up to the mountains, where they’re planning to stay at a cabin in a small town. On their trip up George hits a deer, scaring the family and damaging the car. When George steps out to investigate he comes across Otis (John Speredakos) and his hunting buddies. They’d been after this buck and now George’s car has (however clearly inadvertently) cracked its prized antlers. Otis doesn’t take kindly to these “city folk” and gives George a hard enough time that the tension is palpable. Shaken, the family finally gets to their cabin and is able to unwind.
The next day Kim and Miles go to the drug store. While mom shops, Miles walks around and finds himself a cool figurine of a creature in a display case. An old Indian man who works there appears and tells Miles about the creature, known as a Wendigo. He gives Miles the statue free of charge. But when Miles tells his mom, who in turn asks the manager, Miles is shocked to hear no one else works at the store but the woman in front. A vacation of family bonding is what everyone has in store, but looming problems with Otis are soon coming to pass. He’s got a chip on his shoulder George doesn’t yet know about, and when an accident leaves someone in bad shape the laws of nature come into play to even out the score.
What Wendigo lacks is a compelling conflict. The arguing between Otis and George never feels like it should amount to anything more than it does, at that moment in time. It doesn’t make much sense why Otis would hold such a grudge… until it does; however, the reasoning behind Otis’ malevolence is still not compelling enough to warrant his actions. Speredakos plays Otis as more complex than a one-note redneck hunter, which may be to the character’s disadvantage because he seems capable of thinking more rationally than he does. The family’s own stresses aren’t much more than the usual work/kids variety. That aside, what makes the picture worth watching is Fessenden’s writing, which always presents his characters as authentic people. Their struggles may not be massive but they’re relatable. There are rarely lapses in logic with their actions, too. Kim gets a little less-than-sensible late in the film, though it’s nothing frustrating. The film also has another one of those sucker punch endings Fessenden seems to excel at writing. Fans of his earlier work should enjoy this one but will likely agree it’s a bit weaker.
The last disc here is, fittingly, The Last Winter (2006), Fessenden’s most polished and cinematic picture yet. The story is once again focused on man vs. nature, only there’s a clear narrative targeting global warming this time around. When an oil company makes plans to build ice roads in the Arctic, a research team is sent in to check on the environmental impact. Led by the hardnosed tough guy, Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), the crew is ready to tackle their assignment when suddenly one of them, Maxwell “House” (Zach Gilford), disappears. Just as they’re about to go out after him he returns, changed. Maxwell is distant, won’t eat and often stares out into space. The next morning he’s found miles from the camp site – dead, frozen solid and completely naked. The crew’s environmentalist, James Hoffman (James LeGros), suggests sour gas may be the culprit, as it causes hallucinations and insanity, and that the mission should be called off. Ed strongly disagrees.
During one scene, a character finds discarded documentation suggesting the planet is fighting back against humanity. We have mined the fruits of the earth for too long, too much, and now the planet is unleashing a “last winter” that will punish us. When a plane arrives to drop off another man and take back Maxwell’s body, it suddenly crashes and destroys a large portion of the camp shelter. Ed and James put their differences aside and head out to find help, but miles from camp and out in the cold the only thing they’re going to find is a warning from Mother Nature.
Fessenden almost overplays his hand with the film’s message, which is more salient than the way he usually presents his subtext. Man is bad; global warming is a slow punishment. Still, the reasoning put forth makes sense and Fessenden has it delivered by fleshed-out, strong characters played by very capable actors. I thought it was great to see James LeGros from Phantasm II (1988) as a pragmatic scientist who simply presents facts as he knows them, while Perlman’s character of Ed is a “shoot the messenger” type who takes a double disliking to Hoffman since he’s banging Ed’s ex, Abby (Connie Britton). The interplay between these two disparate people drives the film all the way through to the end. I loved watching James and Ed go at it constantly, with James remaining so cool and level while Ed blows up at the drop of a pin. “Goddamnit!” – constantly.
It was also cool to see Fessenden carry over something from a previous film, in this case the Wendigo. As with all of his other films, horror is merely a MacGuffin, an undercurrent, in his pictures, taking a backseat to characters’ lives. Here, he spends a good chunk of the third act showing off some big beasts and having them play a large part in the ending. The CGI used here actually works pretty well since the creatures are spiritual and not flesh and blood.
My Fessenden education now complete, I can definitely say this four-film collection is one of the most important releases by Scream Factory. Larry’s movies may not have massive cult followings or huge critical acclaim but what they do is present a single uncorrupted voice, unimpeded by studio mandates and outside influence. Larry Fessenden’s films are his films, with the man wearing many hats on each production. All of his films share common themes without being preachy, well-written – and acted – characters, and engaging stories with empathetic struggles. Anyone expecting full-on horror will be sorely disappointed. Those who enjoy slower, introspective films that unfold complex tales will (hopefully) enjoy this set as much as I did. Plus he shoots these things beautifully, with some expertly crafted camera movement and blocking. These films are not perfect, but I have such a strong admiration for what Fessenden does as an auteur that my enjoyment of his work is heightened. I really don’t understand how Beneath came out so poorly because his four features that preceded it are solid indie cinema.
Making the most of low budgets and employing a less polished shooting style, there are variances among Fessenden’s four titles shown here. Overall, the films look strong and are likely reproduced as faithfully as possible. The only real sore spot is Habit which, through no fault of Scream Factory, is presented as Fessenden shot it – in full-frame.
No Telling has a very indie aesthetic to it. Presented in 1.78:1 with a 1080p picture, the image features nicely saturated colors, with a slightly warm tint to them, average definition and stable black levels. There is only minor print damage and/or dirt to be seen. Film grain appears healthy and cinematic.
Habit receives a 1.33:1 1080p picture that looks very lo-fi, although that does assist in heightening the look Fessenden was hoping to achieve. Definition is moderate, occasionally poor, with many soft shots. Night shots explode with film grain, robbing the image of details in the process. Contrast is decent, though hardly spectacular.
Wendigo sports a very grainy 1.78:1 1080p image and this is because the film was hot on Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm. Personally, I love the heavy grain field; it adds a certain warmth to the picture. Don’t expect great detail or definition either, as both are just passable. Black levels look solid, and colors are nicely reproduced, although the palette is hardly vibrant. There are minor instances of white flecks on the print, which is generally quite pleasing.
The Last Winter is presented with a 2.35:1 1080p picture, and with a scope aspect ratio and a bigger budget this is easily Fessenden’s most cinematic feature to date. Grain, as expected, is present and marginally heavy. The locale of Iceland looks fittingly bleak and very white, with ice for miles and miles in every direction. Colors are pleasing, white levels don’t look blown out, nighttime shots show off moderate details and definition is acceptable.
This section can be kept brief, as each films gets the same audio options – English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound or 2.0 stereo. None of these films is a sonic wonder. Each picture is primarily populated with lots of dialogue and a somber, complementary score. Few bombastic moments can be found across the four films. Instead, the tracks carry subtleties, eerie atmosphere, and moody ominous cues. The score for each of Fessenden’s pictures feels right for that particular film and no other, yet they all have a similar style and use of melody that helps tie his movies together, however tenuously. Subtitles are available in English on all films.
Spread out across the four discs of this collection is a treasure trove of bonus features that fill in the gaps of Fessenden’s career between making feature films. In addition to audio commentary tracks on each picture, the set also includes short films, making-of featurettes, music videos, interviews, trailers and much more. Also included in the set is a 24-page booklet filled with information on each film, pictures, liner notes by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold, sketches, storyboards, and more.
DISC ONE: NO TELLING
Writer/Director/Executive Producer Larry Fessenden delivers his first of four audio commentaries here, touching upon recurring themes in his work, changes he’d make now with the benefit hindsight, and so forth.
“Making of No Telling” (1991) – Fessenden talks about his “modern Frankenstein tale”, which focuses on the horror of man abusing nature. Some on-set b-roll footage and FX work is also shown.
“Archival Footage” (1990) – After a present-day intro from Fessenden, the footage shown here is culled from the making of the movie.
“Short Film: White Trash (1980) with Music by Composer Will Bates” – The title here is taken literally, as a white guy is prepared for his ultimate resting place.
“Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel (1985-1990)”.
DISC TWO: HABIT
Once again, actor/director/writer/editor Larry Fessenden is on hand for an audio commentary track, this one discussing the autobiographical nature of the film, influences, themes, references and his style.
“The Making of Habit” (1995) – Once again we go back into Fessenden’s past, with the director providing narration (from 1995) over behind-the-scenes footage from the film, talking about reality vs. fiction, metaphors and more.
“Music Video: Save You From Yourself”.
The film’s theatrical trailer is included here.
Habit (1982), the original short film made by Fessenden.
“The Making of Habit” (1981) – This much older making of the short film piece features some behind-the-scenes footage and interviews.
“Short Film: N is for Nexus” – This was originally created for the film The ABCs of Death 2 (2014).
“The Making of N is for Nexus” shows some brief behind-the-scenes footage.
DISC THREE: WENDIGO
There are two audio commentary tracks here, the first with writer/director/editor Larry Fesseden; the second features actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and John Speredakos.
“Behind the Scenes – Searching for the Wendigo” – Fessenden tells of the story he heard back in 1972 that inspired this film, and then the piece gets into FX tests, behind-the-scenes footage and so forth.
“Interview with Larry Fessenden” (2001) – The director talks about the appeal to this subject matter and his approach.
“Wendigo: Animated Series Trailer” – Someone get this made because it looks pretty rad.
“Short Film: Santa Claws” (2008) – This was shot using lots of toys and it is trippy.
The film’s theatrical trailer is included along with “Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel” (2010).
DISC FOUR: THE LAST WINTER
Once again, there is an audio commentary with writer/director/producer/editor/actor Larry Fessenden.
“The Making of The Last Winter” is a documentary that runs for 1 hour and 46 minutes. As expected, given the length, this covers everything you could want to know and more.
“Archival Footage” (2005) – See Ron Perlman get pranked. It’s pretty funny.
“Short Films: Origins, Jebediah and Mister” – These three shorts were made by Fessenden to expand upon the world seen in the film Stake Land (2010).
“Music Video: Tired of Killing Myself”, by the band Just Desserts, of which Fessenden is a member.
“2015 Interview with Larry Fessenden” – Larry talks about the current state of horror, the film industry, his work, his place and more.
A “Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel (2014)” finishes off the extensive extras.
There is also a 24-page booklet included, with an essay by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold, storyboards, sketches, production photos and more. All of this comes housed in a sturdy slipcover. It’s a nice little package.
The Larry Fessenden Collection Bonus Features:
- 24-Page Booklet with liner notes by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold, featuring never-before-seen photos, storyboards and sketches.
- NEW director-approved HD Transfer
- NEW audio commentary with writer/director/executive producer Larry Fessenden
- Making of No Telling (1991)
- Archival footage (1990)
- Short Film White Trash (1979) with new music by composer Will Bates
- Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel (1985-1990)
- NEW director-approved HD Transfer
- NEW audio commentary with actor/director/writer/editor Larry Fessenden
- The Making of Habit featurette (1995)
- Short film Habit (1981) (20 minutes)
- The Making of short film Habit (1981)
- Save You from Yourself music video
- Theatrical trailer
- Short film N is for Nexus, from Magnet Releasing’s The ABCs of Death 2
- The Making of N is for Nexus
- Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped music video
- NEW director-approved HD Transfer
- NEW audio commentary with writer/director/editor Larry Fessenden
- NEW audio commentary with actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber and John Speredakos
- Search for the Wendigo – Behind the Scenes featurette (2001)
- Interview with Larry Fessenden (2001)
- WENDIGO: animated series trailer
- Short Film Santa Claws (2008)
- Theatrical trailer
- Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel (2010)
The Last Winter
- Audio commentary with co-writer/director/producer/editor Larry Fessenden
- The Making of “The Last Winter” – full-length documentary featuring deleted scenes
- Archival footage (2005)
- Short film Jebediah
- Short film Origins
- Short film Mister
- Tired of Killing Myself music video
- NEW 2015 interview with Larry Fessenden
- Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel (2014)