Not Your Average Monster Movies: Exploring the Many Monsters of Larry Fessenden
Sometimes, a monster is just a monster. More often than not, however, the horror genre has a habit of using terrifying creatures to explore all sorts of social, political and even psychological concepts. Over the years, ghouls, ghosts and ferocious beasts have represented everything from grief to fear of the unknown, adding substance to the age-old scares that afflict us. More recently, there’s one underrated filmmaker who’s made a career out of repurposing and resignifying classic monsters in order to tell surprisingly human stories, and his name is Larry Fessenden.
A native Manhattanite and lover of all things weird, Fessenden may not be a household name among casual horror fans, but this champion of independent genre cinema is a lot more influential than most folks seem to realize. Not only have his unconventional creature features developed a cult following over the years, but Fessenden has also mentored and promoted up and coming filmmakers like Ti West and Jim Mickle through his independently-owned studio, Glass Eye Pix.
Of course, a lot of people know Fessenden through his odd performances in films like I Sell the Dead and Jug Face (or even the popular videogame Until Dawn, which we’ll discuss later), but today I’d like to focus on another facet of his artistic output. To me, the most fascinating aspect of Fessenden’s work has always been his penchant for exploring the human soul through schlocky subject matter. Using monsters to talk about serious issues isn’t anything new, but few filmmakers take these outcasts and their stories as seriously as Fessenden does, gifting us with creature features that have a lot more to say than your average monster movie.
Even back in 1991, Fessenden’s second feature was already tackling Mary Shelley while chronicling the tragic decay of a loving marriage. The director had dabbled in horror with his previous projects, but No Telling (also known as The Frankenstein Complex) provided us with a scathing critique of corporate science alongside some visceral thrills. The “monster” here may be more human than usual, with most of the movie’s scares being relegated to unethical animal testing, but there are still some genuinely disturbing moments leading up to a gruesome climax. While not exactly the most popular of Fessenden’s films, it was certainly a sign of things to come, laying the groundwork for many of the director’s future projects.
With 1995’s Habit, Fessenden cemented his position as an expert on subverting horror, revamping another classic monster by making this vampire-centric picture take place in (then) modern-day New York City. By turning the blood-sucking affliction into a metaphor for addiction and the worst aspects of the human psyche (as well as a possible commentary on STDs), the director somehow managed to make a deeply personal experiment without sacrificing the romantic charms of the classic vampire. Featuring compelling performances by Meredith Snaider and Fessenden himself in a delightfully ambiguous romp with tongue-in-cheek references to vampire lore, this underseen gem is a great example of an artist projecting new meaning onto ancient tropes and giving them new life.
Snaider’s seductive performance as Anna is quite the departure from your usual bloodsucker, with the film refusing to outright confirm her vampiric nature while also drawing parallels between her supposedly monstrous qualities and the protagonist’s self-destructive qualities. It’s suggested that this kinky vampire might be more of a mysterious goth girl than a supernatural entity, but Habit is still an innovative revision of the vampire mythos, making the argument that there might be a little Nosferatu inside all of us.
This ambiguous approach to the supernatural would continue with Wendigo, a film that wound up accidentally redefining the Native American legend that inspired it. A poignant take on family ties and the inherited evils of America, this 2001 thriller is a lot more subdued than the advertising would have you believe. Through surreal imagery and shifting points of view, Wendigo combines the innocence of childhood with relatable adult fears while also experimenting with an appropriately mystical take on the titular monster. The finale might not please everyone, but Fessenden’s commitment to down-to-earth drama even when discussing otherworldly terror is admirable.
The Wendigo itself is largely absent for the majority of the film, only showing up in brief dreamlike sequences before the finale, but the movie depicts the creature as an ambivalent force of nature rather than a commentary on cannibalism and human malice. Despite appearing for only a few brief moments, the film’s surreal vision of a deer-headed giant with an inhuman gait ended up influencing future horror media, with the unique design gaining more notoriety than the movie itself.
Fessenden would continue to explore his fascination with this particular monster in future projects, each time focusing on a different aspect of the mythology. In 2006’s ecologically-minded ghost story The Last Winter, the director re-interprets fossil fuels as something akin to the biological memory of our planet’s past and introduces a spectral Wendigo as an antagonistic force. Borrowing from Algernon Blackwood’s iconic short story, The Last Winter sees the monster as a vengeful nature spirit striking back at humans and their destructive tendencies.
A few years later in Skin and Bones, an episode of the Canadian anthology series Fear Itself, Fessenden takes a more literal approach to the legend, having a family face off against an enraged Doug Jones in one of the most unsettling roles of his career. While Fessenden only directed this story from a script by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, it still feels like another personal take on a beloved monster, and clearly inspired the director’s next Wendigo-related project.
Stepping out of his comfort zone, Fessenden would try his hand at interactive horror by co-writing and appearing in Supermassive Games’ PS4 exclusive, Until Dawn. Despite his formidable filmography, this 2015 title is most likely the director’s best-known work, repurposing several ideas from his previous projects into a shiny new package. While the game initially presents itself as a slasher, the surprise appearance of Wendigos as vengeful mountain spirits unleashed by miners is right up Fessenden’s alley, with the tragic story making this one of the best horror games of the past generation.
Of course, the director dabbled in other monsters as well, going so far as to feature a man-eating catfish in his underseen 2013 feature Beneath. While it’s a surprisingly straightforward effort coming from such a peculiar director, Beneath is an unapologetically silly monster movie that confirms Fessenden’s self-proclaimed allergy towards all things pretentious by having simple fun with a goofy premise. Regardless, the film was something of a palate cleanser in between bleak stories, with the director’s next film being one of his darkest projects yet.
Once again borrowing from Mary Shelley, Fessenden created his most emotionally charged film with 2019’s Depraved, which sits alongside Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein as one of the best modern Frankenstein adaptations. While it has more in common with Shelley’s original Modern Prometheus than No Telling‘s ecological re-imagining, Depraved is a uniquely tragic and melancholy tale of loss and ambition which I’d recommend to anyone willing to shed a few tears in exchange for a genuinely gripping story. The setup may be familiar, but Alex Breaux’s heartbreaking performance as Adam and the story’s intimate look at a human being learning how to be a person again make this a beautiful retelling of Shelley’s classic, and further proof that the director is a true master of horror.
Fessenden may have made a career out of reimagining traditional horror tropes, but his movies aren’t good because they subvert expectations about classic monsters or turn them into poignant metaphors. They’re good because they feature genuinely compelling narratives with a lot of love and respect for their monstrous sources. Though he’s willing to revise mythologies in order to craft a better narrative, Fessenden’s work never places itself above the pulpy stories that inspire him.
His indie stylings may not be for everyone, but I think the horror genre is lucky to have an auteur that’s willing to explore bizarre and interesting places with his horror films. Be it vampires, wendigos or the undead, Fessenden has said that he sees monsters as a way to project our fears and wants onto the world, and I think that’s why his films always have a decidedly human heart underneath the fangs and claws. While there’s no telling what creature he’ll tackle next, I know that I personally can’t wait to see another Larry Fessenden monster movie.