Los Angeles Times
Noel Murray Dec 11, 2015
“The Larry Fessenden Collection” (Scream! Factory/IFC/Glass Eye Pix): One of the best arguments for the continued existence of physical media is this box set spotlighting the work of one of America’s most original horror auteurs. Fessenden has quietly put together a body of features, shorts and experiments that make more sense when they’re gathered all in one place than when they’re scattered.
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Icons Of Fright
Jerry Smith Oct 20, 2015
Blu Ray Review: The Larry Fessenden Collection
It’s impossible to speak on independent horror/genre films without mentioning the name Larry Fessenden. A true auteur and renaissance man, Fessenden has not only written and directed his own films, but through his company, Glass Eye Pix, Larry has helped pave the way for up and coming filmmakers looking to tell personal and original stories, such as Ti West, Jim Mickle and Mickey Keating. A filmmakers, producer, artist and all around genre staple, Fessenden and his 30 years strong Glass Eye Pix is not celebrated in THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION, a four disc set from Scream Factory, featuring Fessenden’s films NO TELLING, HABIT, WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER. We got a chance to check the collection out and while last year was the year of Scream Factory’s HALLOWEEN boxset, Fessenden’s set easily wins best boxset of 2015.
Kicking the boxset off, is Fessenden’s 1991 film NO TELLING, a film that not only tells a new and fresh Frankenstein-like story, but puts the subject of animal testing and pesticides under a genre microscope as well. It’s an in your face and sometimes very shocking film, that still, to this day holds up incredibly well. Dealing with an organic farming advocate who stumbles into a creepy reality in which a man does experiments and limb transplants from animal to animal, the film definitely shines a light onto the realities of animal cruelty and also cruelty to the environment, a theme that runs through a lot of Fessenden’s work.
While the film’s plot is an interesting one, the real standout of the film is the inventive camera work that Fessenden incorporated, camerawork that isn’t too far off from the Sam Raimi-style that made the EVIL DEAD series so much fun. There’s definitely an eye for creating interesting shots that you don’t see very often, and that approach, mixed with the very in your face and shocking material that fills NO TELLING‘s running time, it’s a very entertaining film and a perfect introduction to the filmmaker’s work.
On every film’s disc, there comes a large amount of supplemental features. NO TELLING‘s disc features a brand new HD transfer of the film, a new commentary from Fessenden, a making of shot for the film and the standout feature on every disc: Fessenden introducing various deleted scenes, archival footage, short films and a different sizzle reel for Glass Eye Pix, all focused on the era in which the four films included in the set were made. NO TELLING‘s disc features not only the short film, WHITE TRASH from 1997 but also includes EARLY YEARS: GLASS EYE PIX: 1985-1990, a short but entertaining look at the first few years of Fessenden’s production company. The footage of various art pieces that Glass Eye made is interesting, with everything from short films, to performance art and various other New York-based performances. It’s obvious from the first disc that Fessenden has always been more interested in creating thought provoking art, whether it be through his films, music videos or his desire to help nurture various other artists.
Disc two of the set features a film that is not only my favorite film directed by Fessenden, but is also my favorite vampire film of all time, 1995’s HABIT. bypassing the typical gothic elements and over the top approach to vampire films, Fessenden instead tells a very realistic and metaphorical story about Sam, a functioning alcoholic (played by Fessenden himself) who meets a woman named Anna at a party and soon begins an odd relationship with her, including having sex in public and the real kicker: being bitten by her in order to drink his blood. When Sam begins to get sick, it’s not like typical vampire films, and comes off more like an STD or virus.
What makes HABIT so interesting is that even with it dealing with a vampire, the film is grounded in reality, so when Sam confides in a friend that he thinks Anna is a vampire and is draining him of his blood and life, even he acknowledges how crazy it must sound. It’s a very down to Earth approach and works so very well, giving genre fans something different, interesting and completely inspiring on a filmmaking level. It’s one of the many things that Fessenden is continually able to do with every film he makes and even in just his approach: put an inspiration into up and coming filmmakers or people who want to tell stories in general. HABIT doesn’t look like a huge film, on the contrary, it feels very low budget and was very low budget, but that just shows that you can have very little money and still make an entertaining and important genre film if you have the passion and drive.
Like disc one, the second disc is full of HABIT based special features, such as a new HD transfer, a new commentary, a lengthy Making Of doc on the film and some fun others: the original short film version of HABIT that was made in 1982 (!), a music video directed by Fessenden, as well as Larry’s N IS FOR NEXUS segment that was in THE ABC’S OF DEATH 2 and a making of that segment to go along with it.
Disc three includes the 2001 film WENDIGO, which is, if you’re familiar with Fessenden at all, a lifelong obsession of his. Focusing on a photographer who takes his wife and son to upstate New York for a change of scenery and after accidentally hitting and killing a deer, pisses off a hunter played by THE MIND’S EYE‘s John Speredakos. The son, played by MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE‘s Erik Per Sullivan, soon hears of the legend of the Wendigo, a creature that is half animal and half human. Fear begins to mount inside of the young boy’s head and the Wendigo is used as a metaphor for some of the evil that lives in the hearts of some of the film’s characters.
Using monsters and various other themes as a metaphor for people’s flawed nature is a theme that Fessenden uses a lot in his films, and in WENDIGO, it’s front and center, with you as a viewer never fully knowing whether or not the Wendigo is real or if the human characters are just as evil as the legend they hide behind. While the film isn’t perfect (even Fessenden himself mentions how he wasn’t completely satisfied with the presentation of the Wendigo), it’s like NO TELLING and HABIT, a very different take on various horror tropes and one that for the most part, works very well.
As far as supplemental material goes, there’s a new HD transfer, two brand new commentaries, one with Fessenden and one with actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber and John Speredakos. There is also a Searching for Wendigo mini-doc, that has Fessenden speaking about the film and its themes. Archival footage, a trailer for a pitched WENDIGO animated series, a VERY entertaining short film called SANTA CLAUS and a secon Glass Eye Pix sizzle reel that focuses on everything up to 2010 is included as well.
Closing out the boxset, is 2006’s THE LAST WINTER. An environmental horror film involving an oil company’s attempt to build ice roads in order to transport their oil, THE LAST WINTER follows a team discovering that the spirits of the fossil fuels used might be coming back for revenge, including Fessenden mainstay, the Wendigo. Half creature film, half environmental statement, the film does a fine job speaking on important issues without coming off too preachy or in your face.
With a cast that includes Ron Perlman, James LeGros and Connie Britton, THE LAST WINTER is bigger than Fessenden’s previous films, with filming taking place in Iceland, a far cry from the days of stealing shots on the streets of New York. Even with a larger film and cast, Fessenden is still able to make THE LAST WINTER feel like a personal film, an ability that his films continually showcase. What Larry’s able to do is tell genre stories that never feel like genre films. Whether it’s NO TELLING‘s Frankenstein story, HABIT‘s vampire story, or WENDIGO‘s creature in the woods, Fessenden’s films take characters we know and stories we’ve grown up loving and does something new with them, injecting them into very personal stories in which the monsters aren’t necessarily the villains.
THE LAST WINTER‘s special features include a commentary, a feature-length making of documentary, archival footage, a music video for Fessenden’s band (great song btw), a brand new video interview with journalist Adam Nayman, a brand new 2015 Glass Eye Pix sizzle reel and a set of character backstory promos that Larry directed for Jim Mickle’s STAKE LAND.
A true auteur, Larry Fessenden is a genre staple, a DIY legend, a producer responsible for so many great films, and also a very good actor. This set not only gives genre fans four of the director’s films, but also helps celebrate Fessenden and his 30-year series of accomplishments. A must own boxset, filled with must own films and special features (including a 24-page booklet with notes from Fangoria’s Michael Gingold), THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION is something that every genre fan should not only consider picking up, but should RUN to buy.
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Larry Fessenden Is the Greatest Horror Film Director
You’ve Never Heard Of
by Adam Nyman
There’s a great moment in Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo (2001) where a small boy spooked by a nightmare stands at the top of the stairs outside his parents’ room; it’s a snapshot of childhood terror that prompts shivers of recognition. It’s tender and terrifying at the same time. Wendigo is a weird movie—cheaply produced, with wild shifts in tone from everyday drama to hallucinatory mania, and topped off with some ropey special effects—and yet for all its originality and lo-fi integrity, it never quite found the audience that it deserved.
The same thing can be said for Fessenden’s other films. Despite owning perhaps the most coherent body of work in modern American horror cinema, the New York based writer-director-producer-actor-raconteur is not a household name—even in households of hardcore horror fans. A new Blu-Ray collecting Fessenden’s first four feature filmsmight serve to make him less obscure. Or else, it’ll just remind diehards of what they already know: that this guy is one hell of a filmmaker.
Leaving aside his earnest but cheesy neo-Frankenstein riff No Telling (1988), Fessenden has contributed a trio of small classics to the monster-movie genre he loves so much: Habit (1995), which cleverly melded the iconography of vampire films to a tale of addiction; Wendigo (2001), a plangent end-of-childhood elegy invaded by a ravenous Native American spirit; and The Last Winter (2006), still the only American horror movie to directly address the nightmare of climate change.
That Fessenden has also spent the last 30 years advancing the cause of handmade personal cinema through his production company Glass Eye Pix—whose imprimatur can be found on the early work of his good friend Kelly Reichardt—only cinches the case on his behalf. VICE caught up with Fessenden via telephone from Los Angeles, where he was presenting a screening of Wendigo, to discuss the arc of a career in need of some champions.
VICE: You’ve only made five feature films since 1985 but you’ve directed episodes of television shows, developed video games, hosted online radio plays…. Do you see yourself as somebody who has done as much work as they can possibly do? Do you have any regrets that you haven’t made more movies along with everything else?
Larry Fessenden: I call myself a journeyman. I have a perspective that I think can be expressed in different mediums. I like to draw, I like to paint, I like music. I love exercising the power of sound by doing radio plays. I’m a performer, whatever that results in…I like exploring other peoples’ relationships to their art forms, too. I find that many of my comrades have even more powerful ideas about what they’re doing and I just watch. It’d be hard for me to only focus on my own work. I like peering around the corner at another person’s process. As far as regrets go, I’d like to be remembered for a body of films and I’m not working fast enough to have a sort of Hitchcockian canon of movies to my name. The pleasure of digging into his canon is something I won’t be able to offer—not that anybody wants it from me, anyway. It’s no big loss.
I’d say that what your movies represent is something pretty rare—a small body of genuinely personal horror films, or maybe genre films that express some kind of consistent philosophical worldview.
I particularly appreciate that iteration, an individual’s worldview. I think of myself as philosophical more than personal. Habit does appear to be a very personal film. It’s about demons and alcoholism and losing control and feeling the spectre of madness in your life… that’s a personal observation. But there are philosophical underpinnings there too, and those things also come out in the other films as well. Wendigo is about the usurping of land, the Native Americans overtaken by settlers, and then the settlers overtaken by yuppies. I’m always intrigued by how society functions and then how its dysfunctions are a reflection of our personal shortcomings. How does that manifest? How does it turn violent and ugly? That’s my thesis about collapse, and that’s in The Last Winter. One could make a comedy in response to these things, I suppose, because it’s possible to see them all as absurd.
It’s funny how the tropes of so many horror films seem to shield the people watching them—and making them—from larger and much more frightening realities.
Horror movies deal with reality even when the people making them aren’t aware of it. And they’re often quite reactionary. “If you have sex, you will be stabbed to death.” That’s a reinforcement of puritanical values, and those values seem to drive a lot of people anyway. So I say: let’s peel those clichés away, and let’s look at some real horror—some real things that we’re afraid of. And maybe we can be enlightened and go forth and make a better world. I always think that my films are hopeful, and that when people wake up in life they can try to make a change. That might not be true. That might be a presumption.
Sometimes it seems like the very worst horror movies—and I mean the ones that are bad in every way, from form to content to ideology—are the ones that succeed.
I have had no financial success. It’s essential to acknowledge that. But you can have a loyal fan base. There’s a history of worthwhile artists who didn’t find enormous remuneration but have a pocket of fans. This is a fate that I can only hope for.
So you can live with being a cult figure?
I think so. That’s one thing about getting older. I realize, for example, that when I was younger, Jaws was my favourite movie. I felt a kinship with Spielberg. I don’t think that I deserved to be him. I feel a kinship with Hitchcock, Polanski, and Scorsese, too. When I see their films, I know what they’re doing. I just didn’t have the mechanism to be as powerful as they were. Everyone has their weaknesses. I think that it’s a profound thing. You think about somebody like Ed Wood, who had so much passion—you can have all that passion and not be as good at something as you want to be. It’s not about self-pity. I think a lot of my faults stem from my having a marginalized perspective. The things that I like aren’t very mainstream. I like monsters. And monsters aren’t as popular as slasher movies, right now, or ghosts. You always have to account for your own taste.
With that in mind, what’s the mindset of a man who has earned himself a shiny new Blu-Ray box set?
I’ve worked pretty hard to get all these movies back under one roof—I had to sort of rescue Wendigo from total obscurity. So that was a challenge. I’m a collector-minded person, and none of my movies were on Blu-Ray, and none of them had been well transferred onto DVD since their VHS days, either. So I did it as an act of self-preservation. But I’ve also been mentoring a lot of guys, like Ti West and Jim Mickle and all the younger and less successful but still vital members of the Glass Eye Pix team, and I felt like it was good to establish what I’d contributed as a director to the horror genre, which has gone through many changes since I got started in the early 90s. I think I’ve tried to bring a personal authenticity to horror tales, and that wasn’t on the agenda. I wanted to make a little nod to my contributions, and also to 30 years of Glass Eye Pix, which is about celebrating everyone who’s worked with our little company. And I think we need little companies that are combating the genericization of cinema. So it’s not about personal glory, it’s about the glory of an idea—of auteur-driven cinema.
Talking about the passage of time: it’s funny to think that a technologically progressive medium like Blu-Ray is increasingly going out of date.
It’s a real heartbreaker. Even in New York City, you can no longer go to a video store and browse, and look, and discover some kind of unexpected gem. You can’t go to the Renoir section and realize you haven’t seen all those movies. You can’t go and sample the Cassavetes box set. You can’t just waste your money on new releases because you want to see the making-of featurette on Jurassic Park or Godzilla. You can’t put it on the shelf. It’s very sad. Books have disappeared as well. I can glance at the book shelf or the video shelf and absorb the ideas in there. It’s all vanishing now into the ether, and into the fucking streaming. Now, that’s reality. On the other hand, my son can now choose to watch almost anything on any night [with streaming]. I can say, “Let’s watch Basquiat, that’s a cool movie,” or All The President’s Men. That’s wonderful. I miss the tactility, though, and the special nature of graphics. The poster and the box art for a movie is really important, and that’s very much what I grew up with. When I wanted to get out of the house, or when I had writer’s block, I used to go to Kim’s Video and just wander amongst the shelves. It’s not the same to scroll through movies alphabetically on Netflix.
You’ve made movies on almost every format imaginable, from super-8 to 35 mm to digital video. Do you think that formats impose their will on artists, or are they defined by how artists use them?
I think part of it is always economic, and it’s always about what the trends are in theatres and what they want stuff delivered on. You can still capture on film but you’re going to end up delivering on DCP. I think the medium completely affects the work, by the way. If you see a movie called Wendigo, it’s going to use old-school techniques; its DNA is in the celluloid. That’s what that movie is all about—the grain and the texture.
That can turn into a fetishistic point of view—the idea of the superiority of celluloid over anything else.
I agree. I’m not a fetishist. I like doing different mediums—shorts, podcasts, video games, or audio dramas. I don’t feel so rigid about all that. I’m happy to make a movie in any way.
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The Austin Chronicle
DVDanger: The Larry Fessenden Collection
Horror’s underappreciated auteur on existential terror
Whale. Castle. Carpenter. Craven. Fulci. The great names of horror. But maybe there’s another, less known talent that should be added to this list. Larry Fessenden may never have had their commercial success, but the New York filmmaker’s impact on modern American horror, both artistic and personal, is indelible.
While Fessenden himself would probably blanch at the comparison, there’s a coterie of creatives at the forefront of the genre that might disagree. Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), Adrian Garcia Bogliano (Late Phases), Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff), Jim Mickle (Stake Land), and Mickey Keating (Pod, Darling) all have released films under the watchful gaze of Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix. Ted Geoghegan cast him in We Are Still Here like a lucky totem. And there are dozens more actors and directors who have been inspired over the years by his approach to making movies: Just get it done.
And now his own work gets a long overdue reappraisal with The Larry Fessenden Collection, a 4-disc collection of his directorial run from 1991 to 2006. “It’s nice to have it in one place,” said Fessenden with his signature humility.
Director, producer, writer, actor, editor, composer (often wearing multiple hats on the same project), Fessenden began his moviemaking career as a quasi-documentarian, the videographer for New York’s avant garde arts scene. The transition to horror seemed natural. “That’s just the way my brain is wired,” he said, “I see the world as having every potential of having something jump out at you.”
Yet the voluminous extras make this edition as much a history of his Glass Eye Pix shingle as it is of the man himself. That’s no surprise, since the company at heart is Fessenden himself, and whoever is around at the time. It started as a nom de plume, a way to work on films without having his name everywhere. That led to a career, as he put it, “helping people articulate their vision, starting with performance arts and moving on to people like Ti West.”
Now the brand has expanded from film to comics, video games, music, and audiodrama. Fessenden said, “We have so much crap that we have to take it to Comic-Con to get rid of it all.” He compares it less to a movie studio, and more to an old-school record label. “Stiff Records put out Elvis Costello, and you could see the office was just a bunch of crazy, excited people, and I wanted to do the same with Glass Eye.” He calls it “an umbrella … We’re outsider artists, we’re outside of the Hollywood system and at the very least, we’re guys and gals who want to tell original stories.”
There’s a philosophical connection between Fessenden the producer and Fessenden the director. He said, “I’m known as a middle man, trying to work out differences between people, and I think at the core of that is understanding that people have their own perspective.” All four films contained in this set (No Telling, Habit, Wendigo, and The Last Winter) tackle questions of perspective and unreliable narrators. He makes monster movies, but it’s rarely clear whether the creature is real, or just the lens through which the characters process the world. He said, “As Joseph Conrad said, we live as we dream – alone.”
And yet Fessenden is known at heart as a collaborator. However, he’d rather do that in the context of smaller productions. He said, “It’s not that I don’t like Hollywood, it’s just that there’s so much talk.” Take the two years he spent working on the U.S. adaptation of The Orphange. He said, “You can’t imagine the heartache. If you were an artist, and you had to wait around for someone to give you a canvas, you’d be insane. … that’s where I come in, and say, ‘Hey, kid, here’s an iPhone, go shoot something.'”
He admits he’s bad at taking his own advice on the point, but is finally prepping his next film (a follow-up to 2014’s Beneath) that he hopes to start shooting next year. First, there’s the collection to promote, but he’s still busy with the career of young talents. “I just made my son’s first feature, and he’s 15.”
Fessenden on No Telling (1991)
A medical researcher and his artist wife move to the countryside, where his clinical commitment to scientific methodology brings the couple into contact and conflict with a local environmentalist.
Fessenden calls his debut feature “overlooked, and probably with good reason.” It was born of his restless creative spirit: At the time, he was rewriting his rarely-seen student film Habit when he read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. “It’s considered a classic, the first great environmental book, and I read a bunch of them, and I was really inspired.”
The production became “a lumbering affair,” with non-SAG actors and some heavy-handed stylistic beats – something Fessenden admits. “Obviously, I wish it had a lighter touch,” he said.
However, his professional debut brings together the two themes – environmentalism, and the inscrutable uniqueness of individual experience – that dominate his work, with issues raised about the ethics of animal experimentation. While the film makes clear reference to Frankenstein, he said, “There’s nothing the doctor’s doing that’s outside of our ethical approval.” Moreover, it has become a fascinating milestone for the shifting sands under science. When it was made, the left was criticizing where big pharma and agribusiness was taking us: “Now, you want to stand for science. … In those days, questioning vaccination was mostly from the left, and somehow that’s been taken on by the right, who are against anything that comes from the government.”
Fessenden on Habit (1995)
A New Yorker delves into madness, obsession, and passion with a woman who may or may not be a vampire – and may or may not even exist.
“Madness is just that your perspective is so off-sync from the real world that you’re not in sync at all.” This was real guerrilla cinema. “We made it for 60 grand at the time, and I think it stands as a monument to independent filmmaking,” said Fessenden. It was also a do-over: originally shot on video in 1982 as his student project, he said, “I definitely knew that the original didn’t have too much in it that I liked.” However, its core theme – of the subjectivity of experience – still spoke to him. He said, “Madness is just that your perspective is so off-sync from the real world that you’re not in sync at all.”
Just as Carson’s environmentalism influenced No Telling, Habit shows the influence of Jean Paul Sartre and other philosophers. He said, “I’m making a movie as Immanuel Kant would, where there’s an objective reality and a subjective reality.”
Not that it’s all serious. “You have the pleasure of making a vampire movie, and all the sex, and falling in love, and being too much in love.” Fessenden also describes it as “a great New York time capsule.” When he shot the original “we had the tent city in Tompkins Square Park [and] now they have a swing set.” Not that Fessenden laments the loss of the poverty and squalor of the era (much like fellow New Yorker Abel Ferrera, he doesn’t miss the rats and roaches). However, he fears “the genericizing of the city. … What I do regret is that every corner has a bank, every corner has a 7-11, and they’re pushing out the bodegas, and they’re what gave the city its character.”
Fessenden on Wendigo (2001)
A family goes for a quiet winter weekend rural retreat, only to find themselves in conflict with the locals. As the clash turns bloody, their son becomes convinced that supernatural forces are close at hand.
The myth of the Wendigo – the chimeric Native American cannibal spirit that wanders the woods – has obsessed Fessenden for decades. He even has an academic work on the story being published soon. Here, it becomes an expression of nature as a morally ambivalent force against human selfishness.
Fessenden called it “a very simple, very real story of growing up and seeing your father threatened, and realizing that the world is a volatile place and you have to man up.” It was inspired by childhood vacations, where he’d sit in the back of the family Ford Torino on the way to Vermont. “I was thinking about things like, ‘Do we all see the same color?’ … That slippery reality was always part of my wondering about the world.”
The theme of subjective reality is expressed through the unlikely casting of Erik Per Sullivan as the son. At that point, he was best known as youngest brother Dewey in Malcolm in the Middle: Here Fessenden saw in him “a slight, weirdly detached quality, that’s what I like about my kid. … This was a mood piece, it was barely a story, and you just go deeper and deeper into this dreamlike place.”
As the violence mounts, it’s hard not to see a kinship to the great treatise on innocence lost, 1985’s Come and See. “You just named my favorite movie,” Fessenden said. “I was drunk with that film at the time.”
While this is arguably Fessenden’s most famous film, it was the hardest to get in this box set, due to some complicated rights issues. It’s also the film that he has re-edited repeatedly, with even a change for this release. “I just stuck in an extra shot for fun.”
Fessenden on The Last Winter (2006)
A team of oil explorers in Alaska are sent to open a new well, but discover the melting permafrost is unleashing more than just trapped methane.
Just as frustration with the original version of Habit lead to its remake, Fessenden was left with a nagging itch from Wendigo. The climactic final sequence was supposed to be a chase scene on virgin snow, “this amazing white canvas with these spindly little trees with two characters running through it.” Of course, the snow melted before he could get that shot.
With the vague idea of scratching that itch, he traveled to Alaska, where the growing and dangerous oil industry informed his script. He said, “It seemed like a perfect metaphor for my normal stuff, global warming, greed, human arrogance.”
While the movie is set in Alaska, Fessenden actually shot on the snowscapes of Iceland. He described them as “terrifying,” but that only reenforced his feelings on global warming as “a betrayal. … You realize, why do you defend this place, it could be another planet. But that’s the point, you don’t just defend the pretty places and the flowers and puppies, you defend nature in its entirety.”
It was arguably the toughest physical shoot of his career, as proven by the two hour making-of documentary included in this release (“I told the crew we’re only doing the film to be an extra on the disc”). “You just have to forget the fact that you’re several hours from a hospital [but] my crew was a bunch of vikings. There’s no bullshit, there’s no craft services, there’s just making movies. An incredible crew: They knew the land, they knew the sky, they knew filmmaking.”
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“THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION” (Blu-ray Review)
What defines a “Master of Horror” among the fright filmmakers past and present? Is it the prolific nature of the filmmaker, having had years and years of terror title under their belts? Is it the strength of the films they make, even if they work only once in a blue moon? Or is it the originality of the filmmaker, offering something completely unique and different with each passing title that can’t be seen quite anywhere else?
In one way or another, Larry Fessenden is a filmmaker that falls into all three categories. Yet even for all of his amazing work behind the camera, Fessenden is best known to contemporary audiences for his on-screen roles (in projects such as I SELL THE DEAD, THE STRAIN, JUG FACE and UNTIL DAWN) or his production company Glass Eye Pix, which has introduced the world to the likes of Jim Mickle and Ti West. However, Fessenden is an outright horror auteur and with the help of MPI and Scream Factory, a whole new generation can discover Fessenden’s incredible output in stunning high definition.
THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION is almost a complete career retrospective for the NY-based fright filmmaker, with the exception of his FEAR ITSELF episode and BENEATH (2013), although Scream Factory had already released that film prior to this set. The set comprises of: NO TELLING, Fessenden’s emotionally gut-wrenching story of a couple driven apart by ambition and sacrifice; HABIT, a romantic horror story about a man convinced his new love may be a vampire; WENDIGO, a tale about a family whose vacation is interrupted by a supernatural presence; and THE LAST WINTER, a film about a remote drilling station that becomes subject to bizarre, unexplained occurrences. Furthermore, the set offers almost every facet of the filmmaker’s career, from his music with the Just Desserts to his early short films to his contribution to the ABCs OF DEATH 2 and STAKE LAND shorts, all of which are impressive in their own right.
With each film sporting a unique look, having been shot in different aspect ratios with different film stocks, the high definition transfer for each film is rather exceptional, especially considering that at least one of the films is out-of-print on DVD. While the video clarity honestly depends on the film stock, with the fantastic HABIT being the grainiest of the bunch, the films have honestly never looked better, with NO TELLING sticking out as the one whose visual elements are most complimented by the high-def upgrade. Meanwhile, all the films come with a 5.1 DTS Audio Mix that ranges from immersive (THE LAST WINTER) to, at the very least, complimentary (WENDIGO). But above all, these transfers show just how modern of a filmmaker Fessenden has been 30 years now, with these films each feeling as contemporary as contemporary can be.
However, perhaps there is no set this year that Scream Factory has put more time and energy into assembling than THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION. NO TELLING features a wealth of vintage and archive footage, a 10-minute Fessenden short entitled WHITE TRASH, a Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel and an amazing commentary from a proud yet honest Fessenden. HABIT features “N is for Nexus” (from THE ABCs OF DEATH 2) and an accompanying ‘Making Of’, the original HABIT short film from 1981 and an accompanying ‘Making Of’, a 25-minute HABIT ‘Making Of’, Two Music Videos and another candid commentary track. WENDIGO features two commentary tracks (one with Fessenden and another with actors Jake Weber, John Speradakos and Patricia Clarkson), the 5-minute short SANTA CLAWS, a 30-minute Behind-the-Scenes doc, an interview with Fessenden and even an WENDIGO: THE ANIMATED SERIES trailer. And THE LAST WINTER features a feature-length ‘Making Of’ doc, 20-minutes of Archival footage, three STAKE LAND shorts, the oh-so-catchy music video for TIRED OF KILLING MYSELF by the Just Desserts, a 2015 interview with Fessenden himself and an anecdotal commentary track from the filmmaker as well.
Whether you’ve been singing his praises for years or you’ve never seen any of his frightening features, THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION is a gateway into one of the most under-appreciated and compelling minds in horror storytelling. It’s hard not to become engrossed into Fessenden’s eerie and original worlds, and his perspective on nature, human nature and interpersonal drama in times of duress is unlike any other. THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION comes highly recommended, and once you check it out, there will be little doubt that he’s deserving of the “Master of Horror” mantle.
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The AV Club
Noel Murray October 21, 2015
The Larry Fessenden Collection makes the case for an indie-horror iconoclast
Digital media has its advantages—portability and durability chief among them—but there’s still no substitute for a good, extras-packed DVD or Blu-ray box set when it comes to putting important work into a larger context. The Scream! Factory/IFC Midnight/Glass Eye Pix co-production The Larry Fessenden Collectioncontains nice-looking transfers of four feature films by the New York art-horror impresario: 1991’s anti-vivisectionist Frankenstein riff No Telling; 1995’s vampire/addiction drama Habit; 2001’s man-vs.-nature monster movie Wendigo; and 2006’s global-warming eco-thriller The Last Winter. But just as important are the collection’s commentary tracks, interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and samples of Fessenden short films and documentaries dating back to the late 1970s. There’s no easy way for a download or streaming video—or even a repertory retrospective—to replicate the archival quality of The Larry Fessenden Collection. It’s the ephemera gathered in this set that makes such a strong case for a filmmaker who’s often overlooked.
For that subset of cinephiles who aren’t horror aficionados, Fessenden is probably best-known for Habit andWendigo, two films that walk a narrow line between fantasy and naturalistic drama—and that won acclaim from mainstream critics.Habit is the more original work, even though it came out in the mid-’90s amid a glut of similarly allusive and edgy vampire pictures. Fessenden himself stars as Sam, an alcoholic New York artist and restaurant manager who’s dealing with a recent break-up and the death of his successful father when he meets Anna (Meredith Snaider), a mysterious, sexually aggressive woman who unnerves his friends. As their sex gets kinkier and his health declines, Sam begins to share his suspicions within his social circle that he’s dating some kind of supernatural soul-sucker. But because he’s such a dodgy fellow, no one heeds his cries for help. Based on a video project Fessenden made at NYU’s film school—the short version of which is included in the box set—Habit calls back to the improvisational rawness of New York filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese for a film that’s more an atmospheric, finely observed character sketch than a shocker.
Wendigo is more overtly a monster movie, playing up the ominous portents when a well-off Manhattan family travels upstate to clear their heads in a country house—where they deal with disgruntled hicks and rumors of ancient spirits in the woods. Fessenden had a little more money to work with in Wendigo, as well as a more professional cast, with Jake Weber playing cynical commercial photographer George, Patricia Clarkson playing his wife Kim, and Malcolm In The Middle’s Erik Per Sullivan as their young son Miles. But while the last third of his film becomes ostensibly one long chase through the snowy wilderness, involving a towering, antlered man-beast, Fessenden again seems more interested in what his characters are going through when they’re not living in fear of gun-toting hunters or were-deer. Specifically, Wendigo is about George’s worries that he’s a sellout, and his anxiety over whether he’s providing Miles with a strong enough male role model. In some horror films, those kind of personality details feel tacked-on. In Habit andWendigo, sometimes it’s the horror that seems superfluous.
The two features that flank Habit and Wendigo in The Larry Fessenden Collectionshare some of their strengths—but more of their weaknesses. The Last Winter has an even more polished look than Wendigo, and a higher-profile cast. Ron Perlman, Connie Britton, James Le Gros, Kevin Corrigan, and Zach Gilford play a rugged band of oil-company employees and environmentalists who have differing opinions on drilling in the arctic. But Fessenden’s usual strategy of exploring everyday lives and personal melodramas while minimizing the paranormal (represented here by vengeful, mostly unseen nature-spirits) comes out flatter and more diffused with the larger ensemble. No Telling is stronger because it’s more focused, following a married painter who comes to realize that her relationship is stuck on autopilot—and that her husband may be a secret animal-torturing maniac. Again, Fessenden is more interested in the first half of that revelation than the second, although this time he waits a little too long to shift gears fully from domestic strife to terror. In the meantime, he deftly examines how easy it is for the socially and financially comfortable to become complacent, presuming their lives of privilege haven’t come at anyone’s expense.
Fessenden doesn’t have much of a unifying visual style. His shots are well-composed, and he achieves some expressionistic effects wth camera moves (seen most memorably in No Telling’s rapidly retreating camera) and editing (as inWendigo’s periodic flurry of jump-cuts). But Fessenden uses the little flourishes sparingly. Instead, what carries over in his work is a keen understanding of what preoccupies and often divides people—be it disagreements over public policy or a creeping sense of distrust.
Because Fessenden has only made five features in the past 25 years (the fifth being 2013’s disappointingBeneath), it’s been hard at times to pinpoint exactly what makes him special. The box set helps, because in addition to extensive comments from the man himself, The Larry Fessenden Collection covers a lot of what he’s been doing between the bigger films: making shorts and music videos, serving as a producer for his friends’ horror and art-cinema fare, and working as a character actor. All those other pieces come together here into collage-like picture of Fessenden, showing him as an industrious DIY type, biding his time and staying on the margins so that he can create work of uncompromised personal vision.
In one of the interviews here, Fessenden talks about how the independent film market has changed over the last quarter-century, and how the support of genre fans—a crowd still willing to pay to own movies—kept his company Glass Eye Pix going when the festival and arthouse circuits rejected its output as too esoteric for thrill-seekers and too pulpy for serious adults. The collector’s mentality of those horror connoisseurs is partially responsible for this set. The rest of the credit goes to Fessenden, who’s been quietly assembling an impressive legacy, and now has a handy container to hold it.
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Nicholas Bell October 27, 2015
The Larry Fessenden Collection | Blu-ray Review
Scream Factory and IFC Midnight have paired up to present an inspired disc set for The Larry Fessenden Collection, an assortment of four of the director’s most notable genre films. Migrating between a number of notable projects as a character actor (he usually appears as some peripheral, grizzled weirdo, showing up in titles by Scorsese, Neil Jordan, and Kelly Reichardt, amongst others), he’s also a noted producer, editor, screenwriter, and cinematographer. But Fessenden’s made his most striking impression with a growing body of genre oriented independent directorial efforts. Usually prizing strong characterization amidst situations of mounting dread, Fessenden seems fascinated with testing the strengths and inherent weaknesses of mankind, and it’s probably easiest to label his filmography as environmental horror.
Out of Fessenden’s own production company Glass Eye Pix, 1991’s No Telling (or the Frankenstein Complex) melds motifs of Mary Shelley’s famed mad scientist with modern animal experimentation. Geoffrey Gaines (Stephen Ramsey) is a medical researcher working for a corporation called Fex, and studying a hypothesis on something called ‘chemo-electric therapy.’ Receiving a grant for his research, Geoffrey relocates his artistically oriented wife Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie) to the countryside where he locks himself into a lab with his secret research. Lillian, meanwhile, feels even more estranged from her husband of three years and begins a casual flirtation with local organic farmer Alex (David van Tieghem). Soon, it becomes apparent that Geoffrey is performing Mengele-like experiments on local farm animals, even abducting a young girl’s little doggie from a nearby farm. Enhanced by Fessenden’s own idiosyncratic editing, the film is filled with arresting visual sequences, culminating in its rather grisly finale.
Fessenden’s most accomplished work is his 1995 film Habit, his only outing where he also casts himself as the lead protagonist. Michael Gingold’s insert essay aligns Fessenden’s film with two other low-fi vampire films from the same period of American cinema, Michael Almeryeda’s Nadja (produced by David Lynch) and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction). It captures a certain gritty New York energy of the period, not unlike the texture of a Larry Cohen production. Fessenden gives a great performance as a man headed for a breakdown after losing everything, including his father, and the dissolution of a troubled relationship. Battling alcoholic tendencies, he meets the sexually ambiguous Anna (Meredith Snaider) at a Halloween party. She’s a bit too pretty and polished for Fessenden’s down and out vagabond, but it becomes clear increasingly Anna may be a vampire. It was the first major credit for DoP Frank G. DeMarco, who would go onto work regularly with John Cameron Mitchell as well as J.C. Chandor on All is Lost (2013).
In 2001, Fessenden returned to his ecological interests with an inventive addition to the werewolf genre via the Native American legend of the Wendigo (something John Landis reconstitutes to silly effect in the 2005 season of the Masters of Horror series with “Deer Woman”). Starring the incomparable Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber as a family taking a wintry break from reality with their precocious son (Erik Per Sullivan) in a set-up similar to the beginning of something like The Shining (1980), Fessenden jumps into mankind’s habit for abusing nature. As seen from the perspective of the young boy, there may or may not be an angry woodland spirit materializing to exact retribution. The film features Fessenden’s most inventive use of special effects, sidestepping potential silliness with a rather haunting genre effort, lensed spectacularly by Terry Stacey, who has gone on to lens a variety of milquetoast romantic melodramas (Safe Haven; This is Where I Leave You).
The last addition to the collection is Fessenden’s most popular work, the 2006 title The Last Winter, shot on location in Iceland and unfortunately hobbled by a bit of third act CGI that compromises the rather compelling ecological message. Unravelling like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) but with the dialed down characterizations from No Telling, including a love triangle between a woman and two men of clashing viewpoints, Fessenden gets great performances from James Le Gros, Ron Perlman, and Connie Britton while Kevin Corrigan and Zach Gilford each have memorable moments. On a remote oil drilling station, an ornery head of operations (Perlman) is upset to return to find an environmental consultant (Le Gros) has not only taken the affections of his colleague/plaything (Britton) but has dire warnings about the facility’s damaging effects on the local environment. Fessenden and co-writer Robert Leaver assert that these fossil fuels are provided at the expense of the environment, and thus, we are virtually haunted by an angry mother nature and the spirits of the deceased creatures now rebelling against the virus of mankind. To date, it’s Fessenden’s most elaborate and ambitious directorial effort, and unfortunately it failed to recoup its budget at the box office.
Shout Factory presents these four titles in HD for the first time, and for those unfamiliar with Fessenden’s considerable body of work, this is a great discovery. Not only are these excellent transfers, but each title is accompanied by an extravagant amount of bonus features, including optional audio commentary from Fessenden on each feature.
Making of No Telling
A twenty four minute feature finds Fessenden speaking on the impetus of the film.
A twenty-six minute feature has Fessenden introducing footage not included in the making of feauturette.
Short Film “White Trash” (1979)
A Super 8 short, which Fessenden counts as his second project is available on the disc.
Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel (1985-1990)
To track the progress of his projects, Fessenden includes a sizzle reel on these discs, beginning with his production company Glass Eye Pix in 1985.
The Making of Habit Featurette
The twenty-four minute feature includes raw footage narrated by Fessenden on this project, using the vampire as a metaphor, “new truths using old clichés.”
Short film “Habit” (1981)
Fessenden’s seventeen minute short film from 1981, providing the original ideas behind the 1995 feature, is included.
The Making of short film “Habit”
A five minute segment finds the director discussing the difficulties making this film, initially meant for feature length, which proved to be a difficult feat at the time.
Save You from Yourself Music Video
A music video for the track used in the film is available.
Short film “N is for Nexus” from The ABCs of Death 2 –
Fessenden’s four minute segment from the anthology film is isolated here, a tale of accidental tragedy costumed in classic movie monster imagery.
The Making of “N is for Nexus”
Nearly as long as the segment itself, this four minute bit of footage finds Fessenden working behind the scenes.
Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped Music Video:
Fessenden introduces this music video he directed for the band Life in a Blender, which he claims is connected to the “Nexus” segment thematically.
Search for the Wendigo
Behind the Scenes – This thirty two minute making of featurette aims to maintain the mysterious attitude of the film as Fessenden does his best to convey the long-gestating interest he’s had in the subject, dating back to a third grade classroom experience in 1972.
Interview with Larry Fessenden (2001)
An eight minute interview from 2001 has the director speaking about the origins of the film and its intentions as a fable.
Wendigo – Animated Series Trailer
Fessenden presents a trailer for “Manitou Valley,” a proposed television series.
Short film “Santa Claws” (2008)
Shot in one day, Fessenden includes this project, a stop motion animation effort, intended for a creepy Christmas film festival.
Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel (2010)
An updated sizzle reel of Glass Eye Pix productions is included, with titles from other artists that have been funneled through Fessenden’s company.
The Last Winter
The Making of The Last Winter
The near two hour feature is a comprehensive examination of the title, beginning with initial location scouting, story development, special effects, and the eventual shoot, including cast and crew interview footage.
Archival Footage (2005)
Fessenden includes eighteen minutes of footage from the period not included in the making of feature.
Short films “Jebediah” “Origins” and “Mister”
Fessenden, in an effort to create an evocative marketing campaign for Jim Mickle’s Stakeland, Fessenden includes three shorts from other directors, with screenplays written by Nick Damici.
Tired of Killing Myself music video
A five minute music video with Fessenden and his usual collaborators (an interesting juxtaposition from the music video for Save You From Yourself in 1995).
New 2015 Larry Fessenden Interview
Journalist Adam Nayman conducted this twenty-two minute interview with Fessenden in March of 2015 which finds the director speaking of the evolving treatment of the horror genre and how it’s now an legitimate independent offering.
Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reel (2014)
A two minute sizzle reel of more updated Glass Eye Pix releases is included.
Championed by Guillermo Del Toro as “one of the most original voices to emerge in the horror field,” (although Fessenden is no longer attached to direct the English language version of Del Toro’s produced The Orphanage due to rumored casting issues), these are four highly inventive titles from a filmmaker who still flies under the radar. Although the absence of his last feature, 2013’s Beneath is rather curious considering Shout Factory owns the distribution rights, Fessenden is consistently intriguing, his films a haunting testament to the destructive forces of mankind, often featuring someone plagued by the awareness that the universe contains powerful forces they (or, rather, we) are too afraid or unwilling to acknowledge.
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Chris Coffel October 26, 2015
‘The Larry Fessenden Collection’ – 4 Films from the Mind of a Genius
Larry Fessenden is the perfect example of a jack-of-all-trades. When it comes to filmmaking he’s pretty much dabbled in every aspect of it imaginable. You need a script? Larry’s got that. Maybe a DP? He’s got you covered there as well. Editor, producer, actor, director? Go ahead and place checks in each one of those boxes. Scream Factory and IFC recently released The Larry Fessenden Collection. This is a 4-disc Blu-ray set that features what is essentially Fessenden’s first 4 feature films as director. Before this set I had only seen his work as producer and actor, so this was a whole new experience. Seeing his work as an actor and producer is one thing, but finally seeing him spread his wings as director, writer and editor really allows you to take in his artistic talents and truly appreciate how gifted he is.
The four films included on the set are No Telling, Habit, Wendigo and The Last Winter. This is a range of 15 years, starting in 1991 and finishing up in 2006. I watched all four movies in two nights, doing a double feature each evening. Watching the four films like I did, back-to-back-to-back-to-back, allowed me to clearly see the progression of Fessenden as a director. It was pretty cool and as whole I think it made each movie more enjoyable and allowed me to truly appreciate the filmmaker that Fessenden is.
No Telling – 1991
Fessenden made his debut as a director in 1991 with No Telling. Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie) & Geoffrey (Stephen Ramsey), a young married couple, buy a house out in the countryside on a nice lot of land. They’re trying to take a break from the city life and have a little more free time to enjoy one another. In addition to the extra time spent on their marriage, this move will have the added benefit of helping them both professionally. The farmhouse the couple purchased comes with two barns that each one is able to turn into their own personal workspace. Lillian is an artist and she creates her own little studio. Not only does she have more space to work, but the beauty of the countryside provides new inspiration. Geoffrey is a scientist hoping to make a big breakthrough. He’s able to use the larger of the two barns as his laboratory, allowing him to work in a secluded, mostly secure area.
On the surface everything seems to be good. Lillian and Geoffrey appear to have a healthy, stable relationship. However, it soon becomes clear that their relationship isn’t as happy as it appears. We soon find out that each one had different expectations as to what the move would bring. Things really begin to get awkward when they meet Alex (David Van Tieghem), another scientist who lives in the area. Right off the bat you can tell Alex is smitten with Lillian and her of him, but Geoffrey seems to not mind. It’s not as if Geoffrey is oblivious to it, he just seems more concerned with his work.
As the film progresses Geoffrey focuses more and more on his work and we slowly begin to get hints as to what he’s working on. His experiments involve animals. He starts small with lab rats and things of that nature but eventually moves up to raccoons, then dogs and finally to a small calf. We soon discover the purpose behind these grizzly experiments is to try and replace limbs. The final experiment results is such a sad, grim creation. Despite the film not being incredibly graphic, things do get a little hard to watch at times.
While Geoffrey is losing himself in his work, Lillian is desperately trying to hold her marriage together while also trying to resist the temptation to hook up with Alex. As their relationship develops we kind of learn that while Alex has a lot of similarities to Geoffrey, he’s in many ways his complete opposite. It’s easy to see the appeal he offers to Lillian. Geoffrey and Alex seem to have the same end goal in mind – they both want to make the world a better place. The difference is Geoffrey will do whatever it takes, he’s more of an end justifies the means type of guy. Alex on the other hand wants to do everything the right way, respecting all living things along the way.
No Telling is so layered with a lot crammed into it’s 93 minute runtime. On the surface it’s about the struggles of marriage and how this one in particular is falling apart. You have to get that perfect balance between your business life and your personal life and for Geoffrey that’s the struggle. He’s 100% dedicated to his work. He even mentions that to Lillian multiple times, stating that he needs to dedicate his summer to work. The bigger picture deals with environmental issues. As humans we can’t go around playing god and going up against nature. That’s exactly why Geoffrey does. No Telling in a way is Fessenden’s take on Frankenstein. Geoffrey is your classic mad scientist.
Going beyond the mad scientist aspect, No Telling dives deeper into environmental issues in promoting organic, chemical free farming. That’s sort of Alex’s whole thing, that’s what he’s all about and represents. On that note you have to say Fessenden was quite some years ahead of the game. I can’t imagine a lot of people promoting an organic lifestyle back in 1991.
It’s shocking to me that this is a debut feature. It’s not polished and feels incredibly raw, but Fessenden displays such a confident style. This was the first of his movies I watched, but once I watched the other three on this set it became very clear that you can recognize a Fessenden film pretty easily. It’s almost like the early work of Sam Raimi, he even seems to borrow a few steadicam shots, but instead of being so frantic the movie has an almost uneasy calmness to it. The tension is thick but it’s a slow build.
No Telling isn’t your traditional horror film, but it most definitely is a horror film. Fessenden takes very real people, puts them in a real environment and gives them real consequences. While it may not be scary, it has more than it’s fair share of disturbing moments, the final scene in particular is likely to linger with you for a while. And like most great horror movies No Telling provides a social commentary without being preachy and in-your-face.
Habit – 1995
Fessenden’s follow up to No Telling and naturally the second film on this collection is 1995’s Habit. Wow, I’m not even sure to where to begin with this film. Habit is such a bizarrely fascinating look at a man whose life is unraveling in large part due to alcoholism but also possibly vampirism. That’s a weird sentence, I know, but then so is this movie.
Habit is the only movie Fessenden directed in which he also serves as the film’s star. In this case that star is Sam, a man in his 30’s living in New York City. His father recently passed away, his girlfriend just moved out and he’s battling a serious addiction to alcohol. Likely only aiding to make the alcohol problem worse, Sam manages a bar four nights a week where he proceeds to drink and hang out with friends who do a fair share of drinking. Sam is pretty much always drinking, except for when he’s trying to recover from a hangover, although that too sometimes consists of drinking.
On Halloween Sam goes to a party at the home of his friends, Nick and Rae. Of course Nick proceeds to drink there and get pretty wasted, but he does meet a girl named Anna (Meredith Snaider). Anna and Sam immediately lock eyes and you can tell there is a mutual interest between both parties. This is quite strange because Anna is a very attractive young woman who looks like she could have anyone at the party yet she hones in on Sam, who by all accounts is a mess. Sam is drunk at the party and you can tell he’s drunk all the time. His hair is a mess, he’s missing a front tooth and he just generally looks like someone who doesn’t have it together. Yet Anna sees something in Sam.
Over the course of the next few weeks Sam and Anna begin seeing one another but it’s a strange relationship that progresses quite fast on some levels. Anna seems to arrive and disappear without notice. When it’s dark she’s there but by the time Sam wakes up each morning Anna has disappeared. Their relationship consists of mostly having aggressive sex in odd public places – a city park, apartment rooftop, hospital room with a dead body nearby and so forth. Sam is having the time of his life. Or so he thinks.
Then Sam begins to get sick. He starts to think Anna is a bit too aggressive. Then his sickness progresses and that’s when Sam starts putting the pieces together. Anna only shows up at night. He can’t think of one time he saw her during the day in their month or so together. She doesn’t talk about her personal life, not at all. She says she has a job, but won’t disclose what that job is. And the real tipping point is that every time the two have sex, Anna bites Sam and sucks his blood. Even when he doesn’t realize she’s doing it, he wakes up with little bit marks. Of course she must be a vampire!
Whether or not Anna is a vampire we never truly know. Yeah, we see things here and there that would definitely lead us down that path. Some subtle and some right out there in the open. But then we have to remember we see things through the eyes of Sam, who is a drunk going through an incredibly rough patch in life. So what we’re seeing, is it real? Fessenden is pretty ambiguous about this. This is left up to the audience to decide and I’d wager that every individual person that watches this film will draw their own conclusions.
For me the movie starts as this romantic drama and then half way through switches gears to a full on vampire flick. This works so well because vampires have always had a sexual nature to them. Vampires are hypnotic, they can pull you into a trance and for the most part they look like regular people. Sure they only come out at night, wear all black and are very pale, but that sounds like plenty of people I know. I think this is partly why you see so many movies with vampires placed into real worlds. They’re just a natural fit.
Habit is probably my favorite of the 4 Fessenden movies on this collection. Every performance is real and natural. This is all made the more impressive because much like No Telling, the cast is primarily made-up of actors that have done very little outside of this film. I take that to mean most of the cast is comprised of Fessenden’s friends and if that’s the case it’s even more impressive that he was able to get his friends to do some of these things. The film also contains a very raw quality. It’s almost like you’re not even watching a film, but rather peering into the lives of these strange people.
Now that I’ve seen Habit I feel like I have the perfect film to pair with Vampire’s Kiss for an off-beat vampire double feature! Seriously watch Habit and Vampire’s Kiss back-to-back and tell me that isn’t the perfect bill. Both films deal with similar situations in slightly different ways.
Wendigo – 2001
Six years after Habit, Fessenden would follow up withWendigo. This film is interesting in that out of the four it’s probably the one that I would label as the most disappointing, yet I wouldn’t say it’s the worst. It’s probably my second favorite of the four, but I think it had the most potential to be truly great and just sort of fell apart at the end. Not enough that it would fall into the bad category, but it missed out on great and settled for good.
Wendigo kind of starts out a lot like No Telling. George (Jake Weber) and Kim (Patricia Clarkson) are a married couple that want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the big city life where George spends way too much time focused on work. In attempt to get away from it all and relax for the weekend they take their son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) on a trip to a friend’s countryside cottage. On the way there they unfortunately run into a buck that darts into the road. This leaves the buck fatally wounded and their car stuck in the snow.
Three hunters come out of the woods chasing after the buck. One in particular, a white trashy looking fellow named Otis (John Speredakos) is extremely upset with the situation. As he examines they buck he discovers that not only did they wound it but they cracked the antlers, thereby ruining the monetary value that comes with such a prized animal. Otis threatens them a bit but you don’t get the sense that he’ll actually do anything. It kind of plays out as more of an empty threat than anything. From the perspective of little Miles, however, this scene is pretty intense.
The family makes it to the cottage and George notices a bullet hole in one of the windows. He seems concerned by this, naturally, but after looking at the situation he kind of lets it pass and disregards it. The family get settled for the night and things seem to finally be on the upswing. Except for Miles that is. As he’s laying in bed in this strange place he struggles to sleep. Then he sees a little boy standing at the foot of his bed pointing a gun directly at him. This turns out to be all part of his imagination, no doubt do to the earlier incident with Otis.
The next day the family takes a trip to the local market. There Miles receives a little wooden figurine of a wendigo from a Native American man in the store. The man explains the significance of the wendigo and what it means. He explains that it’s a spiritual shape shifter that could represent good or bad depending on the situation at hand. What exactly this means in the mind of a small child I don’t know, but he’s more than happy to take the figurine with him.
In Habit Fessenden told us the story through the eyes of a drunk. In Wendigo we see through the eyes of a small child in Miles. Kids experience things differently. They remember everything, notice everything. All their senses seem to be heightened. Miles is watching the relationship between his parents and you can sense that things aren’t going so well, and Miles knows this. He may not fully understand it, but he can tell. Much like the couple in No Telling Fessenden presents a couple trying to pretend like everything is ok on the surface, but beneath it there are serious problems, most of which are tied to the husband putting work first.
Fessenden definitely likes to play around with the same ideas and themes across all his movies. Again pulling from ideas done in Habit, we have a story full of ambiguity. The wendigo is a shape shifting spirit. We see a version of the wendigo in the film, but do we really? Is the creature we see actually responsible for some of the things that play out in the movie? Or is this the overactive imagination of a young boy tired of seeing his parents fight? Is this how Miles chooses to cope with the situation?
Taking things one step further is that Miles isn’t the only one in the film that sees a version of the wendigo. I don’t want to go into who else sees the creature and what results from it because that’s too much of a spoiler, but I will say that’s what let me down about the movie. From the perspective of Miles I totally get it, it makes sense. With this other person it feels more like a copout and kind of kills the momentum. This leads to an ending that ends, but doesn’t feel complete.
Despite the less than stellar conclusion Wendigo still scores mostly high marks across the board. Fessenden has a great knack for building tension and Wendigo is probably the best example of that. From the opening scene to the closing moments you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for something to happen. You don’t know what it will be or when it will happen, but you know it’s coming eventually. In what appears to be the standard for Fessenden as a director, he once again gets incredibly natural performances out of each and every actor. I know I keep harping on this, but everything feels real. No better way to explain it. That’s a gift.
Despite the stumble at the finish line, Wendigo is a fantastic piece of filmmaking.
The Last Winter – 2006
The newest film and far and away the most expensive from Fessenden is The Last Winter. Shot on location in Iceland and starring the likes of Ron Pearlman, Connie Britton and Kevin Corrigan, it’s pretty easy to see early on why this is the biggest budgeted directing piece from Fessenden’s long career. This is the perfect movie to close out this collection. It’s like a combination of the three previous movies rolled into one. You get a real sense that everything he did before built up to this moment.
Ed Pollack (Pearlman) leads a team from an American oil company as they’re out looking for oil in the Northern Arctic. A team of independent environmentalist headed by James Hoffman (James Le Gros) assists, making sure things are done in a way that will not harm the environment. Eventually one of the team members turns up naked and dead with no explanation. James thinks it may have something to do with sour gases that are seeping up through the ice and tries to convince Ed that the team must leave but Ed is having none of that. That is until another team member turns up dead. Ed finally decides that it is time to get his team out but then at that point it might be too late.
Fessenden once again manages to avoid getting preachy while dealing with social issues. The overriding theme here is clearly the damage we as humans do to the environment and what impact that may have. Similar to the two scientists that face off in No Telling, both Ed and James want the same thing. They both want what’s best, they both want to take care of their team. They just don’t see eye to eye exactly when it comes to the best way to do that.
As per usual, Fessenden wisely takes an ambiguous route with his storytelling. Characters in The Last Winter experience hallucinations similar to those in Habit and Wendigo, but we as the audience have to determine if these are merely hallucinations or something more. Even if you decide that they are hallucinations, which I think they clearly are in this case, you then have to figure out what specifically is causing them. This is where I think things get really tricky.
This team has been out in the middle of nowhere for quite some time. It’s freezing and they are completely surrounded by white ice and snow. I’m no doctor, but I feel like that alone could be enough to drive someone mad at to the point that they begin to hallucinate. I certainly couldn’t handle it and would begin to freak out in no time. The other option is that there are gases seeping up driving everyone crazy. I suppose there is also a third option in the form of a supernatural, spiritual being. They actually do mention a Wendigo in this film as well.
I tend to think it’s the gas issue. This issue was no doubt caused by humans out there fiddling around, looking for more energy sources. For me the message was pretty clear. Don’t mess with the environment because you need it to survive. If you push it, it will kill you.
While I think this is Fessenden’s weakest entry, I think it does some cool things. I like the social commentary and I like how it reminded me of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Was Fessenden attempting to reference The Thing in anyway? I’m not so sure, but he definitely did. The setting is obviously the same, but the film even deals with a shape shifter in a way. The wendigo is only mentioned in passing, but the characters do get to the point where they turn on one another. Is this a result of the shape shifting wendigo? Possibly. You don’t know who you can trust. Just because someone looks like your friend doesn’t mean they are your friend.
The issues The Last Winter faces likely stem from what I imagine was quite the budget jump for Fessenden. That mixed with the film being taken to a new location may have removed Fessenden from his low budget, New York comfort zone. The story as whole just doesn’t feel as tight. There are moments that lag and the story seems to drift a bit. With Fessenden’s other films I never once experienced that. Issues aside The Last Winter is worth a watch and rounds out the set quite nicely.
The Larry Fessenden Collection
As a whole this is a spectacular collection. What Scream Factory and IFC have put together makes for one of my favorite Blu-ray releases of the year. Why I think each film holds up on their own individual merits, there really is something special about watching them together as a collection. You get to see a director morph in front of your eyes and grow as a director while never once straying from his roots. Fessenden is very much an art-house horror director. Each one of his films touches on the same themes and social commentaries. They all have the same rhythm. At first glance you may not consider any to even be horror films, but each one builds up until they reach full blown horror. The horror may be different every time, and not the first thing we think of when we think horror, but it’s horror nonetheless.
Scream Factory didn’t stop by just including the films. This thing is overflowing with bonus content. All four discs include a variety of special features, most that tie-in with the specific film on the disc, but sometimes it’s just other random bonus features that are Fessenden-related. You have commentaries, interviews, short films and more. Basically, The Larry Fessenden Collection is the perfect introduction to the world of Larry Fessenden.
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Joe Yanick November 4, 2015
The Larry Fessenden Collection Proves that Fessenden is America’s Unsung Auteur
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 TheLarry 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 Frankenstein
No 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 Addiction
If 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 Ways
The 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.
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Patrick Smith Nov 10, 2015
Monsters In My Head: The Films of Larry Fessenden
In 1996, the movie SCREAM was released into theaters. With Kevin Williamson’s hip and meta script, and the old-school gravitas of director Wes Craven, SCREAM was seen by a lot of people as the kind of shot in the arm that the horror genre desperately needed. It was aware of its past and seemed willing to burn the genre down in order to define its future.
Problem is, while those people weren’t wrong, they also weren’t right.
SCREAM is a great film, but its overall influence was far from positive, as it spawned a rash of imitators that seemed to believe SCREAM‘s success wasn’t its intelligence or its technical acumen, but its hiring of too-pretty teen stars of the moment and the kind of zeitgeist-chasing dialogue that feels old the second it takes to exit your mouth and hit your ears. What has become abundantly clear is that SCREAM was a prime representative of the nineties, not because it became a mission statement, but because like much of the quality genre fare of the decade, it was a one-off. As the years have gone by, though, there has been a slow buildup of quality films that take the tropes of the past and come at them in ways that are stylish, naturalistic, and emotionally devastating. However, this current trend hasn’t sprung out of nothing — in fact, the origin point for the current cinematic landscape in horror can be pinpointed to a single filmmaker. But that filmmaker wasn’t Craven, Romero, or even Carpenter — instead, it was a wild-haired New York City native with a broken smile by the name of Larry Fessenden.
This isn’t going to come as much of a surprise to those who are familiar with Fessenden and his work. In the last decade, he’s had a hand in films such as YOU’RE NEXT, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, JUG FACE, STAKE LAND, LATE PHASES, THE BATTERY, and many more which would only serve as overkill to list here. Sometimes his contribution is only as an actor (or in the case of THE BATTERY, a voice over a walkie-talkie), but he’s had an even bigger impact as a producer, whose production company Glass Eye Pix effectively acts as a micro-studio which has produced genre defining work from writers and directors such as Ti West, Jim Mickle, Glenn McQuaid, and Mickey Keating. If we only counted those contributions, Fessenden’s influential nature would be without question, but it goes even further, because all of those films listed above, plus many more, are utilizing a cinematic language that Fessenden created with a series of films he made throughout the nineties.
Fessenden’s most fertile period took place over a decade, with three films: NO TELLING (1991),HABIT (1995), and WENDIGO (2001). Collectively, they are referred to as his “Trilogy of Terror,” but individually they act as Generation X’s answer to FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, and THE WOLFMAN. These three films offer a very specific vision of how to tell a horror story, taking more cues from the nature-as-monster narrative of THE BIRDS than from proto-slasher stylings of PSYCHO as is the case with most of his contemporaries. Fessenden’s films take their time to build up their horror elements, to the point that the terror part of the trilogy could be seen as a bit of a misnomer, since if you go into these films cold, the first hour’s worth of material are usually very human dramas. If the New Hollywood ever made monster movies, they would look a lot like Fessenden’s films. Utilizing that era’s “everything old is new again” approach to genre, he digs deep into what makes us human, particularly when confronted with the monstrous.
Although not his first feature — that would be the virtually unfindable EXPERIENCED MOVERS— NO TELLING offers an interesting if unwieldy opening statement for Larry Fessenden’s approach to genre. The film centers on a woman named Lillian Gaines (Miriam Healy-Louie) spending a summer with her husband Geoffrey (Stephen Ramsey) in the country, both to get away from the city and for Geoffrey to work on an experimental limb-transfer surgery, away from prying eyes. While there, long-simmering martial problems come to a head,and Lillian meets an environmental activist named Alex Vine (David Van Tieghem), while Geoffrey continues to push his experiments into possibly unethical directions. The film looks great, as Fessenden utilizes the lush greens of the New York countryside to great effect. However, it’s probably Fessenden’s peachiest film. Fessenden has long been an activist for the environment and animals, and NO TELLING was made at the peak of his passion. (He even went so far to write a booklet on low impact filmmaking). The setting of the film in a rural farming community allowed Fessenden to really get into the problems of the day, with the Alex Vine character given long strings of dialogue about the dangers of pesticides. both to the environment and to the farmers who use it. Although still valid nearly twenty five years later. it doesn’t coalesce as well with the rest of the film as you would hope. Thankfully, Fessenden seems like he was aware of this enough that he manages to rein it in, so it never comes off as obnoxious.
The real meat of the story is in the form of science run amok, as represented by Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s research involves a lot of animal experimentation, starting with mice but eventually moving on to dogs and calves he acquires through various means around the community. Fessenden stages these scenes like serial killings out of something like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER — he makes it clear this is in the name of science, but there’s a casual cruelty to it that makes the whole thing feel sick. Fessenden uses that cruelty to make a broader point about the causal nature of how human beings can treat the world around them, and also for how as a people we really don’t want to know the great details of what goes into scientific progress. These points combine as Lillian begins to learn to live alongside nature while spending time with Alex, and while she comes to realize that Geoffrey only sees the natural world as a means to an end, ultimately leading him to create something completely unnatural in the climax of the film. In the world of NO TELLING, humans might not be monsters, but our ambitions might just create some.
NO TELLING is a solid film, but it’s a bit slow going, and pretty much the definition of minimalist horror. As engaged as he might be, you can kind of feel Fessenden rubbing up against the parameters of the story and setting. So it’s interesting that he went from the naturalistic painted polish of NO TELLING to the grainy guerrilla style he utilizes in HABIT.
HABIT is an interesting film in the Fessenden oeuvre given its setting, its shooting style, and the personal touches from Fessenden’s own life and struggles that blur the line between fact and fiction. Doubly so in the fact that Fessenden himself plays the lead.
At this point, it’s worth noting that Fessenden the director and Fessenden the actor have always been fairly separate entities. Despite having a few early successes, including being the male lead in Kelly Reichardt’s now classic RIVER OF GRASS, Fessenden has never used his films as a showcase of his own acting a la Ed Burns or early Spike Lee. He has small roles here and there in films he’s produced, but it’s not so much nepotism and more just being the right man for the job. Of the movies he’s directed, it’s more likely he’ll have a stand in for himself, as with NO TELLING‘s Alex Vine, in roles wic he just hands over to other actors. Fessenden never assumed he would play the lead in HABIT, going so far as to hold several casting sessions, but it makes sense he did, since Fessenden’s character in HABIT isn’t so much a stand-in as he is a very specific version of Fessenden himself, which includes his own real life story of how he lost his front tooth in a mugging, to his past with self-harm and self-medication. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.
HABIT centers on Sam (Fessenden) in the wake of his father’s death and his breakup from his long-time girlfriend. He spends his days hanging out with friends and indulging in heavy drinking with a side of melancholy until he meets Anna (Meredith Snaider) at a Halloween party. They instantly form a connection and begin a very sex-driven relationship, which Sam indulges in the same way he does the drink. As time goes on, Sam’s mental state deteriorates, and he begins to suspect that Anna might be contributing to it in some way, eventually coming to the conclusion that she might be a vampire. HABIT is the film that has become the film most closely associated with Fessenden, both because of the autobiographical elements to Fessenden’s own life and because it’s basically his cinematic thesis statement.
NO TELLING can generally be described as an interesting oddity, but HABIT is a gauntlet being thrown down. Fessenden made the movie with a small crew, often shooting in the city with no permit,s and staging scenes on the quick with handheld cameras. There’s passion and danger that comes through nearly every frame, Fessenden showing just like many other independent filmmakers of the time that if you want to make a movie, than there’s really no other choice but just to make it. In the case of HABIT, Fessenden had access to a culture of New York city bohemia very rarely caught on film, as well as a wealth of personal experience as an artist just trying to live another day in a city that’ll eat you whole given the chance. And that hunger is brilliantly personified by the sexual relationship between Sam and Anna.
The sex scenes in HABIT aren’t the sort of thing that would make Lars van Trier blush, but even in a modern context it’s still impressive both in how much they show and in how they actually contribute to the film aside from baseline titillation. Sex in HABIT says a lot about its characters, Sam using it as another form of medication to avoid pain, and Anna as the aggressor and dominating in a way that telegraphs a predatory nature that only fully becomes apparent as the film goes on. The relationship is disturbing enough when taken from a strictly human point of view, and when the supernatural elements are fully introduced late in the film, it’s just icing on the cake. Fessenden offers a look at a familiar relationship dynamic that doesn’t operate on love but on something close — it’s the sort of connection that only really forms when you’ve gone through that special hellish blend of death, disappointment, and heartache that leads you to someone you can lose yourself in but who will ultimately tear you apart. By the time the idea that Anna might be a vampire appears, Fessenden has made us watch Sam just deteriorate right before our eyes, and like his friends, we have no way of knowing if what he’s seeing is real or if it’s the rambling hallucinations of an addict in the middle of a mental breakdown.
Those elements of whether or not what we are seeing is “real” is very important in Fessenden’s films. NO TELLING had small elements of it, and HABIT goes even further, but Fessenden perfects it with WENDIGO. Seeking a short winter vacation in rural winter New York, George (Jake Weber), his wife Kim (Patricia Clarkson), and their young son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) get into a car accident by hitting a deer that was being pursued by local hunter Otis (John Speredakos). George and Otis instantly take a disliking to one another, particularly after Otis shoots the injured deer right in front of Miles. Afterwards, they head to their rented cabin, but Otis continues to taunt them over the course of the next day, until suddenly tragedy strikes, and an ancient spirit makes itself known. LikeNO TELLING and HABIT, WENDIGO takes its time to reveal itself as a horror movie, and it uses the majority of its run time on a meditation of the differences of modern masculinity and on the kind of love/hate relationship that only exists between father and son. George represents the kind of guy that doesn’t have anything to prove except when he runs up against a guy like Otis, someone who inhabits an antiquated but for some reason idealized version of what a man is, and the frustration that goes along with it.
We see that frustration play out through Miles’s point of view, which adds WENDIGO‘s final layer with Fessenden’s particular brand of horror of the mind. In NO TELLING, the horror literally springs from Geoffrey’s mind, while in HABIT, there’s more than enough evidence in the final minutes of the film that seem to suggest that Anna’s vampirism could possibly all be in Sam’s head, but WENDIGOis filtered through the eyes of a scared child, who turns Otis and his version of toxic masculinity into a literal monster in his closet. So when that particular monster unleashes itself further into Miles world by fatally attacking his father, that’s when the titular monster of the film finally makes its appearance.
The WENDIGO has become a fairly well known Native American myth in recent years, to the point where it’s become a prominent X-MEN villain, but the gist of it is that its a spirit that was formerly a man who engaged in cannibalism and is now cursed with a beastly form and an insatiable appetite. Fessenden retains that aspect but also interprets it in his own way, even going so far as to provide voiceover himself, in a scene where Miles is told the legend in the first place by a local Native American man when the actor couldn’t deliver his lines, making this version of the WENDIGOFessenden’s own, as a shapeshifter who takes on the form of a skeleton made of tree branches to a more traditional flesh and blood monster that eventually seeks out Otis as a kind of spirit of vengeance. The way it goes after Otis has the kind of fury that only a child could muster, which makes you wonder if the WENDIGO actually exists, or if it’s just something Miles is imagining to create a kind of karmic balancing system to make sense of this tragedy. WENDIGO caps off Fessenden’s first decade of professional filmmaking with no easy answers and the unsettling feeling that outside man’s petty struggles, nature endures with an unblinking gaze.
The idea of nature enduring comes into play again with Fessenden’s next feature, THE LAST WINTER (2008), which drops a lot of the build-up elements of the Trilogy of Terror and goes for a much more straightforward approach in its telling. When Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) returns to his Alaskan outpost, where he’s trying to set up infrastructure for oil drilling, his crew informs him that his second-in-command Abby (Connie Britton) has begun seeing the station’s ecological advisor James (James Le Gros), who in turn believes that the impact of the drilling will cause irreversible damage. As they argue, the crew begins experiencing odd phenomena around the station, and it soon becomes clear that an otherworldly presence is making itself known.
THE LAST WINTER plays like Fessenden’s attempt at a ghost story, a la THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, where the haunted house infects its inhabitants with a madness that moves like a virus. The only difference is that the haunted house in this story is the world itself, and like a lot of haunted houses, it wants its residents out of it. THE LAST WINTER doesn’t have the same intimacy that Fessenden’s other films have, but it has environmental passions present of the sort that got him started in NO TELLING. However, whereas NO TELLING had a modicum of hope that we could turn our relationship with the natural world aroun,d THE LAST WINTER has none of that. Fessenden has been watching too long, and although the words “global warming” are only mentioned once, he knows that the writing is on the wall. There is no respite, with the potential that the horror we’re seeing is not real in the world of the film, and as such, Fessenden ostensibly created a film that acts as an elegy for humanity.
If that comes off as depressing, that’s because it is, and you get the feeling that coming off THE LAST WINTER, Fessenden’s priorities had shifted. It’s immediately following this film that his work as a producer went into overdrive, and he began popping up in more acting roles. It’s possible given that his own films hadn’t hit much farther than cult status by this point, that he felt that he could do more good utilizing what he had learned working within his own independent productions to ensure that some younger filmmakers could have an easier go than he did. And if those younger filmmakers just happened to start out as Glass Eye Pix interns, or were directly influenced by Fessenden himself, all the better.
This isn’t to say he wasn’t pursuing his own projects at the time, most notably how he began working on an American remake of THE ORPHANAGE with Guillermo Del Toro that fell apart, and even tried petitioning Marvel for the rights for Werewolf by Night before they became a cinematic juggernaut and locked their shit down tighter than an axe murderer in an insane asylum. The main problem, though, seems to be that while Fessenden was proving himself with quality genre fare, he was still seen as a weird indie auteur that major studio people just assumed wouldn’t want to work for them, an understandable assumption but one that no doubt led Fessenden to bang his head against a few walls. So it wouldn’t be until 2013 that we would get what is at this time his most recent film as director, BENEATH.
Following a group of high school graduates Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), Kitty (Bonnie Dennison) , Matt (Chris Conroy), Simon (Jonny Orsini), Zeke (Griffin Newman), and Deb (Mackenzie Rosman) decide to take a final summer vacation at a nearby lake, but quickly discover that the lake is home to a giant man-eating fish that leaves them stranded in in the middle of the lake without a paddle on a slowly sinking boat. As they try to reach the shore, they start realizing that in order to distract the predator, they need to give it some bait, and proceed to vote each other out of the boat, which leads to long buried secrets and grudges being revealed.
From the outside, BENEATH looks like Fessenden’s most commercial film, in terms of structure and content, but working off a script he himself didn’t write, BENEATH plays like a strangely detached exercise for Fessenden. However, that might be to its benefit, and that subsequently allows Fessenden to work outside his wheelhouse and still manage to add his own little personal touches. The most obvious example of this being the giant man-eating fish, which is a practical creation that looks equal parts goofy and terrifying and yet weirdly endearing. It’s his take on THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON by way of JAWS and as such, it’s not the villain by any means, just a beast following its natural instincts. Instinct turns out to be the backbone of the film, because what follows is almost every human character indulging in their worst ones.
Films in secluded locations, inhabited by characters who turn on one another to survive, are a dime a dozen, but Fessenden is a savvy enough filmmaker to know what beats to hit and how to work with actors to create a series of very unique scenarios. The cast of BENEATH is a lot younger than those of most of his previous productions, and he uses that fact to show what characters would do if they believed they had to fight for the rest of their lives. The film is in line with the rest of his filmography because it works with the points he’s already made about the primal nature of the world, and BENEATH‘s characters are driven by primal desires like lust and self preservation, but ultimately it just comes down petty jealousies and each of them getting payback for petty grudges. They just happen to be using a giant fish to act out their resentments, and Fessenden cranks up the tension with every pass the fish makes and every drop of bloody water thrown out of their sinking boat until the very end, when the last man standing is left in the dark of the night, one monster being eaten by another.
Larry Fessenden has been working for over thirty years at this point, and he has shown just how far someone can go with a unique vision and perseverance. He hasn’t been ignored, rather in the world of horror and independent film he’s played the part of a patron and comes close to being seen as a saint in some circles, but it’s only recently he has been acknowledged as the trailblazer that he was and continues to be. Even outside of film, he continues to create new and daring narratives, whether it’s through the intensely creepy audio plays for the digital age Tales from Beyond the Pale, or the critically acclaimed choose-your-own-slasher-movie-style video game Until Dawn. Larry Fessenden isn’t done by any means, Glass Eye Pix is still going strong, and Fessenden will no doubt step behind the camera again in the near future, but as of right no,w he would be more than justified to sit back and look at a landscape that he has helped create. Fessenden’s legacy is ongoing, but of all of his contributions, his most notable might be offering the world films that brings humanity back to its monsters while making humanity itself look monstrous. Its Larry Fessenden’s world, and we’re lucky to be living in it.
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Robert Galluzzo October 20, 2015
We Talk THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION With The Man Himself
It’s difficult to describe the work of filmmaker Larry Fessenden, but his voice is the unique and intriguing kind that we as horror fans are always in search of. We want to see something different. Be challenged. Think about the films we see long after we’ve seen them, on top of being scared.
Whereas for the last several years, it’s been difficult to track down the earlier filmography of Fessenden as a writer/director, those beautiful souls over at Scream Factory have come to the rescue as today marks the release of THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION; a new boxed set that features his films NO TELLING, HABIT, WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER, all on Blu-Ray and all in high def for the first time ever.
There’s plenty of other rarities and surprises on the box, so we chatted with the man himself to tell us what we can look forward to.
Blumhouse.com: Congratulations on this box set release. It’s really terrific! And a beautiful, beautiful thing to be able to collect ones filmography in a set like this! How difficult was it to put this set together? For a while, it seemed like a lot of your movies were with different studios. Was this a matter of timing being able to collect them all in one boxed set?
Larry Fessenden: Yeah, honestly, and it’s sad to say, but I was clearly the one most interested in putting this box set together. (Laughs) It came to pass that IFC bought NO TELLING and HABIT and they had bought THE LAST WINTER when it initially came out, so I realized they already had most of my films. The Weinstein Company had DVD rights to THE LAST WINTER, which slowed us down for about a year. But the real missing piece of the puzzle was to get WENDIGO from beyond the grave. It went to Artisan, which is a label we of course all know for having made THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but when they made the sequel to that, they went under. I really wanted WENDIGO back because I’ve always hated the cover that they put on it. As a filmmaker, you live with these little thorns in your side. I spent a year trying to get IFC to buy WENDIGO. It was a complicated legal process and we were tied up with lawyers. I have emails going back to 2010 about a box set. I found Shout Factory and they were great and really wanted to do this. It went up before the board and they decided the numbers made sense, so I’m pleased to say this wasn’t a charitable act. (Laughs)
BH: Well they did such a great job on the Blu-Ray release of BENEATH, which you made for Chiller.
LF: They did a great job on that, and they were an ideal home. Meanwhile, as I idly waited by for the lawyers to sort things out, I asked Dude Designs if they would put some new artwork together. They gave me producer credit on the set, just because I kept dabbling on things. Like everything, you run out of time! I basically had 5 years to wait for everything to clear, and I still made the extras in one frantic month. And I kind of regret that, but… It is what it is! I pictured myself as some elegant filmmaker being celebrated with these documentaries, but really what it is is a treasure trove of old video footage from the past and old Super 8 movies. It’s much more like an attic!
BH: Well that’s cool stuff to have on there! And speaking of documentaries, I know that filmmaker Adam Barnick is now working on some stuff specifically for the Glass Eye Pix website for your 30th anniversary! We debuted one of those doc’s here on Blumhuse.com last week. Was that an extension of what you put together for this box set?
LF: Well yeah. Adam and I had talked a year ago and he said, “I’d love to do some behind the scenes stuff for you.” And I said “great!” And of course, I forgot to call him! I did it all myself on the box set, with a little bit of help from friends. But I hooked up with Adam after the fact and said let’s do them anyways. We’ll put them up as promotional items as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Glass Eye Pix. That’s crazy, my company is turning 30 years old! I’m trying to pump out my own movies, but really all the movies we’ve done as a company and try to have these little documentaries about all the people that have worked tirelessly as they passed through the Glass Eye boot camp!
BH: When you hit these monuments like a 30th anniversary, you start reflecting on stuff. What was it like getting a lot of the people from your films back for the commentaries on the box set? I haven’t had a chance to check them out myself, but I know you hadn’t spoken to Jake Weber for a while, but my buddy Scott Reynolds and I had him on our official podcast for THE FOLLOWING, and he mentioned that WENDIGO was his favorite movie that he’d ever done and he was so humbled that we remembered and loved that movie. What was it like reuniting with some of these people like Jake?
LF: Well Rob, let me very particularly thank you and Scott for that hook up, because of you reporting that back to me and then helping us get back in touch, you’re really instrumental in what is my favorite thing on the entire box set, which is Jake Weber in Los Angeles and Patty Clarkson in London, clearly not having seen the movie in 15 years, and just so charming in recounting their experience of making our little film in upstate New York. It’s a really gratifying piece of audio. You were a big part of making that happen so thank you. And then I went to Patty’s movie, which is wonderful. LEARNING TO DRIVE. And I met with her and Jake, and everyone was so gracious. We had a lovely time reuniting.
BH: One of the things I love about the Blu-Ray format is sometimes I feel like I’m seeing some of these movies for the first time again. The transfers are often spectacular and I’m in particular looking forward to revisiting your earlier work in high def! Being that it’s been a while since you’ve probably seen them yourself, how do you feel about these new transfers and the process of restoring these films for Blu-Ray?
LF: It’s really cool! I always see that little thing that says “director approved” and it’s kind of hard to say that! Because honestly, this was clearly all done out of budget. I think I had a day to re-transfer. On one hand, you feel a little rushed and you wonder if you’re doing right by the film. But quite honestly, because the technology can get the most out of these old film prints, it really is a revelation how much better it looks than the DVD. I feel so excited. Every time I beat myself up over the extras, the real show is the feature films themselves and they look great. Exponentially better than any previous release. A lot of people ask why I didn’t put BENEATH on, and the answer is simple. That already had a Blu-Ray release. This is the first time any of the other movies have been put out on Blu-Ray. THE LAST WINTER in particular is just an elegant looking film and I’m happy to get it on this format.
BH: You guys has just done a screening of HABIT in New York and Meredith Snaider (Anna) showed up! It’s rare for her to show up for one of these things and it’s my understanding that she didn’t realize there was a cult following for HABIT?
LF: Yeah, it really took her by surprise. I think she had a good experience making the movie but she did move on in her life into other things. The screening was fun! I sat next to her and she was kind of giddy. And I think in the end she felt “wow, we made a really cool movie. It wasn’t just a vampire movie.” It was fun to see someone who in a weird way is not steeped in show biz and horror just watch the movie objectively. She seemed really pleased. And then she got up and did a Q & A, and she requested to return to anonymity and I think what’s wonderful, as much as I’d love to trot her out and tweet about it, I think it’s kind of cooler for her to remain a mystery. I like letting her return to her civilian life and letting the vampire in HABIT remain mysterious. It’s refreshing in these days!
BH: She’s totally the character! She’s disappeared again!
LF: She is! And she has. And so be it. And speaking of her character, she literally hasn’t aged a day! Whereas I’m an old fat man now. (Laughs) If we ever make the sequel, she could just play herself and it’ll look like she stepped right out of her coffin again. (Laughs)
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Anthony Arrigo Nov 10, 2015
Larry Fessenden Collection, The (Blu-Ray)
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)
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Tyler Foster October 21, 2015
From the late 1970s through to the present, horror has remained a genre popular with first-time filmmakers. Filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi made their name as horror directors before moving onto some of the biggest films of all time, and even filmmakers less associated with the genre, like James Cameron and Jonathan Demme, have Roger Corman pictures somewhere on their IMDb pages. With so many filmmakers trying their hand at horror first, there’s a tendency for those filmmakers to bring their style to the genre as opposed to the genre informing their style, and by giving fans so many flavors to choose from, directors can make their careers on small but loyal fanbases interested in their unique brand of horror. Larry Fessenden is one of those directors, a man who has managed to keep working for almost forty years despite only one or two other features outside of this box set on his directorial resume, and almost zero mainstream awareness of his work. Shout! Factory, IFC, and Glass Eye Pix have teamed up to bring four of Fessenden’s features to Blu-ray: 1991’s No Telling, 1995’s Habit, 2001’s Wendigo, and 2006’s The Last Winter.
As a filmmaker, Fessenden embodies the phrase “slow burn” with every fiber of his being. No Telling is his debut feature, and when viewed in a vacuum, it would be easy to chalk up the movie’s deliberate pace as a side effect of inexperience, but as the set progresses, it’s clear that his movie’s ponderous nature is part of his vision. The film follows Dr. Geoffrey Gaines (Stephen Ramsey) and his wife Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie) as they move from the city to an isolated country home where Geoffrey hopes to make progress in his lab research, and it’s possible that Fessenden never actually reveals any specifics about what it is Geoffrey is supposed to be working on (assuming, as it is implied, that there’s a difference between what he’s supposed to be doing and what he’s actuallydoing). Although Geoffrey is clearly stressed out about his research, especially his desire for monkeys to be used in testing, and Lillian is struggling with his cold shoulder, Fessenden’s style means nearly the entire movie goes by before the viewer has a traditional idea of what the “conflict” is. Fessenden doesn’t press too hard about what it is that Geoffrey’s working on that it seems like a mystery, and Lillian’s journey from disappointment to true unhappiness develops at a snail’s pace. The film does build to a fairly shocking reveal, but the time it takes to get there makes the movie a bit of a slog.
Pacing-wise, Habit doesn’t move any faster, but it better demonstrates Fessenden’s empathy for his characters. Fessenden himself plays Sam, who drifts idly into a friend’s Halloween party and runs into Anna (Meredith Snaider), an intriguing, mysterious woman who he is instantly intrigued by but is too drunk to make a move on. At first, it seems lucky that he manages to run into her again, embarking on a passionate sexual relationship, but when Sam starts to walk away from their encounters bleeding, dizzy, and sickly, he starts to wonder if she has more than a carnal interest in him. Fessenden, who looks like someone sliced a tenth of Jack Nicholson off and it grew into its own man (minus a front tooth), gives an oddly charismatic performance. Despite his shaggy appearance, there’s something inherently decent or kind about Fessenden, and he plays this to good effect, both in scenes with the more aggressive Anna (Snaider can turn on a dime between playful and sinister), and Sam’s ex-girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury), who is still in love with him. The film’s compassionate tone makes up for what is essentially an even more protracted build to a reveal than No Telling — enough to test the patience.
Six years passed between Habit and Fessenden’s next feature, Wendigo, which stars Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber as Kim and George, a couple taking a winter vacation at a friend’s cabin. On the way into town, George accidentally hits a deer with the family car and gets stuck in a ditch afterward, an incident which draws the ire of a local hunter named Otis (John Speredakos), who was trying to bag the buck for himself. Within less than two hours, George and Otis have formed a grudge against one another, one which makes him paranoid and irritable as he tries to spend time with Kim and their son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan). When their family vacation is suddenly tinged by violence, the question hangs in the air: was it Otis, or something more sinister? Once again, Fessenden’s compassion is what makes Wendigo engaging. Framing the film from Miles’ perspective gives him a chance to see the conflict from an objective perspective, fleshing out a history for Otis that allows the audience to sympathize even as Otis acts petty and aggressive. The details of the plot, involving the old horror standby of “Indian burial ground”, are kind of hokey, but there’s an earnest quality to the way Fessenden portrays mysticism that takes some of the edge off of what might be called a stereotype. Clarkson is also great, turning in one of the best and most emotional performance in any of the films in the box set. Although much of her character’s arc is seen from a distance, at an angle from where Fessenden’s focus is, she still manages to come off as well-rounded and authentic.
While the other three films in the set feel like genuine independent productions, even as recognizable faces like Clarkson pop up in Fessenden’s casts, The Last Winter is the one film in the four that has the polish and style of major motion picture. Like Wendigo, the film takes place in an icy climate, where a company has just agreed to try and build a road through the isolated arctic in order to search for drilling spots that won’t upset environmentalists. As the film opens, the group already on-site are being joined by Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), whose plans to start getting the road built are blocked by James Hoffman (James LeGros), who not only thinks the road will be unsafe and that the area’s climate is changing for the worse, but who has taken up with Ed’s former flame, Abby (Connie Britton). Ed takes alternate corporate measures to get Hoffman off his back, but before he can leave, other members of the team start having strange visions, which slowly but surely leads to the entire group breaking down. Although The Last Winter has the same sympathetic eye that Fessenden’s previous two films thrived on, the film feels colder because that sense of understanding isn’t directed at any of the human characters. At least three of the set’s four films have inklings of Fessenden’s love of the environment, but Winter is the most obvious about it, stopping short but still obviously approaching a soapbox with regard to drilling. The film is elevated by a talented cast of character actors that include Perlman, Britton, LeGros, Kevin Corrigan, and Zach Gilford, but lessened slightly by some particularly cornball CGI.
Throughout all four films, Fessenden reveals himself to be openly spiritual, with characters in almost every movie dealing with some sort of ancient magic or other-worldly energy. Nature tends to inspire serenity and calm, so perhaps that’s where his methodical storytelling comes from, even if his films largely deal with nature striking back or impacting his characters in an aggressive way. Nonetheless, Fessenden, who is also his own editor, could stand to trim the fat from at least a couple of his films (Habit, in particular, is filled with dead weight). His skill with performance is evident, drawing a certain humanity out of his actors that is rare in American horror films. It’s clear that he adores a certain kind of atmosphere, a calm yet bloody sense of the world at large. Whether or not that style will be palatable to most viewers is beside the point: it’s another specific and unique flavor in the tapestry of low-budget horror.
The Larry Fessenden Collection comes in a four-disc Vortex hard plastic Blu-ray case, with a disc on the inside front and back covers, and a tray holding one disc on either side. The front cover features a new painting by The Dude Designs with a monochrome color scheme that is carried over to the rest of the packaging, and on the reverse of the sleeve, there are billing blocks for the four films (although, for some reason, the two columns the text is placed into are uneven, meaning text from the right side crosses the middle division created by the spine of the case. The entire package slides inside a matte slipbox with identical artwork, and there is a glossy 24-page booklet featuring an essay by Michael Gingold, quotes from Fessenden, and a number of photographs and pieces of art from the films, as well as a page for each one including a breakdown of the extras.
The Video and Audio
All four films in the set have had new HD masters created for the purposes of this box set, which were then approved by Fessenden. No Telling arrives in 1.78:1 1080p AVC, and looks decent. This is a very grainy transfer, some of which appears to be mosquito noise swarming the image, and white highlights are severely blown out, with searing light pouring in through windows, but there’s no question this is a level of detail and clarity that fans of the film have likely never been able to see. Like the white highlights, colors can tend to look a little “amped”, but otherwise appear reasonably natural, if a little dark. Habit, a 1:33:1 1080p AVC presentation, sadly, is a step back from No Telling, appearing slightly less grainy and with more natural colors and highlights, but falling far short of the sharpness and detail of the previous transfer. This is a soft, soft movie, and frequently it’s worth questioning whether this would actually be an upgrade over a DVD given how blurry the image can appear. Far from unwatchable, but equally far from impressive. Wendigo gets the set back on track in its 1.78:1 1080p AVC offering, generally looking like a less-severe version of No Telling. On the whole, the transfer seems slightly too bright, but highlights don’t bloom as aggressively as they do on the first film. Colors are far more natural, and grain resolves itself more cleanly throughout the presentation. Fine detail is once again reasonably impressive. Finally, The Last Winter is the best of the bunch, with a 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation that offers nice depth and detail, the kind that one would expect from a fairly recent film, and grain is completely managed in a way that feels natural and accurate. White levels still look a shade too bright at times, but maybe the glow of the snow was intentional.
Sound on all four films comes in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks. Personally, I’m pretty skeptical that the first three films were actually released with 5.1 soundtracks (well, maybe Wendigo), and sure enough, while there are some interesting hallucinatory effects on some of these tracks, and the occasional bit of ambiance, they don’t quite light up the surround system the way a modern film would. The Last Winter makes the most out of the surrounds, using the mix to immerse the viewer into the isolating environment, and highlighting the shock and intensity of a crazy accident that occurs in the second half of the film. English subtitles are provided on all four films.
Each film in the set is accompanied by an audio commentary by director/writer/editor/producer Larry Fessenden. In the case of The Last Winter, this is an archival commentary previously released on DVD by IFC; the other three were newly recorded for this box set. Fessenden is an engaging speaker, with a strong memory of his productions, and the commentaries range from more overall musings about his career and about his passions (particularly the aforementioned environmentalism) to the anecdotal and technical, with a wealth of information about shooting on low budgets and some of the nitty-gritty details of what it’s like being on the farthest fringes of low-budget horror cinema. There is also a second audio commentary on Wendigo featuring Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and John Speredakos. Sadly, this track is a little underwhelming, with more breaks in the conversation, and little in the way of meaty behind-the-scenes info from them when they do speak — it would’ve been nice if Fessenden hat sat in on their conversation to moderate.
Each disc is also accompanied by a wealth of bonus features, some of which are specific to the film in question and a few of which are not. Each film has a making-of documentary, most of which are quite comprehensive: “The Making of No Telling“ (24:16), “The Making of Habit“ (24:17), “Behind the Scenes: Searching for the Wendigo“ (31:56), and “The Making of The Last Winter” (1:46:52). The documentaries were all produced around the same time as the film in question, meaning the content is “fresh” in the minds of the participants. The Last Winter‘s is a feature in an of itself, covering the film’s grueling location shoot. These are accentuated with archive footage for No Telling and The Last Winter (26:44, 18:31). There is also a short bonus Fessenden interview on Wendigo (8:16), and a lengthy bonus Fessenden interview on The Last Winter (22:22).
Non-film specific material includes Fessenden’s many short films, including White Trash (9:16), a preliminary version of Habit (17:42), N is For Nexus(4:11), Santa Claws (4:52), Origins (7:54), Jebediah (2:33), Mister (5:31). Habit and N is For Nexus both have making-of featurettes (5:39, 3:55). There are also a trio of music videos on board — “Save You From Yourself” (3:40), “Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped” (7:26), and “Tired of Killing Myself” (5:36) — and three Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reels, each covering a different period in the history of Fessenden’s company (1985-1990 – 7:34, 2010 – 3:27, and 2014 – 4:12).
Many of the video pieces are introduced by Fessenden, who does his best to contextualize and explain each piece.
Habit and Wendigo come with an original theatrical trailer. Last, but not least, there is a Wendigo Animated Series Trailer (3:10) on that disc.
Larry Fessenden’s films may be an acquired taste, but there’s no doubt a small but loyal faithful has acquired that taste, and it will be more than sated by Shout! / Glass Eye / IFC’s new Blu-ray box set, which offers imperfect but strong presentations of four of his films in HD and throws in a laundry list of bonus features to boot. Recommended
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Patrick Bromley 11/25/15
Blu-ray Review: THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION
If ever there was to be a Mt. Rushmore of modern horror, there’s no question that the face of Larry Fessenden would get prominent placement. One of the patron saints of indie horror, Fessenden is a true auteur and a true original whose incredible career is now being celebrated with the Scream Factory release of The Larry Fessenden Collection, containing four of his films and hours of bonus features that help illuminate just what a vital voice Fessenden has been in the genre for more than three decades. This is one of the best horror releases of the year.
Fessenden (whose Glass Eye Pix has been around since the mid-’80s, helping produce films including The House of the Devil, I Sell the Dead, Stake Land andLate Phases) has built a career on twisting and subverting the conventions of classic horror films and filtering them through his own distinctive lens. His movies seem to start with the seeds of horror tropes that we recognize but then are bent to meet Fessenden’s own interests and preoccupations—the universality of familiar pared down to the personal and individualistic. It’s a thread that runs through all four of the films included in this excellent collection.
First up is 1991’s No Telling, one of Fessenden’s earliest features and a clever take on the mad scientist genre. Stephen Ramsay stars as a scientist who has recently moved to the country with his wife, an artist played by Miriam Healy-Louie. While the pair adjusts to their new, quieter life, Ramsay conducts animal experiments in secret, attempting to uncover… well, I’m not exactly sure. This is Fessenden playing in the Frankenstein sandbox (the film’s alternate title is evenThe Frankenstein Complex), but he does so without explicitly invoking horror until some of the movie’s final disturbing images.
No Telling still has a lot on its mind, whether it’s the domestic drama of a marriage unraveling or the statements against big pharmaceuticals and corporate science. Of the four films included in The Larry Fessenden Collection, this one might be the most crudely made (to which Fessenden himself openly admits on the commentary), but it still manages to feel genuinely eccentric and contains a quirky visual style that announces Fessenden as an exciting voice in the genre.
The second feature is Habit from 1997, Fessenden’s take on the vampire genre and arguably his best-known film. A remake of Fessenden’s own feature from the early ’80s, it stars Fessenden himself as Sam, a New York hipster who has just lost both his father and his relationship with his girlfriend. He meets a mysterious woman named Anna (Meredith Snaider), to whom he is immediately drawn. As their relationship intensifies, Sam begins to suspect that Anna is more than she seems to be.
The vagueness of Habit is deliberate. Like in the Nicolas Cage vehicle Vampire’s Kiss, the audience is left uncertain as to whether or not the protagonist has become the victim of a real vampire or if it’s simply the delusion of an unreliable narrator. Vampirism here stands in for addiction, primarily sexual—it is the foundation on which the central relationship is built and Sam is practically powerless to stop himself from giving in to Anna’s advances.
Almost 20 years removed from its release, Habit remains the best of Fessenden’s movies I’ve seen. Despite its genre trappings, it feels intensely personal—and not just because Fessenden himself plays the lead (and very well, I might add), but also because of the specific details he includes both about the protagonist’s life and the ’90s New York “scene” he captures. The movie feels lived in, its relationships feel authentic and Fessenden makes for an unusual, utterly compelling protagonist. Habit works both as a straight horror movie and, as the title suggests, as a movie about addiction and self-destruction. It’s territory that has been mined elsewhere in the vampire genre (Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction; Park Chan-wook’s Thirst), but Fessenden’s take has its own pulse, its own energy. It’s great.
The 2001 film Wendigo, found on disc three of The Larry Fessenden Collection, is the filmmaker’s version of a werewolf movie. It stars Jake Weber and Patricia Clarkson—marking this as one of the first times Fessenden was directing established stars—as a couple who travel to upstate New York with their young son Miles for the winter. On their drive up, they hit a deer and draw the ire of a local hunter named Otis (John Speredakos). Once they arrive at their cabin, they can sense bad mojo. It could be the ever-growing conflict with Otis, or it could be the appearance of a Wendigo, a supernatural shapeshifter from Indian folklore known for eating its victims.
While Fessenden tries to touch on the relationship between man and beast inWendigo, the movie never quite captures the central conflict of the werewolf story that is the tortured duality of man becoming a monster. Everything else could be changed and decontextualized, but losing that dramatic conceit removes much of the tension from the movie and strains its already tenuous relationship to horror convention.
Because the film is told mostly through the eyes of a child (Erik Per Sullivan ofMalcolm in the Middle fame), there is the same sense of unreliability Fessenden embraced in Habit: are we seeing events as they are actually happening or are we seeing the imagination of a child who has been told a folk tale and chooses to believe it? The metaphorical remove that was so effective in Fessenden’s previous film here keeps us, too, albeit at a distance. But Wendigo has enough atmosphere and eccentricity to remain compelling, and Fessenden’s approach to the effects of the titular Wendigo (achieved through puppetry and stop motion) help give the movie a singular personality. The movie falls short of being what it wants to be, but succeeds quite beautifully at being what it is.
The fourth and final feature included in the set is The Last Winter, Fessenden’s environmental horror film from 2006 that casts James Le Gros, Ron Perlman, Connie Britton and Kevin Corrigan (among others) as a team of scientists on an expedition in the Arctic seeking energy independence in conjunction with an oil corporation. Their efforts, however, have conjured the angry spirits of the Earth, who begin to fight back and take revenge on the crew. Their days are numbered. It’s the last winter.
Of the four films included in this set, The Last Winter is the biggest mixed bag. It’s the slickest and most polished, featuring the most recognizable cast, but it’s also got the biggest disconnect between Fessenden’s ambitions and the execution. His passion and concern for the environment are apparent, but The Last Winter rarely finds a way to communicate those ideas in a way that’s either scary or less heavy-handed. The arctic setting is effectively claustrophobic—shades of Carpenter’s The Thing—and the cast acquits itself well, but it’s hard to view the movie now and not feel a little like it’s the indie horror version of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. It’s a better, more thoughtful movie in every way, but its approach to environmental horror is not altogether different. The intent is honorable, but the finished product isn’t entirely successful.
In addition to shining a light on some under-the-radar horror films of the last 20+ years, where The Larry Fessenden Collection really excels is in its collection of bonus features, which go deep into Fessenden’s work and the history of Glass Eye Pix. No Telling’s supplements include a commentary with Fessenden as well as two 25-minute featurettes comprised of behind-the-scenes and archival footage, plus Fessenden’s 1979 short film “White Trash” and a sizzle reel for Glass Eye Pix covering highlights of the company’s output from 1985 to 1990. The bonus features on Habit include another Fessenden commentary, a vintage making-of piece, the original 1981 short film “Habit” (and a making-of piece for that, too), two music videos, the short film “N is for Nexus” (Fessenden’s contribution toABCs of Death 2) and a brief making-of featurette for that short. The original theatrical trailer for Habit is also included.
The supplemental section for Wendigo contains not one but two commentaries: the first from writer/director Fessenden and a second from actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber and John Speredakos. There’s an interview with Fessenden (conducted in 2001 when the movie was being made), a 30-minute making-of featurette, a trailer for the film, a trailer for a Wendigo animated series, the short film “Santa Claws” and another Glass Eye Pix sizzle reel, this one from 2010.
The fourth and final disc in the set contains a feature-length making-of documentary about the production of The Last Winter, as well as a fourth commentary from Fessenden. There’s an archival production featurette from 2005, a music video, a contemporary interview with Fessenden recorded in 2015 and the 2014 sizzle reel for Glass Eye Pix. Also included are three more short films from Fessenden: “Origins,” “Jebediah” and “Mister.”
Scream Factory has done such great work with The Larry Fessenden Collectionthat it’s one of those rare cases where the supplemental content is every bit as good as the film(s) it’s supporting. These are interesting, important movies that demand to be seen, but Fessenden’s interviews, short films and commentaries are every bit as important in understanding and appreciating independent filmmaking and one of its greatest champions. This is a great collection of work from a truly original, vital voice in horror. Long live Larry Fessenden.
No Telling Score: 3/5
Habit Score: 4/5
Wendigo Score: 3.5/5
The Last Winter Score: 2.5/5
Disc Score: 4.5/5
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Jeff Szpirglas 12/7/15
Rue Morgue reviews THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION, out now on Blu-ray
Over the last quarter century, New York-based filmmaker Larry Fessenden has been taking horror tropes and turning them on their ear, crafting a series of personal ruminations on our relationships with the environment, and each other. Fessenden imbues his movies with a unique sensibility, deconstructing the horror genre as much as he adds to it. Four of his features have been upgraded to high-def and are now neatly packaged in a set from Scream Factory.
NO TELLING, (1991), Fessenden’s first feature, concerns married couple Geoffrey (Stephen Ramsey) and Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie) grappling with marital woes and secret lives: she’s a painter flirting with new neighbor Alex (David van Tieghem); he’s a scientist locked up in the basement of their country house doing terrible things to animals in the name of progress.
The spare plot makes for a slow but steady build, and Fessenden doesn’t exploit horror conventions in predictable ways. There’s barely a boo! moment. Instead, NO TELLING employs an uneasy atmosphere to play out its themes of secrecy and paranoia, although at times the proceedings get didactic with heavy talk about scientific ethics. Yes, the characters and themes are painted in broad strokes (Geoffrey is bad because he works for big science; Alex Vine, the neighbor who fights for the local farmers is righteous despite trying to hit on Lillian). But the movie is lensed with such style and exuberance that its virtues outweigh the flaws. Throughout, Fessenden always finds interesting camera angles or ways to pull into a scene (energetically crosscutting between Miriam Healy-Louise painting and Ramsey engaged in gory experiments, or some unusually fast and lengthy tracking shots that just don’t feel right). There’s a unique and confident rhythm that propels NO TELLING out of gate, and it’s worthy.
Next up is HABIT (1997), which won a handful of awards and put Fessenden on the map. The low-fi NYC-set feature, expanded from his own student film, sees Fessenden in the lead role as Sam. Mourning the death of his father, and having just broken up with his girlfriend, Sam finds solace in booze, as well as an enigmatic new flame Anna (Meredith Snaider), who may or may not be a vampire.
The cast, including Fessenden, is spot-on, while the grainy cinematography and shabby interiors add a lived-in look that oscillates between melancholy and menacing, especially in the HD transfer. The documentary-like realism adds a layer of authenticity; New York City is as much a character in the film as the human actors. Coupled with Sam’s mounting paranoia, HABIT playfully keeps audiences guessing whether the vampire is real or imagined, but the horror remains undiminished.
In WENDIGO (2002), burnt-out photographer George (Jake Weber), wife Kim (Patricia Clarkson), and son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) head out to the Catskills for a little R&R weekend that turns sour after an edgy encounter with some hunters. A strange accident during a sled ride makes us question whether the weird goings-on are the hunter’s revenge, or the work of the wendigo, a creature from First Nations mythology.
As with NO TELLING, the movie plays on tensions that made DELIVERANCE work so well, stacking locals against foreign city folk. WENDIGO is always at its strongest (and scariest) when told from the boy’s perspective. The adult world seems overbearing: there’s the violence of the hunters, and then there’s the boy’s parents, who are playing nice but clearly going through marital challenges. Fessenden plays a strong hand when rendering horrors that are ambiguous; this is an underrated gem that finally gets the HD treatment it deserves.
A supernatural thriller set in the Alaskan tundra, THE LAST WINTER (2006) concerns oil driller Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) trying to get environmentalist James Hoffman (James Le Gros) to green-light the construction of an ice road. Quickly, things go awry. One worker is plagued by nightmarish visions, and he’s not alone. Numerous project members start going batshit crazy – or is something from the earth itself coming to get them? The flick ultimately amounts to nature kicking some ass in retaliation for the fossil fuels we suck from it.
Drawing visual inspiration from THE THING and THE SHINING, Fessenden makes use of moving cameras and aerial photography in his biggest picture yet. Also effective is the use of ambient sound (moaning winds, violent gusts of snowsquall) to generate eerie tension. This tale of man vs. nature expands on the ecological themes in Fessenden’s oeuvre, but the movie really soars when it ceases to preach and turns into the kind of sustained mood piece he’s known for.
These four discs comprise an impressively comprehensive collection. While Fessenden’s big ideas and inventive filmmaking approach are sometimes heavy-handed, he’s a man with a message and passion to spare, as evident on the supplementary material and commentary tracks, in which he dwells on all aspects of production, down to the minutiae of the action figures used for the opening credits of WENDIGO. Bonus features include a fistful of making-of docs and short films, such as the original HABIT, music videos, and even Fessenden’s bit for THE ABCS OF DEATH 2.
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Firstly, WOW – what a set! We get the features on four separate dual-layeredBlu-ray discs loaded with extras. Shamefully, all I knew about Larry Fessenden was that he wrote the booklet available with the Kelly Reichardt Collection citing him as a collaborator. And it was excellent. Kudos to my buddy Colin for alerting me to this as a worthy purchase. Was he ever right!
The 1080P transfers are all “Director-approved HD” with max’ed out bitrates for No Telling and Habit and strong renderings for Wendigo and The Last Winter. They looks great – heavy grain on the 1.33:1 The Habit and 1.78:1Wendigo – both shot on 16 mm (Eastman EXR 500T 7298.) Colors are bright and rich – there is tightness with the 2006 The Last Winter (2.35:1) looking the best and No Telling (1.78:1) also looking very strong. Contrast is layered and adeptly exported by the HD. I was impressed with all of them and they seem deserved of the director -approved moniker. I have no complaints, whatsoever.
Ditto for the audio – every feature has the option of a DTS-HD Master 5.1 surround (bumps) at a high kbps or a similar encode 2.0 channel – both in 24-bit. Scores are by the likes of Jeff Grace, David Van Tieghem, Tom Laverack, Michelle DiBucci and Geoffrey Kidde and seem very accurately reproduced via the lossless options sounding appropriately strong or modest in accordance with the original productions. There are optional English subtitles for each feature (see samples below.) The Blu-ray discs are region ‘A’-locked.
Supplements are endless and I have not got through all of them yet – we get audio commentaries by writer/director/executive producer Larry Fessenden for each feature and an additional one for Wendigo with actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and John Speredakos. Fessenden also does introduction for most of the other extras on the discs which include extensive making of’s, archival footage, at least 7 short films (I watched “Santa Claws” and loved it), interviews, music video, trailers and, the production company’s Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reels and the package has a 24-page booklet with liner notes by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold, featuring never-before-seen photos, storyboards, and sketches.
What makes me recommended this so strongly are the films – criminally under-rated – Mr. Fessenden is a force and I love his style. These are cool, if totally imperfect, flics – Wendigo (always had a thing for Clarkson) especially made my day, but Habit is remarkably chilling. I was a shade uncomfortable with No Telling but was swept right up in The Last Winter. I LOVE being introduced to new auteurs like this wayward genius, styles and signatures. The films are weak in some areas but offer strength in visuals. Fessenden’s works here thrilled me. I wish I had a set like this every week to cover. Our highest recommendation to those with an open mind and who appreciate the lower-budgeted horror genre! I’m a fan of Larry Fessenden!
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No Telling 11/9/2015
Retro-review: New 4 disk BluRay Collection from The Shout Factory!
NO TELLING (OR THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX) 1991
Larry Fessenden is horror’s working man mad genius, and it’s fantastic that The Shout Factory is honoring his work with this four disc collection. He may not be a household name, but I’ll bet you’d recognize him if you caught his small roles in JUGFACE, YOU’RE NEXT, or this year’s POD and LATE PHASES. He also coordinates, acts in and directs his own amazing radio plays called Tales From Beyond the Pale and is an accomplished writer and director of many a horror film. I’ll be covering all four films in this collection. Last time I delved into WENDIGO. This time it’s Fessenden’s down to earth Frankenstein film, NO TELLING.
Lillian Gaines (Miriam Healy-Louie) thought she was going to have a romantic summer in the country with her husband Geoffrey (Stephen Ramsey), but it’s apparent when Geoffrey holes up in his makeshift lab that she was wrong. Geoffrey is using rats, bunnies, and any subjects he can get his hands on for his medical experiments and while Lillian disapproves, she supports her estranged husband. But when local scientist bohunk Alex Vine (David Van Tieghem) begins spending more time with Lillian, her support fades with her husband’s indifference–but Lillian has no idea how far Geoffrey will go with his experiments.
Much like WENDIGO, which dissected the insecurities of a man in a family setting, this film again shows a relationship in crisis, this time due to an imbalance between the relationship and one’s work. Also like WENDIGO, NO TELLING goes to an extreme in showing how horribly wrong a relationship can go if these issues are not addressed. In NO TELLING, Geoffrey senses that his relationship is going south, but instead of working on it he pushes his wife away in favor of work. But without his wife to balance him out, Geoffrey becomes a monster himself with the heinous lengths his experiments go to. The final scenes in this film involving Geoffrey’s experiment, while quite rudimentary when compared to Frankenstein’s experiments, still show a doctor out of control and without the moral compass to understand what is right and wrong. Fessenden once again focuses on the relationship here, and while WENDIGO was more of a metaphorical horror film, this one is much more rooted in the real world as the work Geoffrey is doing in his lab is quite monstrous.
Again with NO TELLING, this is a completely grounded and down to earth story. Everything is done in a bare basics sort of way which again attests to Fessenden’s scrappy filmmaking style. But it’s this sense of down home normalcy that really highlights and contrasts with the horrors of Geoffrey’s experiments. Seeing Geoffrey’s experiment take its first steps is a moment bathed in absolute horror and gave me a grotesque feeling few other films achieved. This is mainly due to the rudimentary but effective effects.
Those who dislike animals being harmed most likely won’t want to check this movie out, and while I usually hate films that introduce animals simply to kill them, this one does highlight the horrible lengths a man without conscience can go to if left unchecked. NO TELLING is another deeply compelling and viscerally horrifying film that seems to be put together with barebones ingenuity, but the heart and genius comes in the performances by the capable cast and the sensitive and creative eye of its director, Larry Fessenden.
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Retro-review: New 4 disk BluRay Collection from The Shout Factory!
Larry Fessenden is horror’s working man mad genius and it’s fantastic that The Shout Factory is honoring his work with this four disk collection. He may not be a household name, but I’ll bet you’d recognize him if you caught his small roles in JUGFACE, YOU’RE NEXT, or this year’s POD and LATE PHASES. He also coordinates, acts and directs his own amazing radio plays called Tales From Beyond the Pale and is an accomplished writer and director of many a horror film. I’ll be covering all four films in this collection, but I figured I’d start with one I haven’t seen before. WENDIGO.
George (Jake Weber) is the moody patriarch in his family, when he hits a deer and skids into a snow drift, the difference between himself and the manly men who were hunting the deer are evident. Challenging his manhood in front of his family, Jake attempts to be strong but against the emasculating country boys, he is made to feel insignificant in front of his wife Kim (Patricia Clarkson) and son Miles (MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE’s Erik Per Sullivan). The hunter continues to torment George and his family, shooting through windows of his home and eventually escalating to more violent behavior. Meanwhile, Miles is having visions of a monster in the woods known as the Wendigo.
WENDIGO is a much more psychological tale than the name suggests. Going in I was expecting a variation of the Bigfoot mythos with some cannibalism tossed in. Turns out this film is an amazing little dissection of the challenges a father has as alpha male in his family, even when he isn’t the alpha male in the world he lives in. We all are different people behind closed doors and this film exemplifies that in a very authentic way through Weber’s nuanced performance. The movie will frustrate those who want a man in suit monster roaming the woods and lopping off heads. There is a monster here, but it’s more on a metaphorical realm and only seen by a few people in the film. This is a more psychological piece, looking inward on what it means to be a man and the differences between city vs. country mentalities. The contrast is made through the eyes of young Miles who is trying to piece together the complex themes of being an adult with flawed parents and the weird townsfolk they run into as his only models. Fessenden really does a great job of piecing together moments of Miles simply taking in everything with wide eyes and an innocent mind.
What really impressed me about this film, above the psychological depth, was the fantastically creative editing Fessenden does throughout. Be it a creative game of war with cards or simply montages of Native American photos and paintings, Fessenden conveys a dark and ominous mood that increases in intensity the whole way through. Relying on disturbing imagery and quick clips, the film really does ratchet up the tension pretty tightly be the end which is both tragic and poignant.
Less of a creature feature and more of a brain tickler, WENDIGO is entertaining nevertheless. Again, if you want monsters, there are plenty of films out there that deliver that sort of thing. This one dissects masculinity, violence, and what it means to be a man and drapes it all with Native American mythology. The film does have a monster in it. There are some bloody kills and some really great performances. WENDIGO is thinking man’s horror and there’s nothing wrong with that. Watching it made me long to watch the rest of the films in this collection, but those are for another week.
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Retro-review: New 4 disk BluRay Collection from The Shout Factory!
The final film in this Larry Fessenden Collection from The Shout Factory is his first film and the first time I took notice of the director’s name as a unique voice in horror. HABIT is a vampire tale, but one that focuses on the theme of addiction. This is a concept that has been explored before, but never in such a realistic and gritty way.
HABIT tells the tale of Sam (Larry Fessenden) who has seen better days as his life has become a country song cliché. His girlfriend left him. His father passed away. And he’s swirling into alcoholism, when along comes Anna (Meredith Snaider) who offers up a new drug to become addicted to; blood. Sam struggles to keep his wits and his humanity as he sinks faster and faster into addiction and vampirism.
Even without knowing this film was made in the mid-nineties, I would have guessed as much as HABIT feels as if it belongs right smack dab in the middle of Kevin Smith’s CLERKS and Edward Burns’ THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN as it has that East Coast indie flick vibe to it that was so popular in that era. Much of the conversation is casual and while the emotional stakes are high, the life and death aren’t so much so for the main characters that seem to not do much but wander around New York and get into deep conversations about stuff. I find films like this fascinating because to have a film focus mainly on dialog for the bulk of its runtime means that dialog is usually pretty compelling. Much of the film also soaks in the environment of 90’s New York with the strip clubs and seediness fading slightly, but still ever-present. Like Hennenlotter and Scorsese before him, Fessenden really captures the essence of New York here as he walks through it casually in this story.
While the stakes rise towards the end of this to operatic levels, much of this film is a conversational piece about one man grieving a lost relationship and a lost father. When Sam (Fessenden) meets Anna (Snaider), he is as low as can be and latches onto her as many rebounders often do. As much as this film highlights the debilitating effects of alcohol, it also shows that one can be a relationship addict as Sam becomes transfixed on his time with Anna and feels physically ill when she’s away. This is due to the fact that Anna is draining him slowly of blood while they make love, but on a deeper level, it describes how a one-sided relationship feels to the person who wants more from the relationship than their partner. The pacing of the film may move slow for some, but the hour we get to know Sam and Anna is fascinating as their relationship grows from strangers to dependants over the span of two short weeks.
The performances here are natural and feel real. Sam is an addict, but not just to alcohol and Fessenden brings surprising depth in this performance to the character. Fessenden is extremely young here and reminded me of Jack Nicholson as he is often aloof and unpredictable, seeming to seize life without really caring about how much damage it is doing to his own. This, of course, is his downfall, but it’s fascinating to see it all unfold in HABIT.
Anyone interested in a different kind of horror film should check out terror through the lens of Larry Fessenden. With his unique style of editing and storytelling, even concepts that have been explored before like addiction through vampirism prove to be unique and entertaining. Out of all of the films I checked out in this collection, HABIT is definitely one of the best. Hell, I like them all and I think you will to if you like a little thematic heft and creative editing in your horror.
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The Last Winter 12/23/2015
Retro-review: New 4 disk BluRay Collection from The Shout Factory!
THE LAST WINTER (2006)
I don’t mind a little social commentary in films as long as it has enough of a metaphor to not sound too preachy. THE LAST WINTER is definitely a film about climate change/global warming/global cooling/whatever they are calling it these days, but at least it delivers some solidly constructed scares and fun performances along with it.
A small crew of working class men and women are manning an outpost in the Northern Arctic, developing a new road for truckers to haul resources across the harsh terrain, but when environmentalist James Hoffman (James Le Gros) arrives, he realizes that the shift in temperatures has caused unnatural phenomenon to occur. Are the hallucinations and odd behavior of the crew, lead by manly man Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), the result of ancient toxic gasses that are melting and seeping to the surface or is something more paranormal going on?
Fessenden takes a page from John Carpenter and fills this film where a group of people are stuck in the arctic with plenty of fantastic actors. Not only do Perlman and Le Gros great here as two sides of the same coin in terms of the argument about how the work they do affect the environment, but they also are fantastic fighting over the hand of sole hottie at the base Connie Britton. Add Kevin Corrigan as a cocky mechanic named Motor, Jamie Harrold as a neurotic scientist, Zach Gilford as a gung ho worker under the influence of outside forces, and Fessenden himself making an appearance, and you’ve got a really fantastic cast to see bounce off of one another in the snow. Lots of arguments and drama unfold and all of these actors carry it marvelously.
But as with Fessenden’s film WENDIGO, this film uses the supernatural in a much more metaphoric manner. In WENDIGO, ancient spirits were about the inner monster that resides in all of us and only comes out when cornered or threatened. In THE LAST WINTER, the ancient spirits signify the land itself which is lashing out against the crew for the destructive decisions they threaten to make. While those wanting a straight forward monster film are going to come up wanting, Fessenden makes these ambiguous forces convincingly scary as his camera soaks in the vast nothingness of the snow covered glaciers.
As with much of Fessenden’s films, his editing is frantic and is as much of a character as anything else. I could see where some might feel it’s a bit too much, but with the dulcet and serene surroundings of the arctic, some punchy editing was welcome. No, this isn’t as exciting as THE THING, but it’s got a phenomenal cast and soaks in the spooky atmosphere and smashes it into your face. THE LAST WINTER is a psychological and environmental nightmare and one of Fessenden’s most thematically and structurally successful films.
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