Rue Morgue reviews THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION, out now on Blu-ray
Monday, December 7, 2015
by JEFF SZPIRGLAS
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.
THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION is out now from Scream Factory.