If there's a dark patron saint of modern indie horror, it's probably director, producer, actor and writer Larry Fessenden. He said, "I'm eager to show the depravity of human nature."
If you're trying to sum up Fessenden's career behind the lens, it would be 'monster movies with brains.' In the past, he's dealt with vampires (Habit) and supernatural cannibals (Wendigo.) This week sees his return to the director's seat, aquatic monster movie Beneath, is released on DVD and Blu-ray.
It's been seven years since his last feature, 2006's eco-horror The Last Winter, and by comparison, the set-up for Beneath is pretty conventional: Six friends, fresh out of high school, head to nearby Black Lake for a day of beer and swimming. When they ignore the stories about a giant fish in the lake, it comes back to bite them.
The script by Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith (co-writers of Flu Bird Horror) had been knocking around the Chiller Network for a while when it crossed Fessenden's desk. "It was delightful," he said, "and I loved the archetypes." There was also the appeal of a movie that evoked his beloved Jaws, which he called "by record, my favorite film" (Famously, the young Fessenden recreated with a home-made model of the Orca and GI Joe's as actors.) Yet Fessenden called Steven Spielberg's classic "the opposite film (to Beneath), because you love the characters. They're working class heroes – well apart from the one guy who's the rich kid – and they have a higher purpose."
Not so Beneath. In its depiction of the amorality of youth, he saw something deeper in the script. He said, "The writers had in mind to make a slightly pulpy film with these exaggerated, unpleasant kids, However, I have a slightly different approach in my films. I like to have genre fiction as allegory, so I saw this as an indictment of our current state of affairs in a Narcissistic world. Our media, our politics, everyone seems to be in it for themselves."
Much of Beneath's tension comes from how quickly and willingly the teens are prepared to throw each other overboard – both figuratively and literally. And while other film makers may have made wannabe director Zeke (Fort Tilden's Griffin Newman) more heroic to stroke their own ego, Fessenden makes the GoPro addict the worst of the lot. He said, "I fully believe that the media is a corrupting force, and Narcissism is our problem. I couldn't even have begun a couple of years ago to describe all the selfies and all the self-indulgence."
In a way, Beneath reaches back to the themes of Fessenden's urban vampire psychodrama Habit. In that, his character of Sam was emotionally and increasingly physically disconnected from everyone around him. In the modern digital age, it's possible to be constantly contactable electronically, but still have no interpersonal links or meaningful emotional lives: Connected with no connections. Fessenden called Habit "a story about the fragility of our sense of community. Beneath takes it to a preposterous level and becomes satirical in its depiction of kids not connecting."
Yet this is still a monster movie, and as Night of the Living Dead used zombies to comment on the social mores of its time, so Beneath needs a creature up to the task of taking a bite of of culture. That's why Fessenden's team built a full scale water-proof creation to rip into his victims. Yet, just like Spielberg found with Bruce the shark, it was a challenge getting the creature to chomp on cue. Fessenden said, "When you have a 10 foot puppet in the water, you're going to have difficulties, and we had to reserve a couple of hours every day to get a few seconds of film."
However, he was determined to stick with a practical effect, rather than CGI something in later. He said, "There's a notion that, if you do it on a computer, it will be cheaper, but to do it well is actually quite an enterprise. But most of all, I grew up on rubber creatures and have a soft spot for them, so I wanted to celebrate that."
The script's implication of a myth behind the fish also gave Fessenden an opportunity – through the website, a digital comic, and extras included on the disc – to world build. He credited producer Jenn Wexler for the character shorts, 'shot' by Zeke, which give a little more depth and poignancy when the kids end up as chum in the feature. "That's always been my approach to horror," he said, "to find that sense of sadness and loss."
Meanwhile Fessenden himself stars in a series of video diaries as a Black Lake conspiracy theorist. He said, "I've always believed in the world around the film. When I was little, you'd look at the magazines and you'd see photographs, and your imagination would be tweaked. The one thing about horror fans is that they love to dive into all the minutia, and the back story, and the extended world of the false mythology."
The fictional world building is complimented by an extensive, hour-long making-of, which for Fessenden was an important part of the release. "Even since Habit, I've believed in sharing the process. You could say, in life, the journey is as important as the destination."
That sense of creative collaboration, of sharing his often hard-won experience, has made him a mainstay on many sets. Aside from being a director, most audiences will recognize Fessenden as the horny neighbor with a fatal headache in You're Next. Director Adam Wingard has called Fessenden an influence in his work: In typical Fessenden style, he downplayed that influence as being "only in the regard that he was using the genre to tell personal tales or make original cinema."
His gory demise in that movie is one of dozens of cameos he has provided for his fellow film makers. Somehow, a Fessenden sighting, no matter how brief or deadly, has become a seal of quality. He's also a prolific producer, working with the scene's most exciting talents like Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) Jim Mickle (Stakeland.) He actually had two Austin festival favorites in the last year, Adrián García Bogliano's SXSW midnighter Late Phases, and Housecore Horror Film Festival zombiementary Birth of the Living Dead.
He was also particularly influential in the career of SXSW and Fantastic Fest regular Ti West: First executive producing his lo-fi debut The Roost before helping him find his feet after the bad experience of Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break with the ultra-indie Trigger Man, then retro-demon horror House of the Devil and ghost story The Innkeepers. Fessenden said, "My films were challenging the expectations of the genre, and that's why I really responded to Ti's approach. Through his pacing and withholding expected shocks, he was able to create a new level of dread and anxiety. And with the support of myself and his other producers, and Ti's own stubborness, he's really been able to stake a claim."
Meanwhile Fessenden continues to cut his own individual path through cinema. Aside from Late Phases and Doc of the Dead, he's got "a little stack of scripts" that he's working on, while his company Glass Eye Pix has upcoming documentary American Jesus on religion in the USA. And if he truly the patron saint of indie terror, and the next wave of creators, he's doing good work. He said, "I feel that we're in a good place with horror, and I feel it's because of people like Ti and Adam."
Beneath (Scream! Factory) is out on DVD and Blu-ray now. Beneath: The Prequel is available via Comixology. DVDanger returns in two weeks.
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