DVDanger: The Larry Fessenden Collection
Horror's underappreciated auteur on existential terror
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Tue. Oct. 20, 2015
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.
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."
The Larry Fessenden Collection (IFC/Shout! Factory) is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Come back every Tuesday and Saturday through October for new DVDangers with the best and worst horror releases for your Halloween viewing pleasure.