Larry Fessenden is an independent filmmaker almost never mentioned when favorite indie directors are discussed. He has specialized in horror, but a great many horror fans don't like his movies very much. So what is this guy doing wrong? Absolutely nothing.
It's the audiences and a significant number of film critics who are getting it wrong, trying to fit this unique talent into one category or another instead of appreciating what makes him special. Fessenden embraces both the storytelling traditions of classic Hollywood and the edgier, more personal style of the maverick American filmmakers of the 1970s, like John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson and others. The perceptive critic Dave Kehr accurately described Fessenden's method "…as if John Cassavetes had been working for Universal in the early '30s."
The classic Universal horror films loom large over those that followed, particularly their "Frankenstein" (1931), "Dracula" (1931) and "The Wolf Man" (1941). Fessenden's first three features draw from some of the same mythology as those archetypal films, but in very different ways and with very different results.
"No Telling" (1991), released overseas as "The Frankenstein Complex," is not so much about a mad scientist as it is about mad, corporate-driven science and how common it has become in the modern world. We arrive at a large farmland house with artist Lillian and her research scientist husband Geoffrey. He's there to immerse himself in some secretive experiments, but initially both seem happy to be on a rural getaway.
That changes as more sinister aspects of Geoffrey's work with animals are suggested and the trouble in his relationship with Lillian comes to light. The presence of a handsome environmental activist adds fuel to the fire of the marriage crisis and to the dealings between the newcomers and their farmer neighbors.
"No Telling" is really a drama with very few horror elements until a wrenching, climactic scene in which the result of Geoffrey's experiments is exposed. Stylishly filmed on a tiny budget, it is not without its technical and dramatic awkwardness. Fessenden's dialogue sometimes falls into ecological debate that doesn't feel like real conversation and the acting is a bit uneven. But the film is never less than provocative and involving and that climactic scene, which I won't spoil, really packs a punch. More tragic than frightening, its fictional "monster" encapsulates the argument against animal research in one haunting, metaphorical image.
"No Telling" is available from World Artists Home Video on a DVD that includes a European theatrical trailer and a short feature on the making of the movie, which ends amusingly with blurbs from the most negative reviews the film received.
Having put an environmental spin on "Frankenstein," Fessenden sunk his fangs into the vampire legend with "Habit" (1997), the most Cassavetes-like of his three features. The writer-director shows his skill as an actor here as well, playing the lead in the story of an alcoholic struggling with the death of his father and a recent split from his longtime girlfriend. A new relationship might be just the thing to give him a fresh start, and at first the mysterious Anna does seem like a tonic for desperate Sam.
But when her kinky sex bites start to become dangerously severe, Sam starts to wonder who, or what, this enigmatic girl may be. "Habit" never answers the question if Sam's vampire visions are real or just part of a crumbling psyche, but he clearly plays a part in his own destruction. Alternating between a realistic view of bohemian urban life and stylized nightmare imagery, the movie expertly walks a delicate line between character-driven drama and genre-driven suspense.
"Habit" is Fessenden's most distinctive film and perhaps his best. It's available on a Fox Lorber DVD with a short feature on the film's production (including clips from a far more primitive 1981 version of the film that an 18-year-old Fessenden shot on video) and a music video for a song from the film performed by Just Desserts, a band featuring composer Tom Laverack and Fessenden himself.
Fessenden's most recent feature, "Wendigo" (2001), is not a werewolf story at all, but, like any werewolf film, it is about the beast within man. There is a creature in the film, a sort of deer/tree/man of Native American mythology, but the real terror comes from the lack of communication between neighbors in a heavily wooded small town in the Catskills.
Kim and George leave their high-stress, successful careers behind them to take their young son Miles with them on a weekend away from the city. But when they accidentally hit a deer on the road, things begin to go very wrong. They immediately make an enemy of an angry local named Otis, who sees them as encroaching on his land. The conflict escalates to tragedy while young Miles sees it all in connection to the spirit of the Wendigo.
While never diminishing empathy for the family at the center of his tale, Fessenden subtly alludes to a history of encroachment that far exceeds Otis's complaint. It is a Native American man, seen only by Miles, who tells the boy of the Wendigo legend. And whether the creature actually exists or not seems less relevant than our long, sad history of being unable to share a bountiful Earth. Fessenden also returns to some of the ecological themes of "No Telling," though in less didactic fashion.
Though less vivid on some levels than "Habit," "Wendigo" is Fessenden's most polished work to date. The director's growing visual assurance is evident and he is aided by his most experienced cast so far, including Patricia Clarkson (a regular in many independent films and an Oscar nominee for her role in "Pieces of April"), Jake Weber and young Erik Per Sullivan of "Malcolm in the Middle" fame.
While more fully in the horror domain than the earlier films, "Wendigo" is still less concerned with scares than real life dilemmas. The film ends on a quiet, sad note consistent with the melancholia that hangs over his other movies. Artisan's DVD includes a commentary track from Fessenden, a behind-the-scenes segment, an interview with the director, a trailer, and a gallery of production artwork.
Though its limited theatrical release came and went in the blink of an eye, "Wendigo" suggests Fessenden could comfortably make the transition to bigger-budgeted projects. Yet it's hard to imagine his idiosyncratic approach ever fitting comfortably in the mainstream. If he is bound to continue to struggle in the margins of the industry, here's hoping he'll find the appreciation, whether from horror fans or art-house devotees, that he deserves.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund