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 with Wendigo. 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.