The Larry Fessenden Collection (IFC Midnight/Scream Factory, R)

The Larry Fessenden Collection 75The best film in The Larry Fessenden Collection is his 1995 film Habit.





Habit 500

Despite being a huge fan of classic horror films, until recently I had never heard of Larry Fessenden, who is apparently a legend in the indie horror world, both for his own work as an actor and director, and as a producer and the head of Glass Eye Pix. Even better, he has cited the Universal Horror classics of the 1930s as one of his key inspirations. So of course when IFC Midnight/Scream Classics issued a box set of four of his films, with a cool black and white cover image including Fessenden looking like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, I had to check it out.

The best film in The Larry Fessenden Collection is his 1995 film Habit. Although there is a supernatural element in this film, it’s most effective as a character study of someone whose life and mind are unraveling, with the added bonus of some very effective New York City location shooting. As the film opens, things are not going well for Sam (Fessenden), a restaurant manager who drinks too much and who has recently been hit by a series of traumas, including the death of his father and a breakup with his girlfriend. At a Halloween party (of course) in the Village, the beautiful Anna (the striking Meredith Snaider, who apparently appeared only in this one film) catches his eye.

Sam has obviously studied the Big Book of Movie Clichés, because it never enters his mind to question why a beautiful woman such as Anna would be attracted to a drunken slob like himself. However, he’s genre-blind enough to not notice things like the fact that Anna never seems to eat, likes to draw blood when they’re having sex, and never seems to be around in the daytime. As in film noir, once the hero sets a foot wrong, there’s no going back, and when Sam starts to get seriously concerned about what Anna might be, and the consequences for him, it’s too late. Habit is an effective film because it combines a story ground in human psychology with the sexual tensions of the classic vampire tales, and sets it all in a recognizable modern city populated by people similar to those you probably interact with every day. Most of all, it succeeds by creating the sense that, in this otherwise familiar world, something is just a bit off, a feeling that intensifies over the course of the film.

Algernon Blackwood’s short story “The Wendigo” is a classic of American horror, featuring a monster from Native American mythology, a half-beast, half-human creature of horrifying appearance whose hunger for human flesh cannot be sated, no matter how much it eats. You can see how that would make a great campfire tale, particularly if the campfire is in the woods and far from civilization, and that’s the setup for Fessenden’s 2012 film Wendigo as well.

Advertising photographer George (Jake Weber), his wife Kim (the always-excellent Patricia Clarkson), and son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) are driving to upstate New York to spend some decompression time at a friend’s cabin in the woods. Things start to get weird when George accidentally hits a deer, prompting the ire of some local hunters including the threatening Otis (John Speredakos). The creepiness accelerates at the cabin, and the obvious conflicts in the family unit are paralleled by events in the world around them. You could interpret this film more or less to death, or just enjoy it as a horror flick with many parallels to The Shining (not least the fact that the kid is the most attuned to the possibilities of things that aren’t supposed to exist). Unfortunately, Fessenden doesn’t come up with a good way to pay off the story, and resorts instead to clichés and some clumsy special effects that belong in a much lesser movie.

The other two films in the collection, No Telling (1991) and The Last Winter (2006), are both far inferior to Habit and Wendigo. In No Telling, the evil ambitions of a medical researcher, Geoffrey Gaines (Stephen Ramsey), are contrasted with the solid ethics of an ecologist, Alex Vine (the musician David van Tieghem), and the adorable innocence of a farm girl, Frances Boyd (Ashley Arcemont). Gaines might as well be twirling his mustache and tying the girl to the railroad tracks for all the subtlety exhibited in this film, which comes off like an absurd piece of propaganda aimed at people who already believe animal research is evil and pesticides are killing us all.

As in Wendigo, a strained marriage figures in No Telling—in this case Gaines is working so hard on his fiendish experiments, and becoming so weird in the process, that he has alienated his wife, Lillian (Miriam Healey-Louie), who is something of a dilettante artist. But she’s still living by the 1960s playbook and standing behind her man, however much she may also be attracted to the handsome young ecologist who keeps turning up on their farm, and however much the world would be improved if she would actually step up and take a stand rather than always deferring to her husband as he spins more and more out of control. There’s a big sit-down dinner about halfway through where everyone has the chance to state their points of view, as if they weren’t obvious enough already, and that’s pretty much how it goes with this film—way too much reliance on the audience agreeing with the director’s point of view, and very little connection to anything grounded in the real world of human beings.

The sheer badness of The Last Winter came as a surprise to me, because it is the only film among the four in this set to have much of a budget (reportedly $5 million, which enabled location shooting in Iceland and Alaska), and because the cast includes mainstream actors like Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, and Zach Gilford. Like No Telling, The Last Winter relies far too much on the audience holding certain political beliefs that will make them more willing to accept clichéd characterizations and a faintly ridiculous plot. It has gotten some positive reviews (69% average on Metacritic), so some critics do like it, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out why.

Ed Pollack (Perlman) works for the KIC Corporation, which wants to drill for oil in previously protected land in Alaska, because America needs energy independence, and besides, there’s money to be made. He doesn’t twirl his mustache, but he does chomp a cigar, which is just as effective in signaling the blackness of his heart. Opposing Pollack are the ecologists James Hoffman (James LeGros) and Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold), who have been brought on to do an impact study. There’s also rivalry for the affections of the second-in-command at the base, Abby Sellers (Connie Britton), and lots of other tensions of the kind that can occur when a lot of people are living together at close quarters.

Fortunately, the rather ordinary personal melodramas playing out at this isolated Arctic base are soon overshadowed by mysterious events—crew members start to disappear, which Hoffman claims are due to the release of mind-altering “sour gas” due to global warming, and then the base loses the ability to communicate with the outside world after a plane crash wipes out their electricity. Fessenden effectively builds tension, despite the frequent ridiculousness of the script, but the payoff is a huge disappointment that undercuts all that came before. One strong point is the location shooting by G. Magni Agustsson, which includes many long shots emphasizing how the snowy wasteland dwarfs the puny human attempts to encroach on the wilderness. Overall, however, this film is a huge disappointment, and a wasted opportunity to create a film that could work both as a horror movie and as a political statement.

The Blu-ray set is jam-packed with extras, including a 24-page illustrated booklet, audio commentary tracks by Fessenden for each film, making-of featurettes for each film, and a variety of short films, music videos, interviews, and trailers—in fact, the list of extras is so long that I recommend checking it out here since it adds a lot of value to this collection. | Sarah Boslaugh

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