If ever there was to be a Mt. Rushmore of modern horror, there’s no question that the face of Larry Fessenden would get prominent placement. One of the patron saints of indie horror, Fessenden is a true auteur and a true original whose incredible career is now being celebrated with the Scream Factory release of The Larry Fessenden Collection, containing four of his films and hours of bonus features that help illuminate just what a vital voice Fessenden has been in the genre for more than three decades. This is one of the best horror releases of the year.
Fessenden (whose Glass Eye Pix has been around since the mid-’80s, helping produce films including The House of the Devil, I Sell the Dead, Stake Land and Late Phases) has built a career on twisting and subverting the conventions of classic horror films and filtering them through his own distinctive lens. His movies seem to start with the seeds of horror tropes that we recognize but then are bent to meet Fessenden’s own interests and preoccupations—the universality of familiar pared down to the personal and individualistic. It’s a thread that runs through all four of the films included in this excellent collection.
First up is 1991’s No Telling, one of Fessenden’s earliest features and a clever take on the mad scientist genre. Stephen Ramsay stars as a scientist who has recently moved to the country with his wife, an artist played by Miriam Healy-Louie. While the pair adjusts to their new, quieter life, Ramsay conducts animal experiments in secret, attempting to uncover… well, I’m not exactly sure. This is Fessenden playing in the Frankenstein sandbox (the film’s alternate title is even The Frankenstein Complex), but he does so without explicitly invoking horror until some of the movie’s final disturbing images.
No Telling still has a lot on its mind, whether it’s the domestic drama of a marriage unraveling or the statements against big pharmaceuticals and corporate science. Of the four films included in The Larry Fessenden Collection, this one might be the most crudely made (to which Fessenden himself openly admits on the commentary), but it still manages to feel genuinely eccentric and contains a quirky visual style that announces Fessenden as an exciting voice in the genre.
The second feature is Habit from 1997, Fessenden’s take on the vampire genre and arguably his best-known film. A remake of Fessenden’s own feature from the early ’80s, it stars Fessenden himself as Sam, a New York hipster who has just lost both his father and his relationship with his girlfriend. He meets a mysterious woman named Anna (Meredith Snaider), to whom he is immediately drawn. As their relationship intensifies, Sam begins to suspect that Anna is more than she seems to be.
The vagueness of Habit is deliberate. Like in the Nicolas Cage vehicle Vampire’s Kiss, the audience is left uncertain as to whether or not the protagonist has become the victim of a real vampire or if it’s simply the delusion of an unreliable narrator. Vampirism here stands in for addiction, primarily sexual—it is the foundation on which the central relationship is built and Sam is practically powerless to stop himself from giving in to Anna’s advances.
Almost 20 years removed from its release, Habit remains the best of Fessenden’s movies I’ve seen. Despite its genre trappings, it feels intensely personal—and not just because Fessenden himself plays the lead (and very well, I might add), but also because of the specific details he includes both about the protagonist’s life and the ’90s New York “scene” he captures. The movie feels lived in, its relationships feel authentic and Fessenden makes for an unusual, utterly compelling protagonist. Habit works both as a straight horror movie and, as the title suggests, as a movie about addiction and self-destruction. It’s territory that has been mined elsewhere in the vampire genre (Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction; Park Chan-wook’s Thirst), but Fessenden’s take has its own pulse, its own energy. It’s great.
The 2001 film Wendigo, found on disc three of The Larry Fessenden Collection, is the filmmaker’s version of a werewolf movie. It stars Jake Weber and Patricia Clarkson—marking this as one of the first times Fessenden was directing established stars—as a couple who travel to upstate New York with their young son Miles for the winter. On their drive up, they hit a deer and draw the ire of a local hunter named Otis (John Speredakos). Once they arrive at their cabin, they can sense bad mojo. It could be the ever-growing conflict with Otis, or it could be the appearance of a Wendigo, a supernatural shapeshifter from Indian folklore known for eating its victims.
While Fessenden tries to touch on the relationship between man and beast in Wendigo, the movie never quite captures the central conflict of the werewolf story that is the tortured duality of man becoming a monster. Everything else could be changed and decontextualized, but losing that dramatic conceit removes much of the tension from the movie and strains its already tenuous relationship to horror convention.
Because the film is told mostly through the eyes of a child (Erik Per Sullivan of Malcolm in the Middle fame), there is the same sense of unreliability Fessenden embraced in Habit: are we seeing events as they are actually happening or are we seeing the imagination of a child who has been told a folk tale and chooses to believe it? The metaphorical remove that was so effective in Fessenden’s previous film here keeps us, too, albeit at a distance. But Wendigo has enough atmosphere and eccentricity to remain compelling, and Fessenden’s approach to the effects of the titular Wendigo (achieved through puppetry and stop motion) help give the movie a singular personality. The movie falls short of being what it wants to be, but succeeds quite beautifully at being what it is.
The fourth and final feature included in the set is The Last Winter, Fessenden’s environmental horror film from 2006 that casts James Le Gros, Ron Perlman, Connie Britton and Kevin Corrigan (among others) as a team of scientists on an expedition in the Arctic seeking energy independence in conjunction with an oil corporation. Their efforts, however, have conjured the angry spirits of the Earth, who begin to fight back and take revenge on the crew. Their days are numbered. It’s the last winter.
Of the four films included in this set, The Last Winter is the biggest mixed bag. It’s the slickest and most polished, featuring the most recognizable cast, but it’s also got the biggest disconnect between Fessenden’s ambitions and the execution. His passion and concern for the environment are apparent, but The Last Winter rarely finds a way to communicate those ideas in a way that’s either scary or less heavy-handed. The arctic setting is effectively claustrophobic—shades of Carpenter’s The Thing—and the cast acquits itself well, but it’s hard to view the movie now and not feel a little like it’s the indie horror version of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. It’s a better, more thoughtful movie in every way, but its approach to environmental horror is not altogether different. The intent is honorable, but the finished product isn’t entirely successful.
In addition to shining a light on some under-the-radar horror films of the last 20+ years, where The Larry Fessenden Collection really excels is in its collection of bonus features, which go deep into Fessenden’s work and the history of Glass Eye Pix. No Telling’s supplements include a commentary with Fessenden as well as two 25-minute featurettes comprised of behind-the-scenes and archival footage, plus Fessenden’s 1979 short film “White Trash” and a sizzle reel for Glass Eye Pix covering highlights of the company’s output from 1985 to 1990. The bonus features on Habit include another Fessenden commentary, a vintage making-of piece, the original 1981 short film “Habit” (and a making-of piece for that, too), two music videos, the short film “N is for Nexus” (Fessenden’s contribution to ABCs of Death 2) and a brief making-of featurette for that short. The original theatrical trailer for Habit is also included.
The supplemental section for Wendigo contains not one but two commentaries: the first from writer/director Fessenden and a second from actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber and John Speredakos. There’s an interview with Fessenden (conducted in 2001 when the movie was being made), a 30-minute making-of featurette, a trailer for the film, a trailer for a Wendigo animated series, the short film “Santa Claws” and another Glass Eye Pix sizzle reel, this one from 2010.
The fourth and final disc in the set contains a feature-length making-of documentary about the production of The Last Winter, as well as a fourth commentary from Fessenden. There’s an archival production featurette from 2005, a music video, a contemporary interview with Fessenden recorded in 2015 and the 2014 sizzle reel for Glass Eye Pix. Also included are three more short films from Fessenden: “Origins,” “Jebediah” and “Mister.”
Scream Factory has done such great work with The Larry Fessenden Collection that it’s one of those rare cases where the supplemental content is every bit as good as the film(s) it’s supporting. These are interesting, important movies that demand to be seen, but Fessenden’s interviews, short films and commentaries are every bit as important in understanding and appreciating independent filmmaking and one of its greatest champions. This is a great collection of work from a truly original, vital voice in horror. Long live Larry Fessenden.
No Telling Score: 3/5
Habit Score: 4/5
Wendigo Score: 3.5/5
The Last Winter Score: 2.5/5
Disc Score: 4.5/5