Showing posts with label larry fessenden. Show all posts
Showing posts with label larry fessenden. Show all posts

Mar 22, 2020


Larry Fessenden is kind of the crazy uncle of the horror genre, and it's likely you may have come to know him from his dozens of on-screen cameos in which he's probably killed. He's like the Sean Bean of the low-budget horror world: if Larry Fessenden pops up on-screen, chances are he'll be dead soon. And he'll love every minute of it. But to credit only his "Where's Waldo?" like appearances in the last twenty years of horror films would do the man a severe injustice. Because Larry, when he's not bleeding out on the ground for his fellow horror filmmaker colleagues, is not only producing some of the best independent horror out in the world right now (The Innkeepers, Stake Land, House of the Devil, I Sell the Dead), but also directing his own.

Fessenden's unique and recognizable style adheres to the slow-burn approach. It's making your audience wait, agonizingly, for the alluded horror to manifest into an undeniable foe. But even when other filmmakers, for instance Ti West (a frequent collaborator), finally let loose in the third act, Fessenden, while doing the same, still finds a subtly eerie way to go about it. You'll find no dripping-eyed specters in the dark or satanists in the basement. No, in fact, it's something a lot more deadly and a lot more...important.

Fessenden's pro-environmental agenda may slip by unnoticed if looking at his work in separate chunks, examining each film only as its own entity and not a part of something bigger. It's not until undertaking the grand slam marathon of his films that it starts to become noticeably thematic. And for the three out of four total titles included, that pro-environmental stance cannot be ignored. Film after film shows people from all walks of life disrespecting the very thing that's given them sustenance and shelter and and a sustainable world in which to live, and it all comes back to bite them in the proverbial ass in one way or another.

Even though Fessenden is known as a horror filmmaker, his films aren't terribly horrific - at least not in an obvious way. As he says in his commentary track for The Last Winter, he admits that his films would probably be considered "slow and dull" by general film fans, and that's probably true. His films are less about the horror our characters are experiencing, and more about how these characters are affected by the before mentioned horror. For instance, in No Telling, there's nothing supernatural at all. And except for mild sci-fi aspects, there's nothing presented that couldn't necessarily happen. No Telling isn't about some Frankensteinian creation brought to life by a mad scientist which then runs rampant through the countryside slaughtering the innocent. Instead, it's about the bastardization of man, and how someone can change and go to such grisly lengths for what he believes to be the betterment of society. Same goes for The Last Winter, which, though made in 2007, is more relevant right now given the "debates" on whether or not we should get off our ass and maybe try to save the planet. Are there monsters in The Last Winter? Sure, there are. But are they real? Or are they figments of the isolated driller crew's imaginations? And if they're not real, then what's left to think? Is it collective guilt in knowing the repercussions of their presence on the icy tundra creating their own monsters?

To reiterate, Fessenden's films are not for everyone. They are, in fact, surprisingly low-key, philosophical, and thoughtful, which doesn't jive with Fessenden's on-screen persona as a hammy joker with a frat-boy demeanor. The uninitiated should know this before tackling his filmography.

Warning: not for dog lovers. 

No Telling, one of the three environmentally conscious films in Fessenden's filmography (so far), might be the preachiest, but it's never done in a way in which you feel you're being preached to. The discussions of the evolution of the farming industry, and how it changed once large corporations got involved, is shared by our characters more than once. And, though one of those involved in this conversation is ultimately proven to have gone sick with power, every argument supporting his or her side doesn't come across as stacked in one's favor and against another. Everyone presents solid arguments on why he or she feels the way he or she does, and this is done purposely to show that while we like to think maintaining a pro-environment mindset by default is the way to go, we may not be considering all possible ramifications from not making those harder choices for the greater good.

Performances in the film are excellent, with special mention of Miriam Healy-Louie as Lillian, caught between the two opposing viewpoints of pro-nature vs. pro-progression, personified by the two men for whom she either maintains feelings of devotion, or for whom she's beginning to feel devotion.

Probably the most well-known of Fessenden's filmography, Habit temporarily hangs up the environmental bent in favor of presenting a more straightforward vampire film in the vein (no pun!) of Nadja and Abel Ferarra's The Addiction

Mostly a vampiric take on Taxi Driver, the idea behind Habit is to express the isolation many people feel even when stacked on top of and next to each other in stretching miles of apartment buildings. This somewhat sexually explicit film filled with subtle bloodletting explores human relationships and how they can change disconcertingly quick. Fessenden deserves tons of credit for playing the on-screen role of the victimized Sam, who seems intent on drinking himself to death at the same time that the mysterious Anna seems intent on drinking him to death.

Fessenden returns to his pro-environment tale, though in a far more subdued way, with his take on the Native American mythology of the wendigo, a shadowy figure presented as an intangible force resurrected to restore the natural balance. 

A sort of Straw Dogs meets The Shining, underrated actors Jake Webber (Dawn of the Dead) and Patricia Clarkson (Six Feet Under) play parents to their young son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan, the youngest "Malcolm in the Middle" brother), who find themselves being victimized by a local hunter while vacationing at a winter getaway in upstate New York. Though based on a supernatural myth, Wendigo avoids being overtly supernatural, with the horrific images of a stick-assembled monster tromping through the woods a heavily implied figment of Miles' imagination. Its ambiguous ending is going to bother the hell out of some viewers, but it falls in line with Fessenden's aesthetic of leaving the horror as a matter of discussion rather than of obvious force which needs to be defeated.

A tremendous cast of actors brings the frigid events of their collective haunting to life as they confront The Last Winter. The most technically achieved film of Fessenden's career (and one finally shot in 35 mm), much like his other films, at first presents a straightforward concept before it transforms into something else. 

Sort of a spiritual sequel to Wendigo, oil drillers for a company called North Shore find themselves dealing with unexplained events following the disappearance of one of their own, followed by the subsequent discovery of his frozen eyeless corpse. One by one, the crew begin to exhibit strange and even dangerous behavior, all which seem to follow on the heels of a conflict spurred by the on-site foreman, Ed Pollak (Ron Perlman, Sons of Anarchy) and James Hoffman (James Legros, Zodiac). Hoffman, an environmental specialist brought to determine the site's stability, announces he's going to recommend that North Shore shut down the site's operations, which doesn't sit will with Pollak's alpha male. Soon the men and women of the base begin to see phantom images of transparent animals tearing across the icy tundra, or discorporated visions of their own departed appearing to them in their bunks. Another ambiguous ending - one of Fessenden's most haunting - is in store for those who dare to see if they can survive The Last Winter.

Larry Fessenden, the on-screen kill guy, might be a recognizable name in horror-loving households, but Larry Fessenden, the director, may not. He may never be as celebrated as John Carpenter or George Romero, but his devotion to and knowledge of the genre - and of filmmaking in general - cannot be denied. In Wendigo, a father tells his son about Robert Frost, the poet who took the road less traveled and it's made all the difference. That, right there, perfectly sums up the career of Larry Fessenden. (Plus he has really cool hair!) 

Nov 13, 2013


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

 So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. Jim Mickle
Dark Sky Films / Glass Eye Pix
United States

"Months passed in a blur of days and nights. We traveled east and west, but always north. Away from death. We avoided the cities. Mister said they were the worst, hit the hardest in the beginning. As people flocked together for safety, the plague marched through their locked gates and they became death traps. When Washington fell, it was over for America as we knew her. As government blew away, our great leaders ran for it. And hope was abandoned. We were on our own now."


No, don't run. Seriously. I know, I know – plagiarist Mormon authors and NBC have turned our vampires into dapper-dressed James Bond supervillains. These new vamps woo, smolder, sparkle, and play baseball. They go to their classes even though they're dead and are therefore (mostly) incapable of achieving the American dream. If you've got a brain in that there skull of yours, I don't have to tell you vampires were fucking scary once. They were ratlike skeletal albinos with ten-inch fingers. There are parts of the world that still believe in them – that still bury their dead beneath wrought-iron cages to prevent them from coming out of the ground for a midnight snack. Thankfully there are people out there who know this and make their fanged nemeses nasty, vicious, and hideous. These monsters don't imprint on babies – they suck the blood from them and toss them onto the ground before they're onto their next pulsing target.

Enter Stake Land, the second collaboration from film-making partners Nick Damici (actor/co-writer) and Jim Mickle (co-writer/director), following their second equally great and equally unheralded Mulberry Street. Theirs is a film that played the festival circuit for a year or so before being quietly released onto video in 2010. A cast of familiar faces and not-so-familiar faces works well alongside the assured, pensive, bloody, and melancholic direction. It is a pastiche of the post-apocalyptic wasteland made mainstream by the Mad Max trilogy, combined with sensibilities of the western's lone-rider. and lastly, the good, old fashioned vampire.

Martin (Connor Paolo, Mystic River), while his family packs to hit the road in hopes of avoiding this new strange outbreak plaguing the country (or world?), watches as all of them are suddenly and viciously attacked by vampires. His own number is nearly up before a stranger called only Mister (Nick Damici, World Trade Center) springs up out of nowhere and saves Martin's life. Now with no one to look out for him, Mister takes Martin out on the road with him, preparing him for a life of fending off not only vampires, but "The Brotherhood" – a group of nutty humans who believe that the vampires are God's way of bringing about end times, and therefore want the vamps to succeed. (You mean humans are worse than the monsters? Romero would be proud.) Along the way, Martin and Mister meet other lost souls looking to make sense of this new world they had no idea they were inheriting. Among them are Sister (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun), a nun attacked and possibly raped by the cannibals; Belle, (Danielle Harris, the Halloween series), a very pregnant bar maid who seems more lost than any of them; and Willie (Sean Nelson, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3), a former Marine. These five homeless and nearly hopeless individuals come together to form the closest idea of a family that can be formed here in this new world called Stake Land and attempt to forge ahead and make it the alleged last safe zone in the country called New Eden.

Stake Land will feel very familiar if you have seen the 2009 film adaptation of The Road, but that's not to say Stake Land is unoriginal or disingenuous. No, tales of the apocalypse have been explored in every medium for as long as existence of the realization that our time here on earth is limited, and as such these tales are bound to share common themes and tropes. Stake Land presents you with dirty bands of people in ragged clothing foraging for food and consumables to help them on the road; two groups of people - the good and the bad, one trying to survive, and the other trying to make it so no one can; and most importantly, the underlying message that even the most hopeless should never give up hope. Though Stake Land shares this last bit with The Road strictly thematically, it also shares John Hillcoat's pretty and philosophical direction. Though Stake Land is an ugly story about living in an ugly world, director Jim Mickle never fails to make it picturesque. Sweeping shots of untouched naturescape and close-ups of wheat billowing in the breeze reinforces this idea that it's not the world which makes humanity ugly, but the human race – that we like to think we're merely an unfortunate byproduct of our environment, but that we're actually a product of our own deep-seated selfishness and evil. (More on that in a bit.)

Mickle and Co. have a assembled a hell of a cast here. Nick Damici's Mister is the true Clint Eastwood/Man-With-No-Name archetype (hence his "name" being Mister). His history is vague, almost non-existent; there is a darkness to him, but also a light when he thinks no one might be looking. I always like seeing the dark and brooding hero/heroine enjoy a private moment to surrender to human goodness and smile or laugh. Mister isn't a barrel of laughs, but there is a certain kindness to him somewhere underneath that filthy and silent hero. He's not optimistic about the future, but it's not in him to steal that optimism from anyone else.

Conor Paolo as Martin has the task of not only experiencing these strange events and reacting realistically to them, but because he is also the narrator, it's his job to catch up the audience on the past and present. It's not a personal diary so much as it is a relay of information. His thoughts are stripped of any kind of emotion, as that is saved strictly for the on-screen action.

Our supporting cast is wonderful. Kelly McGillis' career seems to be enjoying a second life, working with some pretty exciting names in the world of independent horror. Along with this, she has appeared in Ti West's excellent The Innkeepers, and appears in Mickle's upcoming remake of the Spanish film We Are What We Are. Her first appearance is as a frantic woman dressed in torn and bloody nun robes, fleeing from a group of maniacal men. After Mister saves her, she becomes mother to both him and Martin. Their relationship is enforced only by the audience's desire to see them all overcome the horrid shit going on around them and allow them to find each other, and for them to desire each other's love and comfort as much as we want them to obtain it. She's the glue that holds all this together and makes it possible.

With Danielle Harris' turn as the pregnant Belle, she holds her own against her counterparts, all with a prosthetic baby belly shoved inside her wardrobe. Her performance benefits from the fact that the horror community already loves her – we've been watching her run for her life since her debut as Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers – although she would have been just as fine without it. She's endearing and lovable, and the quasi puppy dog crush Martin has on her makes us care about both of them just a little bit more. (And c'mon...who wouldn't fall in love with Danielle Harris?)

This recent movement – this living painting approach to film-making – may not be new in its execution, but it perhaps has never been as beautiful. By this I mean the aforementioned The Road, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or pretty much all of Terrence Malick's filmography, who is thankfully back in a big way. Lesser known filmmakers with lower budgets are starting to take notice. Between John Geddes' Exit Humanity, Gareth Edwards' Monsters, and now Stake Land, I'm delighted to see this approach taking root in the horror genre. Because horror, despite all the dripping and the wounds and the blood, can be gorgeous. Your characters are allowed to be pensive, and to wonder or philosophize. They're allowed to be more than just the end result of their nightmarish world. These filmmakers allow their cameras to settle on some piece of oft ignored iconography, complemented by either their off-screen narrators or musical score.

Speaking of music, it was wise to bring aboard composer Jeff Grace, who takes after his fearless leader and fashions his score around those created by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis for the two films earlier mentioned. The Road and Assassination had many scenes of introspection where the silent images onscreen did the only talking, and so the music had to be more than just background. Likewise, in Stake Land, the music knows when to heighten the vampire carnage, or when to be the driving force and propel the imagery of mountains and sky into your head and heart.

While Stake Land contains some pretty heavy sociopolitical themes, it seems to be even less happy with religion – or at least what we as people have let religion become. As one character commits suicide before a crucified scarecrow (calling it Father) begging for forgiveness, or one particular mutant vampire discloses that it prayed for salvation but instead became a monster, Stake Land isn't so much as condemning religion as it is as warning you to use it to complement your life – not let it rule who you are. Religion as a whole has been bastardized. Once originally looked upon to unite communities, it instead has made us perfect strangers – foolish for believing in a higher power, or heartless and doomed for not. We have our beliefs and our faith – some of us hold onto it, and so it remains intimate – but some of us believe our beliefs and faith are right and definitive, and those who do not share those same are damned, and will bring damnation to others.

Stake Land doesn't want to just give you a cheap thrill with monstrous vampire faces and shooting blood. An exaggerated future, yes, but the whole humans-unable-to-coexist-with-other-humans thing? That's not exactly something out of the realm of possibility. We can't elect government officials without slinging death threats and constructing racial epithets on our lawns. We can't drive by a lawn adorned with the nativity at Christmas time without making a wry comment or joking about stealing the Jesus. Comedians ridicule certain religions while TV pundits sweepingly label others as evil. We have become ugly. We haven't yet sprouted fangs, but we drain the life from each other all the time. Fox News goes for jugular, as does MSNBC. The only hope for salvation we have are ourselves. Therefore, there is no hope.

Have a nice day!

Jul 25, 2012


I wish I could say that Headspace was an interesting failure. Not many films merit that kind of simplistic response, but it does happen. But Headspace is really just one of those unfortunate, regular kind of failures. It is a hodgepodge of ideas liberally borrowed from other movies, mixed together by filmmakers who seem to be taking themselves way too seriously, all of which is wasted on a cast of horror veterans who deserve better roles and a better movie.

In a prologue that completely wastes Sean Young, a mother of two young sons goes nuts and monstrous and needs to be dispatched by the boys’ father (the always wonderful Larry Fessenden). We flash forward about ten years, and see what has become of the younger son, Allen (Christopher Denham, the mental patient from Shutter Island who was convinced a nurse wanted to see his penis so she could laugh at it). Allen, separated from his brother, and out of contact with a father who signed away the custody of his children, lives in New York, where he has cursory friendships with people we never quite learn enough about. One of these friends includes a neurotic hippie looking man who plays chess every day in the park. Allen forms an instant connection with this man, even though the guy seems to be halfway insane.

After Allen becomes super smart for seemingly no reason, he suffers a seizure and is taken to a hospital, where tests are performed on him. Once released into the care of a psychologist, people around him begin to die one by one. And frightening visions of monstrous, Lovecraftian things lurking in dark corners begin to torment him.

Headspace is basically a re-manufactured version of Jacob’s Ladder, even borrowing some of director Adrian Lyne’s signature quick shaky-head effects. The big difference between the two is that while Jacob's Ladder was both unique and interesting, Headspace is neither. Our lead character is almost immediately unlikeable, especially evidenced when he realizes that he can memorize entire books just by flipping through them a single time, which leads not to worry on his part, but overwhelming pride. At one point he even lurks outside a friend’s window and watches as he fucks his girlfriend for a solid five minutes. How are we supposed to sympathize with a person like this? And how are we supposed to take these filmmakers seriously after they’ve shoehorned in a completely useless sex scene?

"Trust me: I've killed werewolves, Critters, and Cujo."

Headspace is a movie that wants to fuck with your mind, but all it does is test your patience. You’re never really given a reason to care about Alex, his problems, or those folks who his problems are immediately affecting. And once the big reveal comes in the final act that is supposed to blow your mind, you’re only left with the reaction, “Who cares?”

Headspace features some grisly and well-done effects, the best involving a shotgun blow to a head. A limited budget causes some of these effects to be captured in quick cuts or overly edited sequences, but what we do manage to see is pretty effective. It’s also nice to see the likes of the aforementioned Young and Fessenden sharing the screen with Dee Wallace (The Howling), William Atherton (Ghostbusters), Udo Kier (Blade), and Olivia Hussey, who will always be sorority girl Jess, Audra Denbrough, and Mrs. Bates, and who is destined to be beautiful no matter her age.

What attracted me to this film in the first place was its recent re-release dubbed the “director’s cut.” Releases like this have become commonplace, but only when big money is involved, and half the time what is termed a director’s cut is just the original movie with an extraneous scene added back to the movie in order to market it as different. You hardly ever see “director’s cuts” of low budget horror films that hardly set the world on fire. Every once in a great while, you manage to come across a director's cut that is somehow inferior to the original theatrical cut (Donnie Darko, for one; and some would argue Richard Stanley's Dust Devil). If this version of Headspace is the director’s cut - and therefore the "better" version - I sympathize with those unfortunate enough to have suffered through the first incarnation.