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!)