Home Video Hovel: The Larry Fessenden Collection, by Chase Beck
The Larry Fessenden Collection is a box-set of four films written, directed, edited by, and, in one case, starring Larry Fessenden. My first exposure to Larry Fessenden was in his film The Last Winter (2006), which is in this set. However, at the time it had not made enough of an impact on me to realize that he had been involved on it. Later, when I saw Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead (2008), I came to recognize him as a talented performer and influential figure in independent filmmaking.
Fessenden has an unforgettable look to him. His general appearance is difficult to describe. With his puggish nose, wild hair, and round forehead, he almost resembles a living cartoon character. His collection of physical features is why I immediately recognized him in a bit part in Darling, a film I recently reviewed for Battleship Pretension. He also has an executive producer credit on that film. Additionally, as I was preparing to review this collection, I happened to view a Twitch stream of a new Playstation 4 game, Until Dawn, in which Fessenden not only has a writing credit, but also plays a pivotal character. If you happen to own the console, I recommend you check out the game. I enjoyed the device of taking control of multiple characters in a horror story as the mystery unfolds.
All this is to say that while Fessenden and his films have often gone beneath notice, he is active in filmmaking, he influences independent films and the horror genre today and perhaps there is no better time for Shout! Factory and IFC to release the Larry Fessenden Collection than now.
This is Fessenden’s first feature length film and his most cinematically showy. A take on the classic Frankenstein tale, Fessenden weaves a story of science gone mad and a man willing to go to extremes to “make the world a better place”. After moving to a farming community, Dr. Geoffrey Gaines and his wife Lillian become divided by the role of science and experimentation in everyday life. What sets a film like No Telling apart is the complexity of the story and the nuance of the characters’ motivations. There is no cackling, moustache twirling villain and no lumbering hulk of a monster intent on murderous destruction. No, the horror here is the horror of humanity’s indifference to people like the scientist depicted in the film.
The most autobiographical of his films, and the one that brought him to the attention of many, Habit is Fessenden’s take on the vampire tale. Shot guerilla-style in New York City, Habit’s scenes are quick and gritty, a stylistic left-turn after the carefully arranged and attention-calling shots of No Telling. Again, Fessenden shows an interest in complex questions. Here, he relates vampirism to addiction and implosive romantic relationships buoyed by an ever present theme of tragic loss, mortality, and one’s personal legacy.
The most famous of Mr. Fessenden’s films, Wendigo ushered in his popularity and critical acclaim. I find the characters to be the least complex of Fessenden’s stories. However, I praise the deliciously analog film effects used to depict the creature. While touched upon in parts in both No Telling and Habit, it is in Wendigo where we see Fessenden employing classic cinematic techniques like multiple exposures, stop-motion, and quick cuts to fully explore the supernatural nature of his story while avoiding the showy, antiseptic Hollywood-style effects popular then and today.
The Last Winter
Perhaps the most blatantly political, The Last Winter is nevertheless a logical progression of Fessenden’s recurring theme of man vs. nature. It takes place in the Arctic and centers around oil drilling and the effects it has on the environment. Almost as ambiguous as his other tales, Fessenden plays with the ideas of isolation, inhospitable environments and nature protecting itself from the plague that is humanity.
Each of the four films is given its own disc. The discs not only contain director’s commentary but also many other extras including short films, “Making Of” segments and other add-ons. Fessenden not only provided new commentaries for each of the Blu-ray discs but also approved the HD transfers of every film in the set.
Perhaps Fessenden’s greatest accomplishment is in not letting monetary constraints prevent him from telling his stories in the ways he wants. Three of the four films in the series have environmental leanings. I found this theme unique and his approach to it especially deft and even-handed. Tying horror into modern concerns, particularly ones with which the director/writer has a passion makes for an impressive combination. During the time of still-developing computer-generated special effects, Fessenden instead used analog techniques of film manipulation with fantastically unsettling results. While his films do not hit all of the beats we have come to expect from horror films today, it is useful to see, and learn from, his unique views and interpretations. Fessenden redefines modern horror in his own way and with his own style, one at which it is worth taking a look.