Larry Fessenden is a prolific figure in the world of horror. As a director, he has made only five full-length films, but he has produced and starred in over 40 other features. As actor and producer, Fessenden’s films range from B-movies, best watched after several drinks on Halloween night, to cult classics in the making by up-and-coming directors. However, as an auteur filmmaker (he produces, writes and stars in most of the films he directs) he has brought a refreshing new voice to a genre that seems too often unwilling to experiment – ironic for a type of storytelling that is all about the fear of the unknown.
At this year’s FrightFest, he spoke on stage as part of a panel of his peers (Ti West, Lucky McKee, Adam Green, Joe Lynch and Andrew van den Houten), who are almost exclusively directors of slasher movies and ‘torture porn’, and, with the exception of McKee, have done little to innovate. Hilariously, these directors had the arrogance to complain about big-budget horror remakes in recent years being helmed by ‘unknowns’ – second-unit directors and editors of Hollywood schlock. But the truth is, their own output is barely known outside of the cultish clan of aficionados with a high tolerance for the drivel often found at horror festivals.
Fessenden’s work is also little known outside of the pages of Fangoria or independent video shops, but in his four horror films (his 1985 Experienced Movers has rarely been seen since its year of production) and one TV episode, he has established himself as a terrific filmmaker. First was a thoughtful trilogy that commented on the classic tropes of horror films – Frankenstein in No Telling (or The Frankenstein Complex, 1991), vampires in Habit (1995) and werewolves in Wendigo (2001) – followed by The Last Winter (2006) and Fear Itself: Skin and Bones (2008), in which he further explored the myth of the Wendigo.
In Native North American folklore, the Wendigo is a kind of cannibalistic spirit with a shape-shifting exterior. In Fessenden’s films, the Wendigo’s appearance changes, depending on who is telling the narrative. In Wendigo, it first appears (or rather, doesn’t appear) when the members of a family who survive a car crash all encounter different aspects of an animalistic shape, one part sticks rustling in the wind and one part fur-covered Arctic predator. Here, the Wendigo has some kind of amorphous role in protecting its environment, but the link between the creature and the land is made more explicit in The Last Winter. As a multinational company starts drilling in the Arctic tundra, the humans who have braved the lethal environment encounter the spirit: first as a flock of birds, ready to peck out the eyes of anyone crazed enough to stay outside to the point of hypothermia, then as madness that drives the men into the cold, then as an enormous shadowy figure made of smoke that stalks the land at night. Finally it appears as a flock once more: dark, velociraptor-style predators gorging themselves on the human remains. In The Last Winter, Fassenden presents the monster as a monitor and destroyer of the men who encroach on its territory or endanger the planet. In his TV episode Fear Itself, Fessenden reveals it to be the animal within, as a character in the show transforms into the Wendigo.
Fessenden is interested in the ambiguity of horror and of storytelling, and in unreliable narrators. Fessenden challenges every aspect of mankind, from our position at the top of the food chain, to being subservient to an eco-system we try to master, to the unreliable perception of the environment itself. Science fiction wouldn’t be a challenging enough genre for this kind of storytelling – although the director flirts with it in No Telling when a mad scientist experiments on the animals in his care. Fessenden wants to disrupt, to unsettle and to disturb, while keeping an ecological leitmotif in all of his horror films, except Habit (and even then, perhaps, the transformation of man into vampire is a type of evolution).
Since 2001 his films have been beautifully shot and thoughtfully directed, evolving from his more underground, ultra-low-budget roots to slick verisimilitude, which seems comparable to the work of the Coen Brothers (if they only worked in horror). The only flaw in the director’s tales is his unwillingness to provide his films with a definitive or satisfying ending – but if horror is to disturb and unsettle, perhaps one should leave the cinema with the sense of a drama left unresolved. Certainly with Fessenden, the journey to a final door left ajar is always one worth taking.
I spoke to Larry Fessenden immediately after the panel discussion on modern horror at 2011’s August FrightFest.
Alex Fitch: You spoke eloquently on stage about how you had a love of classic horror films as you were growing up, of RKO films like King Kong, and then in the 1960s, films like Night of the Living Dead. But, as well as an interest in those classic horror tropes, something that’s very prevalent in your movies is your anger about how man is destroying our environment. What sort of experiences in your formative years created that anger?
Larry Fessenden: I’m not impressed with people who put on airs, and I think the whole of humanity has that element. I had a passion for thoughtful and eccentric people – I went to a great school when I was young, and I thought that was the way of the world. Then when I went out into the real world, I saw that many people were faking it, and were un-genuine, and would call on the name of a religion in a false way. So it’s an anti-authoritarian thing. I also grew up going to Cape Cod and liking nature, respecting it. I’m not an outdoors man, I just believe in respect for your elders, and there’s nothing older than the Earth. Although some in America would question that, too.
In films like No Telling, humanity has manipulated evolution for our own survival. When it comes to presenting that on film, horror is a very good way of doing it, but how do you avoid making it just an issue movie?
Well, some people would feel that I do preach – at least in No Telling, I think things got carried away. There’s a central scene where they’re arguing at a dinner table, and the point I’m making in that scene, which the casual viewer sees as preachy, is how we can’t communicate. You go to parties and people do talk about politics, and you walk away and you realise you can’t change people’s minds. I find that fascinating. So, in a way, I try to have movies where there’s some dialogue about a situation. But then there’s the reality that you’re showing cinematically, and then the one that trumps it – because reality will trump all this conversation. You can say something like global warming is not true, but the fact is, there’s going to come a time when it simply is true and then you have to deal with that.
That basic betrayal of our potential as a species and as individuals is really what drives me. Habit is about how that guy cannot rise above his alcoholism, cannot find his better self, and that’s the tragedy of humanity, I think. That’s why my movies are personal, even though they have this political veneer. If you deal with the environment, people will be defensive, because in our heart of hearts, we all know that we are part of the problem, which I also find interesting and horrific. It’s really what I love about horror – it’s the truth-teller of the genres. I don’t want to make movies that preach about politics, I find that uninteresting, so I have a monster come along, and that vindicates nature!
I suppose the supreme example of that is Wendigo, because it’s very much about the myth of a creature on whose description no one can agree.
It seems very brave of you, that unlike a lot of filmmakers, you will show that it looks different to many people. To the audience that can be frustrating, but there’s an honesty there.
I believe that if you show the monster in different ways, you’re getting at the essence of another theme that interests me, which is the subjective nature of reality. I mean, to one character in Habit, his girlfriend’s a vampire; to his friends, she’s an interloper, taking away his attentions from their party life; and then in the end, there’s a very subtle thing where you realise that both stories are true. He’s either fallen out of the window alone, or he’s fallen out with her. I love this slippery reality. I believe in a very deliberate ambiguity in storytelling because that is how life is. It’s appalling, sometimes, when you talk to someone and realise they hold a different view, and they’re absolutely coming from a genuine place. You realise it’s hard to connect, and it has to do with their upbringing, and every subtle thing that creates a human personality is in play – I like to show that in movies. I think the nature of horror is that it allows you to delve into issues of split personalities, of unreliable narrators and untrue, slippery reality.
The ambiguity of horror films seems to be an antidote to the encroaching apocalypse presented constantly in the news. You spoke on stage about the August riots on the streets of London – but if society is going to collapse, maybe it’s these communal myths that can bring us together again?
Well, that’s also my business. In my films, I’m trying to show not which myth to follow, but how important myths are to give us meaning – because otherwise you’re left with a very bald, desperate reality that is amoral. So I celebrate, and I want people to acknowledge, that if you are clinging to mythologies and your world view is formed for a reason, then you can at least get a window into someone else’s world, and that gives you some hope. I really think the pinnacle would be to make a film that created a new paradigm for people to get behind, and that’s why I’m trying to suggest that could be nature in some way. It’s funny, most people think that my movies are about nature getting revenge and being threatening, but I’m saying: ‘Have awe. Have respect.’ I’m not really saying it’s a baddie. But you realise you can be easily misinterpreted when you’re dealing with something so primal as our relationship to the rest of the world. That’s why I’m not interested in The Exorcist type of film, because it’s dealing with God and the Devil, and I’m like, ‘Let’s stop talking about good and evil and let’s look at this whole other paradigm.’ So, while I’m not going to single-handedly save the world, that is my preoccupation, to sort of put forth a new way of looking at our reality, and if we could agree on that, then maybe we could get to this business of saving ourselves!
Interview by Alex Fitch