There's a great moment in Larry Fessenden's Wendigo (2001) where a small boy spooked by a nightmare stands at the top of the stairs outside his parents' room; it's a snapshot of childhood terror that prompts shivers of recognition. It's tender and terrifying at the same time. Wendigo is a weird movie—cheaply produced, with wild shifts in tone from everyday drama to hallucinatory mania, and topped off with some ropey special effects—and yet for all its originality and lo-fi integrity, it never quite found the audience that it deserved.
The same thing can be said for Fessenden's other films. Despite owning perhaps the most coherent body of work in modern American horror cinema, the New York based writer-director-producer-actor-raconteur is not a household name—even in households of hardcore horror fans. A new Blu-Ray collecting Fessenden's first four feature films might serve to make him less obscure. Or else, it'll just remind diehards of what they already know: that this guy is one hell of a filmmaker.
Leaving aside his earnest but cheesy neo-Frankenstein riff No Telling (1988), Fessenden has contributed a trio of small classics to the monster-movie genre he loves so much: Habit (1995), which cleverly melded the iconography of vampire films to a tale of addiction; Wendigo (2001), a plangent end-of-childhood elegy invaded by a ravenous Native American spirit; and The Last Winter (2006), still the only American horror movie to directly address the nightmare of climate change.
That Fessenden has also spent the last 30 years advancing the cause of handmade personal cinema through his production company Glass Eye Pix—whose imprimatur can be found on the early work of his good friend Kelly Reichardt—only cinches the case on his behalf. VICE caught up with Fessenden via telephone from Los Angeles, where he was presenting a screening of Wendigo, to discuss the arc of a career in need of some champions.
VICE: You've only made five feature films since 1985 but you've directed episodes of television shows, developed video games, hosted online radio plays.... Do you see yourself as somebody who has done as much work as they can possibly do? Do you have any regrets that you haven't made more movies along with everything else?
Larry Fessenden: I call myself a journeyman. I have a perspective that I think can be expressed in different mediums. I like to draw, I like to paint, I like music. I love exercising the power of sound by doing radio plays. I'm a performer, whatever that results in...I like exploring other peoples' relationships to their art forms, too. I find that many of my comrades have even more powerful ideas about what they're doing and I just watch. It'd be hard for me to only focus on my own work. I like peering around the corner at another person's process. As far as regrets go, I'd like to be remembered for a body of films and I'm not working fast enough to have a sort of Hitchcockian canon of movies to my name. The pleasure of digging into his canon is something I won't be able to offer—not that anybody wants it from me, anyway. It's no big loss.
I'd say that what your movies represent is something pretty rare—a small body of genuinely personal horror films, or maybe genre films that express some kind of consistent philosophical worldview.
I particularly appreciate that iteration, an individual's worldview. I think of myself as philosophical more than personal. Habit does appear to be a very personal film. It's about demons and alcoholism and losing control and feeling the spectre of madness in your life... that's a personal observation. But there are philosophical underpinnings there too, and those things also come out in the other films as well. Wendigo is about the usurping of land, the Native Americans overtaken by settlers, and then the settlers overtaken by yuppies. I'm always intrigued by how society functions and then how its dysfunctions are a reflection of our personal shortcomings. How does that manifest? How does it turn violent and ugly? That's my thesis about collapse, and that's in The Last Winter. One could make a comedy in response to these things, I suppose, because it's possible to see them all as absurd.
It's funny how the tropes of so many horror films seem to shield the people watching them—and making them—from larger and much more frightening realities.
Horror movies deal with reality even when the people making them aren't aware of it. And they're often quite reactionary. "If you have sex, you will be stabbed to death." That's a reinforcement of puritanical values, and those values seem to drive a lot of people anyway. So I say: let's peel those clichés away, and let's look at some real horror—some real things that we're afraid of. And maybe we can be enlightened and go forth and make a better world. I always think that my films are hopeful, and that when people wake up in life they can try to make a change. That might not be true. That might be a presumption.
Sometimes it seems like the very worst horror movies—and I mean the ones that are bad in every way, from form to content to ideology—are the ones that succeed.
I have had no financial success. It's essential to acknowledge that. But you can have a loyal fan base. There's a history of worthwhile artists who didn't find enormous remuneration but have a pocket of fans. This is a fate that I can only hope for.
So you can live with being a cult figure?
I think so. That's one thing about getting older. I realize, for example, that when I was younger, Jaws was my favourite movie. I felt a kinship with Spielberg. I don't think that I deserved to be him. I feel a kinship with Hitchcock, Polanski, and Scorsese, too. When I see their films, I know what they're doing. I just didn't have the mechanism to be as powerful as they were. Everyone has their weaknesses. I think that it's a profound thing. You think about somebody like Ed Wood, who had so much passion—you can have all that passion and not be as good at something as you want to be. It's not about self-pity. I think a lot of my faults stem from my having a marginalized perspective. The things that I like aren't very mainstream. I like monsters. And monsters aren't as popular as slasher movies, right now, or ghosts. You always have to account for your own taste.
With that in mind, what's the mindset of a man who has earned himself a shiny new Blu-Ray box set?
I've worked pretty hard to get all these movies back under one roof—I had to sort of rescue Wendigo from total obscurity. So that was a challenge. I'm a collector-minded person, and none of my movies were on Blu-Ray, and none of them had been well transferred onto DVD since their VHS days, either. So I did it as an act of self-preservation. But I've also been mentoring a lot of guys, like Ti West and Jim Mickle and all the younger and less successful but still vital members of the Glass Eye Pix team, and I felt like it was good to establish what I'd contributed as a director to the horror genre, which has gone through many changes since I got started in the early 90s. I think I've tried to bring a personal authenticity to horror tales, and that wasn't on the agenda. I wanted to make a little nod to my contributions, and also to 30 years of Glass Eye Pix, which is about celebrating everyone who's worked with our little company. And I think we need little companies that are combating the genericization of cinema. So it's not about personal glory, it's about the glory of an idea—of auteur-driven cinema.
Talking about the passage of time: it's funny to think that a technologically progressive medium like Blu-Ray is increasingly going out of date.
It's a real heartbreaker. Even in New York City, you can no longer go to a video store and browse, and look, and discover some kind of unexpected gem. You can't go to the Renoir section and realize you haven't seen all those movies. You can't go and sample the Cassavetes box set. You can't just waste your money on new releases because you want to see the making-of featurette on Jurassic Park or Godzilla. You can't put it on the shelf. It's very sad. Books have disappeared as well. I can glance at the book shelf or the video shelf and absorb the ideas in there. It's all vanishing now into the ether, and into the fucking streaming. Now, that's reality. On the other hand, my son can now choose to watch almost anything on any night [with streaming]. I can say, "Let's watch Basquiat, that's a cool movie," or All The President's Men. That's wonderful. I miss the tactility, though, and the special nature of graphics. The poster and the box art for a movie is really important, and that's very much what I grew up with. When I wanted to get out of the house, or when I had writer's block, I used to go to Kim's Video and just wander amongst the shelves. It's not the same to scroll through movies alphabetically on Netflix.
You've made movies on almost every format imaginable, from super-8 to 35 mm to digital video. Do you think that formats impose their will on artists, or are they defined by how artists use them?
I think part of it is always economic, and it's always about what the trends are in theatres and what they want stuff delivered on. You can still capture on film but you're going to end up delivering on DCP. I think the medium completely affects the work, by the way. If you see a movie called Wendigo, it's going to use old-school techniques; its DNA is in the celluloid. That's what that movie is all about—the grain and the texture.
That can turn into a fetishistic point of view—the idea of the superiority of celluloid over anything else.
I agree. I'm not a fetishist. I like doing different mediums—shorts, podcasts, video games, or audio dramas. I don't feel so rigid about all that. I'm happy to make a movie in any way.
Follow Adam Nayman on Twitter.