Ubiquitous indie gadfly, advocate, and producer, Larry Fessenden has, for a quarter-century now, busily championed the deployment of depth and experimentation in a genre that too often includes neither: the low-budget horror film, a unique career project that has netted him his first retro, at ReRun Gastropub Theater. Think of a fresh psychotronic indie from the last decade, and chances are Fessenden’s name is on it somewhere.
Whereas most low-resource toilers in the genre have merely relied on sadism and gore, Fessenden made three features that unearth contemporary social wounds with a gravedigger’s shovel.
Coming after Abel Ferrara’s vampire horror The Addiction, but still foreshadowing the contemporary vampire vogue and its implicit ironies, Fessenden’s first film, Habit (1995), features himself playing a ruinous downtown alcoholic who may or may not be turning into a bloodsucker, and whose threadbare life crumbles helplessly regardless of “reality,” whatever that is. Next came Wendigo (2001), a sharp-eyed mood machine, in which an unhappy professional couple (Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber) drive with their young son out of their Manhattan safety zone and into a dark Catskills wilderness of city-mouse paranoia and lurking Indian legends. Exuding a Lewtonesque eloquence with menace, Wendigo’s suggestive creepiness was all but lost on bloodthirsty audiences. The Last Winter (2006) is more overt, taking inconvenient environmental truths head-on with a small oil-company outpost in the Arctic where the warming elements, and whatever primeval force is released from under the melting permafrost, takes down the Lost Patrol–like crew one by one. While both the F/X and the sermonizing are a little groan-worthy, the mood is helpless and apocalyptic.
Perhaps more influential than any of the above is Fessenden’s work as impresario. His Glass Eye Pix productions have been models of B-movie auteurist economy and subtext, and sometimes harbor allusive meta-agendas. Graham Reznick’s discombobulating I Can See You (2008) has viewer irritation on its docket, while Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) is either a humorless parody of early-’80s stalked-co-ed thrillers or an ardent, obsessive reincarnation of same. James Felix McKenney’s Satan Hates You (2009) takes the same strangely ambiguous tack with Christian “scare films,” earnestly remaking the paradigm while verging, grungily, on satire. I prefer Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead (2008), a farcical-gothic blast of fresh storytelling that reimagines the 19th-century legend of Burke & Hare–style grave-robbers as it confronts the Romero undead. It’s not quite the sharpest zombie comedy on the shelf, but it’s rare that the undead themselves are actually deadpan-funny.