From the window seat at Cremcaffe restaurant, horror filmmaker
Larry Fessenden kept an eye on the sidewalk as he talked about his childhood
fear of the Frankenstein monster.
“I would sit in my bed and look at that crack in the door and
say, ‘There’s nothing there now, but in one second I could see the beginnings
of the lumbering dude!’” Mr. Fessenden’s pale blue eyes were wide with mock
fear, and he was beaming a big smile that showed off his missing front tooth.
His longish brown hair rose up from his high forehead in almost vertical,
asymmetrical tufts before falling back to the curve of his cranium. He looked
like a baby-faced version of Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson’s over-the-bend
writer in The Shining .
“It possessed me,” he said, “the idea that you could stare at the
closet door for two hours and there would be that one split second when it does
finally start to move. Then you cross through into another reality.”
Mr. Fessenden, 38-and the father of a 2-year-old son, Jack, to
whom the film is dedicated-deals with his childhood memory in Wendigo , the last installment in a
trilogy of smart, revisionist horror films inspired by the great Universal
Studios monster pictures of the 1930′s and early 40′s, Frankenstein , Dracula
and The Wolf Man . Wendigo has nominal connections to the last film. The title
creature, a mainstay of Native American myth, is described as a shape-shifter
that often takes the form of a half-man/half-deer. But the monster that the
petrified Miles, played by Erik Per Sullivan (Dewey in Malcolm in the Middle ), imagines behind his creaking door does not
have antlers or fangs or even bolts in his neck. The monster is a man-a hunter
who has menaced Miles’ family in the opening scenes of the movie.
It is just one of the touches that make Wendigo one of the smartest, most resonant horror movies to come
down the pike in a long time, and Mr. Fessenden one of the original talents of
his genre. He is making humanistic horror films in the age of digital creatures
and mindless body counts. Although there are glimpses of a supernatural
creature in Wendigo , the moviegoer is
left with the distinct impression that the monster is not real, but rather the
product of a traumatized boy’s imagination.
Wendigo is so effective because the horror is man-made and the cost of life
is all too real.
“Entertainment’s gotten so removed from reality. It’s about
referencing other movies …. It’s horror as spectacle and war as spectacle,
where you actually have no relationship to the death, the carnage, the sadness
that’s going on in the movie,” Mr. Fessenden said as he sipped his coffee.
“When people talk about Pearl Harbor ,
what do they talk about? The bomb shot. They’re not saying, ‘Imagine the
experience of being bombed.’ They say, ‘How about that shot when you follow the
bomb down through the magic of C.G.I.?’”
At a time when horror films are larded with blood, irony and
digitized corpses, Mr. Fessenden, whose filmmaking heroes include Roman
Polanski and Martin Scorsese-he even had a bit part in Bringing Out the Dead -is heading in the opposite direction. “My
agenda is to make smaller films where you’re reawakening audiences to every
Mr. Fessenden’s films work like time-release capsules of dread
and anomie. And though the horror genre’s bible, Fangoria , just gave the thumbs-up to Wendigo , Mr. Fessenden says he’s taken a lot of guff from people
who come to his movies expecting a more traditional approach. Though his first
full-length picture, No Telling
(1991), has been billed as a Frankenstein -like
fable, there is no monster in it, just a research scientist performing
skin-crawling experiments on mice (and, when he runs out of funds, the
neighbor’s dog) that, as Mr. Fessenden pointed out, are probably no different
than the animal experimentation that does take place.
And his second film, Habit
(1997)-his scariest film in the traditional sense-used vampirism to explore
addiction and romantic relationships. Mr. Fessenden himself gives a
pitch-perfect performance as the hard-drinking slacker who becomes addicted to
a beautiful, androgynous vampire, but can’t quite commit.
“Oh, yeah-people hate my movies. They think they’re pretentious,
for one thing,” Mr. Fessenden said. “They say, ‘What are you doing making this
ridiculous movie? It’s not a horror film, and I don’t want to talk about the
issues.’ Some people want to go and be scared. I don’t really think my movies
are at that place. I’m dealing with these other thoughts.”
Wendigo begins with a
Manhattan couple, George and Kim McClaren (played by Jake Weber and Patricia
Clarkson) and their young son, Miles, en route to a long weekend at a borrowed
country house in upstate New York, their Volvo station wagon laden with Gourmet
Garage grocery bags.
A deer steps into their path and alters the course of their
Within moments of the car hitting the creature and swerving off
the road, a trio of hunters led by the creepy Otis (John Speredakos) appear. In
front of the frightened family, Otis pulls a handgun and finishes off the
wounded, bloody animal that he and his friends have been tracking for 18 hours.
The palpable tension between George, the urban outsider, and
Otis, the gun-toting local, escalates when Otis complains that the impact of
the car has cracked the buck’s valuable antlers.
“I make a point of pissing in your drinking water once a week,”
Otis tells George near the end of their encounter. “The New York City reservoir
is just a mile from here.”
“I just felt the abyss between us, me and that guy with the
shotgun,” George tells his psychotherapist wife later in the evening.
“It’s very archetypical for the civilized man to feel threatened
by the man in the country,” says Kim.
In the course of the movie, Mr. Fessenden fleshes out his
characters so that the conflict is not black-and-white. George is a moody and
self-occupied commercial photographer who didn’t get the big Soho art exhibit
of his work he was hoping for. He doesn’t pay enough attention to his kid. Otis
grew up in the house that George, Kim and Miles are staying in, but when his
parents died, they left the place to his sister and she sold it so that she
could move to Florida, leaving her brother to fend for himself in a crappy
And Miles is quickly realizing that the parents who protect him
are not invincible. Upon arriving at the house, he sees his father further
unsettled by a bullet that has passed through a window and lodged in one of the
living-room walls. Sent to bed with his picture books about Native American
history, he imagines that Otis is lurking in the closet. Otis, it turns out, is
on the premises. He’s outside in the bushes, though, watching through the
window as George and Kim make love.
The following day, the family visits town. In the local general
store, a Native American wise man appears to give Miles a carving of the
half-man, half-deer Wendigo, a “ravenous” spirit. “Nobody believes in spirits
anymore,” says the man. “It doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
The carving is real, but the man who gave it to Miles apparently
is not: The store clerk says she’s the only one working today and charges Kim
$4 for the talisman.
Later that day, as father and son go sledding, Miles asks his dad
if he’s ever heard of a Wendigo. “A lot of people make up stories to make sense
of the world. It’s a big world, after all. Nobody really understands how it all
works,” George tells his son. “So maybe it’s comforting to think that the
Wendigo is responsible for all the bad stuff out there. That’s what myths are.
They help us talk about stuff. Like Mr. Freeze and Dr. Evil.
“It’s important to know they’re just myths-just stories,” George
Moments later, George is shot. And Miles must confront this act,
as well as his father’s mortality. Everyone suspects Otis, even though Mr.
Fessenden never really reveals the answer.
That is when the Wendigo makes its appearance. Mr. Fessenden
tells the story so that someone who really wants to buy into the existence of
the Wendigo could probably do so, but he shows how we build myths and monsters
to explain what we do not understand.
Miles creates his Wendigo out of his limited worldview: the
talisman he gets at the store, the Native American history books he’s reading,
the spooky rural scenery and even his parents’ comments. Over breakfast, he
hears his father say of an acquaintance who’s committed adultery: “If there’s
any justice, she’ll be hit by a bus”-and by the end of the movie a similar fate
Mr. Fessenden said his film looks at “how we create our realities
and our myths and our ways to believe. It’s about a terrible tragedy and how
[Miles] conjures up a myth to protect himself from just a brutal reality.”
Mr. Fessenden said there are two “parallel truths” at work in Wendigo . One is “Look at these myths-aren’t they wild?” The other is “Be
suspicious of those myths. And make sure you know where they come from. When
we’re calling other people evil, just exactly what are our criteria? Is it
because we want our economy to be doing better, or have we really given some
thought about what is morally and ethically appropriate?”
Wendigo was finished
long before the planes hit the World Trade Center, but it deals with conflicts
like those between America and the Islamic fundamentalists. Mr. Fessenden said, “It’s
pretentious and almost rude to the dead to say that”-but he didn’t deny the
comparison. “The whole point of Otis is that he’s Osama,” Mr. Fessenden said.
“He’s building resentments and in fact, you could build a case for his
resentments. You could say, you know what, it’s true. These fucking urbanites.
They come up. They act like this is their playground. This is my home. In fact,
I don’t even live in my home anymore.
“So it is a parable,” Mr. Fessenden said resolutely. “I wish we
could realize how we’re perceived.”
That’s not exactly the message conveyed by The Wolf Man , but Mr. Fessenden’s work is definitely rooted in the
classic monster pictures he grew up with. The old Hollywood monsters were
scary, but they were also incredibly sad, doomed creatures, and their haunted
strains are what a monster-movie buff remembers after he’s grown up. In Mr.
Fessenden’s movies, freighted with sadness, too, it’s the humans who seem
doomed, unable to move past their neuroses and obsessions to realize that, as
the director put it, “life is this fleeting moment of light surrounded by
There is a heartbreaking moment as Kim and Miles are racing the
mortally wounded George to the hospital when he begins to list all the good
things that had happened to him that day: the eggs he ate for breakfast and
those last moments he had with his son. “What a fucking waste.” George says at
one point, and it’s clear he’s referring to his life.
Mr. Fessenden, who is married to the artist Beck Underwood, went
on location to shoot the film when Jack was four months old, leaving his wife
to take care of their new child. And
when he watched the actors enact the father-and-son scene they have together
right before their doomed sled ride, “I wept on the set.” Mr. Fessenden said.
In some respects, Mr. Fessenden said he fashions his horror
movies as a wake-up call. “That’s why I make these movies and they’re very
neg-o and people die. It’s all very depressing on the one hand. But I’m sort of
saying, I give you this gift. I’m reminding you. So go out and enjoy the roses.
I’m not saying, ‘Brood with me.’ I’m saying, ‘You got another chance. I’m just
reminding you how bad it can get. So go on out there and enjoy yourself. Kiss
your loved ones.”
Those turning points, when life shifts from normal to nightmarish
in the blink of an eye, haunt Mr. Fessenden. “I live on this edge of, what if ,” said the director, who has
spent virtually all of his life in New York save for a brief and ill-fated
stint at Andover prep school. “Literally, I walk down the street and I
perceive, in everyday life, the potential for disaster.” He smiled. “It’s almost
obsessive compulsive, to be honest.”
Mr. Fessenden was born and raised on the Upper East Side, the
“privileged” son of “two loving parents who were as supportive as they could be
having a lunatic kid.” Mr. Fessenden said his father is a retired banker who
did a lot of business in Asia. His mother, he said, worked for charity.
“If you’re sensitive and to some degree privileged, you realize
this is a rarity. I’m a chosen one. I’m having a fairly good time here. This
could easily be taken from me,” Mr. Fessenden said. “If you live in the gutter,
then you’re busy surviving and you don’t have time to wax poetic about even the
meaning of life. If you’re comfortable, you almost have an obligation to figure
out what it all means.” He raised a Nicholsonesque eyebrow and cracked a smile.
“You have the time.”
He lost the tooth defending a girlfriend from muggers in
Brooklyn. “It was very fast. It wasn’t even particularly evil,” he said. “One
kick. I just toppled over and the tooth was gone.” Mr. Fessenden has a
prosthetic tooth, but he doesn’t like to wear it, even though his parents wish
he would. He said the denture is uncomfortable to wear. And, well, he also
likes the message the gap sends: “This is what fate handed me” and “Don’t judge
a book by its cover-look a little deeper.”
Mr. Fessenden got thrown out of Andover, reportedly for drinking,
among other infractions, and attended N.Y.U. in the early 80′s, where he began
his film career working with video. He initially wanted to be an actor, but
said he found he suffered “from a type of stage fright” based on his “what if”
obsession. “You can really get into trouble,” he said, “because you’re telling
yourself, ‘You know what? You don’t know your lines. You don’t know your next
scene.’ It’s a state of madness.”
Mr. Fessenden’s first full-length film, No Telling , runs sometimes the Independent Film Channel, where its
creepy images of animals with exposed spinal cords and a half-dog-half-calf
monstrosity inevitably draws complaints. But Habit , his vampire movie, put the young director on the map in
Wendigo , meanwhile, got
the attention of producer Ed Pressman, who has a reputation knowing a worthy,
original director-Oliver Stone, Terrence Malick-when he sees one. Mr. Pressman’s
Content Films is distributing Wendigo
and his Top Dollar Comics has published a comic-book adaptation of the film.
Mr. Pressman said that Mr. Fessenden’s work harks back to the “smart,
psychological” horror films of Brian DePalma. Indeed, he’s talking to the
director about a remake of Mr. DePalma’s Sisters .
He’s also talking to him about making a second movie that involves the Wendigo.
And Mr. Fessenden said horror “is my core,” even if he doesn’t satisfy the
“I get very irate about this attitude,” he said, the small hoop
earring glinting in the low light of the coffee shop. “I live horror out there.
It’s just my mind. So don’t tell me it’s your fucking genre, you know. Step
inside my shoes, it’s chilling.” Mr. Fessenden fired off one more gap-toothed
smile, then walked out to the sidewalk, where the spring-like sun had brought
the East Village’s dead to life.