Exclusive: Larry Fessenden reveals the latest on his new horror film Blackout and why the genre needs substance to survive.
The $250,000 splatterfest Terrifier 2 has caused a stir for its solid box-office grossing, but this harrowing viewing experience lacks the depth that would sink any gnarled stab from its murderous clown. Before the industry accepts “Terrifier 2” as a model for economic horror that can be made worthwhile, consider how much better this scale of genre filmmaking can be when it has real ideas to offer.
The timing of this topic is appropriate. Halloween is here, offering the ultimate excuse to celebrate horror movies and the perfect moment for this column to come back from a brief hiatus and break the news of a new one. I am pleased to report that Larry Fessenden has completed production on his seventh feature film, Blackout, in which Alex Hurt plays a painter in a rural community who is convinced he is a werewolf. If you’re unfamiliar with Fessenden’s work, horror fans might as well give their credentials now – or read on, because this filmmaker’s persistence of lo-fi approach to horror spanning 40 years is a case study in itself.
On the subject of horror films with something to say, well, 59-year-old Fessenden has been doing that for generations. At 22 he founded his New York production company Glass Eye Pix and he has built a remarkable filmography of chilling horror films doused with social commentary. (You can also thank him for serving as producer and general advocate for New York filmmaker Kelly Reichardt.) With the recent exception of Jordan Peele, no one has mined more substance in modern monster films than Fessenden, but the industry needs its work nor accept it to the extent that it deserves.
“I’ve lived in this world of low-budget impatience for years,” Fessenden told me this week via Zoom. After spending almost a decade scraping together the budget for his latest film, 2019’s standout Frankenstein adaptation Depraved, Fessenden decided not to wait. He took a collaborative approach to the production, which was filmed in New York’s Hudson Valley with prop donations from local vendors. He self-financed the production with a handful of investors, in part with backlogs from previous Glass Eye productions. “I just wanted to skip all the anxiety on this project,” he said. “There’s a rock ‘n’ roll aspect to just going out and making movies quickly.” Fessenden laughed when he declined to comment on the exact budget. “Let’s just say it’s eligible for the John Cassavetes Award,” he said. (The Spirit Awards category highlights projects made for less than $500,000.)
With his missing tooth and disheveled hair, Fessenden looks like a real creature from the underworld. That’s how his films feel. Her themes range from the global to the intimate, from the alcoholism at the heart of his masterful vampire thriller Habit (1995) to the allegories of climate change in the Frankenstein-inspired No Telling (1991) and The Last Winter (2006). During this time, Glass Eye became something of a mini-factory for large-scale, small-scale horror stories, with Fessenden helping to launch the careers of directors such as Ti West (“Pearl”) and Jim Mickle (“Sweet Tooth”) start.
The typical Fessenden film is made and looks for a few hundred grand, but not in a shabby way. The smallness of his films reinforces their intimacy and conveys the eerie impression of a world spiraling out of joint. When I portrayed Fessenden for The New York Times in 2011, I likened his collective and support for no-frills genre filmmaking to Roger Corman, but Corman has ultimately wormed his way into a Hollywood system that keeps Fessenden at a distance. “I was never good at parties,” he said with a chuckle.
After the acclaim for “Habit,” Fessenden navigated a series of studio offerings that didn’t work for obvious reasons: he wanted to bring substance to the genre, and the studios wanted market-ready products. They knocked out his pitches for “Mimic 2” and a reboot of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Perhaps the greatest irony of this period is that Fessenden pitched Miramax genre label Dimension Films to an adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Werewolf by Night decades before the MCU launched.
The recent black-and-white adaptation Werewolf by Night on Disney+ certainly offers an innovative riff on Universal monster movie tropes, but it’s more of a superficial homage than an attempt to get to the root horrors of the originals. “We’ve seen all kinds of werewolf movies,” Fessenden said. “To me it’s a Jekyll and Hyde story, a form of madness, and a lot of my concerns are there. Do you keep fighting for democracy while the political system unravels, or do you just keep leaning into hysteria?”
Such ideas don’t translate into a proper pitch deck. “In the end, maybe that’s where I belong,” Fessenden said. “I don’t mind. It’s a more organic approach to filmmaking. I have my hands in every department.”
Fessenden was unenthusiastic about the original “Halloween” in 1978, arguing that much of the discourse surrounding this franchise was less about the film and more about the life it later took on. “I thought it was just horror for horror’s sake,” he said. “I really liked the metaphorical bite of movies like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, while ‘Halloween’ was just scary music for the next kill. It just felt like a haunted festival.”
After The Last Winter there was a time when WME represented Fessenden. For a number of years he was commissioned to direct an English language adaptation of the Spanish horror film The Orphanage for New Line, with Guillermo del Toro as producer. That project fell through due to budget constraints, while the blistering pace of Hollywood’s IP hunger continued to irk Fessenden.
“My favorite agent email was ‘Stephen King’s ‘It’. Any int?’ He just wrote ‘int’,” said Fessenden. “I wrote back and said, ‘Sure, what about it?’ He would never answer.” After the Orphanage project fell apart, Fessenden found out his agent had dumped him. “If they haven’t had a hit yet, I don’t think they’re really looking for your collaboration,” he said.
Fessenden isn’t the biggest fan of Blumhouse, which revived the “Halloween” franchise among other commercial horror coups. Though the company has managed to produce complex horror hits like Get Out, there’s a reason Peele started his own production company.
The Blumhouse model prioritizes low budgets with the potential for creative key workers, but it’s still a factory and that can lead to a lot of rush jobs like Halloween Ends. Despite all the talk of its box office being hit by a day-and-date release on Peacock, I suspect this second sequel to a quasi-reboot would have found its feet if audiences hadn’t already heard about another “Halloween” movie would be exhausted. “Let’s be honest,” said Fessenden, who hasn’t seen the film yet. “We’re talking about the commodification of something that’s meant to be pointed and say something real about society.”
He cited the original Night of the Living Dead as a template that all modern horror filmmakers should consider. “It’s about the collapse of society during Vietnam and the racial struggles of the time,” he said. “At their root, horror films need to talk about horrible things. So I think commercializing this genre is a problem.”
But let’s take this logic one step further. Horror movies don’t have to be commercialized to be commercial. Fessenden was on my mind throughout my experience as I watched “Terrifier 2” this week (and averted my eyes when a grinning Art the Clown doused a mutilated woman in bleach and salt). Directed by Damien Leone, the film looks good and was staged fairly well to add to its shock value over the course of its bloated two-and-a-half hour run. Bonus points for the best ’80s pastiche this side of Stranger Things and a real eye for the craftsmanship of rough detail.
But it doesn’t stay with you. I got over the blood quickly because there was no point in the bloodshed. How much better off would this genre be if the movies produced for $250,000 inject their terrors with real ideas? For all the excitement surrounding the success of Get Out, few filmmakers have the privilege of making a major $4.5 million horror film. That’s 18x the cost of “Terrifier 2,” which grossed over $5.2 million at the box office, more than 20x its cost, and that will no doubt reflect on its VOD performance.
Any studio company watching the success of Terrifier 2 should be wary of releasing a bunch of splatter movies for the same price. The audience gets tired quickly. Instead, they’re considering the prospect of hiring a low-budget collective like Glass Eye to make, say, 10 films a year at a $250,000 level. That’s a $2.5 million annual investment with huge potential and minimal marketing needs given the genre’s innate appeal. It might even make a really good horror film.
In recent weeks, Paramount’s “Smile” has beaten “Bros,” despite the fact that most viewers knew next to nothing about the horror film beyond its genre. As I reported in this column earlier this year, to the extent that they dominated Sundance 2022, horror films are funded everywhere. However, even these films are not as cheap as “Terrifier 2” or “Blackout,” where the real opportunity for liberated filmmaking still exists.
Small horror produced outside the system requires constant ingenuity. These are scary times for very real reasons. There’s no reason why the films shouldn’t help us wade through the terror, understand the collective fear — or at least find some comfort in feeling it together.
Happy Halloween. As usual, I encourage readers of this column to come forward with their own ideas – in this case about how the substance of the horror genre can be improved and where new opportunities might lie: email@example.com
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