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Hackles and Horrors



Larry Fessenden’s work raises an occasional hackle. His 1991 film, No Telling, features a mad scientist with a penchant for stitching together bizarre living things out of unrelated animal parts. Although great pains were taken to ensure the well-being of cast members, four-legged and two-legged alike, some horror fans took umbrage at the simulated mutilation of cute, furry little critters. Of course, shocking the hell out of people is a big part of the genre—especially when it makes an important point. “My approach is to depict a heightened reality,” Fessenden says. “And what happens to animals in laboratories and slaughterhouses every day is a real-life horror that needed to be addressed.”

The 41-year-old independent filmmaker, an ovo-lacto-vegetarian who eats seafood, currently makes his home in the Town of Olive in Ulster County with his wife, artist and filmmaker Beck Underwood, and their four-year-old son, Jack. Fessenden’s feature-length movie Habit was filmed in Albany, and No Telling was shot in Calicoon Center near Liberty, New York. Principal photography for his most recent motion picture, Wendigo, took place entirely within the sprawling confines of Catskill Park, a fact that should delight fans of imaginative fiction in the Empire State.

Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” celebrated the eerie side of Dutch Colonial folklore, and made New York a place of real literary interest in the early 19th century. But thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, New England became the premier setting for American dark fantasy and horror, a tradition maintained through the years by native sons H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Nevertheless, New York State is making a comeback. Contemporary author Douglas Clegg chose Dutchess County as the setting for his recent novel, Nightmare House, and Fessenden’s cinematic efforts over the last 22 years have helped revive the Mid-Hudson Valley’s image as an area rich in folklore and mythic wonder.

Visually, Wendigo offers compelling views of such places as the Ashokan Reservoir, Big Indian, and Phoenicia. Rustic terrain that entices during the warmth of summer can assume a foreboding cast when snow lies thick on the mountains, and Fessenden’s skillfully crafted images of arctic-like remoteness and solitude strike a chilling note. The film, which won Best Picture honors at the 2001 Woodstock Film Festival, chronicles the morbid misadventures of a New York City family journeying north for a winter weekend in the country, where they incur the wrath of a psychotic local. It would have been easy for Fessenden to capitalize on Us vs. Them paranoia a la the movie Deliverance; instead, Wendigo explores the depths of human loss with, among other things, subtle references to the dispossessed Esopus Indians. Science fiction writer A.E. Van Vogt once wrote, “Human beings have created what they call civilization, which is in fact merely a complex, unwieldy barrier between themselves and their environment.” The Wendigo spirit-belief, which is shared in one form or another by indigenous peoples throughout North America, is rooted in the unfathomable cruelty Nature is wont to inflict without warning. The spirit is in the darkness just beyond the spill of your headlights. It inhabits a problematic realm that demands cautious respect, and it is the essence of primal fear that seeps through the bulwark of science and technology.


Interestingly enough, Wendigo was almost filmed elsewhere. “Although I grew up in New York City, we used to visit Vermont a lot when I was a kid, and the story is derived from my earliest exposure to Native American beliefs there,” says Fessenden. “New England will always be in my blood, so doing Wendigo in Vermont was my first inclination.” Ultimately, a number of factors resulted in the selection of Ulster County. “I had gotten to know this part of New York State over the years, and we had some nice locations available to us near Kingston. The tragic aspects of the Ashokan Reservoir project, which resulted in yet another dispossession of powerless people, added to the underlying theme of loss.”

Fessenden was weaned on scary stories told around a crackling campfire in Oak Hill, New York; and he still relishes ’60s TV classics like Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” and its sequel, “Night Gallery.” “As far as big-screen influences are concerned, I enjoyed very explicit depictions of horror. As a kid I watched black-and-white monster movies like Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. But as I got older, I became interested in realism and existentialism.” Fessenden’s three major film projects are alike insofar as he eschewed the use of cgi (computer generated imagery) in their production. “Although I loved the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, it’s the work of Peter Jackson [The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Frighteners] that finally sold me on cgi, and I’m incorporating some into a new film I’m producing. Still, I’ve always liked the old quirks and thrills found in stop-motion animation and monster costumes, and all the other tricks moviemakers relied on in the pre-cgi era. Wendigo is a celebration of those all-but-lost techniques.”

It’s fair to say that the best art should make simple-yet-profound statements about the human condition. What underlies Fessenden’s work is the relationship between humanity and its environment. With that in mind, he and co-author Michael Ellenbogen published Low Impact Film Making: A Practical Guide to Environmentally Sound Film & Video Production in 1993. The 100-page illustrated guide received a glowing review in Filmmaker Magazine. “I wrote the book as a companion piece to the movie No Telling. I just wanted to lay out some thoughts on how to be conscientious on the set, and I have a passionate diatribe in the introduction. Some of America’s dubious contributions to mankind—single-serve water bottles, junk-food wrappers, and film-related detritus of all kinds—can really plague a location. Filmmakers should be as concerned with environmental and animal-rights issues as anyone else. The book offers producers and production managers access to environmentally conscientious and money-saving resources that can help reduce wastefulness.”

When it comes to filmmaking, Fessenden clearly appreciates the dramatic value of bleak landscapes and depressing seasons. Not surprisingly, the stark menace of winter displayed so chillingly in Wendigo will be featured again in his next project, set in an Arctic camp. Production of the new movie is scheduled to begin in the winter of 2005, and filming will probably take place somewhere within Catskill Park. Meanwhile, Fessenden’s love affair with 1950s B movies has resulted in his producing Scare Flix One and Two, low-budget horror films by budding talents James McKenney (The Off Season) and Ti West (The Roost). “We’re trying to encourage the revival of drive-in theaters in order to show these movies the way they ought to be seen. I might have to make one to complete the series, though. I always work in threes.”

For more information about independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden, including his work as an actor, visit Glass Eye Pix Productions at www.glasseyepix.com.

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