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Larry Fessenden Collection (No Telling / Habit / Wendigo / The Last Winter), The

Shout Factory // Unrated // October 20, 2015
List Price: $79.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted October 21, 2015 | E-mail the Author
From the late 1970s through to the present, horror has remained a genre popular with first-time filmmakers. Filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi made their name as horror directors before moving onto some of the biggest films of all time, and even filmmakers less associated with the genre, like James Cameron and Jonathan Demme, have Roger Corman pictures somewhere on their IMDb pages. With so many filmmakers trying their hand at horror first, there's a tendency for those filmmakers to bring their style to the genre as opposed to the genre informing their style, and by giving fans so many flavors to choose from, directors can make their careers on small but loyal fanbases interested in their unique brand of horror. Larry Fessenden is one of those directors, a man who has managed to keep working for almost forty years despite only one or two other features outside of this box set on his directorial resume, and almost zero mainstream awareness of his work. Shout! Factory, IFC, and Glass Eye Pix have teamed up to bring four of Fessenden's features to Blu-ray: 1991's No Telling, 1995's Habit, 2001's Wendigo, and 2006's The Last Winter.

As a filmmaker, Fessenden embodies the phrase "slow burn" with every fiber of his being. No Telling is his debut feature, and when viewed in a vacuum, it would be easy to chalk up the movie's deliberate pace as a side effect of inexperience, but as the set progresses, it's clear that his movie's ponderous nature is part of his vision. The film follows Dr. Geoffrey Gaines (Stephen Ramsey) and his wife Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie) as they move from the city to an isolated country home where Geoffrey hopes to make progress in his lab research, and it's possible that Fessenden never actually reveals any specifics about what it is Geoffrey is supposed to be working on (assuming, as it is implied, that there's a difference between what he's supposed to be doing and what he's actually doing). Although Geoffrey is clearly stressed out about his research, especially his desire for monkeys to be used in testing, and Lillian is struggling with his cold shoulder, Fessenden's style means nearly the entire movie goes by before the viewer has a traditional idea of what the "conflict" is. Fessenden doesn't press too hard about what it is that Geoffrey's working on that it seems like a mystery, and Lillian's journey from disappointment to true unhappiness develops at a snail's pace. The film does build to a fairly shocking reveal, but the time it takes to get there makes the movie a bit of a slog.

Pacing-wise, Habit doesn't move any faster, but it better demonstrates Fessenden's empathy for his characters. Fessenden himself plays Sam, who drifts idly into a friend's Halloween party and runs into Anna (Meredith Snaider), an intriguing, mysterious woman who he is instantly intrigued by but is too drunk to make a move on. At first, it seems lucky that he manages to run into her again, embarking on a passionate sexual relationship, but when Sam starts to walk away from their encounters bleeding, dizzy, and sickly, he starts to wonder if she has more than a carnal interest in him. Fessenden, who looks like someone sliced a tenth of Jack Nicholson off and it grew into its own man (minus a front tooth), gives an oddly charismatic performance. Despite his shaggy appearance, there's something inherently decent or kind about Fessenden, and he plays this to good effect, both in scenes with the more aggressive Anna (Snaider can turn on a dime between playful and sinister), and Sam's ex-girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury), who is still in love with him. The film's compassionate tone makes up for what is essentially an even more protracted build to a reveal than No Telling -- enough to test the patience.

Six years passed between Habit and Fessenden's next feature, Wendigo, which stars Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber as Kim and George, a couple taking a winter vacation at a friend's cabin. On the way into town, George accidentally hits a deer with the family car and gets stuck in a ditch afterward, an incident which draws the ire of a local hunter named Otis (John Speredakos), who was trying to bag the buck for himself. Within less than two hours, George and Otis have formed a grudge against one another, one which makes him paranoid and irritable as he tries to spend time with Kim and their son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan). When their family vacation is suddenly tinged by violence, the question hangs in the air: was it Otis, or something more sinister? Once again, Fessenden's compassion is what makes Wendigo engaging. Framing the film from Miles' perspective gives him a chance to see the conflict from an objective perspective, fleshing out a history for Otis that allows the audience to sympathize even as Otis acts petty and aggressive. The details of the plot, involving the old horror standby of "Indian burial ground", are kind of hokey, but there's an earnest quality to the way Fessenden portrays mysticism that takes some of the edge off of what might be called a stereotype. Clarkson is also great, turning in one of the best and most emotional performance in any of the films in the box set. Although much of her character's arc is seen from a distance, at an angle from where Fessenden's focus is, she still manages to come off as well-rounded and authentic.

While the other three films in the set feel like genuine independent productions, even as recognizable faces like Clarkson pop up in Fessenden's casts, The Last Winter is the one film in the four that has the polish and style of major motion picture. Like Wendigo, the film takes place in an icy climate, where a company has just agreed to try and build a road through the isolated arctic in order to search for drilling spots that won't upset environmentalists. As the film opens, the group already on-site are being joined by Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), whose plans to start getting the road built are blocked by James Hoffman (James LeGros), who not only thinks the road will be unsafe and that the area's climate is changing for the worse, but who has taken up with Ed's former flame, Abby (Connie Britton). Ed takes alternate corporate measures to get Hoffman off his back, but before he can leave, other members of the team start having strange visions, which slowly but surely leads to the entire group breaking down. Although The Last Winter has the same sympathetic eye that Fessenden's previous two films thrived on, the film feels colder because that sense of understanding isn't directed at any of the human characters. At least three of the set's four films have inklings of Fessenden's love of the environment, but Winter is the most obvious about it, stopping short but still obviously approaching a soapbox with regard to drilling. The film is elevated by a talented cast of character actors that include Perlman, Britton, LeGros, Kevin Corrigan, and Zach Gilford, but lessened slightly by some particularly cornball CGI.

Throughout all four films, Fessenden reveals himself to be openly spiritual, with characters in almost every movie dealing with some sort of ancient magic or other-worldly energy. Nature tends to inspire serenity and calm, so perhaps that's where his methodical storytelling comes from, even if his films largely deal with nature striking back or impacting his characters in an aggressive way. Nonetheless, Fessenden, who is also his own editor, could stand to trim the fat from at least a couple of his films (Habit, in particular, is filled with dead weight). His skill with performance is evident, drawing a certain humanity out of his actors that is rare in American horror films. It's clear that he adores a certain kind of atmosphere, a calm yet bloody sense of the world at large. Whether or not that style will be palatable to most viewers is beside the point: it's another specific and unique flavor in the tapestry of low-budget horror.

The Blu-ray
The Larry Fessenden Collection comes in a four-disc Vortex hard plastic Blu-ray case, with a disc on the inside front and back covers, and a tray holding one disc on either side. The front cover features a new painting by The Dude Designs with a monochrome color scheme that is carried over to the rest of the packaging, and on the reverse of the sleeve, there are billing blocks for the four films (although, for some reason, the two columns the text is placed into are uneven, meaning text from the right side crosses the middle division created by the spine of the case. The entire package slides inside a matte slipbox with identical artwork, and there is a glossy 24-page booklet featuring an essay by Michael Gingold, quotes from Fessenden, and a number of photographs and pieces of art from the films, as well as a page for each one including a breakdown of the extras.

The Video and Audio
All four films in the set have had new HD masters created for the purposes of this box set, which were then approved by Fessenden. No Telling arrives in 1.78:1 1080p AVC, and looks decent. This is a very grainy transfer, some of which appears to be mosquito noise swarming the image, and white highlights are severely blown out, with searing light pouring in through windows, but there's no question this is a level of detail and clarity that fans of the film have likely never been able to see. Like the white highlights, colors can tend to look a little "amped", but otherwise appear reasonably natural, if a little dark. Habit, a 1:33:1 1080p AVC presentation, sadly, is a step back from No Telling, appearing slightly less grainy and with more natural colors and highlights, but falling far short of the sharpness and detail of the previous transfer. This is a soft, soft movie, and frequently it's worth questioning whether this would actually be an upgrade over a DVD given how blurry the image can appear. Far from unwatchable, but equally far from impressive. Wendigo gets the set back on track in its 1.78:1 1080p AVC offering, generally looking like a less-severe version of No Telling. On the whole, the transfer seems slightly too bright, but highlights don't bloom as aggressively as they do on the first film. Colors are far more natural, and grain resolves itself more cleanly throughout the presentation. Fine detail is once again reasonably impressive. Finally, The Last Winter is the best of the bunch, with a 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation that offers nice depth and detail, the kind that one would expect from a fairly recent film, and grain is completely managed in a way that feels natural and accurate. White levels still look a shade too bright at times, but maybe the glow of the snow was intentional.

Sound on all four films comes in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks. Personally, I'm pretty skeptical that the first three films were actually released with 5.1 soundtracks (well, maybe Wendigo), and sure enough, while there are some interesting hallucinatory effects on some of these tracks, and the occasional bit of ambiance, they don't quite light up the surround system the way a modern film would. The Last Winter makes the most out of the surrounds, using the mix to immerse the viewer into the isolating environment, and highlighting the shock and intensity of a crazy accident that occurs in the second half of the film. English subtitles are provided on all four films.

The Extras
Each film in the set is accompanied by an audio commentary by director/writer/editor/producer Larry Fessenden. In the case of The Last Winter, this is an archival commentary previously released on DVD by IFC; the other three were newly recorded for this box set. Fessenden is an engaging speaker, with a strong memory of his productions, and the commentaries range from more overall musings about his career and about his passions (particularly the aforementioned environmentalism) to the anecdotal and technical, with a wealth of information about shooting on low budgets and some of the nitty-gritty details of what it's like being on the farthest fringes of low-budget horror cinema. There is also a second audio commentary on Wendigo featuring Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and John Speredakos. Sadly, this track is a little underwhelming, with more breaks in the conversation, and little in the way of meaty behind-the-scenes info from them when they do speak -- it would've been nice if Fessenden hat sat in on their conversation to moderate.

Each disc is also accompanied by a wealth of bonus features, some of which are specific to the film in question and a few of which are not. Each film has a making-of documentary, most of which are quite comprehensive: "The Making of No Telling" (24:16), "The Making of Habit" (24:17), "Behind the Scenes: Searching for the Wendigo" (31:56), and "The Making of The Last Winter" (1:46:52). The documentaries were all produced around the same time as the film in question, meaning the content is "fresh" in the minds of the participants. The Last Winter's is a feature in an of itself, covering the film's grueling location shoot. These are accentuated with archive footage for No Telling and The Last Winter (26:44, 18:31). There is also a short bonus Fessenden interview on Wendigo (8:16), and a lengthy bonus Fessenden interview on The Last Winter (22:22).

Non-film specific material includes Fessenden's many short films, including White Trash (9:16), a preliminary version of Habit (17:42), N is For Nexus (4:11), Santa Claws (4:52), Origins (7:54), Jebediah (2:33), Mister (5:31). Habit and N is For Nexus both have making-of featurettes (5:39, 3:55). There are also a trio of music videos on board -- "Save You From Yourself" (3:40), "Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped" (7:26), and "Tired of Killing Myself" (5:36) -- and three Glass Eye Pix Sizzle Reels, each covering a different period in the history of Fessenden's company (1985-1990 - 7:34, 2010 - 3:27, and 2014 - 4:12).

Many of the video pieces are introduced by Fessenden, who does his best to contextualize and explain each piece.

Habit and Wendigo come with an original theatrical trailer. Last, but not least, there is a Wendigo Animated Series Trailer (3:10) on that disc.

Conclusion
Larry Fessenden's films may be an acquired taste, but there's no doubt a small but loyal faithful has acquired that taste, and it will be more than sated by Shout! / Glass Eye / IFC's new Blu-ray box set, which offers imperfect but strong presentations of four of his films in HD and throws in a laundry list of bonus features to boot. Recommended


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