Starting today, DUMBO's reRun Gastropub Theater presents a fortnight-long retrospective of the films of local grindhouse label Glass Eye Pix in general, and its godhead, local writer-director-producer-character actor-horror maven Larry Fessenden, in particular. (You may know him as the holdup man plugged by Jodie Foster in The Brave One, or the auteur of Habit, Wendingo and The Last Winter.) We spoke to him about horror, generally and specifically, in the days leading up to this momentous occasion.
The L: What do you think happened to the American horror film in the last couple years? Seems like most daring stuff that's showing in the American market is coming from overseas, France especially.
Larry Fessenden: I mean, the fact is that when you talk to me you'll find I'm not much of a cinephile, but I do feel in America we're involved in a cycle of remakes, and more importantly the state of affairs is a cycle of violence, and I really feel that that is not all that horror has to offer. I'm much more interested in the metaphorical and the mythological and the other textures that horror has to offer. I'm much more interested in a film like The Mist. So that's my thing. And I think Saw has its own resonance in that you're given choices in life, but do you saw off your arm or face potential death? But I do think the Saw franchise, a lot of these things, just become depraved gore-fests, you know?
The L: Your films sort of grapple with the ideas of American iconography, like the titular spirit of Wendingo, that's especially interesting because it tries to pinpoint a uniquely American kind of imagery.
LF: Well, I find America intriguing because I'm an American, I was born here, I'm a patriot. But I also think America is also engaged in this decline based on a sense of exceptionalism. And so I think of America as sort of the pinnacle of the Western experiment, and I think it's failing, because we're detached from the environment-capitalism is a distortion. A lot of the great American mythologies are unraveling at the seams because it's unsustainable. So on that level America as a concept is worth exploring, but specifically I really believe in making films that are rooted in their location. So if I make a movie in upstate New York, it's going to be as much about the landscape as the storyline. If I make a movie in NYC, I want to celebrate this town. Now, I did make a movie based in Alaska and I shot it in Iceland, but there again I am celebrating another frontier in this great country. If I could make movies only in America, it could be very varied.
The L: Do you think there are American traditions in the horror genre?
LF: Well I would say so because I don't really know a lot of the other traditions. You have German Expressionism, which is of course a fabulous period in history, but in a way the Americans usurped that. The Universal films are still some of my favorite horror films, and they used the crooked angles and the exotic sets the Germans established. Recently, Night of the Living Dead is a great American film that seems quintessentially American because it has a literalness and a realism but it's also very brutal.
The L: I saw that you wrote an essay about Night of the Living Dead recently. I was curious to know if the power struggle inherent in Romero's other movies were something fascinating to you?
LF: Well, I like when the horror has an exterior element like zombies, but the real struggle ends up being about the people. For example: Do we stay in the basement? That to me is the ultimate metaphor. You're basically fighting against death, the potential disaster if you're stuck in a coal mine or whatever. The fact is that life is going to dole out some hardships and the real issue is, Can you get along with your fellow people to bring resolve and to avoid conflict? Sartre says, "Hell is other people." That's really what we're talking about in a horror movie. In The Mist, there are terrible monsters inside, but the fact is there's terrible conflict inside. This aggravation-look at the state of America, politically. We have real issues like global warming and a terrible economy and yet people are infighting and we're not banding together to make solutions. There's a tribalism that's still as rampant as when we were hunting and gathering. That's what's interesting and ultimately horrific. It's a sense of alienation, which is another existential preoccupation, but I'm interested in how little relationship we have to our fellow man, in spite of this facade of society.
The L: it's curious you bring up The Mist because to my mind, especially the ending, it seems like a kind of topicality that you wouldn't be interested in.
LF: It's funny you say it that way because I would argue that to me, it's an examination of making the wrong choice, and the absolute horror. Imagine the people who jumped out of the twin towers if the next moment the fire brigade but out the fire. Then the juming would've been in vain. That's the final horror: making the wrong decision in a time of duress. It's the one thing I'll say about the Saw movies, at least the first one, is... do you saw off your arm or not? The point is, in life you make decisions. Wouldn't it be annoying if the rescue party is right around the corner just as you saw through your final bone? Those are the tricks of fate that continue to be very disturbing elements in horror.
The L: Do you think torture porn exists? More accurately, does the term actually mean anything to you?
LF: Well I think now it just groups a mindset of movies together. I was once asked to comment on torture porn because I had a movie called The Last Winter out, and Eli Roth was enjoying tremendous success and so I was supposed to refudiate the torture porn. I really didn't like Cabin Fever, it was a really weak film, but I hadn't seen Hostel, so I thought I should at least watch the movies if I was supposed to be commenting on them. And I enjoyed them. I thought they were good. So, I think torture porn means gratuitous violence and in that regard some of these movies are and some of these movies aren't. It's sort of a useless term but I think we understand what it means generally. It's kind of a recent trend, where there's just kind of a lot of gore. The movies that I think are more offensive and silly are movies like Wrong Turn where it's like these grotesque monsters which are basically just rednecks but someone's making money doing the effects so they become exaggerated. And there's no real understanding of these people and why they'd be brutal. They just are. There's a brutality in those other movies that feels opportunistic. So, I don't know what torture porn is. It's a lot of modern bullshit, horror for horror's sake made by corporations cashing in. In the old days, horror was an outsider genre, now it's big business and there's something perverse about that.[page[
The L: You don't think artists like Eli Roth and James Wan and Alexandre Aja are sort of one-up people? When David Edelstein coined the term torture porn, he was sort of bewildered by how these films were in multiplexes, He doesn't understand how most of these films are now in your local mom and pop theatres. Do you think that lacks a context, the fact that these people are trying to continue a tradition and one-up their predecessors?
LF: I don't know. I think Edelstein is an old-timer just like myself. There's something mean-spirited at a certain point. And I cherish certain horror films like Man Bites Dog and Irreversible, but they're supposed to be the exception, the shocking exception. Whereas when that becomes your daily meal, I wonder if you become desensitized.
The L: Do you think it's become harder to think of scenarios for films now that you have bigger budgets?
LF: Well, my movies are always hard to make cause they're so out there. I'm concerned with themes that aren't recognizably commercial. There's just more and more awareness of how things will be marketed. I think some of the forgiveness of the indie market has dried up. So, yeah you have to be more and more commercial-minded. Your films don't have to be commercial, but you have to justify why your film's worth making.
The L: how did you bring Glass Eye together? Did you have a certain kind of group in mind when you brought the company to being?
LF: No, it's just people I've come to know and associations that have developed very organically. I meet people and we say "Let's make a movie together" and some money is found and then you follow through. If you have a good experience you want to finish, and once you finish the movie you try and figure out how to sell it. "Maybe we should try and get it into a theater, I know this guy who knows that guy." It's always been very organic. I met Ti West through Kelly Reichardt. He was an intern for me, he was a student of hers. James McKinney is just a filmmaker who answered an ad in the paper to be my assistant. Sometimes filmmakers approach me. The only thing I'm setting out to do is have a community of like-minded people who help each other put the best work forward, and we don't have a lot of money so it's about banding together. I think the notion is you can create a brand that the fans can reliably say, well, "I'll be curious what this is. I may or may not like it but I know it's coming from that place." it's like the old record labels. You knew what was going to be on Verve or Stiff records.
The L: It seems like it has more of a communal feel than a studio arrangement.
LF: Yes, it's very communal. We work on each other's movies. Graham Reznick is a director and he does sound design. Jim Mickle just did some special effects for something of mine. Glenn McQuaid does titles for people. We're all supporting each other and hoping all boats rise together.
The L: I read, speaking of pipe dreams [laughter], that you always wanted to do a Werewolf By Night comic. Were you a big Marvel Horror guy?
LF: Absolutely. Everybody I know is prattling on about Superman, Spiderman, Batman. I never watched any of that shit. I watched Werewolf By Night, Tomb of Dracula, Monster Frankenstein, Where Monsters Dwell, and of course Creepy and Eerie. That was my whole world.
The L: Do you have a favorite era of comics?
LF: Ah, just when I was growing up, so that's the 70s. I was reading Werewolf by Night from the first issue-the Mike Plugh illustrated ones, which were the first twenty, or something. It couldn't be more perfectly timed. I am a textbook kid from that period. I saw Jaws when I was thirteen, best movie ever made. Couldn't've been better timed. In those days in NYC they had double features. On my god, it doesn't get better. I feel sorry for the kids today.
The L: Talking about how people have limited options now, as compared to especially the 70s. It seems like smaller horror movies are having a tougher times screening, especially in NYC especially since the Two Boots Pioneer is gone. Do you think it's harder to find homes for Glass Eye films now in NYC?
LF: Absolutely. It's heartbreaking. I loved the Pioneer. Even Cinema Village played Habit, which was an honor because that's where I'd seen Night of the Living Dead. Now Cinema Village, they're still in business, but it's harder. I'm excited about reRun theater but I wish there were more of them. It's a weird state of horror. For example, Let Me In I haven't seen it but I understand it's a pretty thoughtful movie. Maybe there's backlash cause it's a remake, but it's a tragedy that that movie can't get any traction. And you have to say, What is going on? And you can complain about torture porn, because Saw 3-D is going to do fine. Then that's when you get into this discussion of, if movies are so appallingly violent, then that's what people come to expect from their horror and they can't even sit through a subtle vampire film that has mood and atmosphere and real melancholy on its side. I do feel it can get a little dire out there, but it's just like politics, it's so hysterical, it's so loud, it's so vitriolic. Where's the conversation? I just feel that-and every guy who's getting older says this-the world is becoming more crass. And that is a crisis because there's no more subtlety, no more discourse. And in the end, there's no escape. And that's horror. That's my idea of horror. [laughter]