Larry Fessenden: “Horror was an outsider genre, now it’s big business.”

10/22/2010 4:00 AM |

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.


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.