The Physicality of Consciousness: A Conversation With Larry Fessenden

As a character actor, Larry Fessenden has appeared in films like You’re Next and The Dead Don’t Die, plus numerous cameos in productions by his company Glass Eye Pix, which has been cranking out indie films for over two decades. Most roles end with his death. He pops up as the guy with a flamethrower (or, per the credits, “Flamethrower Guy”) in PS4 hit Until Dawn, which he co-wrote; with Glass Eye Pix collaborator Graham Reznick, the pair continue to work on Supermassive Games projects like the recent The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan. You might recognize Fessenden by sight if not by name. He’s got one of those faces, somewhere between Jack Nicholson and Nick Cave.

His directorial career is a little more sporadic — the modern Frankenstein story Depraved is his first movie in six years, and it’s the first one with his multi-hyphenate “director, writer, editor” credit since 2006 Alaskan thriller The Last Winter, which stars Ron Perlman. Fessenden is a guy who, in other words, has a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, but Depraved is a reminder of what makes him such a distinctive voice behind the camera (the back of his four-film Blu-ray set has a big co-sign quote from Guillermo Del Toro: “Larry Fessenden is one of the most original voices to emerge in the horror field”).

The Subjectivity of Life

Depraved is seen primarily from the perspective of the monster, Adam (Alex Breaux), who’s stitched together by the doctor, Henry (David Call), with funding from a blonde Big Pharma bro named Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Fessenden’s style gets into the monster’s head, with experimental editing flourishes that draw the alternately crooked, paranoid, and wondrous perspectives of his characters out into the physical realm of the film.

“I think what it is,” he tells me over the phone, “is that I’m really obsessed with the subjectivity of life and that’s what cinema is so good at conveying, a sort of subjective experience. Of course, I also like the aesthetic of long takes where the viewer has to decide where to look in the frame, but when you get down to it, film to me is an editing medium, and to have more jagged edits is exciting and can really spar with the audience and engage them.” 

These techniques give Fessenden’s films a disorienting, dreamy, and just plain haunted atmosphere. He’s fond of time-lapse photography and stop-motion, particularly in his seminal 2001 film Wendigo with Patricia Clarkson — the title monster, which he’d revisit in The Last Winter and eventually Until Dawn, moves in jerky, sped-up motions using everything from Sam Raimi-esque POV dollies to puppetry to a guy in a monster suit stripped of all the fur. It’s jittery and paranoid and almost otherworldly even in the environmental shots, the camera view encircling a house in that halting, stop-motion style or a forest stream flowing by so quickly that it looks like a creeping cloud of mist.

As Adam acclimates to his body in Depraved by learning to speak and generally function like a regular person, we see puzzles solve themselves and Chinese food cartons unfurl on their own. Voices from one scene bleed into the next as if they’re bouncing around the subconscious, and there are transparent synapses imposed over the action where Adam thinks or is otherwise mentally stimulated by his surroundings; green flecks materialize to signify his need for the pills that stave off organ rejection. In Fessenden’s hands, the mind of the monster has a distinct look and a feel, a texture that often echoes the brooks and the thatched tree branch canopies of nature.

“I’m trying to suggest the actual firing of the brain,” he explains, “so I’m talking about the physicality of consciousness. That it’s actually this organ that is doing all the work, and it has this existential implication, you know? As opposed to the soul.”

Man of Medan
Man of Medan

He notes that he never really played video games much himself: “I didn’t seek out the video game associations that I have with Supermassive. They came to me because I think they liked the approach to horror that my company [Glass Eye Pix] had been putting out, everyone from Ti West to my own films with this kind of psychological realism. So once we got underway I first of all invited Graham Reznick because I’m not of the generation where I really played video games, but I had a lot of opinions about the form and the medium.”

And yet, as a filmmaker who goes to such lengths to convey subjective experience, the choose-your-own-adventure type of games seem to fit right in with his work.

“That’s why I find them interesting,” he says, adding that he sees parallels to somewhat older forms of interactive storytelling. “In Until Dawn it was cool because those choices are influenced by your reaction to your friends, that literally have to do with your opinion of what your friend just did. And that leads to fate, and it’s funny because when they introduced the idea of these… well, it wasn’t video games when I was young in the early 90s. They were gonna have laser discs where you could choose your own adventure and, in a way, that never really panned out but it became the video game technology. So even though I wasn’t really a player I was very excited to be invited to work in that media. Making movies where you can choose your path was always something that excited me.”

“Why Are People Awful So Much of the Time?”

The monster Adam functions as a kind of makeshift child for Henry, the doctor that creates him. Adam’s beliefs and personality are shaped by what the doctor shows him, as well as what he’s shown by others like bankroller Polidori.

“There may be some contemporary window dressing [with Depraved],” Fessenden says, “but it’s still the main themes of responsibility; if you bring a monster to life then you have to deal with it. It’s really about parenthood and so on. And secondarily it’s about capitalism and, you know, the woes that come from chasing greed. But that’s true all the way back to Shakespeare, so I think they’re pretty timeless themes.”

When asked if this reflects any anxieties about what he’s taught his own son, he jokes, “I taught him to be a filmmaker! Terrible idea. But I really believe in personal responsibility and societal responsibility and that’s why the one dude [Polidori] takes the monster to the museum. I think it’s important to reflect on how we raise our kids, and how do you make good citizens, and why are people awful so much of the time?”

The dreamy, almost hypnotic quality of Fessenden’s work keeps it from feeling particularly dour, but he draws from a well of considerable (and rather justified) pessimism about the state of the world. His 1991 film No Telling tackles similar themes, a kind of rural Frankenstein (“The Frankenstein Complex” is its alternate title) filtered through domestic drama with characters arguing about pesticides, animal experimentation, and the role of science in society. He muses in the film’s audio commentary that it’s a little didactic, but he returns to such themes often, particularly environmentalism. The Last Winter directly concerns global warning, where the melting of omnipresent ice and snow in Alaska unleashes a mysterious force upon a team of researchers and oil drillers. In the background of Wendigo is a lingering cycle of victimization and displacement, a reservoir filled atop people’s homes that, in turn, had displaced the indigenous people.

Wendigo
Wendigo

Branching story paths in Until Dawn and Man of Medan can outright kill certain playable characters and remove them from the rest of the narrative. And although Fessenden did not come up with such mechanics, they nevertheless feel like a natural, smaller-scale extension of his favored themes.

“I do love that aspect of subjectivity [in games],” he says, “and I love the choice aspect which speaks about personal responsibility. What I find different about games from movies, though, is that you’re preoccupied with your own choices and your own self so you’re once again putting yourself ahead because you have to survive the game. Whereas what I like about movies, you’re forced to interpret and understand what is fixed and has been presented by an artist. So it sort of insists that you have empathy to understand the vision you’re looking at. It just shows that every art form demands something different of the audience, the participant.”

The Old Tropes

Fessenden isn’t shy about his influences, or the fact that he’s building on what’s come before him. “The kinds of horror movies that I make tend to be retreads of classic stories like vampires or zombies,” he notes, “to sort of see how to update these classic tales that I grew up on that I think still have a lot of juice in them thematically.”

All of his films, despite riffing on older concepts, take place in a modern context, and he feels quite strongly about that, saying, “In my opinion, if you’re gonna do an update, and for that matter a monster movie. It should be happening right now. It should be about contemporary issues, and maybe the subtext is that these old monster tropes are still relevant. And I try to do that with Depraved, talking about war, PTSD, and the pharmaceutical industry and so on.”

There is, for example, the scene in Depraved that begins the inevitable downward spiral of the Frankenstein story, monster and creator turning on one another. Here, though, it’s depicted through a particularly modern touch as the monster scrolls through videos on a tablet to make his discovery (Fessenden notes with a chuckle that this was a last-minute change; in the original script from “you know, a while ago” it had been DVDs).

“A more contemporary problem,” he explains, “is that we pass off parenting to these devices. At the beginning of Depraved, [Henry] is playing games with the monster but he basically gets bored, so it’s that kind of narcissism that I think is very contemporary and happening in our society… I do feel that it’s part of the Frankenstein story that the doctor rejects the monster and that’s why the monster feels alone in the world, so I’m just putting it in a more Freudian direct relationship as a father-son story, but it’s always been in the tale.”

Depraved
Depraved

Standing out from what’s come before, of course, is no small feat with such a long history of Frankenstein adaptations. He mentions the little references to past works baked into the Depraved design; Adam’s white eye is a tribute to the Christopher Lee version in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, while the arm brace can be traced back to Boris Karloff.

“The main thing that I did,” he says, “which is what [director] James Whale did [with Karloff], is cast somebody with amazing features already. So my actor Alex Breaux had the physicality from head to foot that was, to me, just very enticing. He had a heavy brow, he had high cheekbones, he was very thin and his overall physique was very articulated, and then he had bow legs. And then we wanted to have a fairly realistic analysis of what you would do if you were stitching body parts together. You wouldn’t, for example, make a mess of the face. You just wouldn’t. That would be so goofy, and that’s often what you see in the De Niro version and several Hammer versions. They’re just like, what is going on with the scars on the face? So I tried to strip away a lot of that.”

“Somewhat Part of It”

Despite the proliferation of 80s nostalgia that pushes a bit against what Fessenden tries to accomplish, he’s quite optimistic about the genre.

“I think horror is in a really good place with, you know, A24, the recent spate of movies like It Follows, The Witch, and obviously Midsommar and Hereditary. Those are truly art films, like they’re being made by cinephiles and I think Glass Eye has something to do with paving the way, though we were never able to ride the wave,” he says.

Though Fessenden himself remains something of an outsider cult figure, it’s easy to see the fingerprints of Glass Eye’s more personal brand of horror on the smaller scale stuff that fills in the box office blanks these days, the arthouse indies or budget-conscious Blumhouse efforts as studios push more and more for big, expensive blockbusters. “I think we were some of the early adopters of the idea that you could tell personal stories within the horror mode and have real character development that’s not just splatter movies with girls being chased by chainsaws, although that’s a great movie. So I feel somewhat part of it. I haven’t really benefitted entirely.”

He’s a little wary of streaming, insistent on the power of the theater showing. But he also acknowledges that things are changing, saying, “The streaming aspect is disappointing if you love movies in the theater because the theater experience is more and more about the big superhero movies and Star Wars franchises and stuff. But that’s a whole other complaint. And it’s an old complaint from when TVs were smaller. Now actually your home system is pretty celebratory of the thing you’re watching. Even that’s not so terrible. I always seem to bitch about everything. I try not to too much.”

The thing that Depraved maintains, the thing that’s consistent with all of Fessenden’s work as a director, is a more personal quality, like you can feel the fingerprints on its shot compositions and meticulous editing. His films may not be traditionally frightening — ”A lot of the time I’m dealing with people’s expectations of what the genre is supposed to be doing,” he says — but they tend to stick in the brain, these dreamy images tightly wound around a fiery thesis. In Wendigo, it’s a child growing up and coming to grapple with the violence and the sorrow of the world around him. In Depraved, it’s a look at the breakdown of humanity through a monster and his creators, the well-intentioned doctor and the moneyman who perverts those ambitions for profit.

“For example,” he says, “not that I was directly commenting, but obviously opioids are great if you have a lot of pain. That’s what you want. So there’s nothing really wrong with inventing them, it’s just the greed factor that distorts this invention and starts to prey upon human weakness. I think what I’m observing is that there’s always that aspect to humanity, that it is poisoning best intentions and it’s true in science and technology over and over. So [Depraved is] just a cautionary tale like so many horror stories, reminding us of how fragile life is and the balance you need to maintain to lead a moral, sane life.”

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