Gods and monsters

The director of the acclaimed new movie "Wendigo" talks about horror, terror, metaphysics, mythology, constructing a moral order and how Sept. 11 undermined his agenda.

By Dimitra Kessenides
Published February 26, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Filmmaker Larry Fessenden's horror movies aren't the blood-and-guts fare typically associated with that genre. "On the most practical level I'm trying to separate my films from conventional horror films," Fessenden says. "My agenda is to take people into a disorienting place where they're both thinking about horror and how it plays into our lives as well as experiencing the movies."

Over the last few weeks, Fessenden's newest film, "Wendigo," has opened in New York and Chicago. It will open in other cities across the country before the end of March. "Wendigo" is the third in Fessenden's trilogy of revisionist horror films that started with 1991's "No Telling" and continued in 1997 with the vampire cult favorite "Habit." In "Wendigo," Fessenden continues his focus on alienation and the loneliness of the human experience. In presenting a Manhattan couple and their son displaced from their urban setting for a weekend away in snowy upstate New York, he immediately sets up a story of conflicts rooted in both real and imagined horrors. On the drive up, when the family's car hits a deer, the accident leads to an encounter with some local hunters. That in turn sets in motion a series of events that turn the idyllic weekend away into an unsettling and menacing trip.

Fessenden approaches this horror scenario from a philosophical angle, deconstructing the genre by delving into our mythologies. "I think horror is a remaining place for this -- horror archetypes are mythological in stature in our culture ... I feel there is a lost quality to modern man, if you will. I'm more interested in exploring all of that than, for example, what the current trend of horror is, just a spectacle of terror and gore." Recently, Fessenden talked with Salon about what he sees as the metaphysical aspects of fear and terror, and his interest in doing something quite different with horror films -- cinema, he says, that "gets at the stuff of dreams and mortality."

Getting people to separate from the traditional forms of horror is a pretty tall order. People's ideas and images of it seem so firmly stuck on Freddy Kruger and "Nightmare on Elm Street." How do you get them away from that?

Well, that's sort of my point, that there is also another type of horror, one that is rooted in existentialism, where you're actually called upon to confront death and somewhat the meaninglessness of life. That's what I find most interesting, the loneliness of experience in a human-centric world where there's no God and where nature is disparaged.

Most movies seem to distract us from the heavy stuff you're talking about.

Exactly. Indeed, it's a tall order. But, I mean, look at the story of Frankenstein. It's a cautionary tale about science and playing God. It's also a good yarn, and there's emotion in it. But the creature is both pathetic and a victim of the doctor's ambition. So even the great horror films have other ambitions than just to shock. I think it's really the recent ones, when Hollywood got on board in the '80s, because of the success of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Halloween," I think that's when things started getting a bit more trite.

The emotional element is key, then. It's probably the most terrifying.

Yes. But you're experiencing other emotions beyond terror. You could write a book on the difference between horror and terror. Terror tends to be a more immediate fear of perhaps physical harm. Horror is more about existential dread, I would say. Even though you don't hear about terror movies. But you could start to divide films into those categories and perhaps others as well.

Do you completely shun the accepted traits of horror films in your movies? You probably need some of those elements.

Absolutely, and that's the pleasure of a horror film. Because I think people are endlessly curious about real fear. That is another role of a horror film, to take you to a place that you don't want to get to in real life. But one is preoccupied by the sensation of fear and the choices that either help you escape or make you succumb to it. And you get to go on that ride and experience it while in the safety of the theater.

I try to address the disparity between things that really pose a daily threat and then the more imagined fear. And I try to play off of those two things. My second film, "Habit," is really about a guy who's addicted to booze, and he's deluded, and he's deluding himself into believing his girlfriend is a vampire. But what we're really witnessing is someone falling apart. And that's a perfect example of what interests me. I'm playing with a genre. And everyone knows where they stand in the archetype of the vampire story. I'm trying to prod them into recognizing that these are very real horrors as well.

The latest film, "Wendigo," is really about conflict between people who can't communicate. There's a kid who sort of invents this monster to make things right, to interpret a totally arbitrary clash.

You do have a monster. That's pretty standard in horror films. Where'd your monster come from?

I was haunted by this Native American legend of the Wendigo. I heard it when I was a very young kid in third grade; a teacher told it in class. I was very struck by it. But the way the film ended up coming out on the page, there isn't a real monster, or it doesn't need to be real. It's more this kid who encounters the idea of this monster, and he conjures it up. So there's a parallel universe of the supernatural living with the everyday. I'm sort of observing that that's the nature of life. We have our fictions, our concepts, and we experience life through that filter of our expectation.

Why is your monster so humanistic?

Well, if you think about the opening of the movie, there's a werewolf doll fighting with a robot doll, and I always see that as the two world views. There's one that's based on nature and animal, where man and animal are sort of fused. There's something natural about that. That's one kind of archetype. And then there's the robot man, which is this futuristic man, completely disjointed from an organic world. Those things are in conflict in the little vignettes in the beginning. That is sort of the two directions that humanity can take. And so there is an affectionate tribute to the werewolf in having the Wendigo be a kind of deer-man, a sort of animal spirit, which is obviously from Native American folklore.

That's what the kid responds to. He's got all these books about Greek mythology and he's reading books about Indians, and it's just like a child's imagination. When you're young you really are exposed to all these incredible monsters and myths, and it shapes your thinking. And then when life turns against you, as it does against the child, he takes all that source material and conjures up this avenging spirit that's both horrifying and yet comforting. In a bleak world of meaninglessness and no moral order, look how we yearn for avenging spirits and ghosts and goblins. Something we can give meaning to, whether they're evil or bad.

It's OK for kids to be into this stuff. But when grownups get into it, they're marginalized.

Ah, those are the joys and the sorrows of the horror genre. It is a marginalized genre that's considered childish, tomfoolery. Yet through metaphor one can begin to get at real truths even more so than with a very telling, realistic drama, which is considered the appropriate fare for an adult.

What horror movies influenced you and have stuck with you over the years?

The Universal horror movies really endure, like "Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man" and this sort of fare. I'm a big fan of Roman Polanski, who tells extremely realistic stories with a supernatural bent. "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Tenant," which is purely a psychological breakdown. And then I like the realism of movies like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Night of the Living Dead." Those movies are powerful, they're relentless and bleak, as the '60s were a difficult time. So those three different types of movies are influences.

Did you discover any truths about life through those films?

Well, none actually. Go read Joseph Campbell if you need reminding that there is sort of a commonality in all cultures, this yearning for giving face to our fears. Every horror film has comforted me. As for discovering a truth, I've discovered that life is meaningless but there is great comfort in the archetypes, and that's sort of how one constructs a moral order in order to go forward.

Do you think that's why horror films make such an impact and leave such a lasting impression?

It's because they get at the stuff of dreams and of mortality. As much as people go about their daily business, this is on the mind. I believe that fear is a motivating factor in most human interactions. Even greed is somehow trying to stave off death and by definition all things associated with recoiling from the house. Fear is a huge motivator in even the most trivial transaction. And I admit that that's because I see the world that way and that's just a character trait. So I'm not trying to convince you it's the only emotion or point of view to put forth, but it happens to be what interests me.

How does what happened on Sept. 11 change any of your thinking on this?

That was abject terror. For the people involved it was a meaningless act. And yet there are other ways to look at it. There are so many players, there are righteous proclamations and then there's the relativism of it all. Who's to say that Osama bin Laden didn't have his own reasons, from his point of view? That's when you get into horror in a sense, because I'm talking about a world of complete relativity. There's no moral order, there's our cultural orientation in which he is the evil one. But when you can see his point of view, then you enter into a world of horror.

In "Wendigo," even though it seems to be from the point of view of a family, I try to suggest that these city people are disconnected from certain realities. And on it goes. All these people are standing on the backs of the Indians. The reservoir that's briefly alluded to is taking over all the towns upstate in order to serve the city. So I'm talking about a constant churning, a Darwinistic reality in which there are winners and losers. And that's a horror because it's an indifferent reality.

That's so purely pessimistic. Do you think you're reflecting our world and lives today?

I found 9/11 to deeply undermine my agenda, which was to remind people that the world was not roses and cream. I felt that horror had a purpose to do that. The fact is that horror came home to the nation, and now they don't need reminding. It's a reality. But believe me, when you had a decade of merriment, there was an urgency to make people aware that there's scary things out there. It actually changed.

So horror films for you don't serve any other purpose, a purely entertaining or even a somewhat cathartic purpose?

I think horror films are pretty bleak and they deal with bleak issues. I mean, you're wondering: Why all this darkness? Give us some other tonality. That's fair. I think one reason one is preoccupied with the dark side is because you yearn for the light side to have a chance. You want people to wake up and embrace life and celebrate small treasures and not be so brutal. I think it comes from a tremendous sentimentality almost, to really insist that people see this. My films are openly sad. They're really about loss, and I think when you have horror without sadness, that's where you have just mere exploitation, where the audience is invited to see other people suffer. Whereas I'm trying to get you to know the characters so that when they encounter hardships, you really experience it and you try to see or understand what is brutal in the world. I'm saying all of that could lead to a greater cherishing of the good things.

Maybe you'll make a lighter movie one of these days, a comedy?

Sure, I'm not all that committed to the genre. The dark side will always be there, though, even if I make a comedy. Something like the films of Jacques Tati, or I love Wes Anderson's movies. They're very whimsical, there's also a melancholy to them. It's not all about laughing, it's about enjoying the bittersweetness. Every time, I end up with a little pang of melancholy. It seems like Mel Brooks thinks that everything's a hoot, but I think inside there's a certain pain and substance. It's all a matter of how we want to portray our pain.

How about a Mel Brooks horror flick?

What about "Spaceballs"? C'mon now, Mel. That was pretty horrific.

Dimitra Kessenides

Dimitra Kessenides is a New York writer and a senior editor at JD Jungle magazine.

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