Thursday, February 14, 2008

Movies: She's gotta habit.

Larry Fessenden seems to evoke some pretty visceral reactions. And weirdly, the love/hate demographic seems to divide neatly into IMDB/Netflix clusters. If you're on IMDB, you'll find Fessenden's 1997 vampire flick described as "an indie masterpiece" and "stunning." As for Fessenden, he "embodies much that is great about no-budget, maverick filmmaking." But, lest you think all America has fallen in love with this indie filmmaking scamp, the Netflix folks have given it an underwhelming 2 stars on average. Though many reviewers gush, those reviewers whose star-rating matches the site-average tend to drop the word "pretentious." Perhaps the most energetic suggest you "rent this DVD for the hilarious self-delusion evidenced in the 'Making of' segments." Ouch. (Double ouch because the "making of" features do suffer from this weird navel-gazing self-aggrandizing tone.)

Habit, to get everybody up to speed on the flicker in question, is a low-fi vampire flick that takes place in the somehow still un-gentrified corners of Manhattan. (Despite being filmed on location in 1997, this flick looks like it was filmed on location in 1977.) Sam, an aimless alcoholic bartender reeling from the one-two punch of the death of his father and the loss of his girlfriend, meets the sexy and intriguingly mysterious Anna at a drunken Halloween party. Increasing, Sam is drawn to Anna in a creepy, obsessive sort of way. But Anna's hunger for him seems more, um, utilitarian. Is Anna a vampire? Or has Sam well-pickled mind final given out on him? Duh, duh, dum.

A remake of a shot-on-video film school project that he once showed on a New York cable access television, Habit is an indie flick before that term encompassed such slick fare as Hard Candy. The film has the raw feel of something shot on the fly, taking advantage of what the city streets could offer by way of sets. The cast, with the exception of Anna and Sam, seems to have mostly been amigos of the director. It ain't going win any awards, but it does give the viewer the sense that all the characters are simply random New Yorkers they might run into on any given day. Whether the gains in verisimilitude outweigh the occasional pain of having to watch some really wooden acting is, I suspect, going to depend on how strongly built up your immunities are to the common failings of art house or straight to vid flicks are. I didn't mind it much, but I may be overly lenient in such matters.

All in all, Habit is a smart, innovative twist on a very established subgenre. It weaknesses are typical of the sort of small-scale flick it is and you couldn't call them unexpected. I dug it.

Which leads me to ask, why the violent split in fan opinion?

I think the problem is that Fessenden makes genre films that don't particularly appeal to fans of horror films as fans of horror films. Let me try to unpack that mess of a sentence. Whatever the stylistic concerns of his flicks, Fessenden doesn't seem particularly interested in giving genre fans the horror flick staples that so many find an important part of the genre's pleasures. He doesn't subvert genres or play with viewer expectations. That would be too gimmicky. Instead, he approaches his subjects – all horror archetypes: mad science, vampires, the werewolf, the alien/other invader – as if he were the first guy to ever do such a film. He strips them of their cinematic history, their genre trappings, and the accumulated analysis that cling to them; then he starts again with a template of his devising. With Habit it feels like he's some curious visitor from another planet where they just heard of, say, Dracula. He just doesn't feel the need to carry all the cinema baggage of an entire 70 plus years of filmic adaptation and analysis with him.

The result is a weird sort of freshness that actually levels the playing field between genre fan ad non-fan. The horror fan brings this whole context of vampire cinema to the table only to find out that Fessenden doesn't have any interest in it. What he does to Dracula in Habit is the opposite of what Craven did to slasher flicks in Scream: the film is the opposite of an in-joke and it gives you no extra points for prior knowledge.

I think this accounts for both Fessenden's draw and the reason his films kinda fail it as "horror" movies. With regards to the former, Fessenden's ability to unironically take things back to square one gives his flicks some real energy and life. He's got something of the innately talented primitivism that makes Fuller such an interesting director. With regards to the later, it separates his work from the genre and the pleasures of genre fandom in strangely uninvolved way. He's the horror director who really doesn't care about horror and, for some horror fans, this feels like some high handed intellectual put down – the same feel sci-fi fans get when some author who has clearly written book full of sci-fi tropes tells the press that they don't write sci-fi because that's for kids. In Fessenden's defense, I don't think he means to be dismissive. I think he likes the imaginative of possibilities of horror, but he's just such a singular figure that his flicks might as well their own odd little genre.


Anonymous said...

I have not seen this, but I've borrowed the DVD and have to return it someday since, uh, I've had it for at least a year, maybe two (cripes).

You know, your description of Fessenden's approach to horror seems like a more interesting suggestion to improve horror films than your recent Godzilla post.
I mean, maybe filmmakers need to approach their ideas like they've never seen a horror film before, rather than the opposite.
Well, that doesn't always apply, but sometimes current filmmakers are focused on their homages rather than telling their stories.

Although, in a way, the idea of the recent Godzilla films being separate unto themselves, eschewing previous Godzilla history, sort of falls into that line of thinking.


I guess in this case, from a horror genre perspective, Fessenden's approach is closer to exploring the dramatic aspects of a horror/fantasy situation.
If you're a horror fan looking primarily for scares, that approach does de-prioritize that, I would think. But, that's not necessarily a bad thing at all.

By coincidence, I just saw THE THIRST over the weekend (with Clare Kramer) and it tried to draw parallels with vampirism and drug addiction.
Unfortunately, I think it did so poorly.
There was a number of things I had issues with in the film, but I think it had a tough time meshing the vampire story with the addiction story. Too bad, because the idea had promise, I think.

I think if they approached it more as a drama, an addiction drama, it would have at least been more focused on its unique contribution to the vampire tale, and stronger by that, but not necessarily scarier.
It would have been more an art-house type film, I guess, than just a horror film that went straight to DVD.

I should check out HABIT now, on the heels of watching THE THIRST. If the title means as much as I think it does, it might make an appropriate double feature choice, thematically speaking.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

You could do a triple feature if you threw in Abel Ferrara's 1995 flick "The Addiction" - yet another vampire = chemical dependency themed flick.

In "Habit" the main character is boozer, to he's technically addicted. I haven't seen "The Thirst," so I can't compare - but "Habit" does not make as much out of the hooked/drug link as "The Addiction" does.

As for Fessenden's approach - I don't know how well it would work in a slasher context. I see the Fessenden slasher flick turning into something like "Waiting for Godot" meets "Dazed and Confused" meets "Halloween." It would end up being a character study of teenagers who live out their lives while they have this giant, murderous thing hanging above them. They can't control or stop it, so it would take on both an air of inevitability and kinda be ignored.

You ever read the comic "Black Hole"? I see it like that, only with slashers instead of mutation as the threat.

Or maybe we should write that up.

Anonymous said...

Maybe WE could talk about it and YOU could write it up! God, my writing blows!
My (eventual) review on THE THIRST is a total rambling trainwreck.
But, yeah, I just heard about THE ADDICTION as well.
Dammit! ANOTHER movie I should check out.

Hmmm... I guess these horror movies, character studies, social examination deals make sense if you have the right ideas in the mix.
Like, uh...
Maybe you have a summer camp full of Christians or anti-war peace-niks, and then they discover there's a maniac on the loose.
Is it morally acceptable for them to kill to defend themselves? Etc.
It sounds more like a skit or comedy, but I suppose, there's some potential for some interesting thought in there.


MEANwhile, I CONTINUE to suck... Yes, I have all 12 issues of BLACK HOLE (astounding!) but I haven't read them all (typical!). But since I've found them all after some recent housecleaning, maybe I should, you know, etc., etc.