Our review of The Larry Fessenden Collection (Blu-ray), published January 15th, 2016, is also available.
Psychological horror and eroticism combust in this critically acclaimed vampire movie.
The legend of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula must rank as one of the foremost horror tales of all time. Much of the mystic vampire appeal certainly emanates from the overt sexuality of the core image of a male vampire sucking the blood of a nubile maiden. This basic theme has many adaptable elements: the transformation of innocent victims into other evil vampires, the return of the vampire to his crypt at sunrise, and the ritual death of the central vampire figure. All of this provides endless scope for suspense, supernatural eroticism, and terror.
The explicitness of the modern horror film is a product of the increasingly horrifying reality experienced by audiences in their everyday lives. Images of violence and death have so escalated that many people now watch horror films to exorcise those real images from their heads. Modern horror films make the unavoidable live violence of the streets seem unreal. Our collective fear of the unknown has taken a back seat to our collective inner fear of the known. Today's monster is more than likely to be man itself.
Within this psychological context, maverick independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden crafted a highly original modern vampire film in Habit, an overlooked 1997 tale of urban vampirism.
Facts of the Case
Looking like a cross between Saturday Night Live alumnus Jim Breuer and an aging Aerosmith roadie after one-too-many benders, writer/director/editor/star Larry Fessenden plays the alcoholic Sam, a shabby, down-on-his-luck, part-time manager of a seedy bar. As the film opens, we learn that his father has recently passed away, and his girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury), weary of Sam's dead-end drinking ways, is leaving him. Alone, drunk, and on the rebound, Sam attends a friend's Halloween costume party, where he meets a mysterious, sexy stranger named Anna (Meredith Snaider). "You're very compulsive," Anna tells Sam soon into their 'courtship'. "Actually, I'm committing suicide on the installment plan," replies Sam, with a hint of humor and glint of foreshadowing into the personal descent into madness he is about to experience. He quickly falls under her spell, intoxicated by her secretive, sexually aggressive nature. After their fierce and furious lovemaking, Sam wakes up alone with a bloody lip that refuses to heal. His health alarmingly deteriorates as their animalistic sexual encounters increase; in the throes of passion, Anna regularly bites him, drawing his blood and sucking on it. Violently sick, Sam questions his own sanity and reality itself, ultimately suspecting that Anna may be more than just a kinky paramour but actually a vampire. He calls out for help from his ex-girlfriend Liza and best friend Nick (Aaron Beall), but they cannot comprehend his plight. Nick offers this insight, a central theme of Habit: "Vampirism is everywhere. It is at the bottom of a bottle or a needle in the arm. It is five hundred channels of insipid cultural drivel…it is the insidious Faustian bargains we make every day, the little compromises that eat at our soul."
Habit is an intelligent cinematic study into the lonely feelings of being physically drained by addiction and solitary despair, exploring the urban alienation that emanates from entrapment in our own subjective little worlds. And it is a horror film, using vampirism as a metaphor for love, lust, friendship, grief, and addiction, all told within the parameters of a traditional horror story played out in a stark, naturalistic contemporary setting. Larry Fessenden successfully de-mythicizes the vampire legend while still paying homage to the basic conventions of bloodsucking lore, taking even the genre's most antiquated references (i.e. the invitation of the vampire into the house, the image of a boat bringing the vampire overseas, the elderly, aware Van Helsing character, et cetera) and meshing them with a modern sensibility, all rendered in a grimy low-budget urban atmosphere that gloriously works to elevate the material into something truly special, in a way that no hyper-stylized big-budget Hollywood production ever could.
Though his work has rarely appeared in theaters, writer/director/actor Fessenden has been making independent films for over a decade. This experience is evident in Habit, as Fessenden does an admirable job setting proper mood and stark tone, managing to make a genuinely convincing vampire movie that works on so many deeper emotional levels as you peel back the layers. Shot on the streets and real locations of New York City, Fessenden and his cinematographer Frank DeMarco create an eerie air of paranoid, unsettling menace around the unfolding psychodrama of Sam's predicament. DeMarco shot the film on 16mm stock using natural, preexisting, and other inexpensive light sources. His documentary-like cinematography is chock full of creepy, haunting imagery and foreboding nocturnal shadows, all capably filmed with a Pi-like frantic pace to capture Sam's gestating subjective anxiety. This is lean, resourceful, independent filmmaking at its finest.
Habit comes to DVD courtesy of WinStar Video. Thus, it's a Fox Lorber release, and any DVD aficionado knows what that statement necessarily entails. Right from the start, a poorly designed menu design leaves an immediate bad taste; hitting the 'menu' button only takes you to the scene index, where you then have to further navigate through these options just to get to the main menu of selections, which should be available right from the get-go. The film itself is only presented in a 1.33:1 full screen format, which will surely anger all the original aspect ratio purists (myself included) out there. The picture quality, not surprisingly, is rather poor, with just about every potential defect present and accounted for (most prominently, the abundance of grain, especially during the numerous night scenes). Rather than run through the laundry list of usual complaints and buzz words, I'll just say that watching this feels, plain and simply, like you're watching a relic of the video age. If shown just the screen and nothing more, I'd swear that I was viewing a VHS tape.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0. While merely functional, the mix is occasionally muffled, causing one to strain to hear the dialogue. I also noticed a minor, yet audible, hiss in the background at nearly all times.
In the way of extras, the DVD features an informative 25-minute making-of featurette cleverly narrated by Fessenden. This nice program briefly touches on many facets of Habit, even showing its origins as a 1980 video feature shot by Fessenden while still an undergrad at NYU. One interesting fact gleaned from this featurette was that Fessenden, rejected by all the major festivals that can break such a film and unable to secure any distribution deals, blew up the 16mm negative to 35mm, enhanced the sound, and released the film theatrically himself. He went into partnership with each individual theater it played in, securing these deals based upon the commitment to self-promote and advertise, along with the hope for good reviews. Fessenden candidly (and truthfully) states "the marketing and distribution experience made me more sympathetic to exhibitors who can't risk playing an obscure film for long. It does come down to what an audience is going to pay to see, and if Hollywood entertainments are going to erode our expectations of what a film experience can be, then all of us, like Sam in Habit, will be willingly seduced into numbness."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Habit is that special type of independent film that almost demands a Robert Rodriguez-style commentary track. I would've enjoyed hearing writer/director/editor/star Larry Fessenden share his secrets and anecdotes about the making of this minor masterpiece, in all stages and facets of its creation, through running commentary. I am most certain that he is full of interesting tales to tell about this particular production. If nothing else, I'd like to hear him explain how he shot and edited the kinetic ferris wheel sequence, a striking example of visualized mood and tone.
Additionally, the soundtrack was a bit subdued at times, making it rather difficult to make out key pieces of the conversation happening onscreen. No problem, you figure, I'll simply turn on the captioning and read what was just said…and then you hit the button on your handy remote and find out there are no subtitles or closed captioning included in this package. Little things like that, along with the fact that it is merely presented in a full screen format with only a decent transfer, unfortunately make you realize that Habit was sadly given the same shoddy, under-appreciated DVD treatment as its theatrical release received.
It would be oh so easy to criticize Fox Lorber for yet another substandard DVD transfer. Along with Disney, they are surely the current whipping boy of the industry and, in many instances this unfavorable reputation is rightly deserved. Their transfer quality here, coupled with the fact that Habit is only presented in pan & scan format, will certainly do nothing to change that perceived reputation. However, if not for a company like Fox Lorber, little films like Habit would rot away in some storage facility or closet, soon forgotten by the fickle public conscience looking for the latest fashionable cinematic flavor-of-the-month to discuss around the water cooler. Fox Lorber, in its own substandard, half-assed way, allows a potential gem like Habit to be re-discovered in the home video market, and no matter your opinion of the company, that is surely something to be applauded.
This is certainly a different kind of vampire film. If you are in the mood for something a little off the beaten path this Halloween season, Habit would play great as a double feature with George Romero's Martin, another original, gritty urban take on the vampire mythology. In a market over-saturated with numerous cookie-cutter vampire flicks, it is truly refreshing to see a subdued, cerebral take on this somewhat shopworn genre. Once Habit, with its evocative New York-style paranoia and haunting ambiguity, sinks its teeth into you, it's sure to leave a lasting psychological mark long after the disc stops spinning inside your player.
Since this is an intelligent, mature, artistically raw and utterly believable vampire film, Habit is found innocent of all charges and hereby set free to unleash its subtle addictive qualities upon the horde of clueless, unsuspecting masses, hiding under the relative safety and mediocrity of their Blade DVDs.
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• Original Theatrical Trailer
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