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A History of Werewolves and The Bloody Thrills of Fessenden’s “Blackout”

By Matt Belenky June 13, 2024 
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2023, "Blackout", Glass Eye Pix

“I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything,” posits Doctor Lloyd to a gathering of men fearing the presence of a non-human visitor among them in the The Wolf Man (1941). George Waggner’s gothic horror classic is by no means the first werewolf movie but it was Universal Pictures’ most successful one at this time and it included the version of a story–of a man who gets bitten by a wolf whilst falling for a rather pretty lady–that would get repackaged and retold for decades to come. That version would include the elements that we still associate with the werewolf genre: silver bullets, pentagrams, getting bitten in the forest, and full moon transformations. In just 70 minutes of runtime, thanks to a crafty script written by Curt Siodmak, manages to tell us about all these quirks of this half man half wolf creature and also color the story with love and lust, Russian fortune tellers, greedy men in large houses, and a mob of haters willing to kill the wolfman with rifles and unrestrained anger.

Exactly four decades later, in 1981, werewolf movies would once again hit it big—in both studio and independent productions. Was there something primal or ravenous, hiding in the woods ready to pounce, bite, and kill, that made 1981 the year of the werewolf movie? Perhaps. An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and Wolfen were those three, formidable pictures, helmed by steadyhand directors taking their fair shot at lycanthropia by way of urban unrest. Setting the pictures in London, Los Angeles (but really the countryside), and New York City, respectively, gave the small town fable an enlarged and unsettling feel that only added to this genre’s lore. Joe Dante, fresh off Piranha (1978), would once again team up with co-writer John Sayles in The Howling to give us a picture fully aware of and hanging in the shadow of prior werewolf installments. In fact, there’s even a scene where two journalist lovers watch The Wolf Man in bed. Unlike in other werewolf pictures, this one shrewdly hides (as Spielberg did in that one shark movie) the exact look of the creature, aside for “Norman Rockwell”-esque drawings until the halfway mark, by which point there are so many rich and eccentric characters that you can’t dare take your eyes off the screen. Of course, the film’s best lines went to character actor extraordinaire, Dick Miller:“We get ‘em all: sun-worshippers, moon-worshippers, Satanists. The Manson family used to hang around and shoplift. Bunch of deadbeats!” What both John Landis did in American Werewolf in London–where there’s even a British pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb”--and what Dante brought to The Howling was a healthy dose of humor and snark to a rather ominous tale. Not to mention, mesmerizing practical effects that still stand the test of time.

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1981, "An American Werewolf in London", Polygram Pictures

Fast-forward to present day, with The Company of Wolves, Bad Moon, Ginger Snaps, and a bad Wolfman remake sandwiched in between, and here lies Larry Fessenden. Sort of the Orson Welles of low-budget horror flicks for the better part of 40 years now, Fessenden’s foray into monsters (Depraved) and backwoods folklore (Wendigo) is well documented. To understand why Fessenden has never gone “mainstream” and been siphoned off into Hollywood studio fame is to understand the following scene in his breakout NYC-set vampire feature Habit (‘95). It’s a split second moment that happens early after Sam, played by Fessenden himself, leaves a Halloween party with a short haired girl he just met, played by Meredith Snaider. As Sam drunkenly stumbles into the busy New York sidewalk a man dressed as Batman, in slow-mo slowly brushes up against him and Sam perplexingly stares him down and that’s it. The scene is over and the plot rumbles on. Though that short moment is indeed a sliding doors foreshadowing of the career Fessenden could have had but luckily didn’t. He could have easily taken helm of a superhero, alien, or horror franchise of some sort on a bigger scale at any point in his career. But at what cost? Take a glimpse at his work and the answer is obvious. To play with a heftier budget would (most likely) mean a sacrifice to the artist’s image, final cut, and so forth. Can you imagine a major studio shelling out $20 million for The Last Winter, a terrific arctic thriller about how drilling could really damage the environment? Not even a cast led by Ron Perlman and Connie Britton could prevent big money heads from eliminating “messages” of that sort. 

With Blackout, Fessenden has not only directed one of the year’s best films (so far), but he has made yet another genre picture where you actually end up caring for the characters suffering the most at the wills of a familiar genre. Blackout is about Charley (played by Alex Hurt, William Hurt’s son), a freelance painter by day and a hairy and gruff looking werewolf by night, who’s making his goodbyes around this small, isolated upstate NY town before calling it quits. Those goodbyes include a horny lawyer (Kate), his ex-girlfriend (Sharon), a Mexican immigrant being falsely suspected of a string of grisly murders in the area (Miguel), and finally Charley’s friend, Earl, who he hopes will put an end to the town’s misery by way of a silver bullet. Fessenden shrewdly hides how and who exactly bit Charley until the end of the picture. As in The Howling, where the perpetrator had a knack for painting wolf-man like images, Charley’s entire occupation is dedicated to a square shaped canvas, or piece of paper. The big subplot in this picture, the thing that gives it that Fessenden touch, is that his ex’s dad (and his recently deceased father’s former business partner) is one shady real estate man who he hopes to expose. He hires Mexican immigrants, like Miguel, pays them less than other folks and then accuses him of murder. As in this year’s other eco-thriller, Evil Does Not Exist, the rich are building a resort and the optics look suspect. 

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2023, "Blackout", Glass Eye Pix

What’s fascinating about Charley’s character is that his mission is clear: to find a silver bullet that can kill him when he turns into a werewolf. Given the task, there’s almost a 25th Hour like quality to this picture, where all the people who meant so much to him in his life, including the town pastor, are seen and are spoken to. The tour may be ending, but boy was it a good ride. Where Ethan Hawke’s upstate NY pastor faced his struggles with a world on the verge of a nervous breakdown by writing his thoughts out, Charley paints and leaves such artwork behind to various interested (or not) parties, like his ex-girlfriend. The stop-motion scenes, folksy indie music, and practical effects and make-up of the werewolf, also accentuates and highlights an artist in Fessenden, unafraid to both do the things he’s good at and throw everything at the canvas. The upbeat drumming and music that follows during the tie-up in chair prep sequence towards the middle of the movie is one of the picture’s better scenes. Yet another moment showing Charley’s drive to die and pay for his sins. 

 

The choice to not give Charley any choice about his future is a bold decision. What’s even braver is to not only give the audience the thrills, bloodshed, and gore of a story told dozens of times over, but to infuse those elements with a story about a man trying to do right by his former lovers, employers, and friends. If you’ve killed a few innocent folks as a werewolf, as we learn Charley has, why not mend the suffering and corruption and do good while you can. Sharp jawed Alex Hurt, plays his character with such resolve and laconic bravado that only adds to the sense of cool and confusion riddled throughout the picture. To understand the werewolf centering the picture, for Fessenden, is to examine a town oozing with bad politics and a tendency to blame anyone but themselves. Who else to blame for the area’s killings than an outsider living among the people, as the town does with Miguel, the Mexican immigrant. This story highlights the fact that fear and hysteria can bring out the worst in men, like Hammond, and can reveal truths about people already bubbling at the surface well before any werewolf stepped foot on the premises. Charley’s fate as a werewolf mirrors that of his job as an artist, painter, and a quasi-construction worker, as he suffers at the expense of Hammond’s greedy agenda and corporate mischief. The rich get richer as the creative types and marginalized community members literally get thrown to the wolves. 

As with The Wolf Man, Blackout involves a man in love with a woman who’s seeing another guy and a mob full of people willing to join forces to hunt him down. More importantly, sooner or later, the films’ lead characters share a common realization that it’s the end of their world as they know it, and they actually feel fine. There is a bit of Lon Chaney Jr. in Hurt’s performance, an animalistic, flirt-centric quality that’s certainly present in both individuals. If prior horror craftsmen, like George Romero or John Carpenter, taught us anything, it’s that here, in this blood gushing arena, politics and environmental beliefs are ripe for exploration. The same holds true for the entirety of Larry Fessenden’s unrelenting filmography, that invites the viewer in by giving something familiar and then breaking those expectations down by giving said viewer something entirely different. To experience Blackout is to see an artist, in Fessenden, both in tune with America’s present day upheaval and capable of delivering a monster flick aware of its own lineage. That makes for a rather furry situation.

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Matt Belenky (He/Him) is a Brooklyn based lawyer, indie film producer, Alanis Morissette enthusiast, monster movie lover, and a Coen Brothers devotee. His writing has been featured in The Gutter Review, Massive Cinema, and Pittsburgh Orbit.

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