Larry Fessenden has a long and storied history with classic monsters. Habit (1995) – probably his masterpiece – is perhaps the finest film to use vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, as a hopeless alcoholic (played by Fessenden himself) falls under the thrall of an enigmatic bloodsucker amongst the neon and noise of ’90s New York. Just a few years ago, he put his inimitable spin on Frankenstein’s monster in Depraved (2019), which deftly mixes pathos with politics in a film simultaneously about losing one’s sense of self and the irrevocably broken American healthcare system. It’s no secret that the multi-hyphenate filmmaker has long wanted to complete a monster trilogy of sorts by turning his hand to a werewolf story – a lycanthropic dream he has finally realised with Blackout, an adaptation of his Tales from Beyond the Pale episode of the same name (2019). And it was worth the wait; Fessenden’s tale of a cursed man trying to make peace with a crumbling world stands as one of the finest werewolf movies of the twenty-first century. Our Culture reviews the film here as part of its selection from the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival.
It’s clear from the very beginning of Blackout that Larry Fessenden possesses a deep love for classic werewolf movies. This is, in many senses, a fairly traditional tale of lycanthropy in the vein of The Wolf Man (1941), a film for which the filmmaker evidently has great affection; the action takes place in Talbot Falls, a small town in Upstate New York named for Lon Chaney Jr’s tragic werewolf (and Chaney Jr himself is namechecked later in the movie). There, we find artist Charley Barrett (Alex Hunt), who has contracted the werewolf’s curse before the film even begins. Struggling with his newfound affliction, reeling from his father’s death and recently separated from his partner Sharon (Addison Timlin), he has picked up an old drinking habit and is spiralling out of control. Though he keeps talking of “leaving town,” he is driven to stay by the deep injustices he sees in Talbot Falls. He is particularly enraged by Sharon’s father, Hammond (Marshall Bell), a property developer who is causing untold environmental damage and exploiting migrant workers in the process of building a luxury tourist resort. Worse, Hammond is stirring up hatred against a group of his ex-employees by suggesting that one of their number, Miguel (Rigo Garay), is likely responsible for a spate of grisly murders that have been committed in the town – murders that Charley knows that he himself is probably responsible for.
In some respects, then, Blackout feels like the meeting of The Wolf Man and Habit. The Wolf Man is, essentially, the story of a man incapable of suppressing the monster inside himself – or the “beast within,” to use a phrase often associated with werewolf fiction – and here Fessenden uses that theme to comment on the self-loathing that often comes with alcoholism (hence the film’s title). Like Sam in Fessenden’s vampire film, Charley drinks because he can’t bare the weight of a lifetime of trauma, and the symptoms of werewolfism he experiences – memory loss, fits of unbridled rage, a total lack of self control once the monster takes hold – all function as metaphors for sinking ever deeper into the bottle. And, of course, when Charley isn’t under the influence of the wolf (or, in other words, when he sobers up), he simply can’t live with the terrible things he has done.
Charley has only one outlet for his anguish: his art. Not coincidentally, that is something he has in common with Fessenden, who has always been a political filmmaker. Much like Depraved, Blackout is a very personal, intimate story – but one that also has much bigger things to say. This is not just a werewolf tale about the “beast within” but the “beast without”; after all, Charley might be disgusted with himself, but he is also deeply disgusted by all of the ugliness he sees in his community, chiefly racism, ruthless individualism, unchecked greed and a total lack of care for nature. In this regard, Blackout shares themes with several other Fessenden movies from No Telling (1991) to The Last Winter (2006), but it also draws on a particularly political strand of werewolf horror in which insatiable beasts lurk in small-town America. See Silver Bullet (1985), for example, in which a werewolf priest feeds on his flock, or Late Phases (2014) – another film produced by Fessenden’s production company, Glass Eye Pix – in which a retired veteran finds a werewolf lurking in a retirement community.
However, both Silver Bullet and Late Phases are set in essentially conservative communities; Blackout, on the other hand, takes place in an ostensibly liberal town in Upstate New York. So this is a thoroughly contemporary werewolf movie that skewers the lycanthropic nature of modern America, in which partisan politics are basically meaningless and even the “good guys” are indistinguishable from the “bad guys” beneath their masks of civility. Just as Charley turns into a ferocious beast on the three nights surrounding a full moon, it doesn’t take much for the people of Talbot Falls to start tearing each other to pieces. And Blackout makes clear that, long before a werewolf entered their midst, the members of this seemingly idyllic, liberal community have been turning a blind eye to wanton corruption, environmental devastation and worker exploitation simply because it benefits them financially.
Driven by an excellent central performance by Alex Hurt (aided by frequent Fessenden collaborators such as Barbara Crampton, Joe Swanberg, John Speredakos and James Le Gros in scene-stealing supporting roles), Blackout thus emerges as one of the most intelligent and interesting werewolf movies of the twenty-first century. It’s also a pleasingly retro one; there’s a clear love here for the wolf men of pre-1980s cinema, with Brian Spears’s special make-up effects recalling the hirsute horrors of not just The Wolf Man but Werewolf of London (1935), The Werewolf (1956) and Moon of the Wolf (1972). Not since Rick Baker’s minimalist work on Wolf (1994) has there been such a satisfying return to the classic “wolf man” look pioneered by Jack Pierce; the special effects particularly shine during the film’s all-important transformation sequence (which does not disappoint despite the film’s low budget). All in all, Fessenden’s werewolf movie was more than worth waiting for.