Dir: Larry Fessenden
Glass Eye Pix, US, 1995
Starring: Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider, Aaron Beall
“Actually, I’m committing suicide on the instalment plan.”
If you haven’t heard Larry Fessenden’s name, it’s pretty likely you’ve seen his face; the king of the horror cameo, Fessenden has popped up in everything from Session 9 to The Strain, via You’re Next, the American remake of We Are What We Are and a frankly surreal appearance in Jodie Foster starring vigilante film The Brave One. Recently, Fessenden has taken meatier acting roles in I Sell the Dead, We Are Still Here and Pod, which is currently showing on the horror festival circuit. As a producer – and head honcho at independent powerhouse Glass Eye Pix – Fessenden has been responsible for nurturing some of the finest modern writers and directors of genre films, including Ti West, Jim Mickle, Nick Damici and Glenn McQuaid. For the last five years, Fessenden and McQuaid have also been single-handedly reviving the lost art of the radio play with Tales From Beyond the Pale, an auditory horror experience like no other. With so many projects moving at once, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Fessenden is also the talented writer-director of several feature films, including No Telling, Wendigo, The Last Winter and Beneath, all of which have their individual charms and interesting social commentary to make. But in a career full of achievements spanning over thirty-five years, 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of Fessenden’s stand-out film: the haunting vampire opus Habit.
Sam (Fessenden) is a spiralling alcoholic New Yorker. Still recovering from the shock of his father’s sudden death and in the midst of a break-up from long-term girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury), Sam is looking forward to the freedom of single life: to be able to do (i.e. drink) what he wants, when he wants. He is, in his own words, “committing suicide on the instalment plan.” While he has friends, – chiefly Nick (Aaron Beall) and Rae (Patricia Coleman) – they are not exactly approving of his self-destructive behaviour. That’s when he meets Anna (Meredith Snaider) at a Halloween party, a mysterious and alluring woman who may or may not be a vampire. Sam and Anna embark on a fairly unorthodox union; he never sees her in daylight, and she is prone to biting during their aggressive sexual encounters. All of this seems very acceptable to Sam: a passionate, exciting relationship that comes without the bonds of commitment. But then he starts to fall dangerously ill, and Sam wonders if Anna’s love might come at a hidden cost.
Written, directed and edited by Fessenden, Habit is a truly sad, mesmerising and ultimately brilliant film about addiction, urban alienation and, yes, vampirism. But despite its inherent genre trappings, a documentary aesthetic – reminiscent of George A. Romero’s Martin – lends Habit a certain sense of realism. This is a beautiful if depressing snapshot of New York in the mid-1990s; a place where anything seems possible, but it is all too easy to get lost amongst the neon and noise. The film’s naturalism only renders its artistic flourishes more effective; Fessenden often cuts away from his characters, laying the soundtrack of their poignant dialogue over a montage of New York’s late-night city streets. And when the film does become truly surreal, – such as a scene that may or may not be a dream sequence in which Anna, withered and rotting, visits Sam in the middle of a fitful sleep – Habit’s grainy, choppily edited style only renders these moments all the more terrifying.
And Habit is terrifying. Perhaps it is not frightening in a way we might traditionally expect of a horror film – there are no jump scares here, and only a few scenes genuinely designed to shock. Instead, it is a chilling portrait of self-destruction. Fessenden’s is the stand-out performance; a realistic, unnerving portrait of a spiral into the abyss brought to life by a man who has clearly witnessed the devastating results of addiction first hand. And it is his ascent into the bottle that is really at the heart of Habit’s horror. A debate exists as to whether Anna is or is not a literal vampire but, honestly, the answer doesn’t matter; the true blood-sucker here is alcohol, a substance that slowly drains the life from Sam until he is a husk of his former self with nothing left to do but drink himself to death. Snaider’s uncaring vamp is simply along for the ride.
That is not to say that Habit doesn’t contain plenty of generic touches for the discerning fan of the vampire film; but they are subtle moments, designed to pay homage to the classics of the sub-genre. Fessenden plays with mirrors, placing them at frustrating angles so that we can never see if Anna casts a reflection; she waits at Sam’s door to be invited before she crosses the threshold into his flat; later, she won’t enter when he is cooking a meal laced heavily with garlic. One of the film’s most memorable and disquieting scenes sees Sam sitting alone, the life almost beaten out of him, licking blood from the bottom of a meat container. And the film has a body count – albeit a small one – that suggests Sam is not the only unfortunate soul who has fallen prey to Anna’s charms.
Taken as a horror film, a human drama or a complicated mixture of both, Habit is a disquieting tale of urban isolation, loss and alcohol dependency. It was clearly a story that possessed Fessenden – enough that he made the film twice. The original version of Habit was shot on video in 1982 before he chose to remake it on film in the early 1990s. It premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1995 and saw a brief theatrical release in 1997 before sadly slipping into relative obscurity in more recent years. It is now largely unknown; a truly tragic loss, as Habit is one of horror cinema’s more unique, interesting and metaphorically complex achievements and certainly one of the greatest independent genre films of the 1990s. Scream Factory will release Habit on Blu-ray later this year as part of The Larry Fessenden Collection (also including No Telling, Wendigo and The Last Winter), but sadly the release will be region locked. We can only hope that a UK distributor will follow suit; Habit is a hidden gem that deserves to rise from the grave.
– Craig Ian Mann