Larry Fessenden loves horror movies. As a director he has brought his own unique approach to the classic horror stories and conventions in such films as Habit, Wendigo, and his animist ghost story / environmental thriller The Last Winter. Through his production company Glass Eye Pix his has produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichert’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, and the recent documentary Birth of the Living Dead, a tribute to one of the holy grails of modern horror.
Apart from an episode of the horror TV series Fear Itself, Fessenden hasn’t directed a film since the 2004 The Last Winter, an eco-twist on the ghost story in the culture of big oil, so the arrival of Beneath, about a group of teenagers, a rowboat in the middle of a lake, and a giant, hungry, man-eating catfish looking for its next meal, is reason to celebrate. It begins as a classic tale of teens behaving badly, and more importantly stupidly, but what first appears to be a lazy set-up to stake out its victims for the movie menace turns out to be an insidious insight to the true nature of its characters and the basis for the real conflict of the film. It’s a smart, savage film that plays with the familiar conventions and then twists a knife in them, and it’s all done with a small cast, a confined space, and a script that reveals the worst in humanity.
While it received a brief theatrical release, Beneath was actually financed by and produced for Chiller, the cable horror channel sibling to SyFy. You say you’ve never heard of Chiller? Yeah, that’s the problem. The film just hasn’t been seen by many folks. Now that it is available on digital and VOD platforms and this week arrives on Blu-ray and DVD, I hope more people have an opportunity to discover one of the most surprising and insidiously clever monster movies of the last year. On the occasion of the disc release, I had a chance to speak with Fessenden about his career as a director, his love of old-school special effects, the real horror of Beneath, and of course what he’s been watching.
I have a 14-year-old kid who loves movies so we watch a little of the old and a little of the new. We’ve seen all the Oscar stuff and we also watch movies from the seventies and I get him up to speed on Scorsese and Polanski and the heroes of my youth. Oddly enough he doesn’t care for horror so we don’t watch those except for the occasional time. Myself, there’s only so much time in the day so I’m more going on the journey with him. But recent films: Let the Right One In, District 9, The Mist. Those are all a little old but they are recent favorites.
And genre films too. When you are watching for yourself, are you going back to horror films?
Oh yeah, I’m pretty entrenched in genre movies. I grew up watching the old Universal films and it’s fun to watch some of these things again—and again and again—because they really are iconic. The imagery is truly… it’s what I grew up on and it’s interesting to watch them now as you’re older and try to understand what struck you, because of course we’ve become more sophisticated so the images don’t have the same impact, but they do have a strange quality. I love, for example, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, such a strange, beautiful creature design there. I like all kinds of movies.
What inspired you to take on the classic horror movie themes in a series of movies that turns the stories inside-out?
It’s exactly just what I was describing. I grew up on the old Universal films with Frankenstein played by Karloff or Dracula played by Lugosi and obviously then came the Hammer films and whatever, these were the movies you saw on TV when you were a kid in the seventies. But then I also became incredibly turned on by the cinema of Scorsese, these more realistic portraits of people’s psychology and the violence became more visceral and I wanted, in my own mind, to revisit the movies that I loved so much, like Dracula, and put this modern seventies spin on it. And that’s really the alchemy that created my whole body of work, to create contemporary horrors, whether it’s global warming or addiction, and talk about them within the tropes of old horror movies. So my movies are this strange hybrid of these two sensibilities that I’ve always had.
Where does Beneath fit in your filmography. Is this your Creature From the Black Lagoon or your Jaws?
It’s more your Jaws. And I joke that it’s not Jaws because the kids are despicable, or at least they are very flawed. They’re not heroes, whereas you love the characters in Jaws, each for their own reasons, these three working class guys fighting an unknowable evil which the shark is, clearly just a terrifying eating machine, as Hooper says. Whereas in Beneath I try to play with that and suggest that the kids not being able to get along is really the horror in the film and that we’re all – my major theme in all my movies – is we’re all alone with our viewpoint and it’s very hard to communicate. That became the focus, and in some strange way the fish isn’t so evil – it’s a menace of course, like fate itself is out there, causing problems – but in life you have to deal with what is dealt you and you can’t call that evil. It’s how you respond that becomes the measure as a man. So that’s how I look at this as sort of a revisionist Jaws movie, by turning the tables. And it’s not a movie in which your catharsis is going to be the killing of the monster. In fact, you may not have a catharsis.
I was thinking about that myself. I watched the Shout Factory Blu-ray and I watched the “making of” feature as well. I love that you started the behind-the-scenes piece with the creation of the fish. I love old school effects like that and that was a terrific creature, a solid, physical thing that got to interact with the performers. I love that because so much of TV horror and sci-fi effects are done with CGI.
I know, and they think they’re giving kids what they want, which is a more realistic creature, but in the end it never feels like it’s part of the scene unless you have one of the real masters doing it, like Peter Jackson. That was one of the things I told Chiller, I said, ‘Guy’s, let’s do this as a practical creature. That’s what I grew up on, monster suits and the big fish from Jaws, and that’s really how this will be fun and let’s have this be a throwback. We’re not trying to terrify with the fish.’ The script that I was given already had this entire notion about the kids being the source of the angst and the horror in the movie and I said, ‘Let’s have the fish be something that’s a real pleasure to watch even if it’s just listing to port, as it were.’ That’s part of the charm of this kind of movie.
Frankly speaking, the first 30 minutes are full of kids making stupid decision and acting like children just so the script can strand them in the middle of the lake. It was in the last half in the film that I realized that these actions actually spoke to who the characters were. Why would Johnny bring his friends to a place where he knows, or at least fears, a monster fish lives? Maybe because he really doesn’t like them all that much and might want to get rid of some of them, like the jock who is dating the girl he wants
Exactly. And maybe he envisioned himself somehow being a hero. He tries to give her the tooth, whether it works or not you never know. But that’s what I wanted, a movie that had all of those touchstones from a classic, clichéd horror film. Like the magic tooth. Is that really going to save you? Well, if you track it, it does, because Johnny has it on when he swims to shore, and then she wears it at one point and the fish passes her by. But is that really what we’re saying? Not really, it’s not a plot point, it’s just a strange coincidence and in a way I like to play on that. As for the stupidity of these kids, I’m sorry to say but I ask you to watch the news any day of the week and tell me that we’re not living in a world of absolute buffoons and jackasses and a lot of those people are controlling the country and they have no idea what they’re doing. So I’m sorry to say, this is my glimpse of humanity. There’s a menace out there that is facing all of humanity and we’re doing nothing about it. We’re arguing with ourselves based on petty grievances and to me this is exactly how humanity functions. And if you’re frustrated, I should have a little flyer in the disc case that says “Write your congressman because this is how congress behaves.” A bunch of fucking jackasses making stupid choices for no reason but their own selfishness. And that’s why, in my own way, when I read the script, I thought, I want to make this film. It’s a satire of humanity. I don’t know that everybody gets that, they think they’re watching a nice little genre film, but of course being genre, people always do stupid things.
There is that. And as the film went on, I found that these stupid actions were actually defining parts of the characters, revelations of who they really were. Like the two athletes who keep attacking the fish. All they want to do is hit it and of course they destroy their oars in the process. It is a stupid thing to do, but as you get to know them, it really is part of their personality.
One of them is probably a simpleton who feels threatened by his brother and the other is almost wicked—well, he is by the end—and you realize that these kids have all these resentments. And you get to the end, which we don’t have to be explicit about, but there’s another character that explicitly voices his grievances toward these kids and you just realize that life is a series of people banking their resentments and if you get into trouble and you need each other’s help, it’s scary that they might not offer it because they are so mad at you over something. You realize that people do not behave rationally, they don’t behave like the heroes in the movies, they just amass grievances and it can actually be the thing that undoes them. That’s my point, you know. We’ve all got to grow up. These kids are not grown up.
I was thinking Glengary Glen Ross in a boat surrounded by a killer fish.
Exactly. Take your pick, Lord of the Flies. The other thing is, I like what you said about Johnny. And I don’t think that anyone is going to give this movie much thought once it’s over but I plant, early on, you see that he’s almost a Goth kind of an artist, alone in his room with his strange little monster figures, and the question is, is he one of these scary Goth kids who has a grand design of how that day is going to go? So I wanted to plant a seed of doubt. Of course the actor is so charming that you don’t believe that about him, but that seed is there. And in the very end somebody says, “Did Johnny plan all this?” So I like playing with those clichés but none of them are lived out because I’m not explicitly saying that’s the plot. But that’s the essence of these characters. They do stuff subconsciously that they don’t even know. Why did he bring those kids out there? What did he think was going to happen?
By the end of the film, I was really caught up in how you had brought out all of this anger and resentment and jealousy. At a certain point I had to wonder, just how could they have put on a front of friendship this long?
I know, but look at the bullying that goes on. Not that this is some sort of preachy film, of course, but look at the bullying where people are driven to suicide. I’m not saying every kid is evil, but there is the potential. I’m not sure how to fix it but I’m not going to sugarcoat it so the movie seems more palatable. I think that’s what the movie is about. That’s the horror. The fish is just a sweet old little fishy-fish.
It’s almost like the fish brought out by their own behavior, like the fish is the physical manifestation of the monster inside them. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Which is a classic horror trope, of course.
I would like a movie that allows for all that interpretation and I would also like viewers to ask this question: Just because you have an initial frustration with a movie, don’t just assume that you’re superior and that the filmmaker has nothing to say. Maybe you have to reexamine what you have just seen. That’s my retort to these knee-jerk silly reviews that say things like, ‘The fish looks fake.’
Beneath is available on Digital and VOD platforms and available this week on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout Factory.