Year Released: 1997
It's those mundane household objects you need to watch out for, especially when stumbling home in the bleak light of day after an all night binge of booze and cheap, sloppy sex. The cold metal of the faucet chafes against your fragile skin flecked with blood, the wire coathanger which you left in the shower stall seems somehow violent, and that razor blade you left on the counter seems awfully tempting.
Larry Fessenden's Habit takes place in a world which is slightly askew -- existing in that existential zone of weeks and months after the death of a father or a recent break-up with a girlfriend whose arid relationship has been suffered through.
Those are the worst times, especially if you stay up all night like some stinking barfly drinking your troubles away. That's the plight of poor Sam, a thirtysomething East Village resident who is going through his own private meltdown.
Did I mention that Habit is a vampire film? A scary movie?
It's the perfect film for Halloween night, painted in the pumpkin oranges and coffin dust browns of the October season. If there is any hope for the independent American horror film, it lies in the hands of filmmaker Larry Fessenden.
Larry Fessenden's Habit
Sam (played by Fessenden himself) is hardly a reliable guide. From the beginning, he's out of whack, sorting through his father's papers, preparing a speech for the old man's wake. The apartment is empty, ominous yellow papers covering the bed and furniture draped under ghost white sheets.
Only the old man's photographs remain to keep Sam company -- pictures of old ruins, catacombs, churches and tombs. Their somber nature set the mood for a horror film about being alone.
Lest we should think this is one of those maligned art house films (not to say that's a bad thing, mind you), Fessenden immediately gives the film a stout kick into gear by dragging Sam into the New York City streets on Halloween night (with an almost documentary style catch-as-catch-can approach from cinematographer Frank DeMarco, picking up the macabre and mischievous details of the city).
Enter the Vampire
Sam meanders into a friend's party, hoping to cash in on the well-stocked liquor cabinet. We meet a few of the other characters, all familiar faces from the theater scene below Houston Street. (Aaron Beall, who plays Fessenden's friend, owes a lot of my friends some money -- I hope you're reading this, Aaron! Ya cheap bastid! Forgive my digression, casual readers.)
More important, Sam runs into a mysterious young woman named Anna (Meredith Snaider) who is beautiful, cryptic and alluring. Tiny, with a slight figure and a vague look of delight in her eyes, she's the perfect temptation for Sam. They're set to go out for a night on the town but Sam is so drunk that he wanders off with someone else's coat. When he attempts to return it, Anna disappears.
Throughout the film, Anna will continually pop up in unlikely places -- catching Sam by surprise during a street festival and riding with him in a creaky ferris wheel or sneaking up on him while he delivers that speech at his father's wake.
Every time they meet, they engage in bouts of carnal, frenetic lovemaking -- and Sam is turned on by the bites she's taking that draw blood. At parties, we learn, Sam used to slice open his arm to amuse his friends. The freak. He still bears the scars.
So, is this vampire sucking Sam dry? Does that explain why he's becoming so wild eyed and paranoid, locking himself in the apartment smothering the walls in cloves of garlic? Or is he merely going through some sort of self-created hell caused by personal trauma, too much booze and a clear self-destructive bent?
Habit can be read either way. However you choose to interpret the film, it's spooky. The sounds of speeding subways and locks opening suddenly become unnerving as the main character keeps looking over his shoulder. When some of his friends disappear (or die), there's a palpable sense of predatory threat created by the camera's relationship with Sam -- pursuing him throughout the film as undeterred as the mystical Anna.
The Independent Horror Film
What is it about having a low budget which complements the horror film? George Romero used it to his full advantage in his classic zombie films (and his own "is he or isn't he a vampire" project, Martin). The Blair Witch Project made the most of its video medium in this age of digital technology and documentary navel gazing which is proliferated over the web.
The lack of having a studio watching over your shoulder allows these filmmakers to indulge in personal touches and poetic flourishes, while the horror genre is a staple for moral questions and, yes, good old-fashioned entertainment.
There's no way that a studio would allow Larry Fessenden to paint so loving a portrait of street life in New York, with glimpses of friendly bodega owners, scrappy rock bands or middle aged bar denizens with faraway stares. They'd never allow Fessenden to star, with his shock of unruly hair that looks like a spider's nest egg, his gaunt and haunted face or that missing tooth -- so prominent in his smile.
Fessenden has the face of a scrapper, a romantic wiseguy -- which is perhaps why we identify with Sam as he descends into hell. He's just like you or me -- the guy we pass on the street and shoot the shit with for five minutes before going on our merry way.
Oh, sure -- every half-hour or so in this 90 minute film we get something which doesn't work. Like Romero, Fessenden loves to drive his point home so soundly that a scene will feature characters talking about the very ideas of the movie.
This is never a big deal until that eight or nine minute scene between Sam and his friend (Aaron Beall -- who still owes my friends money! Pay up, scoundrel!) where they discuss vampirism as five hundred channels on television sucking our brains dry. I've seen the flick maybe five or six times, and this is the moment where Habit always stops dead for me.
Fortunately, it is followed almost immediately by a harrowing, claustrophobic battle from one room of the apartment to another as Sam and Anna engage in -- what? Is it sex, violence, Sam fighting himself or trying to shove a stick of wood through the vamp? Whatever it was, it's done with gusto and aplomb, all shock cuts and gasps for air.
Unanswered Questions as the Key to Multiple Viewings
One final point, which for me captures the spirit of Fessenden's independence. There's a brief, fleeting scene between Sam and his best friend's wife, Rae (Heather Woodbury) at the kitchen table. Rae asks about how Sam is doing. He's noncommittal about discussing his problems and recent strung-out behavior.
As a small gesture of kindness, Sam asks Rae how she's doing. She tells him that she's going through a major decision in her life, but both the choices seem pretty disappointing. Before she can tell him what they are, the discussion is interrupted.
The topic never comes up again throughout the film. We never find out what Rae's dilemma is, though Fessenden allows us to interpret her actions, as well as her husband's and Sam's, to deduce what it might be.
This is representative of Habit as a whole -- there's a freedom for the audience to interpret the material however they choose, or even change their minds. As for whether Anna is a vampire or metaphor for Sam's troubled psyche, different viewings of the film will provoke different answers.
These unanswered questions might not satisfy the viewer who wants everything spelled out for them, a la virtually every horror movie (heck, virtually every movie, period!) coming out of Hollywood.
I cannot help but feel there is some audience out there which still likes to be challenged by going to the movies, or wants film stories to be interactive or allow them to use their own imagination to sift through the material and come up with their own deductions or solutions. Habit reminds us that if we look outside of the mainstream within the stacks of our local Blockbuster, there are still stories with the potential to provoke as well as entertain.
With this movie, Larry Fessenden emerges as one of the new indie mavericks of contemporary cinema, and the heir to genre heroes such as George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper (back when he was actually a filmmaker of note), John Carpenter (see Tobe Hooper), and David Cronenberg. Welcome to the club, Larry.
(Fessenden is currently in post-production of a new scary movie, Wendigo. For more information, check out his website at www.glasseyepix.com.)
Review published 02.23.2001.
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