The ABCs of Death 2: Larry Fessenden on His Monster Agenda
Now that The ABCs of Death 2 is available on VOD, you may very well know which director directed which letter. Just in case you’re still playing the letter guessing game, I kept my interview with Larry Fessenden vague about where his short falls in the aftermath. 26 directors directed a horror short based on a letter of the alphabet and Fessenden’s deals with a couple meeting up for a Halloween party, the Halloween parade and a dangerous taxi driver. At Fantastic Fest the day after the film’s premiere, I was given time with Fessenden, and we continued to talk for an hour after the interview. You’ll see where we hit it off when we started discussing the value of monsters in horror movies.
CraveOnline: Your short opens with a lot of different elements. Were you playing with the idea of misdirect?
Larry Fessenden: Yeah, I mean, I wanted to tell a story about all the little things that lead to a convergence that could be deadly, tragic and sad, all the things that I associate with horror. Not as much visceral horror as a sense of melancholy. So I wanted to put a lot of things in place, the idea of time and how the smallest prompt or delay can affect where you end up in a given day. So I had the girlfriend urging him on and then he forgets something so he goes back. Those precious 15 seconds made all the difference in this. The woman who’s driving the cab driver to move faster through the lights, he’s getting frustrated but he’s distracted. It’s just fun to try to have all those elements and build that piece.
The scariest thing to me was a taxi driver doing a crossword puzzle. That’s way worse than texting!
Exactly, exactly. They should be putting banners up about that.
How do you conceive a short differently than you would a feature?
My agenda always is to connect the audience somewhat to the characters, even if you have to do it quickly. That’s just my approach to horror so that the horror, the violence or the incident that occurs has some depth. That’s just because that’s the horror I’m speaking of, the feeling of loss that you end up with. When there’s a death, it’s not just oh, it was so gory. It’s that this changed my reality. That person is no longer with me and now I’ll have to deal with all the hauntings, the thoughts, the memories and so on. So I’m always interested in that more sweet spot of horror. I wanted to get pretty quickly to a relationship, they’re nagging at each other and then you get into the more visceral editing. I was excited to be able to work with fast cuts because in a feature I often like to slow things down, to make the audience watch a little more carefully. Here I was in a way liberated to edit quickly and see how much information you could get out of an image that lasts for a second and a half. It was fun.
A lot of your colleagues had done The ABCs of Death 1. Did you have a healthy spirit of competition, like let me show them what I can do?
There’s always that, just being out there and knowing how your comrades are doing. At the same time, I didn’t see the movie so I didn’t have to directly engage with any “oh, they did that. I’ll certainly do this.” I like to keep myself a little removed from what’s going on so I can imagine that I’m pursuing a competition with myself, like how can I get my ideas on screen in a specific way. So actually it was a bit of a shock to see the whole feature and just see what great work all these new filmmakers are doing. You can’t help but compare yourself. I try to let that just be what it was.
Did you start with the letter, or did you think of your story and then try to think of what letters might apply to it?
The way they structured it is you ask for three different letters and I did so. All the while, knowing this was the story I was going to tell. If I got the letter C, I would have called it Convergence, and if I got the letter A it would have been Accident. I was quite confident I wanted this. What I did enjoy is that when I got my letter, I thought, “I’m going to bring in this idea of the puzzle and have that be a component of it” so that the letter was actually embedded in the storytelling, and in fact was the preoccupation of a character. So it wasn’t just the punchline at the end for the audience to enjoy. It was sort of embedded in the DNA and that just seemed like a fun approach.
Did you shoot in New York?
In New York on Halloween and the surrounding days of course. That was part of my agenda to shoot on Halloween and to film the real goings on. There are at least three or four shots that are from the day itself. Obviously, I staged some of the costumes but other ones were from that moment. I asked J.T. Petty to show up as the mother from Psycho.
Is there a deeper meaning to why the first characters chose the Karloff Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein as their costumes?
I think one of the things in play here is a kind of nostalgia for or an observation that there’s the horror that we create in our entertainments. Everyone loves to be dressed like demons and so on, but the reality is that there are real demons at play. Whether you’re attributing these accidents to a real guiding hand of a higher spirit or not, it doesn’t matter. The fact is we’re all engaged in this game of fate. So we can celebrate horror, like there’s also the murderers from You’re Next is in there. There’s just a generic demon. There’s witches. There’s the devil himself and then the little girl is dressed as Death. I’m just saying we surround ourselves with horror images, our entertainments are filled with violence and so on, and yet there’s the real thing. There’s always that juxtaposition. I’m fascinated by that because we’re in our business and you realize how vital our horror images are and yet how they don’t really compare to the real experience in the end.
So the animal masks from You’re Next are in there?
Yeah, there’s just a brief shot of three kids in these generic white masks. One of them was my crew gift so that’s technically from the shoot. That’s just a tribute.
The monsters I grew up with were Freddy and Jason and Chucky, and a little later the Alien and Predator. As I got older I thought about why we need these monsters, because they’re something for us to overcome. In most of the slasher movies, the tough guy usually can’t face the monster. It’s usually the shy girl nobody ever thought of who’s the final girl and that’s a really powerful message. Is that what they were dealing with when they created the Universal monsters, or even when Mary Shelley created Frankenstein?
Oh definitely, especially what you’re saying. For example, Halloween, of course Jamie Lee Curtis, she’s sort of a goody two shoes for one thing. And yet she survives because of her resourcefulness and that’s very empowering. For women, but basically she represents all of us who are trying to deal with this tremendous adversity. The thing about Frankenstein though is it’s a bigger parable about science and human hubris. What I love about those monsters is there’s two things in play. One is that the monster himself is an outsider and feels lost, which we all feel, especially as teenagers. So there’s that, but then he’s also the threat and the result of this sort of trying to play God and all those themes that were essential, especially during Mary Shelley’s time.
I think that’s why when I was younger, I related to the killers. I felt like the answer, and maybe I was a little smartass to root for the killer too. Now that I’m older and have lived some life, I watch these movies and they still work for me, and that’s how I can wrap my mind around loving the evil but still wanting to see the evil ultimately defeated.
That’s such a great dichotomy that you’re experiencing as a horror fan. Freddy was a pedophile, which is unforgivable, but he was also a victim because the whole town shoved him in the oven, right?
And we learn he was abused as a child, and the circumstances of his birth are abusive.
Exactly, so there are some who would argue, and I may agree with them, that we don’t want too much psychological background with our monster because then it’s not that thing we fear. We’re actually being sympathetic, and I think Rob Zombie maybe overanalyzed for his spate of Halloween movies. But, I think that’s always a component, that there’s a justification for the evil and so you understand their plight. And then of course you’re also terrified of them.
Now, I play with that in even a film like Beneath which is a bunch of kids in a boat fighting a monster. In that, the monster is completely just doing what he does. He is, in a sense, fate. It’s really about the kids who are dicks.
And that’s definitely Alien, and Predator is a hunter so they’re a sentient society that decides to go around the universe and hunt people.
Yes, they are a little bit aggressive. [Laughs]
But there too, it’s can you measure up? There’s always going to be some predator out there. Maybe the biggest, baddest tough guy won’t survive. It’s the one who’s also smart enough.
Right, and resourceful and perhaps even the more moral person, not just responding out of machismo.
Yes, in Predator it’s definitely moral too.
That’s the thing. Look at us having this conversation. We’re talking about horror but in fact it leads ultimately to questions of philosophical depth and that’s why I love the genre. You can take any kind of horror movie, and even if the filmmakers themselves weren’t actively engaged in those ideas, they’re in the DNA of the genre because you’re dealing with good, not even evil. I hate that term, but you’re dealing with adversity, fear which is the most potent emotion, let’s be honest, and that motivates all other emotions. And then whether you do the right thing in a crisis is of course one of the main questions in life.
Maybe it’s a little self-justification that I can enjoy this creative death because that person didn’t measure up. If the martial artist in Nightmare on Elm Street 4 had more than just toughness, he could have beaten Freddy like his nerdy sister who lives through two of those movies.
Now, the horror movies that I enjoy are the ones that are unsettling because they don’t quite take you on that journey. Like The Mist, which a lot of people hate the ending of that and they felt it was a misfire. I really defend it because that is the tragedy. This guy was heroic. He kind of made the right decisions, although did he? You see people who ran screaming from the supermarket and they’re in the truck at the end. They survive. So on the one hand, you’re watching a narrative that makes sense. The guy’s heroic. He stands by his family. He’s trying to do the right thing and then in a way he screws up. You’re like ugh, so that doesn’t even matter? I think that’s why that movie’s upsetting and therefore, in my opinion, one of the great films of recent years.
I also love Halloween H20 where Jamie Lee Curtis comes back and she’s still the one strong enough to defeat Michael Myers.
One of the big questions, are you a coward or not? You’re sort of talking about that, the different levels of cowardice in horror films. Who runs? Who abandons their girlfriends? All the infighting, that’s very often what the movies are about even more than the monster.
It goes both ways. There are always some sympathetic characters who don’t make it either.
Yeah, because they’re too good or they’re weak in some way that you may find appealing. You love the guy in Alien, John Hurt. He just gets screwed and that’s an important component to show in a movie which is that arbitraryness is a component of good horror. I have it in my film. You see it often in films. It’s like why me? My answer, why not you, buddy? That’s the problem.
I guess it’s the characters who don’t sit around wondering “why me” who make it.
Exactly, because they’re not self-pitying. It really is important. It’s an endless conversation, all the ways that horrors resonate beyond just the graphic imagery which is the other thing. You can obviously discuss a lot of these things in a drama. Maybe a war film will also address the issues of cowardice and bravery and heroism, but I just want to see some monsters while I’m watching all that shit.
Have you gotten to make the monster movie you always wanted to?
It’s a great question. I’ve been really lucky to dabble with some of the iconography that I love. I did make a movie about a giant fish which was just a great pleasure since Jaws is my favorite movie. And I’ve made my vampire film, so I’ve been dabbling. Have I made my movie? No, I’m still trying. That’s what keeps me a filmmaker because it sure ain’t the good times and the money. [Laughs] It’s just this desire to quench this thirst, to take all that love I have for the old movies, quite honestly the old movies in particular, and reimagine it into something more contemporary and vital, and to say this stuff is still important and still rings true to every generation, if it’s done right. So that’s the agenda and we’ll see.