Leave it to Larry Fessenden to finally overcome the restrictions of form and content that have shackled virtually every other director who’s contributed to Fear Itself. Is there any other filmmaker working today with more experience and skill in good old-fashioned backyard filmmaking? Just a quick glance at the DVD extras on his excellent film Wendigo demonstrates his hands-on approach to filmmaking: The construction of homemade camera rigs and improvised FX are proof of his DIY approach. Like David Lynch, he’s one of the few proud “amateurs” in an industry of jaded professionals. It’s his personal touch that allows him to color outside the lines, to light and frame scenes through artistic intuition rather than industry trend. This is what distinguishes “Skin and Bones” from the previous seven episodes of Fear Itself. All of the previous installments, including Stuart Gordon’s very effective “Eater,” have a similar flat look to them, much like any quickly shot TV show. Fessenden’s, however, looks like a real movie, with careful attention to light and sound and a creative use of the frame.
Sort of a horror version of Legends of the Fall, “Skin and Bones” tells the story of a rancher, Grady (Doug Jones), who disappears with his hunting party in the mountains for 10 days. When he returns, he is alone and appears quite cadaverous—perhaps even demonic—and with an intense hunger for flesh and blood. Fessenden revisits the legend of the wendigo here again, but within a narrative more akin to the stories of Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. It’s clear that though Grady has returned in body, his spirit has been replaced by something else, something that made him eat all of the other men in his party. His wife (Molly Hagen) and his brother (John Pyper-Ferguson) both find him terrifying. But it’s not just his appearance and demeanor that frighten them—it’s his direct accusations of infidelity, jealousy and greed that stirs up the tension.
Fessenden normally writes the scripts for his own films but Skin and Bones is actually the work of AintItCoolNews writer Moriarty under his real name Drew McWeeney along with his partner Scott Swan. The pair wrote two of the best episodes of Masters of Horror for John Carpenter, “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life,” and with “Skin and Bones” they provide Fessenden with a somewhat stronger narrative structure than the director’s own scripts. The solid structure allows Fessenden to focus on the actors (who are all fantastic, especially Guillermo del Toro veteran Doug Jones) and the creation of a powerfully minimalist atmosphere. It’s a real pleasure to watch the slow, creeping camera movements amid the intricate lighting, which features shadows dancing all over the ranch from the trees blowing around outside. The approach is quite theatrical and perfect for what is really a family tragedy that happens to involve a possessed patriarch. Val Lewton would’ve been impressed with the literary ambitions within the b-horror framework.
There is one sequence in particular that sums up just how accomplished Fessenden is as a filmmaker. When his brother Rowdy bursts into his bedroom armed with a shotgun, the skin-and-bones Grady unleashes a furious explosion of repressed rage. He accuses Rowdy of betraying him his entire life, of being jealous of him and all that he possessed, including his wife, whom his brother more than coveted. The scene is well played by the actors but it’s what Fessenden does with the editing, lighting and framing that makes the scene special. As Rowdy bursts in, we are shown his point of view as it scans the room’s wreckage. The camera glides past scattered pictures on the floor of he and Grady as kids and of Grady when he was alive and well—just flashes that go by which make us feel the history behind the dialogue that will follow. But it’s the swiftness of the shot and the way the shadows dance on the photos, giving their stillness a kind of frozen life, which makes the shot resonate—mere seconds on screen that speak volumes. Hold on the shot any longer and the effect would become heavy handed and laughable; too short and it would be unintelligible and pointless. Fessenden has become so skilled at his craft that this kind of effect seems like nothing upon first glance. But in the end, everything in the episode is affected by it. “Skin and Bones” is justification for the entire Fear Itself series.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.