Larry Fessenden has co-starred in nine films between his last directorial effort, 2019’s Frankenstein riff Depraved, and his latest feature, Blackout. An elder statesman of modern low-budget horror, Fessenden keeps very busy, having produced or otherwise shepherded films by the likes of Jim Mickle, Ti West, Mickey Keating, Adam Wingard, and even Kelly Reichardt (people tend to forget that he starred in and produced her debut feature, 1994’s River of Grass). Dave Kehr once suggested that Fessenden was like “if Cassavetes had been working for Universal in the early ‘30s.” Indeed, the influence of those classic Universal monster movies coexists in fascinating tension with Fessenden’s own regional tendencies, scares and gore commingling with languid pacing and naturalistic, unaffected acting. In some ways, Blackout feels like a continuation of his 2001 film Wendigo — featuring another mythological creature — as well as 2006’s The Last Winter, in which environmental catastrophe (climate change) leads the ghosts of extinct creatures to rise up against humans. In other words, Fessenden has a lot on his mind, and while his films never devolve into simplistic metaphor-horror, he is nonetheless unafraid of loading his films up with meaning.
Curiously, Blackout reveals itself in form and ambience to have more in common with Reichardt’s First Cow or Showing Up than the next A24 effort. Here, a struggling artist named Charley (Alex Hurt) finds himself compelled to return to the small town he had previously abandoned in an effort to spare his loved ones from his lycanthropy. No spoilers here; Fessenden doesn’t play coy with whether or not Charley is actually a werewolf. He is, he knows it, and as the film begins, he is fleeing a roadside motel after waking up covered in his latest victim’s blood. Charley is determined to put things right before his next transformation, and this involves salvaging some kind of forgiveness from his estranged wife Sharon (Addison Timlin), while exposing his father-in-law’s illegal maneuvering to develop a new mountain resort. This man, local bigwig Hammond (Marshall Bell), was partners with Charley’s now-deceased father, and Charley must reckon with his own complicated feelings about his dad while battling his affliction. Meanwhile, Hammond is trying to pin a series of grisly, unsolved murders (all Charley’s handiwork) on a local Mexican man, Miguel (Rigo Garay). It’s unclear if Hammond is simply racist or, as Miguel suggests, has targeted him for daring to organize the immigrant labor that has been tapped to build the resort. It’s a complicated web, with Fessenden treating this small town as a kind of microcosm for America as a whole. Racism rules the day, of course, while unfettered capitalism paves over everything in its path. In a sense, Charley’s status as an outsider — a literal monster — makes him the perfect candidate to tackle these endemic hypocrisies. He has no place in this society one way or the other, and so feels compelled to burn it down before he takes his own life.
Even at a relatively brief 107 minutes, Fessenden’s insistence on following multiple characters through various narrative strands makes for an occasionally shaggy structure. The story frequently stops in its tracks to allow a couple of local cops to talk shop while investigating Charley’s murder spree, while lots of secondary characters (played by the likes of Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros, Joe Swanberg, and Barbara Crampton) get their small moments to sketch in colorful locals (less successful are a couple of dimwitted yokels who are determined to catch Miguel and seem beamed in from a much dumber movie). But Fessenden is a fine filmmaker, and the loose vibes of the film seem wholly intentional — the hand-made, rough-around-the-edges quality is surely a feature, not a bug. But this is also an unabashed genre film, and the movie snaps into place whenever Charley transforms and goes on the hunt. To that end, Blackout doesn’t skimp on the horror goods; there are plenty of maulings and eviscerations on display. But it all hangs on Hurt’s performance, who brings a real physicality to the role. The makeup effects are cheap but highly effective, and, most importantly, allow Hurt’s facial features and movements to remain crystal clear. There’s no CGI overkill, just skillful makeup applications and Hurt’s own gestures to sell the change from man to beast (the first time we see him change, stuck behind the wheel of a speeding car, is an absolute masterclass in editing). Fessenden is also smart enough to allow Charley to be kind of an asshole, refusing to romanticize his bohemian-artist lifestyle or sugarcoat his copious drinking. Charley is filled with guilt, and fancies himself a kind of white savior, but Blackout takes care to suggest that he’s part of the problem, not the solution.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 3.