Habit is a crucial film in Larry Fessenden’s filmography. This hybrid of downtown NYC indie drama and vampire lore helped him make his first steps out of the underground and into the higher-visibility end of the independent film scene. It’s worth noting that Fessenden plays the film’s protagonist and is in almost every scene so one could argue his well-received work as an actor here made his subsequent acting side-career possible. It’s a typically personal and uncompromising work for this filmmaker that remains interesting for both serious indie film people and adventurous horror fans.
This film begins like many a NYC indie drama from the ‘90s: Sam (Fessenden) is a 30-something bohemian who is reeling from the recent passing of his father and the fact that his girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury) has decided to move out in protest over his hard-partying ways. He seems to hit the rebound when he meets the mysterious but alluring Anna (Meredith Snaider) at a Halloween party. The two begin a courtship that is exciting at first but soon begins to take a toll on Sam, who finds himself growing weaker as Anna become more elusive and predatory (she likes to bite him during sex). He begins to wonder if she is a vampire but must also ask himself if his own grasp on reality is slipping.
For the first 20 or 30 minutes, you could confuse Habit with a conventional indie drama: Fessenden goes for an episodic storyline with dreamy pacing and a quasi-improvisational approach to the dialogue and performances. He weaves in the vampire elements subtly and makes it possible for the viewer to interpret the film as either a psychological drama or a horror film. One could argue that with its rambling plot and loose, improvisation style, it’s also a forerunner of mumblecore cinema and thus an important influence on the mumblecore-style horrors of recent vintage.
The film’s loose structure might lose some viewers — at nearly two hours, it’s Fessenden’s longest feature — but he captures New York City’s artsy side with a lived-in sense of detail. The film is also visually impressive, with excellent handheld camera work and periodic bursts of baroque style, including a memorable nightmare sequence and a sultry love scene atop an apartment building. Most importantly, Fessenden gives a fearless performance as a man with a crumbling psyche and one-shot film actress Snaider matches him with a sly, enthralling performance as an androgynous art-scene dream girl who has a genuinely creepy dark side.
In short, Habit is a demanding but worthwhile piece of work and shows the skill for blending indie drama and horror elements that would really pay off for Fessenden in Wendigo and The Last Winter.
Blu-Ray Notes: This film was issued on blu-ray by Scream Factory as part of The Larry Fessenden collection. The new high-def transfer presents the film in its original 1.33:1 ratio and the results retain the grit of the film’s 16mm look while heightening the detail and the colors (the nightmare scene is particularly vivid in this regard). Both 5.1 and 2.0 lossless stereo tracks are included: the 5.1 track was used for this review and it’s pretty subtle but does solid work with the score and the ever-present city sounds.
Plenty of extras flesh out this disc. Fessenden kicks things off with a solo commentary track. He offers a running analysis of the story along with plentiful scene-specific tales of how he got the locations, the real life NYC characters he got into the film and the challenges in capturing (and participating in) the film’s frank sexuality. It’s great listening for indie-minded filmmakers.
A making-of piece made by Fessenden runs about 24 minutes. It’s a highly structured look at the film from all angles, covering its genesis as a student short at NYU and exploring how he sought to reinterpret the horror genre from a naturalistic viewpoint. Along the way, he shares some interesting thoughts on the film’s nude scenes, the special effects and his distribution challenges. “Save You From Yourself” is a music video for the film’s title song that mixes film clips with performance footage and is surprisingly lighthearted given the film that inspired it.
The film’s trailer is included and it’s a skillfully cut spot that plays up the film’s strong critical notices. You also get the student video project version of Habit: it runs about 18 minutes and is a raw expression of artsiness, filled with loose improvs and jagged editing. Fans will want to see it because it has a number of key moments that Fessenden would later rework for the feature version. A six-minute making-of piece is included for the short and it’s essentially a send-up of making-of docs, complete with plenty of between-takes goofing.
A few bonus projects wrap things out. “Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped” is a Fessenden-directed music video that features plenty of Universal-style Frankenstein imagery, including a little stop-motion animation. “N Is For Nexus” is a short Fessenden made for The ABC’s Of Death and it’s a taut little narrative with kinetic photography and a macabre punchline. A four-minute making of is included for “Nexus” and it’s a montage of on-set footage with plenty of the director at work.