Larry Fessenden has become a kind of godfather figure to those working in the indie film scene in recent years, helping young horror filmmakers get their work to the masses through his Glass Eye Pix production company and also doing extensive acting work in a variety of mumblecore and indie horror flicks. He no doubt relates to their struggles because he worked his way up from the underground by making a series of films that explore the horror genre from a distinctive, very indie viewpoint.
No Telling was Fessenden’s first feature and it applies the Frankenstein myth to some real-life concerns about science, the environment and the treatment of animals. However, it starts more like an indie relationship drama: artist Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie) agrees to a season in the country with her husband Geoffrey (Stephen Ramsey), who sets up a lab in the barn to work on a top-secret medical research project that requires animals.
Geoffrey is consumed by his work and neglected Emily draws closer to neighbor Alex (David Van Tieghem), a scientist who is trying to get pesticides out of the local farming community. As the three characters nervously circle each other, Stephen gets more reckless with his experiments and a third-act reveal of what he is really doing forces their relationships to a breaking point.
The horror crowd shouldn’t expect rock ’em, shock ’em material with No Telling as it is a quiet film that incrementally builds to its horrific final reveal. The majority of the film could be seen as a pro-animal rights treatise, as Geoffrey’s actions represent a critique of the mindset behind scientific experimentation on animals and Alex represents a symbol of revolt against big business being allowed to trample on the environment.
To Fessenden’s credit, the film never feels like a dry lecture as he invests in characterization and gets good, naturalistic performances from his cast. He also gives energy to the drama through creative camerawork, including a few carefully deployed, Raimi-esque moving shots – and creepy sound design. These two elements mesh together in a memorable way with Fessenden’s themes during an impressive scene where the three main characters get into a heated argument about experimental science as Fessenden conveys the heated emotions through jagged editing, subtly intense sound effects and quick, bold pans around the table.
The horror elements are gradually layered in, with Fessenden first evoking dread in the audience through glimpses into Geoffrey’s lab before providing a Frankenstein-inspired payoff in the film’s final reel. Those final moments evoke shock and pity in equal measure. Though the film isn’t a full-blooded horror film, his handling of these moments show the talent for horror with a personalized touch that he would develop in his subsequent films. The result probably isn’t the first Fessenden film you should see but it’s definitely of a piece with his better-known work and worth a look for fans.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title just made its debut on blu-ray as part of Scream Factory’s 4-disc The Larry Fessenden Collection. The film was shot on Super 16mm and the results do well by the format, offering a look that reflects the film’s sometimes gritty indie style. The color palette in the farm-set exteriors is quite vivid. 5.1 and 2.0 lossless stereo tracks are offered: the 5.1 track was used for this review and it’s a subtle, well-crafted surround mix that heightens the film’s unsettling atmosphere without overplaying its hand.
Plentiful extras are included on this disc, with the first being a solo commentary track by Fessenden. It’s a great track for filmmakers to hear as it offers a carefully considered scene-by-scene analysis of the work from Fessenden’s perspective. He covers his inspirations for the film, details on his cast and collaborators, practical info about how specific shots were achieved, how the production was assembled and the motivations behind his storytelling choices.
The remainder of the extras are video-based. A making-of piece runs 24 minutes: it’s really more of a behind-the-scenes piece. After an intro from Fessenden discussing his aims for the film, you see a lot of him directing on the set. As a result, you get a nice feel for how he works with his cast and handles his crew. “Archival Footage” is another 26 minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes footage that offers more of the above plus some interesting interview footage with the cast.
Elsewhere, Fessenden goes back to his beginnings with “White Trash,” a 7-minute short from 1979 that shows his teenage film work. It’s a macabre black humor piece about a killer dismembering a body, set to a newly-recorded, quirky score by Will Bates. A sizzle reel drawn from Fessenden’s 1985 to 1990 projects for Glass Eye Pix round things out: it’s a wild mix of footage from documentary and short-film projects that captures his unusual, ambitious style.