BluRay/DVD Reviews

HABIT

By • Apr 12th, 1999 •

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(Winstar) 1997
112 minutes, 1.33:1 aspect ratio

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A few years ago the publicist for this indie film sent me a packet with information and a still, and a VHS of the film. Back then, FIR was still in print, and I could have been of help to the filmmakers if I’d taken the time to watch the tape. But I was never into tape, and I didn’t get to a screening, and frankly I betrayed my own principals, which are to support the work of the underfinanced and underdistributed, to screen the little films, always hoping for a gem, never giving up, because they do exist. Michael Almereyda’s Twister, Buddy G’s American Nightmares, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (well, I did push that one, and Buddy’s too, so I feel a little better), Michael Winterbottom’s Butterfly Kiss (hey, I pushed that too; we even interviewed Amanda Plummer for the magazine). Still, I wish I’d done something about this one, because having finally caught up with it on DVD, I feel it’s possibly one of the ten best vampire films ever made, and this despite the fact that writer-director-editor-lead-actor Larry Fessenden would rather not see the film described as strictly a vampire flick, as he explains in the supplementary section on the disc.

Murnau’s Nosferatu…Katherine Bigalow’s Near Dark…Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula…Tod Browning’s Dracula (grudgingly – it’s a terrible film, but it’s important, and it’s eerie, and it’s Lugosi)…George Romero’s Martin… Herzog’s Nosferatu (actually only the English version; the German version didn’t work for me)…Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (the three hour tv presentation only; the original four hour broadcast didn’t work for me, nor did the truncated foreign theatrical version released on video)…Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (Et Mourir de Plaisir)… Habit gets placed in there somewhere, in the hierarchy of the subgenre. For some of you it might even come first. What, you disagree? How dare I even challenge Murnau’s work for first place? Hey, have you seen the original Nosferatu lately? Max Schreck is in it for about three minutes! My finger moved of its own accord, Strangelove-like, toward the fast forward button on the DVD controls. That didn’t happen to me with Habit. Did I hear someone mention Vampyr? Please! I’ve tried sitting through that one several times. I can barely stomach that liver-lipped fop who in some vague way is doing an imitation of Salvador Dali from Un Chien Andalou. I’m crazy about The Passion of Joan of Arc, think it’s one of the great films. And Day of Wrath is no slouch. But all the geniuses have stumbled at one time or another, and Dreyer’s vampire film tripped him up big time.

Fessenden is a bright guy. It comes through loud and clear in the supplementary ‘making of’ section. He originally did the film on videotape while at NYU in the early ’80s, and lets us see some clips from it. His views on the process are lucid and lofty without sounding pretentious. He takes credit for sound and picture editing, but gives Sound Design to Bill Chesley. I found both the sound design and sound editing brilliant, really some of the best I’ve seen in a long time, all the more remarkable for being in such a low budget film. They drive the narrative forward, drawing you from scene to scene and even from shot to shot, filling in the empty spaces until there aren’t any. And it makes you think. A great deal of the film made me think. It was a pleasure to find a movie so thoughtful and simultaneously passionate. It buries it’s themes deep; you have to feret them out intuitively while enjoying the narrative on a visceral level.

Fessenden stars in the film as well. Pity it’s no mainstream item like Rocky; he would have had it made and would have deserved it. There’s no role he undertook that he didn’t acquit admirably. He looks like a dissipated Tim Robbins in the film. And by the end, he looks like Tim Robbins’ animated cadaver. I was introduced to him once at a downtown invitational screening of Greg Lamberson’s Naked Fear, and he was even more wraithlike in person. His performance is always focussed, and his directoral choices of fellow cast members are mostly in line with his vision. By the 70 minute point I was praying there’d be no serious missteps in script, performance or editing, because I was loving it too much and I’ve seen third acts go too far and ruin the experience (egs. The Patriot Games, Smilla’s Sense of Snow). Thankfully this did not happen. There was one little Nosferatu reference that disrupted my involvement, but perhaps that was me. One actor was on and off, but I can live with it. And there were a few unresolved threads, but I found those liveable as well; the first cut ran 2 hours and 45 minutes, and I imagine those threads remained untied because of the judicial pruning that followed. His leading lady grew on me, and I suppose that makes sense given the addictive essence of the story. In the ‘Biographies’ section, where each performer gets a page, Meredith Snaider gets one line on another actor’s page – “This is Meredith’s first film role.” Made me laugh.

I should also mention that the end title roll was unique and compelling; I enjoyed the way he chose to acknowledge people. Much of the music was evocative. His use of real detail, pulled off the streets of NY, was seamlessly, naturalistically blended into the narrative flow. And the nude scenes, some erotic and others nightmarish, are filled with fresh flourishes. The DVD box is nice looking, and the quotes on the back, from ‘Newsday’, Roger Ebert, and ‘The Village Voice’, are so laudatory, I’m surprised the film didn’t take off. But apparently the fate of Habit didn’t deter the filmmaker: I hear that Fessenden’s new film, Wendigo, which I presume is on some level about another mythical monster – the wind demon of Canada – was shown at Slam Dance this year, and Meira Blaustein, organizer of the Woodstock Film Festival, has expressed an interest in showing it there this coming September. Can’t wait.

I’m looking through my old notebooks and amending my top ten list of 1997. Habit belonged there – it was sitting in my apartment all along, and I just hadn’t discovered it. I’m re-writing history for myself, but what else is new. That’s all anybody ever does with history, right?

P.S. Wanna double-bill this one? Want an all vampire evening? You know what might be fun – Universal’s Dracula with Phillip Glass’s recent score instead of the original empty track. I’d do Dracula first, have some laughs, have dessert, then settle down for an unsettling experience. I was actually writhing in my seat from anxiety at times during Habit.

The other choice for double-billing would be Martin, also on DVD from Anchor Bay. Romero’s anti-romantic telling of the bloodsucker legend is compatably realistic in tone with Fessenden’s, budgetarily in synch, rampant with irony, rich with ideas, and his best film. In this case order doesn’t matter; they’re both wonderful.


DVD Features:
actor biographies, ‘making of’ featurette, original theatrical trailer, and a music video “Save You From Yourself” by Just Desserts.


Credits:
Written, directed, edited, and starring Larry Fessenden.
Director of Photography Frank DeMarco.
Sound Design Bill Chesley.
Producer Dayton Taylor.

Cast:
Meredith Snaider,
Patricia Coleman,
Heather Woodbury.

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