Apart from an episode of the horror TV series Fear Itself, Fessenden hasn’t directed a film since the 2004 The Last Winter, an eco-twist on the ghost story in the culture of big oil, so the arrival of Beneath, about a group of teenagers, a rowboat in the middle of a lake, and a giant, hungry, man-eating catfish looking for its next meal, is reason to celebrate. It begins as a classic tale of teens behaving badly, and more importantly stupidly, but what first appears to be a lazy set-up to stake out its victims for the movie menace turns out to be an insidious insight to the true nature of its characters and the basis for the real conflict of the film. It’s a smart, savage film that plays with the familiar conventions and then twists a knife in them, and it’s all done with a small cast, a confined space, and a script that reveals the worst in humanity.
While it received a brief theatrical release, Beneath was actually financed by and produced for Chiller, the cable horror channel sibling to SyFy. You say you’ve never heard of Chiller? Yeah, that’s the problem. The film just hasn’t been seen by many folks. Now that it is available on digital and VOD platforms and this week arrives on Blu-ray and DVD, I hope more people have an opportunity to discover one of the most surprising and insidiously clever monster movies of the last year. On the occasion of the disc release, I had a chance to speak with Fessenden about his career as a director, his love of old-school special effects, the real horror of Beneath, and of course what he’s been watching.I have a 14-year-old kid who loves movies so we watch a little of the old and a little of the new. We’ve seen all the Oscar stuff and we also watch movies from the seventies and I get him up to speed on Scorsese and Polanski and the heroes of my youth. Oddly enough he doesn’t care for horror so we don’t watch those except for the occasional time. Myself, there’s only so much time in the day so I’m more going on the journey with him. But recent films: Let the Right One In, District 9, The Mist. Those are all a little old but they are recent favorites.
And genre films too. When you are watching for yourself, are you going back to horror films?
Oh yeah, I’m pretty entrenched in genre movies. I grew up watching the old Universal films and it’s fun to watch some of these things again—and again and again—because they really are iconic. The imagery is truly… it’s what I grew up on and it’s interesting to watch them now as you’re older and try to understand what struck you, because of course we’ve become more sophisticated so the images don’t have the same impact, but they do have a strange quality. I love, for example, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, such a strange, beautiful creature design there. I like all kinds of movies.
What inspired you to take on the classic horror movie themes in a series of movies that turns the stories inside-out?
It’s exactly just what I was describing. I grew up on the old Universal films with Frankenstein played by Karloff or Dracula played by Lugosi and obviously then came the Hammer films and whatever, these were the movies you saw on TV when you were a kid in the seventies. But then I also became incredibly turned on by the cinema of Scorsese, these more realistic portraits of people’s psychology and the violence became more visceral and I wanted, in my own mind, to revisit the movies that I loved so much, like Dracula, and put this modern seventies spin on it.