Monster stories, creature features, if you will, generally are tales of outsiders. Dracula is but a lone survivor of a people trying to rekindle his species, Frankenstein’s creation is but a homemade newborn trying to find a place in a world not built for him, and there are ways in which to interpret the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and many others as allegories for other issues of social exclusion or biological concern. It’s perhaps why the ending of Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) amused and touched me so much as a child as each of the so-called monsters were revealed to be people with various medical conditions, the misunderstanding of which or ignorance of created fear rather than compassion. In his latest project, writer/director Larry Fessenden (Habit/Depraved) uses the wolfman as a vehicle to explore interpersonal relationships, social exclusion, ecological fallout, and the pursuit of capitalistic gains over human compassion.
In just a few months, Charley’s (Alex Hunt) life has managed to spiral out of control. Beginning with the death of his father, then he and his longtime girlfriend Sharon (Addison Timlin) started having trouble, and now there are murders taking place across the last three months that have placed his friend, Miguel (Rigo Garay), in the cross-hairs. Some are coincidence and some are the result of xenophobia, but Charley holds a strong belief that much of what’s happened isn’t just the result of corruption left to rot his town, but the work of a werewolf and it is he.
Fear is at the heart of Blackout. As a creature feature, there’s slashing and tearing with plenty of red crimson splashing the screen, something which will delight midnight movie fans. Each scene is executed via practical applications and makeup that harken back to the days before CG, where the illusion between reality and fantasy blurred, each gushing pump seemingly bringing with it the ending of a life. From the opening of the film to its challenging climax, horror fans desiring that most precious life blood will get their fill. However, the killings, disquieting as they may be to the viewer in presentation, are not what pump through the film, nor are they the main feature. They are merely a blood offering to amplify the terror and anchor the film within the horror genre. The werewolf isn’t the thing, in ideation or physical construct, which drives Blackout. It’s fear — fear of being a killer, fear of the unknown, fear of clear communication, fear of taking responsibility. Some of this fear is manufactured, purposefully and specifically, by characters in order to take advantage of it. Some of this fear is coopted in order to give characters permission to be their worst selves. Some of it is fear of shedding their public self in private, sharing of themselves with another in order to become the being they’re meant to be. My favorite fear being whether or not Charley really is a werewolf or has he experienced a psychotic break wherein even we see him as a beast and no longer a man. That’s a fear that truly chills and the execution of the confirmation holds nothing back. In this way, Fessenden’s writing seeks to eviscerate more than tender flesh, but also the ideas that make man the worst villain to himself and others.
Well into the film a character brings up the German word “umwelt,” explaining it as a perception bubble that all living things live within. In their words, animals can’t exist in a world of morals because animals only have their perception to drive them, a notion that separates humankind as our umwelt employs a social contract where right and wrong, good and evil, are defined and enforced (one way or another). In a way, this conversation brings a little philosophical weight to the narrative, itself lean and focused on keeping us mostly confined to Charley’s fairly isolated existence. Are the people of the town acting out of their own umwelt, therefore free of the social constraints that bind humanity, or is their fear permeating their perception, thereby weakening their moral constitution and making them susceptible to the will of terrible people?
If you’re unaware, this isn’t Fessenden’s first foray into horror-as-metaphor as his 1995 project Habit explored addiction through a vampiric lens and his 2019 project Depraved examined untreated trauma through a reworking of Frankenstein. Additionally, Blackout has its roots in an audio story from the audio podcast series Tales from Beyond the Pale that Fessenden co-created/produced with Glenn McQuaid until December 2020. Currently, the audio version of Blackout is listed as “coming soon” on the site and it’s unclear when or if it will release, based on the posted information. (Fans of the audio series will be delighted that there’s a near-exact callback image in the film to the audio story’s poster.) That stated, Blackout does include several Fessenden past-collaborators such as Timlin (Depraved), Barbara Crampton (Jakob’s Wife), James Le Gros (Stray Bullets), and Alex Breaux (Depraved). This translates to a film that’s already small in its execution feeling even more intimate. There’s comfort among the cast, coming across as familiarity in the performances — a necessity when trying to tell a small-town horror story in which everyone knows everyone and just about all of their secrets.
In keeping things as spoiler-free as possible, allow me to compliment Fessenden in marrying the expected with the modern in telling a werewolf story that’s more than just transformation, murder, and regret. He uses all of this to shift Blackout so that it’s also a story of the ways in which we allow ourselves to be manipulated by fear. How it doesn’t matter if you come from a liberal state like New York, in which the film is set, or a conservative one, if someone can tap that primal part of yourself, to work you into a frenzy, it matters not if one is man, beast, or something in between. Blood can flow. Though the film can be viewed as an ensemble piece, Hurt (Foxhole) as Charley is the anchor and it’s a performance that deserves being incorporated with other tortured protagonists whose choices don’t always go as planned and can’t be saved by good intentions. It’s a soulful performance that makes the project as a whole worth experiencing. So even when there are small, persistent items that stand out as, perhaps, too rushed to be considered realistic or so far into the supernatural as to detract from the stalwart anchors set, one lets them go as Charley’s pain and fear push us onward.
Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.