Indie N.Y. helmer takes 'Winter' trip to Toronto

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NEW YORK -- Among New York filmmakers, Larry Fessenden is something of an underground legend. He's been writing, producing, directing, editing and acting in independent films for over a quarter century -- films like "I Sell the Dead" and "Zombie Honeymoon," which often pile up Big Apple corpses and have titles that can belie a surprising artistic merit.

But the B-movie renaissance man may finally get his big break Sept. 11 with the premiere of his first Toronto International Film Festival entry, the existential eco-horror flick "The Last Winter."

His new film's "Alien"-style setup tracks eight men building oil drill sites in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, only to succumb to "a slow descent into an unknowable fear," climaxing with a showdown between the group's pro-oil and environmentalist leaders. In an age when "An Inconvenient Truth" is a surprise hit and filling up the gas tank can cost more than one of Fessenden's early projects, it may be the right horror film at the right time.

It's also a milestone for this native New Yorker from the Lower East Side, but it's far from his first shot at a breakthrough hit. He's probably best known for the 1997 vampire flick "Habit," part of a "philosophical horror film trilogy" including 1991's "No Telling" and 2001's "Wendigo" made through his production company, Glass Eye Pix. "Habit" earned him the Independent Spirit Awards' "Someone to Watch" honor, though not as many have been watching his films as he'd like.

"I've tried to sell out," he laughs. "I've had meetings with the Weinsteins. I wanted to make 'Werewolf by Night,' a comic I read as a kid and I still covet. But sometimes these executives laugh at me and say, 'We've read your interviews. What are you doing here?'"

Such interviews include quotes like this one: "I really am intrigued by this metaphysical reality that exists in our lives and how the mythology exists in the basic stories of our lives." And his movies often say more about what's going on in the characters' minds than the evil lurking in the dark.

"My films tend to always tread the line between what's real and what's imagined," he says. "In 'Habit,' the guy believes his girlfriend is a vampire, but it could be that he's just a delusional alcoholic."

Fessenden has received many critical accolades. But while working in horror has helped him earn money, it hasn't always earned him the respect of the art house crowd. "I've never kissed the Sundance ring," he says, though he's been submitting films there for more than a decade. "Toronto is the biggest festival I've ever been accepted into, by far."

On the acting front, Fessenden's own facade has had the same effect. "I was mugged in 1984 in Brooklyn and had my tooth kicked out, so all the casting agents think of me when they need to hire a ne'er-do-well," he laughs.

It's made him the go-to guy for seedy roles since his debut as Man Who Looks Through Trash in 1980's "White Trash," or recent parts like Junkie and Inmate. "And dose were da res-pec-ta-ble pic-chas!" he says, in a Jimmy Durante-esque voice he sometimes slips into.

Since beating up Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" last year, he's wrapped Neil Jordan's "The Brave One." "I play a guy killing my wife, and then I spend a day playing a corpse for Terrence Howard to pick over. It was great!" he says.

All this bloodshed has helped pay for Fessenden's upstate country home and paved the way to his artistic freedom. "I have a great passion for the idea of the singular voice, the individual artist, and that's why I'm still in New York," he says. "I want to play the game on my own terms."
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