Blackout (2023) at Fantasia 

 Blackout has its world première at Fantasia 2023

  When, in an open field under a blood moon, a couple making the beast with two backs is murdered by someone – or something – with animalistic brutality, suspicion falls on the sole eyewitness to the killing, the migrant worker Miguel (Rigo Garay), who claims the perpetrator was an hombre lobo, or ‘man wolf’. A much more obvious candidate for the killer is local painter Charley Barrett (Alex Hurt), who, immediately after the incident, disappeared from Talbot Falls for an entire month, leaving his restaurateur girlfriend Sharon (Addison Timlin) behind without word – but Charley has the advantage of being white, at a time when Sharon’s father, the land developer Hammond (Marshall Bell), is cynically stirring up racial divisions in the populace to create a powerbase for himself, and is all too happy to make a scapegoat of an outsider like Miguel.

Now Charley is back in Talbot Falls, with a list of tasks that he wishes to complete during the day before finally meeting with his good friend Earl (Motell Gyn Foster), to whom he says over the phone ominously: “This is it, man, I hope you’re ready.” First he visits Hammond at a resort’s construction site, trying to convince his former boss to stop writing op-eds in the local paper that falsely accuse Miguel; then he asks the lawyer Kate (Barbara Crampton) to look into some filed papers from his deceased father that might incriminate Hammond in corrupt dealings and business malpractice; and he visits Sharon for one last time, knowing and accepting that she is now with someone else (Joe Swanberg). Like someone with a terminal illness, or like the suicidal protagonists in Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (Le Feu Follet, 1963), Sono Sion’s The Room (Heya, 1992) or Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st (2011), Charley has the air of a person on a farewell tour. Everyone notices. “You seem a little wounded,” Karen observes. “I know you’re hurting,” says Sharon. Even Talbot Falls’ pastor (John Speredakos) is worried about Charley. 

In fact Charley does have a condition, and euthanasia is very much on his mind. For having brought us vampirism in Habit (1995) and updated the Frankenstein myth in Depraved (2019), now stalwart writer/director/producer (and all-round godfather of indie horror) Larry Fessenden turns to a different Universal monster, the werewolf, for his own special treatment. Blackout is so-called for the empty or at best impressionistic gaps in Charley’s memory on nights when the moon is full. These might be regarded as an ambiguous space where alternative explanations become possible to supplement the narrative lacunae. As Earl puts it: “I hope you are a werewolf, and not a serial killer, because that stuff is nasty.” Really, though, Charley’s unconscious rampages unequivocally involve a monstrous metamorphosis, seen not just through his own but others’ eyes.

In fact, the subtext of Blackout is less psychological than political. Talbot Falls is a microcosm of the United (yet increasingly polarised) States. At its centre is Hammond, a corrupt, divisive property mogul who, in his readiness to demonise Mexicans, to dismiss environmental concerns, to override rules and regulations, and to co-opt armed gangs of local vigilantes, is a clear Trumpian figure, described by Charley as the “self-appointed mayor of this liberal-leaning hamlet trying to rile up the locals, turning everyone against each other.” Hammond has an open antipathy towards the town’s Hispanic sheriff Luis Sanchez (Joseph Castillo-Midyett), and intends for his own gun-toting white henchman Tom Granick (James LeGros) to replace the official lawman. And if Charley, despite having a number of personal enemies, lashes out indiscriminately in his nocturnal attacks, targeting complete strangers, ‘good Samaritans’ and even a young boy, then guns here too – a real human technology rather than a mere creation of myth – similarly have a funny way of hitting the wrong targets, be they bystanders shot accidentally, or Black people shot more on purpose. This is America.

Amid road-lining campaign banners for and against ‘Proposition 7’ (concerning the construction of Hammond’s Hilltop resort), Charley is himself, like his community, split between being a champion of the local ecosystem and a danger to the social fabric. Whether his lycanthropy is an id-like expression of his shifting artistic spirit (the beginnings of his physical transformations coincided with the moment when he abandoned landscapes and “started painting these big gestural canvases, really letting loose”), or an embodiment of wild nature getting its own back on human encroachments and savagely restoring an imbalance (in a film where hunting and logging are highlighted), or just the result of another werewolf’s bite, Charley is a tragic figure, weighed down with horror and guilt for the atrocities that, however unwittingly, he has carried out, and still trying to find a way to draw something salutary from an impossible, involuntary predicament. Still, Charley is, as Earl says, “a man that got radicalised”, lured by the injustices around him to violent, destructive action. This is an ugly picture of America at odds with itself, although as Miguel, arguably the film’s true hero, says of the place that he has made his home (and that currently is seeking to imprison or even lynch him with extreme prejudice): “It’s a tough country, but we all love it.” 

So once again, Fessenden takes very traditional horror materials, and weaves from them an utterly modern sociopolitical and ecological allegory. Here Lon Chaney Jr, who played Universal’s original Wolfman (in five films), may be duly name-checked, but this is as much for contrast as comparison. For Fessenden, as ever, takes an entirely independent route through these well-worn tropes, throwing up questions about our modern species’ connection to – and disconnection from – nature in a modern age of venality, chicanery and patriarchal greed, where senseless “combat and carnage” are in the ascendant, and a liberal, artistic outlook easily leads to despair.

Blackout comes with a strong sense of an ending. Decent, haunted Charley seems driven to carry out a plan involving apologies, amends and even corrections for past wrongs – not all his own – before facing up to an end that is very much his own. Yet the end need not be the end, as is suggested by an enigmatic, oneiric roadside coda, slightly defocussed to resemble one of Charley’s landscapes, and featuring an encounter between Charley and a second, mysterious figure played by Alex Breaux (resurrected from Fessenden’s Depraved1 I am indebted to colleague Kat Hughes for recognising the actor and the intertext), at a limbic intersection between two very different tragedies in what is now Fessenden’s own loose MonsterVerse. Meanwhile Charley’s late estranged father, a locally celebrated lawyer but “not exactly the man his reputation made him out to be”, is ‘played’ in Charley’s old family photos by William Hurt, actor Alex Hurt’s real late father – in a film full of characters with daddy issues, and dedicated to Fessenden’s own dad. Here art eerily preserves, and the d(e)ad can live on.

strap: Larry Fessenden’s werewolf allegory uses a small town to stage the polarisations dividing America from its own humanity

© Anton Bitel

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    I am indebted to colleague Kat Hughes for recognising the actor and the intertext