Thursday, May 21, 1998

Positively 'Habit'-forming orgy of self destructio

Movie: Habit

Posted on Thu, May 21, 1998 at 4:00 AM

*****
Our Rating: 5.00

Last year's "In the Company of Men" shockingly demonstrated the damage the male psyche can wreak on the unsuspecting women who get in its way. In Larry Fessenden's "Habit," we're reminded that the harm that psyche can inflict on itself is just as much of a horror.

Writer/director Fessenden plays Sam, a New York restaurant manager at the end of whatever rope he may have once possessed. In the space of one year, Sam has lost his father, alienated his girlfriend and turned a propensity for tipsiness into a full-fledged love affair with the bottle.

In long-shot or in close-up, Sam is an obvious mess. Dirty, unkempt hair hangs from his head. When he eats, food falls from his mouth and onto his plate, only to be licked up with his tongue. A mugging has left him with a missing front tooth. He's so disheveled that we suspect he was never sheveled in the first place.

Still, Sam has managed to maintain a narcissism so deep that he suspects nothing when Anna (newcomer Meredith Snaider), a boyishly attractive mystery woman, all but throws herself at him during a Halloween party. The fact that Anna won't tell him where she comes from, what she does for a living, or anything of substance at all about her doesn't dull the thrill of being pursued. Soon, he and Anna have plunged headlong into a passionate liaison, 75 percent of which consists of having unprotected sex in public places. It's the perfect guy scenario. It takes a long while for Sam to realize that something's amiss.

Anna's "habit" of biting him during sex, and then drinking his blood, becomes less an amusing kink and more a cause for concern. Suddenly, he's sick all the time, he's frightened of his own shadow, and his few remaining loved ones are meeting with strange fates. Never one to take responsibility for his own misery, Sam comes up with an explanation that doesn't threaten his adolescent view of the world: Anna is a vampire, and she's taking him down the long road to hell.

Maybe she is and maybe she isn't, and maybe that isn't what this film is about, anyway. Fessenden isn't interested in making a horror movie per se; he's out to show how the mythology of popular culture shields us from recognizing that the demons we face are largely self-created. It's unclear whether the film's images of a fanged, predatory Anna are "real" or the product of Sam's overheated, alcohol-fueled imagination. In the final analysis, it's a moot point. By indulging his own worst impulses, Sam has made his own bed (or coffin) in which to lie. The bad habit is his.

In the early scenes, Fessenden plays the character as a winking parody of Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance in "The Shining." Aping Uncle Jack, of course, is every lost little boy's idea of a good time (just ask Christian Slater). As Sam's dilemma worsens, however, Fessenden's performance deepens into levels of existential desperation that the Nicholson of today is unable (or too apathetic) to portray.

This is independent filmmaking at its finest. On a budget of less than $100,000, a cast and crew culled from the ranks of the New York film and theater communities perfectly replicates that city's isolated ennui. Even the crowd scenes feel desolate. A sensitive and poetic approach to camera movement makes the film's most lurid doings seem the stuff of high art.

"Habit" is the sort of picture we are always promised that the indie revolution makes possible, yet which still seldom washes up among the ongoing deluge of Tarantino knock-offs that strain to attract the attention of major studios. No strangers to the DIY ethos, Fessenden and his Glass Eye Pix are marketing and distributing the film on their own, taking it to one city after another on a carefully plotted tour that began with its October 1995 debut at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The effete (and the squeamish) might not appreciate Glass Eye's commitment to bringing its opera of damnation right to our door, but the more open-minded will rejoice at its singular, unadulterated vision. "Habit" is a craving that just can't be satisfied anywhere else.

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