After messing with vampires and Frankenstein, in Habit and Depraved respectively, indie horror fave Larry Fessenden returns with his take on werewolves in Blackout. Set in a small town in upstate New York, painter Charley Barrett (Alex Hurt, son of William Hurt, which comes into play in one uniquely pointed way) makes his way through his last day in town, wrapping up loose ends, visiting friends one final time, and trying to right a few lingering wrongs on the way out the door. Complicating his exit, it turns out Charley is a werewolf and responsible for a number of recent deaths the elder powerbroker of this minor hamlet, Hammond (Marshall Bell), has chosen to blame on Miguel (Rigo Garay) despite a lack of evidence.
Tonally and aesthetically, Blackout feels like an artifact unearthed from the 1980s. Lo-fi and gritty, it could play easily as a double feature with the likes of The Howling or American Werewolf in London. But Fessenden also uses the classic lycanthropic tropes and tenets to delve into a number of current, prescient themes and concerns.
Before he goes, Charley hopes to do address the troublesome legacy of his father, who hid shady environmental dealings regarding Hammond’s business concerns. The narrative touches on mass paranoia and disregard for facts and evidence. We get ideas of distrust of the other, fear mongering, the hypocrisy of business exploiting cheap migrant labor on one hand while demonizing and blaming them for the town’s troubles, most of which are the direct result of the businessmen making the accusations, on the other. On a more individual level, the whole werewolf metamorphosis stands in for Charley’s own personal transformation. He now sees the world from a different vantage point and, unable to unknow things, this change compels him to act, to atone and take responsibility, despite the consequences and difficulties.
Set in an idyllic, picturesque locale, surrounded by lush wilderness, Fessenden makes a number of intriguing visual choices. Instead of photographing the natural splendor, where a film would normally include establishing shots, he uses Charley’s paintings of trees and woods and rivers to the same end. (I’m reminded of the similar use of miniatures in Hereditary, showing a scale-model of a room then cutting to the real thing.) It’s both a compelling illustrative technique and creates an off-kilter sensation that adds thematic and textural depth—something is a bit askew and not quite as it seems, but it takes the mind a moment to realize.
Not everything always works this smoothly. Fessenden’s script meanders at times, overstaying certain scenes that have run their course, and Charley makes a few too many stops along the way before the momentum and pace finally click. Scenes near the end where the mob mentality and artificially manufactured fear are supposed to come to a head fall flat. They not only ring false in the staging and execution, but miss the mark practically and feel unrealistic, even more a movie where a man transforms into a wolfman. They play fake and forced and overly convenient.
A few minor misgivings and bumps along the way, Blackout offers up a strong indie horror romp. With a who’s who of familiar bit players and a mixture of pressing themes and concerns about the wide reaching damage done by capitalist exploitation, all anchored by a standout performance from Hurt, Fessenden uses the werewolf trappings to tell a compelling, trenchant allegorical tale that’s both classically satisfying and freshly modern. [Grade: B+]