Habit (1997)

Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Star: Larry Fessenden


By Marilyn Ferdinand

If all indie films of the 1990s were like Habit, instead of self-indulgent misfires like Sweethearts, I’d be hailing the decade as the best one for American films since the 70s. Habit, a bravura production by Larry Fessenden that is an expansion of his 1982 film of the same name, blends urban paranoia and ennui with the vampire horror genre seemingly effortlessly to create a moody, particular piece that reflects a major talent at work.

liza.jpgFessenden stars as Sam, a restaurant/night club manager living in New York City who is dealing with the double-whammy of grieving his recently dead father and the demise of his relationship with his live-in girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury). He spends most of his time dulling his nights with generous amounts of alcohol and parties and using the “hair of the dog” in the morning to get him through the days. He attends a Halloween party hosted by one of his friends and meets Anna (Meredith Snaider), a magnetic beauty with a strong sexual presence. Although Liza is at the party, Sam is so attracted to Anna that he has no compunction about leaving with her in full view of his friends. As they walk down the street, Sam wants to show her pictures of his father, which he has stashed in his coat pocket. When he can’t find them, he realizes he has someone else’s coat. He insists they return to the party. Anna won’t come up with him, but gives him her number. Sam has her promise to wait for him, but when he returns, she has vanished.

Sam goes home, flings his coat to the floor, and collapses on his bed. Anna’s number falls out of his pocket, and Sam’s cat bats at it and loses it under a floor board. Sam’s subsequent attempts to find Anna—seems she crashed the party—fail. In the meantime, Lenny (Jesse Hartman) the crass sound-board operator at his restaurant, regales Sam with stories of a woman he met the night of the party who took him to a boat and fucked him blue. Lenny’s affair continues, though he seems to be growing nervous and sickly. One day, without a word to anyone, Lenny vanishes.

annachr.jpgSam is worried about Lenny, but all of their mutual friends say that vanishing is typical Lenny behavior. Sam is at a carnival and suddenly Anna reappears. She takes him on a Ferris wheel, though he is afraid of heights. She seems to enjoy his discomfort. Afterwards, they go for a walk and stop in Central Park. Anna backs Sam against a monument and jerks him off; as he climaxes, she bites his lip hard and laps up his blood.

On a subsequent date, they walk through Central Park, and observe some feral dogs in an eerie, foggy light. Anna says, “Wolves used to run wild in Central Park.” The dogs run after them. Out of view of Sam, Anna stops and puts up her hand. The dogs cower and HabitMP%20edit.JPGretreat. The pair return to Sam’s apartment, and the cat takes an instant dislike to Anna. She and Sam make love in an animalistic way. Afterward, they take a bath together. Anna shows him that she had “protection” by putting her hand between her legs and showing him menstrual blood. “That’s not the only thing you need protection from these days,” Sam cautions. He doesn’t know how right he is, but forgets his concerns in the coming weeks as he becomes physically intoxicated with Anna. “It’s like warm milk is flowing through my veins,” he tells his friend Nick (Aaron Beall) about having sex with Anna.

Unfortunately, Sam starts to feel very sick. He becomes convinced Anna is a vampire, telling Nick that he never sees her in the daylight, she never eats or drinks, and, well, she likes sucking his blood. He decides to break up with her and try to make up with Liza. The break-up seems pretty normal, but Sam wakes up one morning to see that his cat is dead. He runs for help to Liza, but has to break into her apartment. She is dead from an apparent vampire attack. He buys a gross of garlic, moves into his father’s apartment, uncovers the mirrors, and digs up a large cross. There, he has his final confrontation with Anna—a violent and sexual scene of hallucinatory splendor.

In Fessenden’s hands, what could have been a straight-up vampire story becomes instead an exercise in ambiguity. All of the clues about what Anna might be are in full view for those steeped in vampire lore. For example, when Anna first comes to Sam’s apartment, she asks him to invite her in—vampires cannot enter the homes of the living without an invitation from their owners. She wears black. She shows up at a memorial Sam gives for his father, a professor of archaeology, with an ancient artifact that has the Rae.jpgother archaeologists in the room agog with excitement. She meets Sam on Halloween. She tries to seduce Sam’s former girlfriend Rae (Patricia Coleman), now Nick’s girlfriend—a classic vampire move. She stopped the Central Park dogs, and animals dislike her. We wonder what happened to Lenny, who certainly wouldn’t have skipped out on such a wild sexual relationship.

But it is just as plausible that Sam’s grief, apparent alcoholism, and mental instability could be affecting our view of Anna and his experiences. This film is shown from Sam’s point of view, and he is an unreliable “narrator” because of who he is and what he is going through. Was Liza really dead, or was she just a figment of his imagination? Anna shows up at Rae and Nick’s party in what looks like daylight—or at least twilight—and she wakes up in Sam’s apartment one morning with sun coming through the windows. Rae and Nick show up at Sam’s father’s home in response to Sam’s urgent phone call. We see an image of Sam and Anna, but Anna dissolves; Rae and Nick only see Sam. This could, of course, be some kind of supernatural event, but it seems just as likely that the confrontation was of Sam wrestling with his demons, as embodied by Anna. The setting at the apartment of his father—an absentee careerist Sam hardly knew—makes this seem all the more likely.

Fessenden’s acting is a symphony of nuance, paranoia, sexual ecstasy, and guilt that can only be called a tour de force. His writing is real, fully fleshing all of the characters with believable dialogue no matter how incidental the part. His direction is flawless. This film compares favorably to another superlative exercise in paranoid horror, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. And although I think Fessenden captures the zeitgeist of the 90s perfectly and uses New York City superbly as a gritty gothic backdrop (views of the Twin Towers dominate several scenes in an unintentionally prescient image of a victim awaiting the assault of evil), this is a film that should stand the test of time. It has a great look reminiscent of that essence of urban cinematography, Homicide: Life on the Streets. Fessenden won the Someone to Watch Award at the 1997 Independent Spirit Awards and has gone on to a busy and productive career, primarily as an actor and producer. This is one indie star who deserved to make good. See Habit, and you’ll be a believer, too. l

  • shane spoke:
    1st/11/2014 to 12:33 pm

    This is a must see!!

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