Saturday, November 7, 2015

NO TELLING (1991) Blu-ray Review

No Telling (1991) d. Larry Fessenden (USA)

Experimental electro-biologist Geoffrey (Stephen Ramsey), hoping to develop a patent for his ethically questionable animal research, heads upstate with his artist bride Lillian (Miriam Healy-Louie) to their government-sponsored farmhouse. Settling into the small-knit agricultural community presents its own challenges for the urban couple, but more disturbing is Geoffrey’s fervent devotion to create “life” in his laboratory – cue vivisections of all creatures great, small, and furry – as opposed to planting seeds within his wife’s fertile body. Enter handsome environmental activist Alex Vine (David Van Tieghem) providing Lillian with a kind presence, receptive ear, and ample temptation, and the stage is set for violence emotional and physical, animal and human.

Anyone familiar with Fessenden’s body of work will not be surprised at the overt political agenda present in his debut feature film, as he and co-writer/production designer Beck Underwood rail against animal cruelty, chemical pesticides, a lack of transparency with scientific research, and so on. Admittedly, the agitprop is often applied with a sledgehammer as opposed to a paintbrush, viewer tolerance of which will be entirely dependent on one’s capacity for the fiery earnestness of youth.

But any bluntness of message is compensated for with the ambitious director’s balletic camera moves, all the more innovative considering the meager means. Granted, the “how’d they do that” factor is sometimes equaled by “why’d they do that,” but for those who enjoys low-fi camera movement for its own sake, the ghost of Evil Dead-era Sam Raimi is alive and well in the “two guys running with a camera strapped to a board” aesthetic. Equally impressive are the number of props and fake animals and creatures that Geoffrey conjures in his lab (made by Robert Flanagan) – even when they don’t feel completely “real,” there’s a delightful quality to their practical effect-iveness.

The performers are all capable enough, with no one dazzling or detracting from the business at hand. Ramsey is fine in the “mad scientist” role of a man blinded by his own ambition for what can be done without consideration for whether it should be done, a man clearly more in love with his life’s work than his life partner, but still attempting to go through the paces for her sake. As his conflicted spouse, Healy-Louie’s posh accent drifts in and out so often that her character’s lineage practically begs for an explanation, but she hits the required emotional targets bouncing between her desire to conceive and the growing suspicion that her husband’s endeavors may be more sinister than sustainable.

Teighem bears more than a passing resemblance to Hugh Jackman, at once sensitive and masculine, intelligent and passionate – one can hardly blame Lillian for allying her emotions (and presumably the audience’s) with his sturdy, rugged, ethical frame. The rest of the ensemble, many of them non-actors, populate the corners of the story, providing an authentically awkward small-town atmosphere.

No Telling is the only one of Fessenden’s features never to have received a major video release (though it has been available through his Glass Eye Pix site for years); as such, in many ways it serves as the jewel of Shout! Factory’s recent box set, and even if it probably won’t prove to be anyone’s favorite of the bunch, it’s delightful to see it earn equal status in terms of supplemental materials.

In addition to the director’s anecdote-filled commentary track, rife with self-aware deprecation at his heavy-handed onscreen political screeds, there is a vintage 25-minute making-of documentary that shows Fessenden’s passionate vision being realized through sheer force of will and spit. Also included are the 1997 short White Trash and a sizzle reel from Glass Eye Pix’s early days, all introduced by the big guy himself. It’s a wonderful slice of memorabilia and insight from a true independent back when the term really meant something.

No Telling is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory as part of The Larry Fessenden Collection (along with Habit, Wendigo, and The Last Winter) and can be ordered HERE:


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