The Last Winter

(USA/Iceland - 2006)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Ron Pearlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Director: Larry Fessenden
Screenplay: Larry Fessenden & Robert Leaver
Cinematography: Magni Agustsson
Composer: Jeff Grace

Larry Fessenden’s fourth feature is his most ambitious to date, blending all he’s done before but greatly expanding the scope. The Last Winter incorporates No Telling’s themes of man’s obsession to utilize science and technology to defy the boundaries of nature as well as the love triangle involving a man on both sides of the political spectrum and a woman whose kind of a neutral peacekeeper, man’s proclivity to breed fear and doubt into mania and insanity from Habit, and the eponymous vengeful dark spirit from Wendigo. These previous features succeeded in part due to their tighter focus when it came to the supernatural and horror elements, but in the wide open icy setting of the Alaskan wildlife preserve Fessenden is able to do a juggling act that keeps every possibility in play.

Man is about to spoil the final frontier for a thimbleful of oil, but nature isn’t cooperating. Even in the dead of the arctic winter it’s too warm to transport the heavy drilling equipment across the mushy ice, and that’s before it begins raining! Most good horror is a combination of intrigue and mindfuck, and if nothing else few films have more possibilities for their problems than The Last Winter. Cramped in an outpost amidst miles of bleak frozen flatlands, isolation, paranoia, and loneliness are a given. There’s an adjustment period, which is hardest on the new kid Maxwell McKinder (Zach Gilford), but even after that everything is perceived and handled differently from person to person. Ditto the effects of global warming. Strange weather and bizarre occurrences abound, but the thawing of the permafrost may be causing more than atmospheric abnormalities. Perhaps it’s also releasing something insipid, sour gas or even something we might not know about because it’s been lost in the ice for 1000 years. The plants and animals that turned to oil may now be rebelling against human grave robbing, or possibly it’s just the native Wendigo spirit striking back against the greedy white man? The environmental overseer James Hoffman (James LeGros) at least admits he has no idea what’s going on.

In many cases, the mysterious and unexplainable is the scariest. I prefer the Jacques Tourneur style horror films that refuse to show what’s behind the deaths. However, most of the new horrors that aren’t of the phony effects and blaring hokey music variety are all gimmick in a different way. Unlike the vast majority of supernatural movies, Larry Fessenden’s films are good because rather than being about who, if, and/or why ghosts he tells engrossing human stories. Fessenden develops the characters while giving brief reminders of the creeping dread, rather than making the later essentially the be all and end all. All Fessenden’s films are the stories of the people, and thus could work to some extent even if they weren’t periodically interrupted by a bit of mythological terror that may simply be in the character’s head.

The Last Winter could just as easily be a psychodrama. When you have a corporate loyalist in charge who believes progress is the be all and end all, and it’s never attained without risk and daring so the job simply must be done in the same fort as an environmentalist who believes one should always error on the side of safety, tension is bound to abound. Add in the fact that the boss still pines for Abby (Connie Britton), who is now with the environmentalist, and you have the makings of an all out brawl.

To Fessenden’s credit, even though he personally believed we urgently needed to start doing something about global warming 17-years-ago, he hasn’t made a preachy film where the environmentalist is the saint. In fact, no one is particularly good or bad; we sympathize with them all realizing everyone has their frailties. Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) is a taskmaster and ramrod because he believes force and urgency are necessary to keep the project moving toward completion, but the fearless won’t take no for an answer leader is charming and playful outside of work. Without his macho mask he’s juvenile in both good and bad ways. Hoffman is a letdown to his assistant Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold) for lacking Pollack’s conviction, content to simply be replaced for not signing off on the dangerous mission even though he knows he’ll be replaced by someone who will, and to Abby for thus leaving for good.

The main point of the film is the world won’t wait for us. Nature doesn’t pause for arguments, partisan or otherwise, it wreaks whatever havoc it has in mind while we are dragging our feet deciding whether there’s a real problem and if so how to solve it. The film avoids grand statements, sticking to a personal level where people realize they aren’t in control, opening the door to dread and feelings of helplessness, which turn to paranoia and fear, then suddenly end in some form of insanity.

The characters all seem increasingly eccentric in the face of adversity. Maxwell goes into the cold in the buff with his video camera to capture proof of what’s amiss, freezing to death. This sets off a chain reaction, illogical actions such as Motor (Kevin Corrigan) dismantling the snow cat they might need to escape. Hoffman has nightmarish visions, interrupting the slow evolving tale with a jolting hyper montage of flashbacks and possible causes of their demise.

A major reason Habit is Fessenden’s best work is fact and fiction are muddled to the most intriguing extent. Nonetheless, everything in The Last Winter can be written off to your choice of chance, coincidence, fluke, bad luck, or hallucination. If there is something real out there, it’s an incomprehensible force. The Last Winter is better than No Telling and would clearly be better than Wendigo if not for the appearance of Donnie Dino. I’d have the remaining characters, who are stuck walking to a distant fort die a natural death trying to evade the unseen forced. While one could claim the laughable video game monster - a sad looking thing with goofy ears that is like a dinosaur version of the costume from Donnie Darko - is the concoction of men who have been exposed to the cold for far too long, this ridiculous abortion takes the audience so far out of the previously engrossing tale it hardly matters. The CGI stampeding cattle type of blurs at the outset were fine because they were created so we couldn’t make out what, if anything, they were, but this lame thing at the end turned the movie into pure corn. It’s not like the people who won’t enjoy a patient adult horror are going to be suddenly won over in the final 10 minutes by having their “need” for CGI briefly filled. It’s a lose lose situation, as those who feel that totally unbelievable effects have destroyed the pleasure of horror films will be suitably disgusted by the Ring of Fire invasion. What’s actually scary about The Last Winter is its minimalism. In many scenes, humans and either their skidoos or the outside of their base are the only things that aren’t a completely uninterrupted sheet of white for as far as the eye can see. The spare score that consists of natural sound (effects) greatly adds to this isolation, going from an ominous blustery wind to an eerie dead quiet.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *