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last_winter

There’s something about the desolate wasteland of an Arctic landscape that just makes for a good horror story. Lovecraft knew it…Carpenter knew it…hell, Jack London knew it, if you think about it. The combination of harsh living conditions, relentless weather, isolation and vast, untouched frontier is the perfect setting for putting humanity under the microscope and seeing what squirms around. The infinite, stark surroundings could hide anything from ancient, alien civilizations to rampaging monsters to serial killers or it could just be the perfect location to allow festering paranoia, jealousy, anger and fear to bubble to the surface and turn humans, ourselves, into our own kind of monster.

Over the years, a handful of films have used the unforgiving Arctic climes as incubators for their particular brand of terror, most notably John Carpenter’s The Thing (1980), which is sort of the grand-daddy for this little sub-genre, which is fitting considering that Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951) is the great-grand-daddy of frigid fright films. Filmmakers have used the cold wastelands as homes for cannibals, aliens, mutated creatures, ghosts…even Frankenstein’s monster took up residency there, for a while. When done right, I don’t think that there’s anything quite as frightening as a cold-bound horror film unless it’s a space-bound one: chalk it up to the isolation factor or the notion that either location seems to feature a lot of “rocks” that we haven’t looked under, leading to plenty of unknown squirmy things just waiting to pop out and say hi.

Veteran writer-producer-actor-director and all-around Renaissance man Larry Fessenden has had quite the career. As an actor, he’s one of those quirky characters that you might not recognize by name but you’ll definitely recognize by sight: he’s been in everything from mainstream films like Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999) to indie films like Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) to genre films like Session 9 (2001). He’s produced outstanding movies like I Sell the Dead (2008), The House of the Devil (2009)and Stake Land (2010) and has directed and written six full length films, thus far, as well as a slew of shorts, videos and a segment in the “Fear Itself” TV series. Over the years, I’ve found Fessenden to be one of the most uncompromising, talented and just flat-out cool voices in independent cinema, the kind of filmmaker like Ben Wheatley or Nicholas Winding Refn who sells me on a film by name alone. To paraphrase that old Field of Dreams (1989) chestnut: if Fessenden films it, I’ll be there. His entry in the frozen-wasteland sweepstakes, 2006’s The Last Winter, stands as another high point in an already exceptional filmography: it’s not quite The Thing but it’s one mighty impressive film, nonetheless, and easily one of my favorites.

The Last Winter begins by informing us that North Industries will begin to drill for oil in a previously untapped part of Alaska, due to the loosening of environmental restrictions. To that end, Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) shows up at North’s drilling camp in order to check on their progress. Despite having an expert team, including Abby (Connie Britton), Motor (Kevin Corrigan), Maxwell (Zach Gilford), Lee (Pato Hoffmann) and Dawn (Joanne Shenandoah), the drilling site has hit a bit of a snag: conditions in the area aren’t cold enough to drill and support their heavy equipment, thanks to unseasonably warmth weather. Environmental impact expert James Hoffman (James Le Gros) and his assistant, Elliot (Jamie Harrold), want Ed and his team to put the brakes on their operation but there are deadlines involved and lots of money to be made, so Ed doesn’t pay the “hippie” much attention.

The situation goes from bad to worse, however, when Maxwell begins to act strange: he fancies that he hears strange sounds out in the freezing wasteland and seems to be able to see ghostly visions that might or might not be herds of phantom elk stampeding through the landscape. He goes out one night to investigate an isolated test well and doesn’t return: the rest of the group frantically hunt for Maxwell but turn up empty-handed. When Maxwell comes wandering back into camp sometime later, however, relief turns into more worry: the young man is different now, more distant and decidedly more strange. He begins to tell everyone that they’re grave-robbers, stealing the “dead bodies” of animals and plants that have been dead for millions of years. At some point, he warns them, the oil will get tired of being taken advantage of. At some point, it won’t passively wait to be taken from the ground: it will rise up, on its own, and come to pass horrible judgment on the masses of humanity for their environmental crimes.

The rest of the group, including the decidedly green Hoffman, think that Maxwell must have a screw loose. When unexpected things keep happening at the camp site, however, the team is faced with a truly terrifying prospect: perhaps Maxwell is right and Mother Earth really is rising up to take revenge on her human parasites. As the frozen wasteland and whatever it hides begins to claim more victims, paranoia and fear run rampant through the camp. Will any of the team make it back to civilization or will the stunningly beautiful and harsh frozen landscape become their final resting place?

One of the many criticisms that are often hurled at horror films is their relative lack of relevance to our daily lives: a mask-wearing psycho may mean something to us in a figurative sense but it doesn’t mean a whole lot on a personal sense, unless one happens to actually live in Haddonfield or Springwood. Fessenden’s film corrects this complaint by actually being about something: both overtly and covertly, The Last Winter is a treatise on the effects of global warming on this big globe of ours. The issue, of course, is a divisive one, having morphed from a scientific concern into a political one thanks to the best efforts of lobbyists and activists on both sides. Fessenden is not interesting in the political ramifications of the issue, however, unless in the most general way (“tree-huggers vs average Joes”). On the contrary, he tackles the issue as a purely scientific fact: Hoffman tests the temperatures, they’re warmer than they used to be, the ice is obviously thinner than it was and it’s affecting how they can transport their equipment. That’s pretty much it. In a way, The Last Winter isn’t so much a cautionary tale (“If we don’t stop now, this will be our fate”) as it is a resolved one (“It’s already too late, so let’s see what happens next”).

Along with this more involved storyline, Fessenden and co-writer Robert Leaver have come up with a pretty solid little script, full of some nice characterizations and snappy dialogue. Carpenter’s The Thing taught us that the ensemble cast is key in something like this and Fessenden stacks his deck pretty high: Perlman, Le Gros, Britton and Corrigan are all exceptional character actors and each of them brings their A-games to the film. Perlman, in particular, is in great form: I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a bad performance from the guy, to be honest, but there’s something about the character of Ed that lets Perlman flex a few different acting muscles this time around. Ed tows the company line, sure, but he’s not a sleazy, uber-villain like Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke from Aliens (1986): he genuinely cares about his crew although he’s got his own set of orders to follow. There’s also a nice romantic triangle established between Ed, James and Abby which allows for a little more intimate emotions than we normally get from the genre great.

Craftwise, The Last Winter is a pretty stunning production: the cinematography is flawless and handily establishes just how minuscule and insignificant these humans are against their stark, white landscape. While this isn’t really an effects-heavy film, it manages to pull off its setpieces with suitable aplomb: the climatic encounter features a pretty interesting creature design which, although nothing compared to Bottin’s landmark effects work from The Thing, is still miles above similar-budgeted genre fare. The score and sound design help play an integral part in the production, amping up tension at every corner and the film’s editing (courtesy of Fessenden) is unfussy and suits the material to a tee. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the ending, which manages to reference another environmental “horror” film, Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977), and provides a suitably powerful, if appropriately vague, conclusion to the narrative.

I first saw The Last Winter when it was originally released and fell in love with it almost immediately. Indeed, it nearly serves as a textbook for my personal notions of how to make a successful horror film: find a nicely evocative location, populate your film with some interesting, three-dimensional characters, keep the tension high and don’t treat your audience like morons. Fessenden has managed to make a career out of following these simple rules, which will always give him a special place in my heart. If you love frozen horror films, environmentally themed genre movies or just enjoy a good movie, in general, The Last Winter should fit the bill nicely. As humans, we may argue and disagree with just everything our fellow humans say and do but we should all be able to recognize quality when we see it. Under any set of guidelines, The Last Winter is quality entertainment, indeed.

 

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