The Last Winter: Review – Village Voice

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

The Village Voice
The Last Winter
by Nathan Lee
September 18, 2007

The Winter of Major Discontent

Set at the base camp of a corporate expedition to establish an oil-mining operation in the Alaskan Arctic circle, The Last Winter is one of those ghost stories concerned with an accursed house built atop ancient burial grounds— except here the house is civilization itself, and the angry spirits are those of ancient plants and animals rising from the chthonic sludge of crude oil. Mother Earth taking revenge for a localized intrusion is one way to parse this canny conceptual horror film, and one way to account for what appears to be the rampage of demonic CGI caribou. Another way to see it is as a fable of speculative evolution: This is what happens when our time on the planet is up; this is, literally, the last winter of humankind.

The latest from independent fright-flick auteur Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) is careful not to explain the exact nature of its mounting crises: strange phenomenon at the horizon, the onset of madness and suicide among the crew, vehicular malfunction, psychological meltdowns, crows pecking the eyes out of nude popsicle corpses. Fessenden executes his ambiguities with great precision of mood and atmosphere, maximizing the unfathomable dimensions of his white-on-white wasteland, the claustrophobic interiors of the base camp, and the perks of a far larger production than he’s accustomed to, milking those helicopter shots for all they’re worth.

Ever a resourceful director of actors, his human touch falters somewhat in the rote psychodrama that pits the ego of a corporate blowhard (Ron Perlman) against the conscience of an environmental consultant (James LeGros), then triangulates the two in a jealous love triangle with a scientist (Connie Britton) of vague motives. But it’s the imaginative background, and Fessenden’s talent at insinuating it into the action, that counts—and unnerves—in this most chilling of global-warming movies.

Copyright 2007 Village Voice

The Last Winter: Review – Premiere Magazine

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

Premiere Magazine
The Last Winter

by Aaron Hillis
September 21, 2007

An indie auteur whose creative integrity is easy for cinephiles to get behind, actor-filmmaker Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) has become a sort of heir apparent to American horror mavericks like George Romero and Larry Cohen, in that each of his films — unlike the artless gore-fests that blight the genre today — is a richly drawn, ambitious character piece both socially relevant and genuinely suspenseful. Fessenden’s latest and most polished production to date presents a northern Alaska–set eco-cautionary terror tale, in which the villain might be a physical manifestation of an angry environment itself — is it that humans are actually the monsters and become a target of planetary vengeance for global warming?

Conservatives and Al Gore haters are seeing red now, but the only thing you shouldn’t be scared of is Fessenden’s progressive agenda, since both sides of this so-called partisan issue are fairly represented in the film’s complex humanizations. Isolated at an arctic outpost owned by Big Oil, an advance team exploring drilling potential is led by blowhard skipper Pollack (a pitch-perfect Perlman), a steadfast company man who is entirely irked by the presence of environmental impact surveyor Hoffman (an equally compelling Le Gros) — and not just because the latter has been shacking up with Pollack’s next-in-command Abby (Connie Britton). Manly clashes ensue, their dinnertime debates punctuated by iconic news footage: clips from the Exxon Valdez spill, the Kuwaiti oil fires, busy weathermen and the like, each image a talking point as if healthy chatter were enough to turn off this apocalypse-in-waiting. When the permafrost starts melting, ghostly winds kick up something fierce, and a crewmember turns up dead and naked in the snow, everyone begins succumbing to unseen forces (or is it their collective psychological breakdown?), and a wicked atmosphere of claustrophobia materializes through Fessenden’s cunning sense of widescreen spatiality: nightmarish empty corridors and elegantly swirling aerials ominously gazing down from the skies. This is filmmaking both gorgeous and deeply unsettling.

The inability to go home again is the inconvenient truth at the heart of Fessenden’s story, and his passion/frustration is so palpable that he nearly loses his footing by making the wrong thing literally tangible: the ambiguous enemy itself. The film offers the director’s first foray into CGI, but although it’s used sparingly, the last-act unearthing of an antlered, semi-transparent creature is diminishingly literal-minded in the same way the final shot is rightfully so: a confused and regretful survivor walks out into seasonably inexplicable rain, standing trembling beside a gas-guzzling SUV. It’s blunt, yes, but should an emotional message of worldwide alarm be anything less than so?

Copyright 2007 Premiere Magazine

The Last Winter: Review – The Los Angeles Times

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

The Los Angeles Times
The Last Winter

by Bob Strauss
September 21, 2007

Gothic Horror Rises in the Arctic

Freud described the uncanny as the horror that stems from something that feels familiar and unfamiliar at once, caused by the return of something that was concealed or repressed. It’s a feeling that courses through Larry Fessenden’s “The Last Winter,” which is set and partly shot in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (The rest was shot in Iceland.) It also sums up the plot of the movie, a contemporary gothic thriller about the perils of messing with nature.

The advance team for an oil company waits for temperatures to drop so that it can start drilling in the formerly protected wildernesss preserve, but the weather isn’t cooperating and the members are getting cagey. The permafrost is melting, which is making the ice roads unpassable and releasing into the air all kinds of formerly frozen organisms, viruses and — who knows? — the ghosts of the fearsome creatures that roamed the Earth until they died and got mulched into fossil fuels.

The movie opens with a corporate propaganda video that explains that a “historic vote in Congress” has allowed North Industries to send an advance team into the wilderness to study the effect of drilling, bringing us one step closer to energy independence. The presentation ends with the Orwellian-sounding motto, “Trust, risk, results,” which turns out to double as a to-do list for the apocalypse.

North’s advance team members doesn’t radiate quite the level of slick and can-do competence of the company’s promotional materials, however. In fact, they bear more than a passing resemblance to the scrappy space truckers of the Nostromo. (Fessenden was going for “Alien” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” mood-wise, and mission accomplished.) The camp mechanic, Motor (the lovably off-putting Kevin Corrigan), spends his days in a cloud of pot smoke; cook Dawn (Joanne Shenandoah) serves grotesque slop and devours romance novels; scientist Elliott (Jamie Harrold) pines for home and spends his day writing e-mails to his mother; young Maxwell (Zach Gilford), whose father thought he could put his love of the outdoors to use by drilling for oil in a pristine setting, seems understandably out of sorts; and the mysterious native Alaskan Lee (Pato Hoffman) does little, says less but smiles to himself like someone who knows something.

Parked in the frozen wilderness with nothing to do, the team members begin to sense that something is wrong. Or maybe it’s just their guilt bubbling to the surface. Either way, Maxwell becomes increasingly unnerved and James Hoffman (James LeGros), the environmental expert hired by North mainly for PR purposes, spends hours holed up in his shack, meticulously transforming his temperature log into a dark record of his terror and confusion. Their trepidation may be inchoate, but it makes perfect sense. As Maxwell remarks, what is oil but fossils, plants and animals from millions of years ago? Millions of years’ worth of buried decay combined with repressed guilt. “Why do we despise the world?” Hoffman writes. “What if the thing we are here to pull out rose up?”

When Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), the moody, hard-drinking and arrogant team leader, arrives in the camp bearing booze and cheap fiction, he finds that his former lover Abby (Connie Britton) and Hoffman (pun perhaps not intended?) have fallen into a casual relationship built on wary attraction. Hoffman recommends they cancel the project, but Ed charges ahead even after Maxwell, his “charge,” wanders off into the night and returns three hours later, transformed.

It’s billed as an environmental horror story, but “The Last Winter” bears all the hallmarks of an ever-popular genre that has always pitted science, technology and reason against emotion, awe and nature. It bears all the hallmarks of the gothic: ghosts, death, alienated sexuality, decay, secrets, madness and, of course, awe and trepidation in the face of the sublime power of nature. It also accomplishes with a modest budget and a talented cast what bigger, slicker, gorier contemporary horror movies rarely do. It taps into a collective dread compounded by the guilt of our complicity. The scrappy, familiar banality of Fessenden’s vision — the base camp is a dump, the crew unglamorous, their mission compromised — only amps up the visceral dread. You know these people wouldn’t stand a chance against nature if it decided to fight back against the parasitic virus that’s destroying it, and you know you wouldn’t, either.

Speaking of things potentially viral, the film is available on demand at the same time it opens in theaters, a strategy that gives a modest movie like “The Last Winter” a better chance of reaching more people. Yes, thawing is bad for the environment. But as far as the film landscape goes, the more stuff bubbles up from the cultural permafrost, the better.

Copyright 2007 The Los Angeles Times

The Last Winter: Review – L.A. Daily News

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

LA Daily News
The Last Winter

by Bob Strauss
September 21, 2007

Far and away the scariest movie of the year – and certainly the smartest, “The Last Winter” delivers a much more frightening warning about global warming than any superstar-hosted documentary.

Consistently chilling (no, that’s not a pun), with crisp, haunting visuals and sound character relationships, this latest work from Larry Fessenden (“Wendigo”) proves that low-budget, indie horror films can not only be about something important but are at their best when doing so.

The film was shot with an old master’s sense of composition, space and the magical power of what and what not to show by the young cinematographer G. Magni Agustsson in his native Iceland. Most of it takes place at a remote Alaskan energy company outpost in late winter. Plants are poking up through the thinning snow, rain falls, and carnivorous crows are coming back to roost much too early. The permafrost is melting, undermining the ice roads commonly used to truck goods in and out of Arctic oil country – and releasing God-knows-what that’s been frozen in the ground for untold thousands of years.

Gruff company honcho Ed (Ron Perlman) flies back to the little collection of sheds and Quonset huts after some time south at headquarters. Jovial but intimidating, Ed is unhappy to find that the two environmentalists the corporation hired to make an impact study are sure that temperatures are rising too fast to make oil drilling in the area ecologically safe – or probably even feasible. Ed is even less pleased to discover that his former lover Abby (Connie Britton) has taken up with furry tree-hugger James (James LeGros).

The two men inevitably lock horns. And as things grow more and more dire out on the tundra, their arguments come to represent different philosophies and interpretations of the natural crisis that threatens to engulf them.

This may sound cerebral, but it’s played out with rising visceral terror. Something – sour gas emissions from an old well maybe, but probably far worse – starts affecting everybody, both mentally and bodily. People run naked into the frigid wilderness at night (it may technically be getting warm, but it sure ain’t warm enough for that).

Tough guys wet their beds. Was that the wind, or did a herd of ghost elk just stampede by?

“Last Winter” leaves much to the imagination, but not in the incoherent manner of most modern horror films. While Fessenden definitely proposes that something’s going very screwy with the world, his movie shrewdly suggests that the exact nature of the Earth’s counterattack may well be unfathomable. What we don’t know, what we don’t want to know, what we can’t figure out in time; these are the true demons stalking “The Last Winter.”

And they frightened me to death.

Copyright 2007 LA Daily News

The Last Winter: Review – The New York Sun

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

The New York Sun
The Last Winter

by Nicolas Rapold
September 19, 2007

What Evil Lurks in the Snow

Calling “The Last Winter” a horror movie about global warming suggests a top-down conception that belies its better points. Set in an Alaskan oil outpost, Larry Fessenden’s new film succeeds when patiently building outward from ambient dread and well-acted character conflict. This discipline holds up fairly well for the movie’s mysterious incursions from Mother Nature, though the inevitable payoff is a little too uneven.

Mr. Fessenden, who also produces the work of other smallscale horror directors, has taken this graduated tack before, often relying on evocative locations. His 1997 film “Habit” germinates a vampire story in a character sketch shot on the director’s own East Village turf and grounded in his own disarmingly lived-in performance. And in his last effort, the more widely seen “Wendigo,” Mr. Fessenden smartly delves into the historic spookiness of New York’s Catskills.

Like “Wendigo,” “The Last Winter” finds menace in the snow, but for this batch of strandees the scale and stakes are larger. In the windswept expanses of the Alaskan hinterlands, backslapping project manager Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) heads a team establishing a beachhead for the petrol giant North Industries. Monitoring their endeavor is government greenie James Hoffman (James LeGros) in a thankless position of oversight that Pollack views as strictly optional.

Except for tensions with Pollack, Hoffman is well integrated into this wind-chapped polar family, which includes a mechanic named Motor ( Kevin Corrigan) and Max ( Zach Gilford), the college-age son of a friend of Pollack’s. Hoffman even bunks up with Pollack’s former (and younger) flame, Abby (Connie Britton), who helps run the place. Their latent triangle allows more than just a red-vs.-blue locking of horns, and Max’s naïve presence subtly injects a cross-generational awareness fitting to the theme of environmental legacy.

A chill wind blows over this microcommunity, first literally, with much roving of Mr. Fessenden’s camera, and then with spectral intimations in the snow-streaked night. As obsessions and suspicions segue into curdling sanity (and lead one crazed member to a “Blair Witch Project”-style testament), Hoffman scribbles away about “empathy with the land” and tussles with Pollack. The site of an earlier oil-drilling attempt becomes a locus of fascination, like a haunted portal. A body is found; rain falls.

What exactly is out there — roughly, the supernatural price of oil — frightens less than the film’s sense of disaster glimpsed at its edges. The team’s outpost, at first a cozy warren, gives way to the paradoxical claustrophobia of the snowy wilds, a feeling further developed during a sortie on foot by Hoffman and Pollack. Asthegroup is besieged by something beyond its grasp, the film evokes not only infinite forces unleashed but also, in that claustrophobia, the newly bounded bounty symbolized by global warming.

The future shock is far from necessary to enjoy “The Last Winter,” but it’s helpful for viewers expecting the usual suspenseful build-up and show-and-tell. Mr. Fessenden’s camera, when it swoops or tracks, isn’t always meant to punctuate or signal a scare so much as instill an ambient panic (though for my money, his work in “Habit” felt more precise). The use of computer graphics, however, will strike some as pleasingly primitive and others as unneeded or even hokey; similarly, an audacious final shot hovers at the edge of low-budget brilliance.

“The Last Winter” grounds its mounting desperation in a couple of above-average performances. Mr. Perlman plays well with the blustery pioneer who falters, and Mr. LeGros stops his character’s quiet self-assurance short of smugness to keep their match-up from getting obvious. Ms. Britton is also sturdy, and all are adequately supported by the rest of the cast, which is called upon to dispense the endgame follies and ominous pronouncements of the genre.

One thing “The Last Winter” is not is a scolding fable (not least because you don’t get good cinema from scientists rechecking their calculations, finding everything is copacetic after all, and breaking out the beer). On the level of horror filmmaking alone, Mr. Fessenden proves amply capable of instilling dread, whether it’s something we want to feel or not.

Copyright 2007 The New York Sun.

The Last Winter: Review – The New York Post

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

The New York Post
The Last Winter
by V.A. Musetto
September 19, 2007

Offers Cold Comfort

IT’S not nice to fool Mother Nature, because eventually she’s going to get even – good and even. That’s the message in “The Last Winter,” an environmental horror film by East Village indie auteur Larry Fessenden.

The setting is a pristine area of Alaska, where a corporation called North Industries is preparing to drill for oil.

Corporate loudmouth Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) is determined to get drilling equipment to his small, snowbound base. But there are obstacles, including environmentalist Hoffman (James LeGros), who has been assigned to the base to keep North Industries honest.

In the process, he beds second-in-command Abby (Connie Britton), who used to bestow her favors on Pollack. (Messy, messy.)

But there are bigger problems. Mother Nature has seemingly gone bonkers. When crew members start to die in unpleasant ways, Hoffman blames a mind-altering “sour gas” unleashed by global warming. Then a small plane crashes into the base, electricity and communications go down, and the crew finds itself cut off from the outside world.

It’s difficult to watch “The Last Winter” and not think of the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Thing From Another World,” in which an Arctic expedition digs up an alien creature frozen in the ice.

But Fessenden is no copycat. He updates “The Last Winter” to the age of global warming, and throws in a few CGI demons for good measure.

The gap-toothed Fessenden is an underrated director (“Habit,” “Windigo”) and actor (a stalker in the new Jodie Foster thriller, “The Brave One”).

“The Last Winter” – which he directed, produced, edited and co-wrote – is his most expansive directorial effort yet. While the slow buildup won’t bowl ’em over at suburban multiplexes, the film should please Fessenden’s loyal followers and win him new ones.

Copyright 2007 The New York Post.

The Last Winter: Review – The New York Times

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

The New York Times
The Last Winter

by Manohla Dargis
September 19, 2007

That Red on White Is Blood on Snow

Something wicked this way comes in the nifty horror film “The Last Winter,” crawling through the hallways and howling into the dread night. Set in the blinding white beauty of the Alaskan wilderness (though mostly shot in Iceland), the story brings us close to a small research team scouting the crude commercial possibilities for a large oil concern. Under the corporate rubric of “energy independence,” the company hopes to drill through the permafrost, a scheme that promises shivers that have nothing to do with the cold. Ah, but the ice is melting, melting, which makes the truth as inconvenient as it is deadly.

It’s amazing what you can do with a low budget, an expansive imagination and a smooth-moving camera. (A fine cast helps.) An heir to the Val Lewton school of elegantly restrained horror, wherein an atmosphere of dread counts far more than a bucket of blood and some slippery entrails, the director Larry Fessenden is among the most thoughtful Americans working on the lower-budget end of this oft-abused and mindlessly corrupted genre.

Apocalyptic in title and tone, “The Last Winter,” written by Robert Leaver and Mr. Fessenden, breathes fresh air into a stale setup (an isolated group gone stir crazy or something) by insisting that our everyday horrors aren’t a matter of arid news reports but of feverishly real, terrifying life.

And death, of course: for the wind-battered and sunburned team running the outpost, debased life will soon beget anguished death, drop by bloody drop. But first there are signs and visions, cawing black birds and mysteriously thundering hooves.

During the day the team’s lead science researcher, Hoffman (James Le Gros), stares into the surrounding wild whiteness like a writer searching for words, for anything, in front of a never-ending and terrifyingly empty sheet of paper. At night he slips into the obliterating darkness with a company true believer, Abby (Connie Britton), who once offered shelter to the team’s boisterous leader, Pollack (Ron Perlman), a comic-strip villain with a cigar and a mouthful of gravel and nonsense.

There are others wandering the corridors, oiling the machinery, filling in the blanks and ably hitting their marks: a mechanic named Motor (the reliable Kevin Corrigan); another scientist, Elliot (a very fine Jamie Harrold); a stray lamb, Maxwell (Zach Gilford); a smiling cook, Dawn (Joanne Shenandoah); and a mystery man with piercing eyes, Lee (Pato Hoffmann), who seems to know more than anyone else but doesn’t ask and never tells.

Each adds another part of the story with a laugh, a gesture or even louder silences. Twisting his lips and adjusting his glasses, Elliot puts Hoffman into an even more eccentric light than he might otherwise appear, undermining our faith in the very character (the lead, perhaps the hero) toward whom the film seems to be nudging us.

The question of Hoffman’s role, as well as of his trustworthiness, hovers over the story, leaking into the camp hallways like a gas. With his soft, youthful face glazed red-brick and partly obscured by his beard, Mr. Le Gros invests the character with sympathy without making him especially likable. There’s something closed off about this man, despite his nocturnal visits and talks with Abby, as if he’d already surrendered part of himself to some other force. He’s the first to sound the alarm, though it isn’t initially clear if his early warnings, delivered with mad-prophet uiet and ominously scribbled research notebooks, mean that he’s the canary in the coal mine or the cat in the birdhouse. Our desire for a hero is as unsettling as it is instructive.

Against the vast white of “The Last Winter,” every man and woman eventually looks like a blot on the landscape, like a mistake. Working with the Icelandic cinematographer G. Magni Agustsson, Mr. Fessenden makes great expressive use of his natural canvas and its negative space, playing with the depth of field so that the whiteness either seems to stretch on forever or suddenly flatten, at times turning these fully dimensional human figures into silhouetted cutouts.

This metaphorically resonant visual trick works beautifully for Mr. Fessenden’s genre and political purposes, adding pathos and urgency to the creeping unease. Here, when someone’s nose begins to bleed, it isn’t long before that drip turns into a gusher.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times.

The Last Winter: Review – Film Comment

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

Film Comment
The Last Winter
John Anderson

Larry Fessenden works with horror and irony the way Giacometti worked with clay—paring away at conventions, shaving matters down to their starkest. This might not bode well for his hapless characters’ physical welfare, but it does preserve the dread.

Fessenden’s Habit (97) was a Looking for Ms. Goodbarwith fangs, and one of the first films to cocktail shake sex, blood, and HIVinto a horror context; Wendigo (01), a chiller rooted in Indian lore about transmogrification, turned the seemingly placid terrain of snowy upstate New York into a realm of gothic foreboding.

It’s the second of these that echoes in Fessenden’s latest, The Last Winter, which is set in Alaska, and in which, unlike any of its obvious progenitors in Arctic creep—from The Thingto Zero Kelvin—the problem with the frosty landscape is that it isn’t cold enough. Centered on a group of oil prospectors, it is invested with a fear not of the supernatural, but the natural: the world is warming and as it thaws, something angry and septic is being unleashed out of the long-dormant, no-longer-perma permafrost.

The director, working from a script by himself and Robert Leaver, finds a lode of Hitchcockian potential out of doors, where snow makes a nightly flight across the stark white light of G. Magni Agustsson’s camera and where the more delusional members of the North Industries drilling team see phosphorescent herds of antlered phantoms stampeding through the gloom. Unexplained nosebleeds. Naked blue-white corpses with their eyes plucked out. Madness. Team leader Pollack (Ron Perlman), the quintessential short-fused, unmanageable manager, has quite a few problems on his hands.

The principal one, he thinks, is his polar opposite, Hoffman (James LeGros), an environmental activist and, significantly, Pollack’s physio-aesthetic rebuttal. Hoffman, who is there to monitor the ethically dubious North company, is emblematic of economy and conservation—he lacks the enormous resources, shall we say, of a Pollack, but has done as much as he can with what he has. (Think Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws.) Pollack, meanwhile, is ignorant, avaricious, and wastefully huge (think . . . the United States?). And there’s something larger than both of them, and far more dangerous, out there in the Great White North.

A lifelong New Yorker, Fessenden—whose sideline acting career has included playing an emergency-room patient strapped to a gurney in Bringing Out the Dead—doesn’t seem overly fond of the great outdoors. He finds in the tundra’s poverty of physical detail something vaguely corrupt. Characters often float in white, negative space, and the varied, always-fluid shooting suggests a searching for something to grasp hold of.

Fessenden has been long producing work by maverick filmmakers, often, but not always, in the horror genre (Douglas Buck’s 2006 remake of Sisters, for instance, but also Kelly Reichardt’s 1994 River of Grass, in which Fessenden played the lead). What he brings to his own film is an increasingly confident, collagist instinct with style and camera movement, a marriage of the visual with the visceral. No one comes away from films like Saw and Hostel thinking much about the lighting or the transitions, but even though The Last Winter has a certain immediacy, it also has a cumulative richness born of both terror and technique, plus a juxtaposition of interpersonal, indoor relationships against an ethereal, frigid void that stands in for the entirety of a miserable, exploited, and pissed-off planet. The Last Winter isn’t a message movie per se, but the inconvenient truth of the matter is that Fessenden, as he did with Habit’s post-AIDS vampire treatment, has found something profoundly, metaphysically scary within the facts and figures of global warming.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Film Comment.

The Last Winter: Review – Fangoria Magazine

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

The Last Winter

by Michael Gingold

*** 1/2*

What a pleasure it has been to watch the development of writer/director Larry Fessenden’s career, as his films have slowly gained in scope while maintaining an intensely personal vision, exploring deep themes while succeeding on a pure genre level. THE LAST WINTER is his biggest film yet in both scale and thematic ambition, tackling the hot-button theme of global warming with an approach that favors dramatic impact over didacticism. Only those who sit down already inclined to feel like they’re going to be preached to could find fault with it; the rest will enjoy a movie packed with atmosphere and a chilly feeling only partially due to the Alaskan setting.

The wilds of that northern state is where a small team is prepping the site of an impending oil-drilling operation as the story begins. Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), head of the operation, will brook no interruptions, and isn’t especially happy about the arrival of James Hoffman (James LeGros), who’s there to prepare an environmental impact statement. Having witnessed other disastrous example of people’s negative effect on ecosystems, Hoffman is already inclined to deliver bad news to Pollack, and soon finds that rising temperatures are posed to throw roadblocks in the team’s way (literally; the lack of subzero conditions means that the “ice roads” necessary to transport equipment can’t be established).

Meanwhile, nature begins to strike back in more direct albeit initially subtle ways. The environment seems to be having a deleterious effect on the team’s minds, starting with Maxwell (Zachary Gilford), a young worker who goes off on a scouting trip and doesn’t return. Others in the group begin suffering from mental and physical debilitation, and Hoffman starts to wonder: Is it the result of “sour gas” (hydrogen sulfide from deep in the Earth seeping up due to the melting of the permafrost), or something a little more paranormal in nature? One thing’s for sure: Pollack’s sour mood at what he sees as Hoffman’s meddling isn’t helped by the fact that the newcomer is bedding his assistant and former lover Abby (Connie Britton).

The interpersonal conflicts and signs of impending doom are played out against a stark background of marvelously foreboding locations (filmed in Iceland), and Fessenden employs both tight close-ups and wide vistas to emphasize the characters’ isolation. The script he wrote with Robert Leaver maintains a level of drama and characterization that holds the attention throughout, even before any of the horror elements come into play. As in Fessenden’s previous film, the marvelous family-breakdown chiller WENDIGO, the filmmaker engages our sympathy for, or at least understanding of, everyone on screen, and while his own stance on the subject of global warming (a phrase which he smartly uses only once in the dialogue) couldn’t be clearer, he avoids making Pollack an obstinate monster and Hoffman an environmental knight in shining armor. The former is a man devoted to progress and a job well done who truly believes he’s serving his country by providing homegrown energy sources, while there are suggestions that Hoffman has let his activism curdle into unreasonable obsession.

Everyone on screen, in fact, develops a genuine personality, and the performances are first-rate across the board. With his protagonists so well-established, Fessenden mercilessly tightens the screws in the second half, as the landscape’s rebellion against those who would despoil it becomes increasingly direct. There are a couple of great jump-out-of-your-seat jolts, but for the most part the director develops an eerie intensity that builds to a boil and doesn’t let up for the entire last act. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the spirit of the Wendigo makes a return appearance, and while THE LAST WINTER employs the most expansive special FX yet in a Fessenden film, he uses them judiciously so that they don’t overwhelm the narrative. Even when he stages a plane crash, his focus remains on the destructive results on the ground, rather than the spectacle.

Although Fessenden’s movies have always looked good even on their smallest budgets, THE LAST WINTER (his first feature in widescreen) contains his most striking visuals yet, as he has teamed with cinematographer G. Magni Agustsson to create exterior environments of white desolation and confined interiors increasingly suffused in threatening darkness. Just as crucial to the movie’s success are Jeff Grace’s music and Anton Sanko’s eerie ambient soundscapes, which help turn the setting into an antagonist of its own. Yet even if the environment becomes something of a villain, its actions, like those of the humans occupying it for just a short time, are justified by the situation. THE LAST WINTER makes an impact statement of its own: Without preaching, it puts an up-to-the-minute spin on the traditional horror-movie lesson that it’s not wise to tamper with Mother Nature.


The Last Winter: Review – Cinemascope Magazine

Posted on 03. May, 2010 by in Press, The Last Winter: Press

Cinema Scope
The Big Chill: Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter

by Adam Nayman

Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo (2001) concludes with a scene in which a small boy faces down a pair of boots left sitting in a hospital corridor. The boots belonged to his father who has just died on the operating table, the victim of a senseless tragedy perpetrated by a stranger; they’ve been absent-mindedly dropped on the ground by his wife whose grief precludes her from noticing her son languishing at the other end of the hallway. As Fessenden cuts between the boy, stock-still and tiny beneath the high ceiling, and the forlorn, abandoned footwear, a plangent visual metaphor emerges: this small child suddenly has some very big shoes to fill.

It’s solemn stuff for a movie named for—and featuring several jarring intrusions by—an ominous bi-pedal Native American deer-spirit. But Fessenden’s cinema is distinguished by the various miraculous equilibriums it sustains, precarious but increasingly sure-footed balancing acts between seemingly exclusive concepts: high-concept and low-budget, abstraction and immediacy, the shopworn and the visionary. No Telling (1991) clumsily but ambitiously re-framed the Frankenstein story through the lens of the animal-rights debate, while Habit (1997) unravelled the bleak tale of a disheveled teetotaler (played by Fessenden himself in a twitchy tour-de-force) whose new girlfriend just might be a vampire. The shoestring tangle of big themes (scientific progress vs. cruelty in No Telling, the monstrousness of addiction and the spectre of AIDS in Habit) and earnest B-movie craftsmanship in these films found refinement in Wendigo, an emotional end-of-childhood narrative (adapted from a short story by Algernon Blackwood) augmented by fluid camerawork, neatly integrated low-fi special-effects, and a fascinating eco-horror subtext—the titular creature as a manifestation of our fragile ecosystem’s wrath.

The wendigo makes a return appearance of sorts in Fessenden’s astonishing new film The Last Winter. While it’s not technically a sequel, there’s little doubt that the malevolent entities menacing the film’s principals—a corporate-backed deep-drilling crew trolling for oil beneath the pristine white expanse of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—share a kinship with said antlered phantom. In both cases, the creatures target human beings who have encroached on and despoiled their turf, but where Wendigo’s monster was ultimately revealed to be a protector of sorts (its lone victim being a remorseless backwoods hunter with human and animal deaths on his conscience), the things that show up in the last movement of The Last Winter boast dauntingly larger—even apocalyptic—appetites.

Like Bong Joon-ho’s marvelous (if more straightforward) The Host, The Last Winter is an environmental horror movie in which our excesses come home to roost: Hell hath no fury like Mother Nature scorned. It begins as a careful inventory of horror-movie clichés (an isolated, fractious group warding off frostbite, paranoia, and possible ghosts; shades of John Carpenter’s version of The Thing [1982] and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining [1980]) and evolves—methodically and brilliantly—into a dead-serious and deeply distressing End of Days saga. The pervasive sense of head-hung melancholy suggests Kurosawa Kiyoshi, except that Fessenden isn’t dealing in technophobic vagaries. The Last Winter addresses issues of global warming and environmental ruin without cloaking them in allegory—it’s hard to imagine a more direct assessment of the horrors that will emerge out of our failed stewardship of the planet.

The gale-force denouement would be irrelevant, however, were the build-up not so expertly handled: Fessenden’s technique, prone previously to fits and starts, has never seemed so assured. As in Wendigo, the director displays a real mastery for wintry environs: the camera swirls around the drillers’ lonely outpost on the same weightless trajectory as the snow itself. Inside, the major personalities are quickly established: Pollack (Ron Perlman) is the team leader, his alpha-male pissing act (he punctuates every other sentence with “goddamnit”) fortified by a bear-like bulk and the lean, hard lines of his face. Next on the food chain is Abby (Connie Britton), Pollack’s unofficial right-hand woman and occasional lover. At the low end of the pecking order—after a few vividly gruff veterans—is Hoffman (James LeGros) a pasty, weak-chinned eco-watchdog who’s come to Alaska to conduct an environmental-impact study.

That’s too many syllables for Pollack, whose rugged-individualist bravado smartly conceals a neutered company man’s lack of imagination. Pollack doesn’t want to hear about Hoffman’s reservations, but when things start going weird—and to Fessenden’s credit, it happens very gradually—there comes a point where he has no choice but to deviate from his rigorous battle plan. The conflicts are myriad: there’s the war of attrition between Pollack and Hoffman; the sexual gamesmanship of Abby (who shacks up with Hoffman on the sly but remains caught between the two men); the crew’s difficulties with their unusually harsh environs; and Hoffman’s frustrating internal conflict. He knows that something is wrong—the weather is out of whack, and seems to be contributing to the mental strife (sleeplessness, hallucinations, somnambulism) of his colleagues—but his inability to articulate this admittedly amorphous threat, or to really stand up to the domineering Hoffman, renders him impotent, frantically scrawling out his fears in a notebook as things fall apart.

There is a point at which The Last Winter shifts from a story about ideological intractability and cold-addled stir-craziness into a genuine genre piece: suffice it to say that it’s one of the scariest scenes in recent memory, possibly the best prepared and delivered shock of Fessenden’s career. And yet the film never loses its grasp on its characters—the groups’ reactions to the escalating strangeness are uncommonly intelligent (Pollack is obstinate, but not stupid, to Perlman’s credit ), and the individuals are differentiated enough that what happens to them matters to us. There are no easy victims in Fessenden’s films; each loss is felt, and felt hard.

It is this quality of feeling that distinguishes The Last Winter not only from the current crop of sado-porn horror films, but from most eco-scare pictures, as well: the gorgeous abstraction of Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes and the pointed finger-wagging of An Inconvenient Truth are both valid approaches to an unthinkably terrifying subject, but neither film really qualifies as an emotional experience. The Last Winter fairly tingles with empathy—for its autonomous but doomed characters, for the wounded Earth spirits that pursue them, and for our battered, scooped-out planet. Wendigo introduced the idea of a rapacious demon with an insatiable appetite (“The bigger it gets, the hungrier it gets”), hinting that the carnivore in question was, in fact us. The Last Winter confirms this postulation, and without a trace of glib, told-you-so smugness. “We can’t go home again,” reads one of Hoffman’s notebook scribbles. It’s a familiar sentiment, but completely devastating in this particular context: this is a film about the present devouring the future.

There is also a key shot in The Last Winter involving a pair of boots. But where Wendigo (explicitly referenced again in a jaw-dropping late shot of a house far away from the main action) suggested that the shoes, and the attendant responsibilities attached to them, might be capably filled by an approaching successor. This time out, the owner is moving inexorably in the other direction, towards oblivion. It’s bad enough to admit that we’ve burdened the next generation with salvaging the mess we’ve made of our only home; what’s worse—and what The Last Winter, in its towering, inconsolable sadness, understands —is that they might never get the chance to pick up the slack.

Copyright 2006 Cinema Scope