Friday, August 01, 2008

The Last Winter

Title: The Last Winter
Director: Larry Fessenden
Cast: Ron Perlman, Connie Britton, James LeGros
Year: 2006
MPAA: Not Rated
Date of Review: August 1, 2008

Imagine if Mother Earth had had enough. We’ve destroyed the rain forests, mined and drilled the surface of our planet into a pock-marked horror, we’ve polluted and corrupted both the land and the animals with our waste and filth. What if Nature put its foot down and said “enough”, and refused to let us tamper with the one last secret that it holds? No, this is not The Happening, but it is an equally preachy horror tale, trying to warn us of our erring ways and remind us how much power nature really has over us. Directed by Larry Fessenden, The Last Winter is a deliberately paced psychological horror film, which slowly burns with an impending dread which climaxes with some spooky supernatural occurrences. In his 2001 feature, Wendigo, Fessenden gave us an almost fairy-tale like story, with an ominous beast in the woods who may or may not be a presence of evil. With this follow-up, Fessenden once again obscures the exact meaning and motive of this supernatural beast - is it really evil? Sure, it kills people, but is it not doing this in self-defense? It’s a film filled with questions, many completely unanswered, and that’s what makes it so exciting.

Set amidst the inhumanly cold and harsh climate of Northern Alaska, the story follows a team working for an oil company who wants to tap into a possible oil reserve in this region. Through a slightly intrusive bit of exposition at the beginning of the movie, we learn that this site had been drilled many, many years ago, but the strange occurrences kept the findings from being shared with the world. The original valve remains to this day, and is protected by a giant white crate, and its presence immediately evokes the same terror as the Monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the crew begins to obsess over this giant white box out in the snow, and as the team gets closer and closer to being able to open the box, it becomes more apparent that, well, maybe they shouldn’t.

Environmentalism is, of course, the first thing that this movie has to teach, and it gets a little much at times. The overall narrative is enough to communicate the message that we’ve screwed up the planet and it’s probably not too happy about it, but random montages of bubbling oil, tankers capsizing in the ocean, and brutal forest fires really drive the point home. It wouldn’t have been surprising to read the name “Al Gore” in the producing credits of this film. But the environmental implications are not all that this film has to offer. Much like Wendigo, there are layers upon layers of subtext here, and it can all be interpreted in very different ways, making for some potentially great discussion. By looking at the events of the film through different lenses, it can take on entirely new meanings.

One of the most interesting ideas in the film is a battle of spirituality and science. Are there things in the universe (or in our own world) that we are not meant to know? When we learn of the previous expedition to drill for oil - which left the original valve - it is never clear what the expedition really did find, due to the mystery in which the story is enshrouded. They went searching for oil, but is that what they found? And if it is not oil under the cold ground and snow, what is it? While nature is protecting itself from our destructive influence, could it also be protecting one of its own secrets? What would it mean for us to open that valve, and let loose whatever it is that’s under there?

The film is immaculately shot. Fessenden has no qualms with sustaining a shot to emphasize the stark, haunting imagery within. And much of the film does have a barren, cold feeling - it fits both the setting and the mood, making these characters feel alone and desperate, completely cut off from the outside world. While many films have been set in these sub-zero climates, it’s rare that they really evoke a shiveringly cold feeling in the viewer. Shots of wind blowing violently through the snow, stirring up the surface powder and covering the characters in layers of icy cold really bring this feeling to the forefront. This is another area where Fessenden’s cinematic earnestness shines through. He is willing to keep the pace slow yet constantly moving forward, so the fear in the characters doesn’t seem rushed and the impending doom feels real and unexpected. It’s something that’s rarely seen in big budget theatrical releases, which is probably one of the reasons why we don’t see Fessenden’s name floating around AMC’s.

This is not The Thing. There is a “being”, yes, but this is not a gore-ridden, effects-driven fright fest. Its political ambitions may be a little too in-your-face, but The Last Winter is mostly effective with its theatrics, and the writing and characters have greatly improved since Fessenden’s last effort. With a strong cast (including Ron Perlman, and Connie Britton of “Spin City” fame) the scares feel authentic and the characters real, and these are two of the most important and, coincidentally, widely ignored areas of modern horror cinema.

8 / 10


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