No one would mistake Larry Fessenden's independent horror project--encompassing films such as "Habit," "Wendigo," and now "The Last Winter"--as anything other than ambitious; yet this auteur certainly proves divisive among viewers. One needs to slough off expectations of what a "horror film" is supposed to deliver in order to get on his wavelength; naturally many will not be willing to do so, since, like his askew creature-feature "Wendigo," "The Last Winter" moves back and forth between subtle atmospherics and thudding exposition, and teases its audience with scares that often never come. It would be overstating things a bit to say that Fessenden is seriously challenging the rules of horror (there's nothing particularly radical in his narratives), but he does ask his audience to focus on character, environment, and allegory, which make his films somewhat anomalous.
"The Last Winter" uses similar strategies and effects as "Wendigo," but to far more satisfying ends. An eco-horror tale that isn't afraid to promise utter bleakness, Fessenden uses the wintry "Who Goes There?" set-up of John Carpenter's "The Thing" and then supplants its central conceit (outer-space aliens entering the human blood stream) with something far more alienating for being all too close: nature itself enacting blood-thirsty vengeance--more terrifying because it is of this world. "The Last Winter" is more mournful than alarmist in its environmental distress, and ultimately provides a fatalistic contrast to the pervasive "what you can do to help" global warming documentaries: In "The Last Winter," sadly, Fessenden acknowledges not only futility but also awe in the face of imminent catastrophe.
In the pristine blankness of the Northern Alaskan tundra, snow-white yet rapidly melting, a crew is sent to scout for oil resources, led by the blustery Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), an iron-jawed conservative looking out for corporate interests who's none too pleased by the omnipresence of tagalong environmentalist Hoffman (James LeGros). Fessenden takes way too much time sketching the political and personal differences between Perlman's granite reserve and LeGros's befuddled do-goodism, and at times, the film threatens to crumble under an endless litany of musty macho tete-a-tetes. The film is entirely too masculine, in fact, and the only strong female crew member, Connie Britton's Abby, has slept with both Pollack and Hoffman, which establishes her as little more than a stock device and another reason for the men's bitter disputes.
Yet as often as the film trades in character types, it also neutralizes them by situating them within ambiguous, ruminative spaces. The crew encounters a strong life force (wonderfully captured in camerawork that sails on gusts of wind) that seemingly turns them against themselves and each other, though in always disquietingly melancholy rather than startling ways. So strong is the sense of civil decline within this microcosm that it comes as quite a disappointment when, at his climax, Fessenden resorts to some frightfully unscary "Wendigo"-cribbed tricks. Although it's somewhat unfair to call the director out for simply seeing his vision through to a concrete ending, one still wishes he had trusted the nighttime photography and elegant sound design to carry the film. Yet the film's unspoken central question--did we betray nature or did nature betray us?--is provocative enough to make his missteps vanish like melted footprints in the snow.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]