As Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest, the self-derivative Retribution, has temporarily disappointed those who believe a genuine horror auteur can exist—a filmmaker who can expertly work within genre conventions even as he pushes far beyond the safety of the genre’s borders—one can take heart from the fact that Kurosawa’s example has spread to an American disciple. The masterful touches scattered throughout Larry Fessenden’s first two efforts, Habit (1997) and Wendigo (2001), portended a masterpiece to come. Five years hence, Fessenden’s career-suicidally ambitious The Last Winter, while far too flawed to ever qualify as a masterpiece, triumphs through its own ultimate “failure.” Put another way, it has to fail as a horror film in order to achieve its aim: to burst through the generic borders and images that hem its horrors in and strike us at our most naked, vulnerable, fearful point.
Unlike the comfortable “archetypes” (read: clichés) with which so many “ambitious” would-be horror directors skim across any real investment in their material—see, or rather don’t see, Lucky McKee’s upcoming The Woods—Fessenden has an actual subject—a subject so pressing, horrifying, and unthinkable that the great majority of us, of necessity, push it to the back of our minds. As with Kurosawa in Charisma, Fessenden does not use the horror form to allegorize, or exploit, the ecological apocalypse he forecasts in The Last Winter. He uses it to break that dread open, to give its terrifying formlessness a transitory form. And as he gathers portents of a horrible revelation to come, he deliberately pushes the abilities of cinematic representation to incarnate that unimaginable fear.
So The Last Winter thus creates and maintains two levels of suspense throughout its length. The first is Fessenden’s, in his often brilliant command of the horror tropes he employs: over and over again, he creatively undermines our expectations by stifling or cutting short the expectedly “scary” bits and introducing jagged rhythms and unsettling discrepancies into what should be the rest periods between scares. The second is ours, as we wonder, hope, that the revelation can possibly equal the masterful build-up Fessenden has given it.
To put it simply, it doesn’t. But the gonzo insanity of the last ten minutes, so drastically breaking with the slow, gathering dread that preceded it, almost seems a humble confession on Fessenden’s part: a confession that nothing he puts on the screen could possibly be more frightening than the reality he’s concerned with. The Last Winter ultimately isn’t “satisfying” because there is no real-world satisfaction for what it speaks of. This horror cannot be contained in our stories or our images. It has a logic of its own so alien to ours that even our best attempts to decipher it must fail, and our knowledge be limited to an awareness of its implacable approach. Hoots and jeers might accompany the finale of The Last Winter, but they’re only a coping mechanism for the terrible truth it uncovers: what it knows about that which is impossible to know.