THE LAST WINTER
The Last Winter is an environmental horror film. The setting of a base in the Alaskan wilderness immediately recalls The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982) indeed, The Last Winter could be an existential version of The Thing where Larry Fessenden has kept the scenes of the crew at siege inside an Arctic base but has stripped any overt appearances of the monster from the film (for the greater part). Maybe a version of The Thing combined with the environmental vision of tvs Edge of Darkness (1985) where the entire Earth seems to be rebelling against mankinds exploitation. Or maybe even more so of the great Australian horror film Long Weekend (1978) where a couple on a remote beach are seemingly punished by nature for their polluting ways, where we also saw no overt menace throughout. That, and with maybe a few dashes of George A. Romeros The Crazies (1973) thrown into the mix. There are also a number of similarities to Anthony Wallers subsequent Nine Miles Down (2009).
In his films, Larry Fessenden always invests a good deal in sketching out the everyday lives of his characters. The drama of his films takes place embedded amongst the incidental detail of these. Particularly good in The Last Winter is the way that all eight characters on the station are drawn in subtle and well rounded shades. Fessenden takes his time during the build-up scenes with Ron Perlmans arrival, his handing out gifts, the group playing football out in the snow. Ron Perlman is an actor who has always taken the less well-travelled road as an actor, playing roles either under a mountain of makeup or as supporting heavies. Contrarily here, Larry Fessenden casts Perlman as an ordinary guy, a role that one stretches to think of having seen Perlman in before. Perlman plays the part extremely well he takes the chance to open up with an entertaining gregariousness. The roles in the film could easily have fallen to cliche in another director or other actors hands for example, it would have been extremely easy to cast Ron Perlman as the cliche of the hard-headed boss not caring about human life and steam-rollering over his crews concerns in order to get the job done up against James Le Gross good guy. Contrarily, Ron Perlman goes to some length to show his humane responsibility towards the rest of the crew. James Le Gros is equally good just the calm and quietly patient way that he acts as the voice of reason throughout makes for an extremely understated performance. Neither character is a cliche and come rounded with subtle edges where Larry Fessenden and the actors find the hearts of the characters with an authenticity.
The Last Winter comes very much concerned with the debate at the time the film was made over drilling in the oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska that became a particular hot button issue between the pro-oil George W. Bush White House and environmental groups wanting to preserve the pristine wilderness. Larry Fessenden is unapologetically on the side of the environmentalists. In this regard, he does striking things in investing the monster movie with unique new metaphors. In the same way that the monsters in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1954) acted as startling allegories for the atomic bomb in the 1950s, The Last Winter offers one of the most original new metaphors for the monster movie that one has seen in some time the idea of ghosts emerging out of the crushed carboniferous oil in response to environmental destruction. As Zack Gilford hauntingly states at one point: Were grave robbers. Its coming out from the ground. Ghosts. What is it anyway but fossils, plants and animals from whatever millions of years ago?
The Last Winter develops slowly to arrive at a fervid cabin fever nightmare. The threat itself is a vague and never-fully seen one. We get partial glimpses glowing shapes that we seem to think we see blowing in the flurry of snow but cannot be sure whether we do or not; something unseen that seems to creep up on Jamie Harrold in a barren plain of snow, leaving him with a bloodied nose; something that attacks Zack Gilford on the camcorder, only for the recording to be destroyed by Ron Perlman before it can be replayed. These become more overt at the very end where we do see creatures emerging out of the snowdrifts but mostly the threat is a Lewtonian one that sits in ambiguities. The film arrives at an apocalyptically downbeat ending but even then the menace is not clearly seen.
The best scenes in the film come during Ron Perlman and James Le Gross peril-laden journey across the ice on snowmobile and then on foot, where Larry Fessenden throws in some dramatically gripping scenes with Perlman falling into a frozen-over river when the ice collapses and forced to carry on after losing his boot. Fessenden creates dazzling images such as Ron Perlman and James Le Gros sitting at a campfire while the aurora borealis plays out in the sky above them.
Larry Fessenden and co-writer Robert Leaver have clearly gone to Alaska and studied the environmental issues, the politics of mining in the area, even the nuts and bolts details of daily life on a station and the film bristles with a convincing description of these things. The outdoor scenery is stunningly well photographed. Although, for all its setting in Alaska, Larry Fessenden shot the entire film in Iceland.
(Nominee for Best Best Actor (Ron Perlman) at this sites Best of 2006 Awards).