Larry Fessenden is known (or, perhaps, to many, unknown) for his thoughtful, provocative, and, oftentimes, ambiguous take on horror legends and folklore – most notably, the legend of the Wendigo; the mythical creature of Native American lore to which Fessenden has dedicated three of his projects. With “Wendigo”, Fessenden used the creature’s insatiable appetite as something of a metaphor for a family victimized by a workaholic father’s overambitious nature, while in “Skin and Bones”, an episode of NBC’s ill-fated horror anthology series, FEAR ITSELF, the Wendigo was presented in a much more straightforward manner, embodied by the scarily emaciated Doug Jones as a man possessed by the evil spirit. Critics of Wendigo found that film too vague, while detractors of Skin and Bones found that story to hokey and literal. In between those two projects, however, Fessenden found wonderfully balanced and effective middle ground with the “The Last Winter”.
In a remote Alaskan camp, a small team readies a long dormant pipeline for the arrival of drilling equipment in the hope of delivering America the freedom from overseas fuel dependence it demands. Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) has returned to camp in time to discover that not only has a wrench been thrown in the works by the arrival of noted ecologist Jim Hoffman (James LeGros), but that Hoffman has been sleeping with Ed’s unrequited crush, Abby (Connie Britton). Hoffman warns that the ice roads Ed plans on using to bring in equipment are not sufficiently frozen, nor does he feel that the tundra, itself, could withstand the impact of bringing in the gear by other means. With a single phone call, Ed has Hoffman reassigned, but, before the next plane can even touch down at their camp, the team finds themselves effected by the drastic shifts in the climate, with Hoffman hypothesizing that something that has laid dormant in the ice for tens of thousands of years is somehow seeping through the melting tundra. It seems, Hoffman suggests, that after years of abusing mother earth, she is fighting back, and, one by one, taking her revenge on the members of Ed’s team.
While the legend of the Wendigo is one again explored, The Last Winter is more of a man vs. nature flick with supernatural overtones, and an environmental agenda. While the most obvious comparisons will be made to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” - thanks mostly to the themes of isolation and the arctic setting – I found The Last Winter shared more in common with Colin Eggleston’s 1978 eco-themed horror flick, “The Long Weekend”; another film in which the planet “fought back” against man’s abusive treatment of the environment. While Fessenden’s message isn’t entirely new, it’s no less effective, and, perhaps, more sobering than ever given the current state of our environment.
Make no mistake, though; The Last Winter isn’t simply a message film disguising as horror – Fessenden’s crafted one hell of a shocker, here, imbuing The Last Winter with a palpable sense of dread that permeates the entire film. While there are few genuine scares, the film as a whole is so unnerving that I walked away from it thoroughly rattled and amazed by its almost primal efficiency. The film ends in much the same way as Fessenden’s other movies, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what happens, but it’s much less vague this time out.
The Last Winter comes to DVD courtesy of IFC films, and sports a commentary track by Fessenden, a multi-part making of documentary (that’s almost as creepy as the movie!), deleted scenes, and more.
While The Last Winter may not have you jumping in your seat, it will have you thinking long after you’ve watched it, leaving you with questions about our future here on Earth that are far more terrifying than anything you’ll see in a theater.