The future of horror could lie in the hands of Larry Fessenden, but I’m not certain that he will ever direct another film. It’s been five years since the limited American release of Fessenden’s “The Last Winter” and a decade since his previous (and equally fine…if not better) feature, “Wendigo”. These two movies are marvelous in their ability to mine dread and intensity from the simplest set-ups. After cutting his teeth on a couple of interesting low-budget horror features in the 1990’s (“No Telling”, “Habit”), Mr. Fessenden eventually was able to attract some recognizable stars and bigger budgets. He’s never had a hit, so chances are you’ve never heard of him. And that’s a pity because he’s an incredible talent. If you crave the kind of scare film that pokes at you psychologically and leaves you recalling it for days–keep on reading. “The Last Winter” just might be the remedy for you.
There is an American oil company trying to build an ice road in the Arctic, to continue a dig that was begun some years before. At that time it was tested, capped off, and temporarily abandoned. The head of this operation is the burly, no-nonsense Ed Pollack (a superb Ron Perlman), and the man sent to keep the oil company in-check, and protect the environment to a reasonable degree, is James Hoffman (a thoughtful James LeGros). The research team is headed by earthy beauty Abby Sellers (the perfectly cast Connie Britton), who is currently sleeping with Hoffman, and may have at one time had a fling with Pollack. A marvelous Hitchcockian/DePalma-esque twilight tracking shot around the encampment windows captures the team’s isolation, their personalities and proclivities, as both the snow and the night continue to fall. But something strange is happening. It begins at the test-site and eventually worms its way to the camp. When a young worker takes a naked run and is later found dead in the snow, it is theorized that the environment might be to blame. Fluctuating temperatures and disastrous melting of the permafrost is awakening something below that had been kept long-frozen. Bizarre sounds and sightings are soon impacting some. Hoffman wonders if “sour gas” could be seeping from the ground and affecting the psyche of the group. Sensitive Hoffman and tough-guy Pollack butt heads over just how to handle this tragic death. Soon, a second member is found deceased, and a decision is made to get help. A rescue plane is summoned and soon enters the airspace over base camp and attempts to land. What follows is one of the most disturbing, and decidedly realistic, depictions of a small plane crash and its aftermath you are ever likely to see. When the ensuing fire destroys most of the camp’s shelter, the situation becomes more desperate. Horrific injuries and painful deaths have resulted from the accident. Hoffman and Pollack decide to venture out on a snow vehicle to find aid, while Abby is left behind to lead the remaining members of the team. Of course, things soon go awry. After discovering an abandoned camp miles from base, Hoffman and Pollack are left stranded when their snow mobile suffers a ruptured fuel line. They realize they will have to head out on foot to the next outpost, when suddenly the thawing permafrost gives way–sending Pollack through the ice and into a pool of freezing water. He’s saved by Hoffman, but only after the loss of a vital snow boot. Meanwhile, back at base camp, a presence seems to be unhinging the minds of certain members of the team. Will anyone survive? Is “sour gas” responsible…or is the release of something more malevolent at hand? Is this chain of events the beginnings of “the last winter”?
It’s paramount to the success of this parable that the “apparitions” that are glimpsed at key moments aren’t necessarily really there. Until, at least, the penultimate scene, there is a strong possibility that the “ghostly” appearances are in the imaginations of those affected by some sort of seeping fumes. It could even be argued that the doubt is logical right up to the closing credits. If taken too literally, I fear that certain audiences will find the “creatures” ridiculous. Fessenden takes a risk with this approach, but I think it wise to trust his instincts. This film begins at a leisurely pace that eventually crawls right under your skin. I believe it’s impossible (for anyone who’s seen it) to not recall John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of “The Thing”. Plus, I’d like to believe that Carpenter’s masterpiece also served as inspiration. Real horror emerges in “The Last Winter”. I’ve now seen it multiple times, and the impact has never diminished. There is a brief childhood memory shot in the next-to-last scene that haunts me to this day. There’s nothing scary in the scene at all–it’s just a perfectly placed nostalgia glimpse of a little boy running in the snow. It’s grabbing my heart as I write about it now–I’m funny that way. Depressing is too weak of a word to represent the idea of Larry Fessenden never helming another feature. He does work often as an actor and producer. In fact, his greatest “discovery”, has proved to be young horror director Ti West. Fessenden has produced Ti’s “The House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers”, the latter being reviewed on this blog just a few weeks ago. That film, in particular, shares a kinship with “The Last Winter” in its “is it there or isn’t it there” approach. So, until further notice, “The Last Winter” stands as the “last movie” created by the talented Mr. Fessenden. We can only hope that his cult following provokes him to push ahead with a new project of his very own. Grade: A-