Arctic horror film is easy to warm up to
Apparently there is something new under the sun: a psychological global-warming horror film. "The Last Winter" sounds like a genre-movie platypus - a little bit of this, a little piece of that - but it stops short of laying an egg. In fact, it works eerily well. Whatever eldritch filmmaking wavelength actor-turned-director Larry Fessenden is onto, he deserves to be encouraged.
The movie takes place in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, at an oil company test-drilling camp overseen by a macho, insecure corporate cowboy named Pollack (Ron Perlman). While he's been south at headquarters for a month, getting permission to bring in the big rigs, his second-in-command, Abby (Connie Britton), has taken up with Hoffman (James Le Gros), a bearded climatologist the EPA has forced on the project. Pollack hates environmentalists even when they're not in Abby's bed.
A mood of weird and gathering doom is established at the outset, and as "The Last Winter" progresses, it grips tighter and tighter. There's an unseasonable thaw and the permafrost is melting. One of the base personnel, Pollack's young nephew Maxwell (Zach Gilford), is acting increasingly deranged, as though he were seeing things the others can't. Maybe he's the canary in this coal mine; maybe, Hoffman surmises, the melt is releasing toxic fumes that have been locked in the deep freeze for tens of thousands of years.
Or perhaps there's a supernatural explanation - the strength of "The Last Winter" is that it's open to any and all theories. As an actor, Fessenden tends to play wiry little losers (he can be seen as the convenience store robber in the current Jodie Foster thriller "The Brave One"), but as a filmmaker he's got a thing for ancient American ghosts returning with a vengeance. His 2001 film "Wendigo" was about a half-human beast from Native American folklore stalking a family in upstate New York.
There's talk about the Wendigo in "The Last Winter," too, as well as a few sketchy, uncompelling special effects - Fessenden's better at mood than specifics. He gets strong performances from Perlman and Le Gros, though - the former playing a blowhard who slowly caves in, the latter as a rational young progressive terrified of losing his sanity. Rounding out the cast are Kevin Corrigan ("The Departed"), Jamie Harrold, Pato Hoffmann, Joann Shenandoah, and a murder of crows with a taste for red meat.
The ghosts of other movies flit through "The Last Winter," too - 1951's "The Thing From Another World" and its 1982 remake, "The Thing," both of which found dread under the polar ice; "The Shining" with its wintry personality meltdown; the trapped and dwindling cast of "Alien."
Fessenden taps into more recent fears, though, and while the movie's too genre-bound to climb into the cherry-picker with Al Gore, it hints at a coming B-movie apocalypse: a rough beast freed by rising temperatures and only now slouching home. In "The Last Winter," we meet the alien and the alien is us.