A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo for this site. Recently out on DVD is his much belated follow-up, The Last Winter (not to be confused with the Canadian coming-of-age tale of the same name). I’m happy to report that the skill Fessenden showed in Wendigo is very much on display in his new feature.
Ron Perlman headlines as Ed Pollack, the company man whose job it is to make an oil-drilling project in northern Alaska a reality. His potential nemesis at the camp is James Hoffman (James LeGros), an environmental activist the company hired in an obvious stab at green credibility. Hoffman is concerned not just with what the drilling is likely to do to the pristine landscape, but also with issues already happening. The permafrost is melting and it’s raining in the Arctic in February, for instance. These are all serious problems, but then it appears that the melting land has unleashed something evil, and the team at the camp begin to die one by one.
There are plenty of echoes, perhaps inevitably, of The Thing (both versions), what with the frigid, isolated setting. There is, however, a very significant difference, one which goes to the heart of Fessenden’s project. Whereas in The Thing, the humans may be out of their normal element, it is the Thing that is the invader. The characters are thus on the front line of protecting humanity from an exterior threat – a fact that made the 1951 version of the film a nice fit ideologically with the paranoia of the times, and very much the opposite number to The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Last Winter is no less political, but this time, the point is made abundantly clear that it is the humans who are the invaders, and that it is their depredations that have unleashed the terrible force. This is an unapologetically enironmentalist horror movie, and the horrors that occur are what happens when the Earth fights back. Fessenden is careful, however, to keep his characters sympathetic (even antagonist Pollack is not evil as such, and is clearly doing what he thinks is right). As a result, we fear for them, and feel for them. They are not particularly responsible for the unleashed horrors. We all are. And so we experience no sense of satisfaction in seeing terrible things happen to these people.
Speaking of horrors, Fessenden’s skills and means have grown considerably since Wendigo. Like that film, this is, at a certain level, a monster movie. In fact, we have the same monster (or at least a creature referred to with the same name). But in the earlier film, the FX were so obvious and cheap that they took away from the menace that had been so carefully wrought. Wendigo would have been much better off with no visible monster at all. Here, the materialization is far more satisfying, and in one instance, generates a very satisfying jolt.
It’s always a relief to encounter a horror film that is made by and for adults, and that clearly has concerns beyond simply goosing its audience or titillating it. Here is one that demands reflection, and that makes its chills part and parcel of its thematic concern: not an easy act to pull off. Fessenden has done so very well here. It’s a shame the film’s theatrical release was so minute, but here’s hoping we don’t have to wait four years before the director’s next film.