Sunday, June 28, 2009

Movies: Snow job.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

- "Fire and Ice," Robert Frost

On first seeing the trailer for The Last Winter, Larry Fessenden's snowbound 2006 eco-horror, I thought that it might very well be his The Thing. What, exactly, Fessenden's The Thing would look like, I wasn't sure; but I'd dug his urban vamp tale Habit and was a fan of his previous snowbound monster flick, Wendigo - which actually serves as a prequel to Last Winter in some odd ways – so I was willing to see what shook out. Sadly, the results are decidedly mixed. Often visually pleasing and suitably eerie, the film suffers severely from a too-baggy plot and drama killing scenes of heavy-handed green-guilt exposition.

The movie begins with a corporate propaganda film-within-a-film explaining that, decades prior to the events of The Last Winter, the North corporation (the film's conveniently evil nature exploiter) sent an exploratory well into some frozen patch of desolation nestled in the bleak heart of an enormous stretch of government-owned Alaskan wasteland. The results of that test were never released because changes in government policy locked the company out of public lands. But, to the great joy of starving oil executives everywhere, evil environmentalist fat cats and the political cronies were swept out of office and elected officials more sensitive the press concern of Energy Independence™ were voted in. Now, just miles away from the mysterious and abandoned original test well, a new project is starting up. And progress, by Americans, for Americans, is on the march again!

In practical terms, this means that we get to strand a handful of folks in a claustrophobic base camp – a series of stitched together trailers that, inside, possess all the charm of a particularly sterile DMV – until something cracks or the forces of nature, from plain ol' hypothermia to the more exotic "things man was not meant to know," do them in, which ever comes first.

The Last Winter wears its sources on it sleeve, for better or for worse. One of the better influences is the superlative 1951 Christian Nyby classic Thing from Another Planet. Though now far eclipsed in fan appreciation by the Carpenter remake, I've always admired the original for its characterization. The surly, already somewhat crazed characters of the remake always seemed to me to just be waiting for a chance to turn into paranoid psychos. Like Nicholson in The Shining, they don't give the viewer confidence that the things might have turned out even had outside evil not intruded. By contrast, the characters in the original appear confident, happy, and friendly. They also partake of that Hawksian professionalism: a refreshingly utopian view of competence that makes heroes out of men that know what they are doing and exercise that skill in an ethos of noble responsibility. When stress starts to weigh on them and trust begins to disintegrate, it seems as if the characters have genuinely lost something. The horror of the original Thing is that our best and brightest might find themselves unequal to a task and crumble under the pressure. In contrast, it is almost impossible to imagine what the protagonists in Carpenter's The Thing might actually be studying. Or, for that matter, why anybody would have armed such a hard-drinking, drugged-out, daft, and embittered crew. The research station in the first film resembles a scientific outpost being supplied by a crew of professional soldiers. The research station in the second film resembles a penal colony. Given the choice between these two options, LW tacks towards the original. Sure, the corporate taskmaster (played with familiar gruffness by Ron Perlman) is a bit of a blockhead, and the machinist is perhaps a bit too fond of his booze – but all in all you get the sense of trained folks, working under harsh conditions, to get a real job done. From their dialogue filled with authentic sounding slang to the passive aggressive "office politics," this feels like it takes place in a genuinely adult world. (I got the same refreshing quality of adultness of the demo crew in Session 9.) Whether horror is just innately a juvenile genre or whether modern horror is simply besotted with an infantilizing nostalgia, it is nice to see a horror film that goes against this grain and has genuinely mature characters in it.

Some other great influences positively inform the flick. The stark, snow-blinded visuals of Carpenter's The Thing seem to have inspired Fessenden's beautifully minimalist cinematography (though the cryptic box that marks the sinister old test well seems a nod to the Nyby original). The film even contains nods to Jack London's work, most notably his classic short story "To Build a Fire." The plot's incrementally building tension also calls to mind classic ghost stories. Not so much any particular film, but rather the sort of slow accumulation of incidents that make the characters realize that the entire haunted mansion, boat, graveyard, laundry machine, whatever, is working against them ever leaving. It has that classic structure.

Some other influences don't wear so well. The film contains what appear to be nods to Event Horizon and Resident Evil which, if intentional, makes The Last Winter the most extensive film homage to the works of "auteur" Paul W. S. Anderson yet created. So, um, it's got that going for it.

There's some other snags too.

Perhaps the fatal weakness of making a mostly smart and well-made flick is that what missteps do occur become glaringly obvious. First, after establishing that the characters in this film aren't a bunch of morons, LW requires the characters do quite a few truly boneheaded things. Most notably, when one of the youngest members of the crew goes mad and stumbles out into the artic night in his birthday suit, carrying a camcorder, determined to record the existence of a ghost he claims is haunting him, the footage the rest of the crew recovers clearly shows something bushwacking the crazed and doomed man. Instead of rewinding the film and attempting to figure out what monstrous thing might have just killed one of the crew, the crew chief destroys the tape. Hey, if it is a well-known fact that there's no such thing as monsters, then the camera must be mistaken or crazy too. The last thing anybody needs is a panicky camcorder getting everybody all riled up!

As unfortunate as some of these sudden attacks of the stupid are, they are almost so common in the creature feature subgenre as to constitute a convention in and of themselves. They don't grate as badly intrusive eco-minded monologues and montages which, aside from their horror-killing pedantic tone, feel like out of place, last minute add on. For example, in one of the scenes, one of the station's consulting environmentalists thumbs through a notebook he's keeping and we hear an internal monologue about how everything has collapsed, there is no hope, something it out to get them all, we're all doomed, DOOMED, I say! However, in the very next scene, however, he seems as chipper as the next guy; he's concerned about the environmental impact of the project, but hardly convinced that its ramifications are apocalyptic; and he seems to have pushed the whole "something there is that does not love a drilling station" fear out of his mind.

I don't particularly have a problem with eco-friendly subtexts (in fact, I seem to be on some sort of roll with the green-themed horror stuff, though the trend was unintentional). If that's what fuels the filmmaker's vision, then go to town. The issue is that these somewhat hamfisted interludes clash with the rest of the film's efforts at building an aura of mystery. If the film were entitled Larry Fessenden Explains Global Warming, with Occasional Monsters then the tone would be fine. But the "haunted tundra" vibe's artificiality is highlighted and its menace strangely drained whenever the film fails to trust the viewer to make the necessary connections and smothers the action in an unnecessary coating of exposition.

The end result is a respectable and often eye-catching flick that feels hobbled by the awkward earnestness of its message. It's not a bad film, but it isn't one of Fessenden's best.


Anonymous said...

Sounds somewhat disappointing, I liked Wendigo despite its faults, but was hoping that Fessenden might have improved. Judging from your review though, it seems he's still not able to balance the horror and the social elements in a satisfactory manner.

FWIW: I know a couple of scientists who spent several months in the arctic and although it might seem hard to believe, they said that (towards the end/after a few months) the average crew comes fairly close to resemblingthe guys in Carpenter's The Thing.

CRwM said...


"Somewhat disappointing" is a good executive summary. It's well acted, the characterization is nice, it all looked great. But the awkward plotting and distracting sermonizing undermine the pleasure.

Honestly, if you regularly watch horror flicks, then I'm certain that you've seen a lot worse; but Fessenden's done better.

Thanks for the reality check about the grim social life of arctic research station crews. All the less reason to arm them, I'd say.

Sasquatchan said...

War. War never changes.

Thumbing through the wiki article on the movies, it does read like an amalgam of several other movies..

Did you catch the comic "Sally Forth" today ? See what movie they are going to watch ? I saw it and thought of you..

Jeff Allard said...

Habit is still Fessenden's best for me but I'm glad that he's continued to carve a niche on the genre landscape for himself. Fessenden's horror films are from the heart - even flawed efforts like Wendigo and The Last Winter have a personality and an endearing earnestness to them - and I keep rooting for him to make a bona fide classic one day.

CRwM said...


In the words of the classic song: "I second that emotion." I'd even add that Fessenden's role as producer and mentor to up and coming indie horror talent makes him, for my money, one of the most vital forces in horror today. This wasn't his best work, but his work is almost always worth checking out.