Sunday, May 18, 2008

Film Review #159: The Last Winter
2006/DVD 2008
Director: Larry Fessenden
Cast: Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton

My baby don’t care for shows,
My baby don’t care for clothes,
My baby just cares for me.

Nina Simone’s throaty, caressing ballad, with its soft percussion and piano back-up, belongs to some smoky jazz club. It’s startling in the vast, snowy Alaskan night, especially at a point where we expect something different – sound that will do the dramatic work that, say, the driving theme in Jaws did for that film’s first moonlight swim.

Exactly ten minutes into Larry Fessenden’s horror parable on global warming, The Last Winter, a sequence commences that lasts nearly two and a half patient minutes. Rooted in horror movie conventions, it produces a more complex, unsettling result.

North Oil’s advance team intends to re-open an old drilling site inside Alaska’s remote eastern wild-life refuge. Project boss Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) has flown back to camp with orders to step up the pace. He clashes with Jim Hoffman (James Le Gros) and Elliot (Jamie Harrold), environmental scientists contracted by North Oil whom he expects to rubber-stamp his plans. Hoffman’s also romancing Pollack’s girl Abby (Connie Britton). The North Oil CEO’s son Maxwell (Zach Gilford), sent out here to “toughen up,” is acting strange. The weather’s fluctuating bizarrely and unaccountably. There’s a mechanic named Motor (Kevin Corrigan) who drinks too much and two Inuit - roustabout Lee (Pato Hoffman) and nurse-cook Dawn Russell (Joanne Shenandoah) - who may see significance in certain signs before the others.

The Last Winter opens with Pollack’s plane flying into camp over the tundra. Ten minutes in, we see the camp from above again through the eyes of something large, something able to sweep gracefully through the air at great heights yet spy in each window at the crew – as that Nina Simone track entwines with wind and snow. This long arcing shot ends up behind Maxwell, outside again, staring back at the night, then twists around to share his view. Here is where the piano flourish runs seamlessly into distant thundering, a ghostly caribou stampede across the black horizon. Here’s where we’re supposed to see monsters.

Instead, Fessenden has replaced that standard gambit with a longing and sadness familiar to anyone who’s ever looked into warmly-lit houses from a cold, dark street. The Manhattan-based filmmaker sees such disconnection at the heart of Earth’s ecological crisis. It’s an undertow that moves through every Fessenden movie since his first videos from the late 70s. Gruesome disaster ensues in The Last Winter – death by freezing, fiery plane crash and ravenous crows – but Fessenden’s interested in how a “reinvigorated” horror genre can serve environmental ends.

Though set in Alaska, The Last Winter was shot mostly in Iceland. Premiering at Toronto International Film Festival in September 2006, The Last Winter opened theatrically in New York City last September. Since then it’s continued to screen in limited release and at festivals. This February, the film came to Syracuse’s Palace Theater in Eastwood as part of a Native American film festival organized by Joanne Shenandoah, who plays Dawn Russell in the film.

The same day The Last Winter premiered in Toronto, Fessenden launched his extensive ecology-themed website,, a leap beyond Low Impact Filmmaking, his 1992 guide for filmmakers that details ecologically sound production and uses his film No Telling (1991) as a case example. Released abroad as The Frankenstein Complex, that film explored the arrogance of unchecked animal experimentation against a backdrop of toxic pesticide manufacturers’ profit-driven and equally arrogant contamination of upstate farmland. Fessenden also starred in Habit (1997), his riff on vampirism in society set largely in his own Lower East Side with forays to Long Island and Central Park. Wendigo (2001) completed the decade-long “horror trilogy” with another upstate tale, this one about an angry deer god that attacks a transgressing vacationer from the city but spares – for now – his artifact-carrying son.

This should be a good year for Fessenden. In late March Image Comics released The Last Winter as a graphic novel. Fessenden acts in several forthcoming films produced by Scareflix, the ultra low-budget division of his Glass Eye Pix, including Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead (with Ron Perlman and Dominic Monaghan) and Graham Reznick’s I Can See You. He’s a producer for, and has a part in, Kelly Reichardt’s new road trip movie, Wendy and Lucy, which premiers at Cannes this month. And he’s directing an episode of NBC’s summer anthology series, Fear Itself, which starts airing Thursdays at 10 PM on June 5th. He’s a taste worth acquiring.

This review appeared in the 5/15/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly & is a shorter version of the introduction to an interview with Larry Fessenden published on 5/18/08 at The Last Winter releases on rental DVD on May 20 as a Blockbuster Exclusive (for sale elsewhere, with many extras, on July 22). “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a CNY theatrical opening & older films of enduring worth.