Monday, August 6, 2007

Running Out of Road: Larry Fessenden's THE LAST WINTER

There are a number of ways you can do horror movies, and many of those ways will work if you do them right, but Larry Fessenden's way is one of the most appealing to me. His films (he's only got four of them so far) are all about that sense of dread and foreboding, that feeling that something terrible is going to happen that eventually does happen, all despite numerous warning signs. People know these things could occur if they let them, but emotion, pride and ego all get the better of them, so when it all comes down there's a tragic quality about it that not a lot of horror movies touch upon. Like any real-life tragedy, the events that occur in Fessenden's films could have been avoided if people heeded the warning signs, but they never do. Sure, it can be said that's a staple of a lot of horror movies ("Geeeeeeet ooooooout!!!!"), but Fessenden's horrors are built upon this and display a sense of remorse that's rare for the genre. It's always the fault of someone who should have known better.

Fessenden's latest, THE LAST WINTER (which opens in September from IFC), takes this approach and applies it to the real-life horror of global warming. If we don't do something, if we don't listen to the experts, this is what's going to happen and you're going to regret it. Adding a spiritual element to this (not unlike his previous feature, WENDIGO), Fessenden reminds us that no matter what happens, we're all at fault. This isn't going to be one of those situations where the innocent and god-fearing will be spared; if (and when) this happens then we're all going to get it, no exceptions. THE LAST WINTER focuses on an Alaskan oil drilling expedition that's looking to start drilling ASAP, despite the fact that warmer temperatures have made it dangerous to do so. Environmental activist James LeGros (excellent), part of the expedition thanks to a deal between the oil company and the environmental groups, is being asked to sign off on it by oil company honcho Ron Pearlman (likewise), but LeGros feels that atmospheric changes are causing more problems than just a lack of stable earth and he's soon proven right. Things begin to get increasingly creepy by this point, so I'm not going to get too much into it, but at this tipping point the entire movie can either get better or self-district in potential silliness, and it's to Fessenden's credit that it goes the former. He understands how to mount suspense properly and slowly (though the film never drags) and still build on characterization. He also doesn't lose sight of the film's message, nor does he get overly preachy, waving his finger around. He knows how to make all this vital to the story and it's probably the most impressive element to the film.

Thanks to its artic setting (the film was actually shot in Iceland), some will think that THE LAST WINTER owes a bit to John Carpenter's classic THE THING and that's not inaccurate, but just because it's a horror film set in the Artic doesn't mean it's ripping it off. Fessenden, like Carpenter, makes this white open tundra a frightening place on its own and part of the reason why is that the environment is, in a sense, the monster of the movie. Though it's merely reacting to the horrors that have been done unto it, this vast landscape is also like something of a haunted house, with angry ghosts seeking revenge for an injustice. Fessenden is reminding us that the earth is indeed a living thing, and like all living things, if you provoke it, it will fight back. But he doesn't go overboard; there's no big DAY AFTER TOMORROW special effects finale, just a reminder that these are the consequences of our actions and that we're all here for a limited time while the earth will outlive us all. This may all sound a little too "deep" and pretentious, but it doesn't feel like that while you're watching it; rather, it's all what you take with you after the film is long done. And that's what a great horror film is supposed to do, give you something that makes the horror stay with you. With THE LAST WINTER, Fessenden has done an impressive job of tapping into the fears we all have about global warming and about the uncertainty that lays ahead for most of humanity. This is what the genre is supposed to be all about and it moves Fessenden very high up the ladder of genre directors who do this genre exceedingly well.

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