Filmmaker Larry Fessenden has happily shunned the Hollywood system to make films exactly the way he wants to. His past feature-length efforts "No Telling," "Habit," and "Wendigo" were horror films with themes of ecological awareness and class struggles. His latest work, "The Last Winter," continues along those same lines. Despite writing the script in the earlier part of the decade, the film's messages about oil and energy still remain topical. Arguments about global warming and oil drilling may play an integral part in the film, but "Last Winter" never gets preachy at all.
"The Last Winter" begins with a mock promo by North Industries as they prepare to drill in the untapped Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the Alaskan wilderness. The man they put in charge of the project is Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman). Gruff and no-nonsense, Pollack is a company man through and through. In order to put a friendly face on the controversial project, North Industries also brings in two environmental consultants, James Hoffman (James LeGros), and his assistant Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold). Of course, Pollack and Hoffman butt heads on various issues. The major problem comes from unseasonably high temperatures that have made vital ice roads impossible to transport heavy drilling equipment across. Hoffman warns against going through with the project while Pollack could care less. Their schism is widened when Pollack returns to their Alaskan post after five months at company headquarters. He learns that his second-in-command and ex-girlfriend, Abby Sellers (Connie Britton), is now shacking up with Hoffman.
However, ideological disagreements are not the main conflict in "The Last Winter." Strange occurrences begin when the station's intern, Maxwell (Zach Gilford), wanders off into the middle of nowhere with his radio switched off. When he returns, he rants about something trying to get them. One night, Maxwell is found dead in the snow after wandering off once more without his clothes on. When another team member begins mentally breaking down, Hoffman warns Pollack to pack up and evacuate the station. Hoffman grasps at straws in coming up with theories about "sour gas" emanating from the melted permafrost. Pollack refuses to buy into Hoffman's cockamamie hypotheses and the results are predictably disastrous. The station loses power and people begin dropping like flies. Hoffman and Pollack are forced to brave the elements in search of help at the nearest town miles away.
The film's snowy setting will definitely remind you of John Carpenter's "The Thing." Both movies are about a small, isolated group under attack from something otherworldly. "Last Winter" also has a touch of "The Twilight Zone" with its messages about Mother Nature fighting back and "Evil Dead" with the supernatural threat lurking somewhere out in the wilderness. However, "Last Winter" just isn't able to put all those ingredients together to create a strong, final product. The film takes a long time to really get going. We're about fifty minutes into the movie before the spookiness really kicks off.
Fessenden admirably takes his time in allowing his characters to develop rather than creating a cast of disposable victims for the villain to cut down one by one. While the supporting cast blurs together, his leads are a bit more defined, especially Pollack who is finely portrayed by Perlman. The man also known as Hellboy is excellently cast. Fans of the television series, "Friday Night Lights," might be interested to know that two of the main cast members, Gilford and Britton, can be found here.
"Last Winter" completely comes apart in the climax. At this point, there are only ambiguous hints at something supernatural attacking the crew. Dialogue about oil being made of the spirits of dead creatures should have been our first hint that the plot would eventually take a left turn into the absurd. The spirits arrive and don't look threatening whatsoever. They look exactly like what they are, badly rendered computer effects. The film's final act reminds me of another horror film that could have been great, "The Descent." "Last Winter" and "Descent" were far more interesting when it focused on the characters struggling against the elements and each other. Introducing ghosts and goblins undermines everything that had come before. The epilogue just added cheese on top of cheese.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is clean and really shows off the beautiful locations that were used in Alaska and Iceland.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound isn't the most rich track you'll ever here, but its adequate. Dialogue can be clearly heard and the score and sound effects are strong.
The DVD includes an audio commentary track with Fessenden who speaks throughout the track and has plenty of information to share even if his delivery is rather dry.
The only other extra included is the documentary, The Making of The Last Winter, which runs nearly two hours and is split into eight different chapters: "Location Scout," "Development," "Pre-Production,""Myvatn Shoot," "Reykjavik Shoot," "Post-Production," "Deleted Scenes" and "Interview with Co-Writer/Director Larry Fessenden." The first six chapters are video diaries where we're given a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the making of the film. The doc ends with a collection of deleted scenes and an interview with the director that was conducted during the Toronto Film Festival.
"Last Winter" definitely had potential to be an atmospheric, psychological thriller. Most of the cast does a decent job with the material and Perlman is particularly noteworthy. Instead, the film comes undone when it extends itself fully into the supernatural realm. Ordinary people coming apart during trying times I can deal with, folks being attacked by hokey CGI ghosts, I cannot. This movie is like a less stylishly directed version of "The Happening."