Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scary Movies 9: The Last Winter

When you think about it, fossil fuels are sort of macabre, because they are the remains of formerly living things. Hold that thought, because Larry Fessenden will get back to it. The Earth is apparently angry, it will take out its frustrations on a remote Alaskan oil exploration station in Fessenden’s The Last Winter (trailer here), which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies 9, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix.

In an alternate universe, a small way-the-heck-and-gone corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been opened to drilling—more or less. The North Corporation still has a lot of hoops to jump through before it can start pumping crude. Their environmental impact must be minimal, so they have brought on board several former activists to certify everything is on the up-and-up. Presumably, it will be worth it. A local Inuit tribe commissioned the exploratory KIK well in the 1970s—the results of which have been a closely guarded source of much speculation ever since.

Unfortunately for project manager Ed Pollock, the weather has not cooperated. It simply has not been cold enough to construct their low-impact ice roads, so bleeding heart James Hoffman refuses to sign off on any further development. To add insult to injury, Hoffman has taken up with Pollock’s deputy and former main squeeze Abby Sellers. Of course, everyone will have more pressing things to worry about when Maxwell McKinder goes start raving mad. He is the first, but he won’t be the last. Something is obviously very wrong, but the gritty petroleum workers are rather dismissive of Hoffman’s warnings of a vengeful Mother Nature.

Yes, there are similarities between Winter and M. Night Shyamalan’s notorious The Happening, but Fessenden’s indie horror film predated the ill-conceived studio release by two years. It is also much more skillfully executed—and it has Ron Perlman.

Still, there is no denying Fessenden’s messaging gets a tad heavy-handed, especially down the stretch. On the plus side, he brings some real visual flash and dazzle, including several terrific tracking shots and a number of appropriately unsettling, psychologically expressive montages that could possibly induce seizures in some viewers. Fessenden also earns style points for his unexpected use of the classic Nina Simone recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

As usual, Perlman does his thing as Pollock. Really, what more needs to be said? Yet, as Hoffman, James LeGros stands his ground with Perlman quite well. In fact, both actors and Fessenden deserve credit for portraying their rivalry relatively subtly, rather resorting to the tritest red state-blue state clich├ęs.

Fessenden totally nails the kind of frozen, claustrophobic moodiness that made John Carpenter’s The Thing a classic. However, the film suffers from the lack of a proper monster. Winter also commits a minor Chekhov’s Gun infraction, fixating a lot of early attention on the KIK well (it’s right there on the one-sheet) that never appreciably pays off. Last Winter is a mixed bag, but it certainly proves there are auterist level filmmakers working in the contemporary horror genre. Recommended for Fessenden fans who want to see his expansive tundra vistas on the big screen, The Last Winter screens as part of Scary Movies 9 this Tuesday (11/3) at Walter Reade, with Fessenden, Perlman, and LeGros expected for Q&A afterward.