Fright movies get a bad rap. It's true that most are garbage; they insult your intelligence and eat time (and money) that you'll never get back. So it's a pleasant surprise when a horror movie rises from nowhere and offers something more. Many of director Larry Fessenden's previous films (including the great Wendigo and Habit) were good examples of smart and well-acted horror that transcended genre trappings. The Last Winter is no exception.
Here, Fessenden mines environmental issues to craft a topical story about a research team in Alaska's Artic National Wildlife Refuge. The team there to scout oil drilling sites is leader Ed (Ron Perlman, Hellboy, City of Lost Children), his former lover and second in command Abby (Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights), newbie Maxx (Zach Gilford) and loopy mechanic Motor (Kevin Corrigan, Slums of Beverly Hills, Henry Fool). James (James LeGros, Phantasm II and Zodiac) and Elliot (Jamie Harold, I Shot Andy Warhol) are employees hired to evaluate the ecological impact, and they won't sign off on the necessary paperwork. Ed is a right-wing blowhard under work pressure and he continually spouts off about how he represents the "American people" and their demands for crude oil. He considers James and Elliot nuisances and attempts to bully them in hopes of cutting though so much environmental red tape.
So when Maxx disappears while mapping some territory only to return looking freaked and disoriented, he claims he saw spirits. Most of the staff calls it cabin fever. Desperate and maybe deranged, he heads out to capture what he's seen with a video camera. Maxx is found dead the next morning. But what he caught on video ignites the team's growing paranoia. Strange incidents and deaths ensue, and the team spirals down a horrific path of accusations, violence and retribution.
Nothing in The Last Winter is ever spelled out. It's shot in Iceland on a bleak and foreboding landscape, and the crew's claustrophobia-inducing living quarters go lengths to enhance the film's haunting sense of isolation and tension. The characters struggle between what's supernatural and what's reasonable or rationally explainable. The horror burns-in slowly and is partially built on character conflict, which pays off in some unexpected ways particularly in the apocalyptic ending that recalls Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo. With a cerebral, multi-themed approach to fright and "Don't fuck with Mother Nature" winks, The Last Winter continues the director's inimitable and narrative-driven approach to horror.
Opens Friday, Oct. 12 at Maple Art Theater, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Paul Knoll writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.