The Last Winter follows an oil research team based in the untouched Alaskan Arctic planes. Tough and tenacious leader Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) is eager to drill into the rich oil resources that lie below the surface, but he is challenged by environmental expert James Hoffman (James LeGros), who believes the project will wreak havoc on the already fragile terrain. A sense of unease builds within the team after the mysterious disappearance and death of one of its members, and the camp is slowly engulfed in disorientation and paranoia as a ghostly threat starts to take hold of their lives. After a devastating plane crash at the base Pollack and Hoffman are forced to brave the winter wilderness in search of help, but against perilous conditions and supernatural forces their hopes for survival begin to fade away.
The film’s cinematography captures the expansive, inhospitable landscape of the arctic tundra perfectly, and the sense of hopelessness and isolation that grips the characters is palpable. The men are barely distinguishable in wide shots of barren, snowy planes, and the spooky howling wind is ever present, reinforcing the sense of loneliness. The remote environment is also a psychological landscape, evoking the fear of the unknown and a feeling of helplessness. The camera peers into windows through a flurry of snow, as if a voyeur, which further suggests that the team aren’t alone in the wilderness. The behaviour of the characters becomes more and more erratic as events unfold, and it is difficult to determine whether they are in the grip of their own unravelling sanity or dark forces of nature.
The film’s central conflict is between oil hungry Pollack and sober realist Hoffman and through their antagonism director Larry Fassenden highlights the struggle between the US government’s unwavering capitalist ideology and ever-increasing environmental concerns. In fact, Pollack could be seen as Bush to Hoffman’s Gore, and it’s no surprise that Pollack tries to remove Hoffman when his research findings threaten the project. The chilling ending clearly suggests that if American policy doesn’t change the consequences will be devastating.
This topical issue is pursued through the supernatural horror genre, which could have been an interesting approach if it had been done in a less conventional way. The general set-up echoes The Thing, the foreboding presence of crows circling the sky above is reminiscent of The Omen, and the pecking of eyes and flesh recalls The Birds. The atmosphere of paranoia and solitude creates some genuinely creepy moments, and the dread is most compelling when the threat remains unknown and imagined. But the overall pace of the film is too slow to successfully build anticipation, and the ghostly forces that overwhelm the team have a distinctly underwhelming effect once they are exposed.
Fessenden is known for his ‘intelligent and socially conscious horror films’, and there is no doubting his commitment to the issue of global warming. In The Last Winter, he sternly warns of the dangers of the American government’s reluctance to make changes. But while he creates a convincing atmosphere of tension and uses the bleak landscape to great effect, The Last Winter is burdened by the weight of the issues, and the explicit significance of the message makes the film that much less enjoyable.