Eco-Horror ‘The Last Winter’ Still Serves as a Chilling Warning

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Ron Perlman in The Last Winter

In the years since Larry Fessenden’s eco-horror cautionary tale The Last Winter was released in 2006, there may be more cause for alarm now that global warming has become a larger threat. This January has been the warmest on record for eight countries across Europe that have all experienced record-breaking heat. Maybe that’s an anomaly, or maybe Mother Earth is trying to tell us something. Fessenden’s anti-corporate genre film rails against Big Oil and its environmental message is clear. But it’s also an incredibly well-acted, self-contained bit of horror that uses its icy setting to reveal the darkest aspects of human nature.

Sent to a remote oil drilling base in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, scientists James Hoffman (James LeGros) and Abby Sellers (Connie Britton) are tasked with making sure the extraction efforts of a domineering crew chief, Ed Pollack, (a perfectly cast Ron Perlman) are conducted with the least amount of environmental impact. The unseasonably warm temperatures are already cause for concern, leading Hoffman to shut down most modes of transportation due to the company’s inability to carve out the roads necessary to bring in equipment. This decision leaves the rigging crew and both environmentalists stranded, cramped together, alone, and at odds with each other.

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Hoffman then begins to experience strange visions of ghostly caribou galloping through the unforgiving white tundra. Not surprisingly, when he tells the others, they don’t believe him, especially Pollack, who just calls him a daydreaming hippie. The visions are, in fact, warning signs. And the longer they remain on the land, the more menacing they become. When one member of the crew is found frozen to death outside the compound doors, paranoia and mistrust set in, sending The Last Winter into a spiraling descent into straight-up horror in the final act.

Storms begin rising around them, and the haunting click-clacking sound of echoing hooves starts to grow louder and louder. Mirroring our own reckoning with climate change, reality starts to sink in for the crew despite their refusal to acknowledge what’s happening around them. The only Indigenous members of the group, Lee (Pato Hoffman) and Dawn (Joanne Shenandoah), seem to believe that the ancient Wendigo creature may have a part to play in the unexplainable occurrences they’re witnessing.

As death begins its slow approach, it’s clear that some kind of mythological beast is leading the charge. Nature is taking revenge on us for past sins—a conclusion that Hoffman seems unwilling to accept until it’s too late. The evidence of something supernatural is undeniable. Yet Hoffman and the rest of the team conjure up all kinds of excuses, from ancient gases spilling out of the cracking permafrost to some form of mass group hallucination.

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Fessenden has had a long-standing fascination with the environment and for the Wendigo creature, itself. His 2001 film, The Wendigo, explores a lot of the same themes, depicting the creature as more of an avenger than a demon. Comparisons could also be drawn to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, another contemporary classic featuring the mythic beast. With The Last Winter, Fessenden finally had an all-star Hollywood cast to help buttress those ideas and explore the legend on a grander scale.

Right after The Last Winter, Fessenden even delivered a deeply chilling episode in the anthology series Fear Itself. Called Skin and Bones, the episode followed a gaunt Doug Jones as a sickly father who vanished in the woods only to return possessed by an ancient force. The Last Winter is the most political exploration of Fessenden’s ongoing fascination. But Skin and Bones achieves a much more foreboding sense of dread. The episode is probably the scariest thing Fessenden has ever made, and that’s saying something.

What sets The Last Winter apart from something like last year’s hit horror film Antlers is its use of the Wendigo legend as a climate change allegory. The insular events that originally set everything in motion become the catalyst for cataclysmic events all over the country. The title is already giving away an ending where the Earth is truly experiencing the last winter and the end of times.

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Snowbound survival horror is nothing new. The gold standard is, obviously, The Thing. It’s no wonder that The Last Winter draws comparisons to Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece since Fessenden’s film probably wouldn’t exist without it. With The Thing, the existential threat is alien and almost incomprehensible. MacCready (Kurt Russell) and the rest of the crew at Outpost 31 don’t necessarily deserve their fate. It’s a survivalist tale where humans just happen not to be the ones that get to survive.

The Last Winter, in contrast, is nature’s doomsday clock finally hitting the stroke of midnight. Draining the planet’s resources finally comes back to haunt us, leaving the ghosts below us to wake up and wipe out the human virus up above.

Roots to The Last Winter can be tracked through more recent eco-horror gems like Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic pandemic nail-biter In the Earth and the fracking horror story Unearth starring Adrienne Barbeau. As the years go by and the data on climate change starts to point in a more perilous direction, Fessenden’s chilling winter warning is starting to become more prescient and more ominous every day.

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Still, there’s a hypnotic, daydream quality to the creatures in The Last Winter that add a much-needed layer of fantasy. Fessenden knows how to construct a satisfying genre film, so the death count starts to rise along with the temperature. There are some stirring kills that don’t just use one element. Sure, characters go crazy and wind up freezing to death after disappearing in the middle of the night. But some poor souls even get their eyes plucked out by possessed ravens and one, in particular, suffers horribly after being engulfed in a ball of fire.

If the political bent sounds too heavy-handed, there’s always the absolutely ridiculous option of M. Night Shyamalan’s nature-goes-haywire, unintentional comedy, The Happening. While we’re all still here on Earth, The Last Winter still holds up as a satisfying piece of horror to watch on a stormy winter night wrapped in a blanket. It just might make you think a little.

The Last Winter is now streaming on Shudder. It’s also available as part of Shout Factory’s glorious blu-ray box set, The Larry Fessenden Collection.

Tags: Larry Fessenden Ron Perlman The Last Winter
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