Scary Larry

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Nature enjoyed rebelling against arrogant, polluting humankind in the paranoid ecosploitation cinema of the 1970s: Prophecy, Phase IV, Frogs, Sssssss, The Food of the Gods, and even the Oscar-winning fake documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle all suggested Mother Nature was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Back then, though, nature was just bitching within safe fantasy confines. Who could have guessed something as nonfictionally apocalyptic as global warming would be a coming attraction by millennium’s end? Where prior generations only suffered nightmares of an unplugged Earth, ours might actually witness the beginning of the self-inflicted end. Kind of makes you feel special, doesn’t it?

Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter isn’t the first global-warming horror film, and it surely won’t be the last, but it’s unlikely there will be a better one anytime soon — or a better horror movie this fall. After Rob Zombie’s lamentable Halloween and at least three major Toronto disappointments (the lesser-sung The Devil’s Chair, George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, and Dario Argento’s howlingly bad Mother of Tears), it’s a relief to be reminded the genre isn’t innately allergic to intelligence and nuance.

Actually, those qualities are probably why nobody’s handed Fessenden a remake of some ’70s drive-in classic or Japanese hairy-ghost flick — he can’t be trusted to make a film obvious enough that it will lure the usual suspects to umpteen mall screens on opening weekend. (All the justified bitching about Halloween didn’t stop ’em from lining up like sheep, if only to sound the first Monday-morning complaints behind the Starbucks counter.)

Fessenden’s movies are creepy rather than stab crazed, with genuinely interesting characters and recognizable human emotions. Habit (1997) is about a loser guy (played by the director) who’s seeing a mysterious woman who just might be a vampire — or maybe that’s just his cover for some serious denial issues. Wendigo (2001) involves a man-deer beast, but more disturbing is its dead-on portrait of a crumbling marriage and poor parenting skills. The Last Winter is a comparatively epic endeavor. It boasts a cast of several! It features wide-screen sunset vistas! It includes helicopter shots! But once again, it’s a story in which the peril might be supernatural or might simply be the result of people losing their grip.

In arctic Alaska (played by Iceland — go figure), an advance team preps a multinational oil company’s projected new drill in a hitherto protected national wildlife refuge. Because lip service must be paid to the environment, North Industry is hosting an impact study before drilling begins. As far as North Industry team leader Pollack (Ron Perlman) is concerned, the study is just a useless formality, but eco watchdog James Hoffman (James LeGros) begs to differ. Pollack meets this unwelcome new coworker after a five-week absence dealing with the suits back in civilization, and his homecoming is further soured by the discovery that another change has occurred: where he used to be the designated bed warmer for second in command Abby (Connie Britton), the sensitive Hoffman now enjoys that role.

Dumped, horny, and ornery, the macho Pollack is not receptive to Hoffman’s foreboding statements about the great white flatness outside. Unseasonably warm temperatures are creating logistical problems, and there are signs the permafrost might be melting, yet Pollack greets such news like a Marine boot-camp instructor handed a sachet of patchouli. As in: fuck you, hippie. Then things start going haywire at the station, from unexplained power outages to personnel wig-outs. An intern vanishes, then returns nearly catatonic. What’s going on out there? Whatever it is, it’s as intent on whittling down the North crew’s number as your standard masked dude with machete at a girls’ school. Except The Last Winter isn’t that kind of horror movie.

It’s the kind, rather, that builds an atmosphere of dread from disorientation and psychological fragility instead of things jumping out from behind doors. In fact, as with Wendigo, the least effective elements in The Last Winter are its most literally minded fantastical. Fessenden does ambiguity with such skill that when monster thingies finally arrive, it’s a bit of a tacky letdown. The most harrowing moments in this beautifully crafted film are contrastingly realistic, such as a sudden plunge through thin ice into freezing waters.

Movies like The Last Winter don’t win awards, and sometimes they don’t get distributed. (It’s taken this movie more than a year to reach US theaters; elsewhere, it’s been shunted directly to DVD.) But I can’t think of a genre film I’ve enjoyed more in 2007, let alone another one that has rewarded repeat viewings. Even if The Last Winter weren’t scary, funny, surprising, and gorgeously shot, Fessenden would still warrant all kinds of gratitude for letting the terminally underappreciated and invariably excellent James LeGros carry a movie. He’s so good here that if there were any justice in the world … ah, forget it. There isn’t.

THE LAST WINTER

Opens Fri/28 in Bay Area theaters