Perhaps the frequent headlines about floods, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, crop failures, soil depletion, peak oil, rising temperatures, melting icecaps, diminishing fresh water reserves, rapid species extinction, desertification, rapidly-spreading contagions, environmental refugees, and any of a couple dozen other looming natural catastrophes are to blame, or perhaps it's just the weak story and special effects, but whatever the reason, the recent environmental horror film, The Last Winter (2006), is a lot less scary than the average left-leaning environmental documentary.
The Last Winter is a claustrophobic horror film in the tradition of The Haunting (1963), Alien, or John Carpenter's The Thing. Set in a remote outpost in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an oil company team is making final preparations for drilling. Tensions between team leader Ed Pollack (Ron Pearlman) and environmentalist-cum-independent-contractor James Hoffman (James LeGross) already heightened by Hoffman's sexual liaison with Pollack's Number Two, Abby Sellers (Connie Britton), are pushed toward the breaking point when Hoffman doesn't sign off on Pollack's plan to bring in the oil drills across the fragile melting permafrost.
Pollack and Hoffman aren't the only ones acting strangely. Intern Maxwell McKinder (Zach Gilford) keeps wandering off on foot, sometimes clothed, sometimes not. IT-guy Jamie Harrold (Elliot Jenkins) has a nose bleed that won't stop for the life of him. Fix-it-man Motor (Kevin Corrigan) is acting more and more like The Shining's Jack Torrance. And native Alaskans Lee Means (Pato Hoffman) and Dawn Russell (Joanne Shenandoah) are spooked.
We're all living in a post-Blair Witch world now
There may be a reasonable explanation for all the strange behavior. There's talk that unseasonably warm temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt, releasing vapors that cause hallucinations, paranoia, belligerence, nose bleeds, bed wetting, atmospheric interference, and whatever other particulars of the storyline by filmmaker Larry Fessenden and co-writer Robert Leaver that need explaining. On the other hand, it might just be spirits (supernatural, not libational) upset that mankind is about to ruin the last unspoiled place on earth, or so says local native-Alaskan Dawn Russell.
It's warmer than normal, but you're still going to want to take a jacket
Though the claustrophobic atmosphere engendered by the isolated station initially works well together with the off-kilter behavior of the station crew to create a suitably scary mood, decidedly un-scary CGI monsters, and clichéd plot points which fail to deliver spoil the mood. Once the bodies start dropping, it's just a matter of kicking back and waiting to see who if anybody is going to come out alive on the other end of 101 minutes.
The Last Winter is presented in 2.35:1 scope and is enhanced for widescreen. The image is sharp and detailed, with steady colors and deep blacks. Optional English-for-the-hearing-impaired and Spanish subtitles are appropriately sized, paced and placed.
The 5.1 DD audio sounds solid with good use of directed sound, and no noticeable dropouts or distortions.
Extras include a slip cover, an hour-long making-of documentary which incorporates deleted scenes as well as an interview with director Larry Fessenden, and a feature-length director's commentary, free of any long pauses, in which Fessenden does a good job of explaining his choices as a writer and director.
Although the Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has more scares and better special effects, The Last Winter may still be worth a look for fans of atmospheric horror. The environmental-horror angle, and freedom to choose between the traditional supernatural explanation and a more novel scientific explanation which more or less holds up will no doubt appeal to many.