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The Last Winter. 2006. Directed by Larry Fessenden. Screenplay by Fessenden & Robert Leaver.
Starring Ron Perlman, Connie Britton, James Le Gros, Jamie Harrold, Zach Gilford, Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold, Pato Hoffmann, Joanne Shenandoah, Larry Fessenden, and Oscar Miller. Antidote Films/Glass Eye Pix/Zik Zak Kvikmyndir. Rated 18A. 101 minutes.
It’s no secret I’m a huge Larry Fessenden fan. His collection of films recently hit Blu ray, so I luckily snatched up a copy from eBay at a solid price. The entire 4-disc collection includes his films No Telling, Habit, Wendigo, and of course The Last Winter. Included are a ton of extra bits like music videos and short films Fessenden pulls out of virtual obscurity, as well as the man himself talking us into the pictures, plus the short pieces too. The commentary is great all around, everything about this collection is magic.
The Last Winter is a rare bird. While I’m not huge on certain special effects in this movie, I can’t fault it much more outside those elements. In a day and age where too many people deny climate change, not to mention its impact(s), Fessenden takes the horror genre and weaves a contemporary issue through its cliches and tropes in a unique way. The story, above all else, is what matters. Add to that some solid performances, excellent tension developed by Fessenden’s directorial style, and this is a supremely creepy effort among a ton of post-2000 horror movies which aren’t worth their weight.
American oil company KIC Corporation is drilling in the arctic, constructing an ice road into the Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to find more locations in which they’ll explore for more deposits. At a station ran by corporate shill Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), a team of environmentalists work side by side with people from KIC. James Hoffman (James Le Gros) and his assistant Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold) are the most recent scientists evaluating the project. When Pollack bumps heads with Hoffman, the latter is taken away from the project permanently; no doubt due to Ed’s pull at KIC. At the same time, young crew member Maxwell McKinder (Zach Gilford) goes missing for a while. Upon his return, he seems distant, disturbed. One night, he wanders out into the wilderness, naked and mentally unstable. The rest of the crew find him dead, eyes only empty sockets. And then, they realize the environment may be starting to take back what they’ve drilled so relentlessly out of its bones.
Hoffman: “Why do we despise the world that gave us life? Why wouldn’t the world survive us, like any organism survives a virus. The world that we grew up in is changed forever. There is no way home. Is there something beyond science that is happening out here? What if the very thing we were here to pull out of the ground were to rise willingly – confront us. What would that look like? What if this is the last winter, before the collapse? And hope dies.”
The cinematography is spectacular. So many of the exterior shots in particular, they’re marvelous to look at – from the wide shots of the Arctic Circle, to the helicopter and sweeping crane shots of the camp. Every last sequence in the entire film looks gorgeous, even the dark, shadowy moments. Again, as I said earlier, there are a few shots involving special effects I don’t think come off so great. At the same time, the camerawork itself is all around fascinating. Fessenden has a great eye for unique looking shots, things which catch the eye: crane and helicopter shots, tight and wide angles, the whole spectrum alike. Here, he’s aided by cinematographer G. Magni Ágústsson.
Together with a distinctive look and feel, The Last Winter‘s atmosphere comes across so feverishly in part due to the inclusion of an eerie score by Jeff Grace (Cold in July, The House of the Devil, The Roost). Not only is there a quality score, the tone consistently set between that and the visuals, there’s incredible sound design courtesy of Abigail Savage (who many will know well from her turn as Gina Murphy on Orange is the New Black). Everything is creeping, in terms of sound: the wind in the background, the stamp of ghostly hooves across the frozen arctic plains, and later the crashing plane, all the fire which follows and so on. I’m always keeping my ear out for good sound design, as well as score. But there’s something about the background sounds and noise of a film which really elevates a film properly if accomplished well. The sound design can truly make a movie less interesting if the sounds incorporated are annoying or aggravating, instead of compelling and rich, as they certainly are in this film.
While I could rave on about Ron Perlman, even James Le Gros or Connie Britton, most of what interests me about The Last Winter is the plot and the story. Fessenden creates an ecological horror film out of the fear of global warming/climate change. The character of Pollack (Perlman) represents those stubborn sort who think the tipping point has passed, even if they’re willing to admit the world climate is changing for the worse. His hardheaded nature is the type which got us to this point. But yet in this film, we literally see the evidence climbing up and out of the ground. The living embodiment of nature fighting back against us. I know a lot of viewers may find Fessenden’s themes here heavy handed and obvious. However, I find the presentation makes things so interesting, it’s hard to deny the thematic power at play. Fessenden uses many typical horror genre tropes to explore the sociopolitical issues inherent in the dynamic between those who quest for oil versus those who keep telling us to be wary of our reliance on fossil fuels without worrying (or caring) about the consequences.
The Last Winter, despite some of its less than stellar computer generated imagery, is a 4 out of 5 star film. For me, it is. Others may be turned away from its environmental message, buried beneath its thrills and its horrific moments. Some might not like other aspects, who knows. But I cannot tear myself away from the grim tone, the compelling cinematography, sound design and writing. Even more than that, the writing helps bring out some timely messages about us, our world, and the future that could come to be eventually. I don’t think it’ll look exactly like this portrait of madness Fessenden illustrates. All the same, I’m inclined to feel we’ve absolutely treated this planet like shit. Some day we might pay for all our transgressions against this world we claim to love.
John Carpenter’s The Fog. 1980. Directed by John Carpenter. Written by Carpenter & Debra Hill.
Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, John Houseman, Hal Holbrook, Charles Cyphers, George ‘Buck’ Flower, and Jim Haynie. AVCO Embassy Pictures/EDI/Debra Hill Productions. Rated R. 89 minutes.
An impressive aspect about John Carpenter, other than stuff I’ve already talked about in reviews, is that his filmography as director has covered such ground in terms of genre. While a lot of it is horror-centric, within horror he crosses over into science fiction, the thriller, and even ghosts/the supernatural. He can cross any genres and make them work well with his slow and steady pacing, his suspenseful style. The ghost story style plot works for Carpenter, as he has a way of creeping up on you, every frame draped in the lurking presence of danger.
The Fog is a super interesting story of ghosts looking for revenge and a town with deep, dark secrets. Carpenter and frequent partner-collaborator Debra Hill came up with a nice screenplay, which he in turn crafted with style into one hell of a creepy horror movie.
In Antonio Bay, California, a one hundred year celebration is about to happen. Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) is busy preparing the town for its big shindig, while Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) is playing his part well enough, except his church is obviously in financial ruins; all the money flowing into big parades and such for the centennial. Then there’s Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) who keeps herself and her son afloat, barely, by owning/operating the lighthouse radio station. At the same time, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) rolls into town with a hitchhiking young woman named Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis).
But things start to go wrong, or at least they begin to get strange. A boat full of men doesn’t come in like they usually do, which prompts Nick to go looking for a friend who’d been on it. Once they track down the boat everything gets weirder, and not a soul is found aboard.
On land, Father Malone happens to find a diary lodged in the wall of his office at the church – it paints a gruesome picture of the residents in Antonio Bay during 1880 who did terrible, unspeakable things all under the guise of keeping their citizens safe from sickness. What has begun to happen in the little town turns out to be the revenge of those beyond the grave… those who will rise up from the water, in the fog, to come for every last descendant of the ones who took their lives.
Said it before, I’ll say it over and over: Carpenter’s scores are undeniably infectious. The swell of the electronic sound he often lays under a scene, how the swell then builds and builds, it’s so effective. I think that’s a big reason why I’ve always been so in love with 1980s horror – not only was I born in the ’80s, the music of those films was always so interesting, so brooding; not every last one of them, but so many, even the shit ones some times. But Carpenter infuses each of his films with such an intriguing sound in that way. It helps his style so much, the way he works off of suspense and tension. The music really lends itself to that. Particularly I love it here because the way the fog creeps in during many scenes almost matches the sound of the score. There’s more to simply throwing a bunch of special makeup effects and a fog machine into the shot – Carpenter actually crafts an atmosphere of genuine tension, his ghostly apparitions sneak into the frame and into our heads, they slowly take over the small seaside town. At the same time the terror slowly works its way up your spine and seeps into your brain. I’m not one to get JUMP UP AND SCREAM SCARED. But I love a good slow burning, deeply tense horror movie. Carpenter almost exclusively does this type of work.
Another big part of this film are the landscapes Carpenter includes. The cinematography from Dean Cundey, a Carpenter-collaborator on the regular, is fascinating. So beautiful, at the same time it sets up this incredibly desolate feeling. Much like his work in The Thing. Here, the way he captures so many of the wide open spaces, the ocean, the hills, it’s really disturbing in a gorgeous visual sense. There’s always a feeling of isolation in Carpenter’s work, whether it’s Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, or The Fog. Cundey is able to provide big lush visual feasts in which the suspense/tension of Carpenter comes out perfectly.
There are plenty films which use radio deejays as plot devices, such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Don McKellar’s Last Night. What I enjoy about Adrienne Barbeau in this film, as lighthouse personality Stevie Wayne, is that she’s not used as a plot device. Rather, Stevie is just a solid character who we come to know intimately through her soft and silky voice going out over the waves in the dark of night. Then once her plight begins, things feel more tense.
And this comes back to the fact I feel Carpenter and Hill are good writers. They’re not trying to do anything crazy here, nothing metaphorical or anything (though you can absolutely take away stuff like that if you want/look into it enough). But really they craft a nice story with good characters. They’re able to get you to care for these people and pity them for being caught in the crossfire caused by their ancestors; while hating what the people of Antonio Bay did back in the latter half of the 19th century, these genuine, nice characters don’t deserve to die for that – do they?
Stevie Wayne is not the only good character. I love them all. Hal Holbrook’s Father Malone is solid, right to the end. Aside from him there’s the always charismatic Tom Atkins, who I was recently enjoying in the underrated (and misunderstood) Halloween III: Season of the Witch. And last but not least, not at all, the wonderful Jamie Lee Curtis in another early horror movie performance; she is funny, sweet and has great presence in this film whenever she’s onscreen. The chemistry between Atkins and Curtis’ characters is phenomenal and adds a little something extra to their subplot, as they try to survive their time in Antonio Bay.
So many creepy moments and scenes. One of my favourites is when Nick (Atkins) is telling Elizabeth (Curtis) a story, then first a locker tips over scaring her before an actual body, its eyes gouged out, falls against her back; what an awesome two-punch technique! Love that one. Usually I’m not one for jump scares, but I love them when done right. Carpenter utilizes them appropriately a lot of the time, much as he started doing back in Halloween. He knows how to do them with an interesting touch instead of heavy handed, making it a cheap scare tactic.
But the best spots in The Fog are those that slowly catch you. Like when the fog overtakes everything in Antonio Bay, and one by one people start to get sucked in and killed by the ghosts of the lepers. I love how you know what’s coming, yet Carpenter draws you in and makes things incredibly suspenseful.
A top pick for favourite moment has to go to when Stevie (Barbeau) ends up climbing, climbing the lighthouse trying to outlast the fog coming for her. I’m afraid of heights (even though I once worked as an electrician in Alberta at ridiculous heights; never again), so this part really grates my nerves. In the best filmic sense. Also helps that this scene comes nearing the finale, obviously. There’s a great intensity watching Stevie try her damnedest to survive. A real trooper.
Another top pick – Elizabeth encounters a reanimated man. I won’t say anything further. Wildly creepy scene.
Another 5 star ’80s classic from John Carpenter. He and Debra Hill did so well with this story. It’s a gothic, macabre piece of writing. Pile onto that the excellent cast, the score, all those awesome shots and effects – it’s a real masterpiece of ghostly horror. I can’t recommend this one enough. Always a huge fan of Carpenter, I consistently come back to this one because it’s spooky, it has great writing, and I’m always entertained. You’ve got to add this to any Carpenter marathon, as well as any proper Halloween/October movie list. It has a ton of great qualities, especially for a creepy night with the television on and the lights off.
John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, from a story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, and Donald Moffat. Universal Pictures/Turman-Foster Company. Rated R. 109 minutes.
It’s hard to choose a favourite filmmaker. For me, and for many, there are tons of great directors out there. Especially when you consider the different genres. I often have a hard time saying I like one director – who happens to stick with a certain genre – over another, simply because I feel particular directors are best within certain genres. Still there are a handful of them I’d place at the top of my personal list.
One such filmmaker is John Carpenter.
Not only does Carpenter direct, he is a master of his craft. Something I’ve always admired about his style is that he likes to do his own scores, which is a big part of his overall aesthetic (funny enough – this movie isn’t scored by him: it’s the prolific Ennio Morricone, so fucking awesome regardless!). He pretty much has what I’d call an auteur style. Nobody does horror-thriller as good as him.
The Thing brings all of the best aspects of Carpenter together, alongside the solid performances of the likes of Kurt Russell and Keith David, as well as Morricone’s wonderfully suspenseful and effective score. This is not just one of the best horror movies from the 1980s, it’s one of the best horror movies. Ever. What starts out like a tense thriller evolves into a horrifically existential science fiction film, all based on John W. Campbell Jr’s short story “Who Goes There?” (also the basis of this 1951 film). I can never get enough of the dreadful, isolated horror Carpenter brings out in this movie. There’s a reason people always talk about this one. And a damn good reason Carpenter is a master of horror.
At an American base in the Antarctic, a chopper chases a dog across the snowy mountains equipped with a man holding a high-powered rifle. When the American crew – including R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David) +more – come out they discover two crazed Norwegians. One tries to throw a grenade but blows up their chopper. The other, aiming for the dog, shoots George Bennings (Peter Maloney), so one of the crew shoot him dead.
At first it seems as if the men simply went insane up in the wilderness. However, after the dog transforms into a hideously deformed creature, MacReady and the crew start to deal with a situation beyond their control. Some sort of virus seems to be spreading, but no one is able to tell who it’s infecting – moving from person to person, The Thing inhabits anyone’s skin it wishes.
Will any of them survive? And if they do, is it really them?
Carpenter really sets up his atmosphere well, in every film. Almost none better than The Thing, as he starts out first with a long cinematic stare into space. From there we move to the Antarctic wilderness, vast landscapes of nearly nothing except for the white snow stretching on for miles and miles. It’s an appropriate way to give us that immediate sense of isolation. Once the exterior isolation is setup, Carpenter moves inside to where all the human elements of the story come into play. Then, furthermore, we start to get their sense of isolation – from the moment you see Mac drinking, playing around on the computer and then dumping a couple shots of J.B. into it, there’s an obvious idea of how sick this guy is with his lodgings up north. It only gets better from there, but I’ve always thought the film’s opening sequence really made the isolation sink it quickly, yet easily.
Not only the isolated feeling, either. With the Norwegians chasing the dog, the chopper exploding after a fumbled grenade toss, adrenaline is flowing hard. The tension is instantaneous and you’re already champing at the bit for what’s coming next. The music, the cinematography, the actors – all pistons are pumping. Carpenter is good for this usually. Again, though, I’m inclined to say one of his best instances is here in The Thing. Carpenter’s sense of atmosphere and tone is so important to what makes him great, as well as unique in the horror genre.
While most Carpenter movies have stellar effects, The Thing boasts such an innovative and terrifying creature. It’s truly epic (a word that is overused improperly; I used it in seriousness). Honestly, after the dog becomes that hulking, massive monster, the first time I witnessed it I was awestruck for a minute or two. I still am, really. Such good effects, plus it’s unexpected. Even as I watch it again now, for the who-knows-how-many-times, there is an aspect to that scene I always find reels me in. Plus, afterwards there’s the scene with Dr. Blair (Brimley) dissecting The Thing; even the look on Brimley’s face, his disgust, it makes you almost smell the nasty reek of this alien creature’s insides. Downright incredible, these special effects. From start to finish this movie has such carefully crafted practical effects, you can’t help but admire the work put in.
The entire film isn’t built on effects, nor is it solely leaning on horrific elements to make its mark. Only other stuff Bill Lancaster wrote was Bad News Bears-related. With The Thing, adapted from Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” (great read by the way – check it out), Lancaster did some solid work. The screenplay is tight, it’s mysterious and has a ton of suspense, which the master Carpenter draws out perfectly with his style. There are genuinely creepy aspects I find unsettling. Such as when the crew starts watching the grainy videos, then they make their way out to the crater where the ship is sunk down, I find that entire portion so impressive! Morricone’s score is beyond perfectly fitting, it has that classic horror movie feel to it and at the same time there’s stuff you could call very archetypal Morricone (a.k.a dig it). So I’m actually amazed Lancaster did so well with this script, considering he’s never done anything else science fiction or horror. Hats off. Put into the hands of Carpenter this story soars to a new level of terror.
There a few performances in The Thing which help it greatly. Kurt Russell, obviously, is one of the reasons this movie kicks ass. They could’ve put a lot of actors in this role and it would’ve been all right. But with Russell there’s that little extra charisma, he’s tough and yet there isn’t some kind of superhero-ness about him. He gets afraid like anyone else in the same situation. Russell and Carpenter work well together, this may be the pinnacle; I dig Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, but there’s something so perfect about this movie I can’t help single it out as their best collaboration. Then on top of Russell’s skill, Keith David does a nice job – he also did They Live 6 years later with Carpenter, wish he’d been in more of his films. And as much as Brimley gets shit for the “diabeetus” kick, he is spot on here; that scene when he flips and everyone tries to bear down on him, I always thought it was a great moment and shows how well Brimley can play a good character when he wants. Plus his fit lends to some more of the isolated, desolate feeling happening from there on in. All around excellent cast.
The Thing is a 5 star film. Without any shadow of a doubt. There’s so much happening. Above anything else, there’s a supremely existential terror flowing throughout almost every scene. Once The Thing takes hold, nobody knows who is who, who to trust, and it moves from one person to the next, some times even to animals. So there’s this incredibly dreadful horror at play. Then you throw in John Carpenter’s tense style, Ennio Morricone and his suspense-filled score, a well written screenplay with good actors to play it all out. What a mix!
If you’ve never seen this, my god, get out and watch it soon. Not only that, read the original short story by Campbell, as well as see the 1951 adaptation The Thing from Another World, which was a huge influence on Carpenter overall but especially for this film (obviously). I can never forget this movie, and it’s one I’ll put in any time I need a real creep.