Saturday, September 15, 2007

Out In The Wild - Reviewing The Last Winter And Dead Wood Together

I've written a lot about The Last Winter already, and I've linked you to the Dead Wood trailer. Each of them is an independent horror film, and each is about humans in the remoteness of nature, and the dangers in each film come from supernature, but a supernature closely linked to nature. Other than that... are there any similarities? At all?

The Last Winter is definitely not a sequel to director Larry Fessenden's previous Wendigo, but the two films certainly share some DNA (including, eventually, the appearance of two crucially varying versions of the same character) and end up creating a similar atmosphere of pathetic hopelessness. Further to this, they each seem to be stages in Fessenden's exploration of environmental horror, and how man is hopelessly failing the world, repeatedly failing to find a way to interract effectively, safely or responsibly with ecology.

As I'm sure many of you will note, The Last Winter features a set up familiar from The Thing, crossed perhaps with the slow drip-drip-drip of encroaching snowblown insanity from The Shining. A small scientific facility in the Arctic is peopled with researchers on a corporate payroll. Two new environmental engineers have been dispatched to the centre to carry out an impact study, and this immediately rankles the crew chief, played by Ron Perlman, on his return. Perlman is probably the film's most saleable asset, the closest thing to a marquee name on the cast roll, but he's also one of the trump cards in artistic terms. It's a typically bold, perhaps occasionally strident, performance but a relatable one too. His character is certainly not the mouth piece for any 'green' message, but neither is he just the opposite, a world-destroying monster of irresponsibility. It's this reluctance to force character types, to generate a polemical drumming session that ensures the film's messages and ideas really connect with the audience, and not like a hammer to the back of the head.

The horror element comes from the impact study: something's not good; doom is coming - both in the micro sense of the film's cast of characters, localised setting and contained plot, but also beyond this. The ratcheting up of fear within the story is tied to a clear reminder of the real fears we should be feeling every day. Of course, you can be a global warming conspiracy theorist or outright denier and still enjoy the film's creeping tone and delicious tension - you'll just be missing the bigger picture.

In The Last Winter, not only is the environment suffering at the hands of humans, the humans suffer at the hands of the environment. Like everything in the film, there's a constant give and take, back and forth, push and pull. And push. And pull. And something is going to get torn in two, and when it finally does, perhaps the best of the film is over, but the sense of release is powerful.

You'll know just what to expect from The Last Winter if you're a fan of Fessenden's other films because, yes, it certainly fits into his CV snugly and a little predictably, but it also tops it off in fine style. The finest expression yet of his ideas.

Want me to nit-pick a little? Well, the set-up is familiar, as we already discussed; and early scenes that cut between exterior and interior set-ups feel awkward (if you're really interested, it's because the outside scenes are all staged with clear diagonals pointing off in all directions - imagine something like a sketch in 2-point perspective, whereas the inside shots are flat, face-on, with walls directly parallel and perpendicular to the screen plane, creating a kind of proscenium arch effect - interesting, however accidental it may or may not be, but also dislocating and 'bumpy' to the flow); the CG special effects which arrive in the last act might be seldom shown but still underwhelm remarkably. Those were the big sticking points, I think.

Dead Wood, the other half of our wild nature double bill, has a wildly different setting. Whereas Last Winter could be easily identified as crossing over with The Thing and The Shining, Dead Wood's influences and obvious predecessors include The Evil Dead and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, perhaps Cabin Fever and countless don't-go-down-to-the-woods schlockers that you don't want me to remind you of. Unlike any of these, however, Dead Wood is set in England, in an English forest. Does it also have a distinctive and captivating English angle?

I'm afraid not. Indeed, it's sad to report that much of the film has been borrowed wholesale from its sources. Two couples (one fully fledged, the other getting jump-started by this time together) go camping, where they cross paths with a lost soul and, one by one, fall foul of something evil. What saves films like this is smart scripting, witty direction, fresh ideas and a firm control of suspense mechanics; what damns them is irrelevence, cliches, low technical standards and a failure to grasp basic film language. While Dead Wood unfortunately ticks off more boxes in the second list than the first, it does manage to stay afloat between the two. This film is neither ascendent nor hellish. There are many, many worse films on the shelves of your local videostore and the arteries of Dread Central and Bloody Disgusting are fairly clogged with films much less capably constructed; the problem is, there's just no point to Dead Wood. It doesn't prove anything about the film-makers other than, just perhaps, they were looking for a calling card, and they unwisely invested in a calling card some twenty-odd years out of date. There's nothing stopping them putting their energies into a more exciting, less perfunctory piece next time around and I really hope they do. It almost seems unjust reviewing what appears to be clearly devised as something familiar and saleable and unthreatening to potential distributors.

This wasn't the best they can do, which makes it heartening that, in some respects it's better than some ever manage.

Unlike Fessenden's film, any ecological thematics in Dead Wood are seemingly arbitrary as nothing is made of them, they're simply a different scare device to a knife, shambling zombie or flesh eating virus - though something quite like a shambling zombie does make a brief appearance. The mission objective here was to create a recognisably 'Horror Filmy' horror film and definitely not to explore any concerns about ecology.

I nit-picked The Last Winter, so here's the opposite for Dead Wood, a quick list of positives that I may have otherwise overlooked: the screen geography is consistent throughout, and many indie films at this budget level fall at even this first, low hurdle; the film is very well produced, in that a feature film on a shoestring, with all props and personnel present and correct, is surprisingly hard to pull together; a couple of effects sequences transcend their low-tech roots, particularly one transformation shot that, while it is glued together with simple post-production morphs, consists of some very, very well realised practical stages (in view of their respective budgets, it might be seen as an oddity that the effects work in Dead Wood surprised me in a positive way while those in The Last Winter ultimately disappointed - I guess it was down to a clever understanding of their financial limitations and pre-planning of what could be done).

I find it hard to recommend Dead Wood to anybody other than addicts of generic horror fare - who I do know exist, and in quite a large number. The Last Winter, on the other hand, I'd offer up to anybody looking for an evening in front of the big box unless they are particularly shy of spookiness and scares.

Dead Wood will be screening in festivals over the coming months. I hope to have an interview with the film's screenwriter, co-producer, co-director and small-role player David Bryant very soon. The Last Winter opens in select US cinemas from the 19th September, but is already available on R2 DVD from Revolver Entertainment, very well presented but on a disc unfortunately free of any special features.

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