Something in the Air

It was 2001, a few weeks after hijackers flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The Bush administration had withdrawn its campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. U.S. delegates had walked out of international climate-treaty talks at Kyoto. And horror auteur Larry Fessenden began to notice something strange about the weather.

“In New York and New England, you could see it in the leaves,” he says. “They used to give us this glorious display of color in the autumn. But they didn’t seem to be doing that anymore. It was happening because the nights weren’t getting cold enough but the light was still dying; they just turned brown and fell off.”

Then came the hurricanes, the tornadoes ripping through the Midwest, the reports of melting glaciers and thawing permafrost. “The Inuit call it Ugianaqtuq,” he says. “OOG-gi-a-nak-took — ‘like a familiar friend acting strangely.’ What happens when storms are raging, when you don’t know when the harvest season is anymore, when you can’t turn to nature for rejuvenation? What happens when you can’t trust the weather?”

The mainstream media, in their boneheaded quest for balance, had failed him; the political world was in denial. So Fessenden, a “middle-aged angry guy” (he’s 44), decided to address this surging catastrophe by doing the thing he does best: He made a horror movie. With the Uggianaqtuq as the monster.

“Horror for me has always had a cautionary tenor,” says Fessenden by phone from his home in New York. It’s a week before the opening weekend of The Brave One, the Jodie Foster vigilante movie in which Fessenden plays the Foster character’s first kill. But Fesssenden is far better known — in some rarefied circles, revered — for his idiosyncratically creepy ghost stories about reality gone awry: stories that depart from other horror movies in their philosophical underpinnings, and a view on the world that implicates humans in their own monster fantasies.

“All my favorite stories — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example — are about our place in the spheres, and how arrogance will be our downfall,” Fessenden says. “How can we be just going about our business and driving our SUVs when there are all these dire warnings about our future? What do I say to my 7-year-old son when he talks about wanting to have his own children?”

Indeed, you may find yourself leaving the theater after Fessenden’s new film, The Last Winter (which opens this weekend), and staring, as I did, into the horror flick playing itself out on Wilshire Boulevard, with its parade of Range Rovers, Escalades and Armadas locked in traffic purgatory and its lines of buildings powered by carbon-huffing coal plants. You may look at all this and think: I see dead people. Because if you’re thinking clearly, you actually do. “We’re smokers who can’t quit while the cancer’s spreading,” is how Fesssenden puts it. “I take it personally.”

Although Fessenden set The Last Winter on the souring tundra of Alaska, he shot the film in Iceland with an Icelandic crew, including director of photography Magni Águstsson, whom he credits with giving him “my best D.P. experience ever. They know how to jump off their Skidoos and catch just the right light,” Fessenden says of the crew, who all had their own stories of climate strangeness to tell. The film tells the claustrophobic story of an oil-company crew sitting out a preternaturally warm winter as they wait for equipment that may never arrive. Their leader, Ed Pollock (Hellboy’s Ron Perlman), pitches the work as partly God’s will and partly a relief from U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But the environmental scientist James Hoffman (James LeGros), whom the oil company has hired to monitor the project’s impact, has another theory: The site where the company has chosen to drill has already been battered by strange weather; it’s too fragile to take the strain. When events take a dark turn, as they do almost immediately — even a pickup football game in the Arctic evening seems to bode ill — these two opposing forces, bigger than the men themselves, battle not just for the Earth, but for an earth-mother-ish beauty named Abby (Connie Britton).

Fessenden admits that he’s “interested in archetypes, almost to the point of cliché,” and his two central characters — the ego-driven pro-industry cowboy and the sensitive land-wise scientist, a sort of modern-day Daniel Boone — are almost mythic stand-ins for the contemporary forces warring to rule the land, one in deep denial and the other so connected to the Earth he thinks it can fight back. Caught between them is young Maxwell (Zach Gilford), whose father has sent him up to come of age on the oil fields. Terrorized, starving and prone to long, barefoot walks into the frozen night, Maxwell offers the most bone-chilling explanation for Uggianaqtuk: Ghosts are emerging from the oil as we pull it from the Earth.

“We’re grave robbers!” a panicked Maxwell mutters when Hoffman tries to settle him down with a hot dinner. “They’re coming out of the ground . . . ghosts! What is oil anyway, but fossils — plants and animals from whatever million years ago?”

This is the product of Fessenden’s own singular imagination. “When you really research what oil is, that’s what you find,” he says, “that it’s truly crushed living matter. It’s dead animals! It’s so titillating, that theme, it’s so evocative to think that oil is a ghost haunting us!

“We’re burning dead animals to build our cities. There’s got to be a payback.”

But does the payback come from the Earth itself, or from the way we feel about what we’re doing to it? A theme that runs through all of Fessenden’s movies is that we can never be sure whether the beast that haunts us comes from the external world or from our own telltale hearts. In his 1997 film Habit, the dark, unpredictable Anna may be a vampire or simply the screen on which her lover, Sam (Fessenden), projects his alcoholic demons; in Wendigo (2003), a deer hunter named Otis turns cop-killer just before the shadow of a vengeful buck runs his car into a ditch. Did the creature really exist, or did Otis’ conscience finally catch up with him?

“My brand of horror is about not really understanding reality,” Fessenden says. “That’s what I find intriguing, and that’s the source of horror in my films. We don’t know what’s true. Our morality and our religions cloud our interpretation of reality, because we have a need to perceive reality through mythological filters. We create demons and gods and religion as a way of categorizing an existential reality that we don’t know how to live with.”

The inhabitants of The Last Winter’s deteriorating landscape have their own demons and gods to explain their eruptions of nosebleeds and paranoia. But the most persuasive of those theories suggests that, in our deepest collective unconscious, we know we’re destroying our home.

“I think we have a collective guilt about how we’re treating the Earth,” Fessenden says. “What if that guilt started manifesting itself in this dark north of the Arctic, where you imagine you could see things with the northern lights to help you? What if the guilt and horror we feel over what we’ve done to the planet starts to consume us?”

Worse, perhaps, what if it doesn’t? Fessenden, the rare New York City native with a long-standing affinity for nature, becomes mildly apoplectic when you start talking to him about climate-change deniers, including “you know, that awful guy, Björn-what’s-his-fuck” (he means Lomborg, the Danish political scientist whose books Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It! attempt to argue that our carbon-coated atmosphere isn’t really ?so big a problem).

“These people are criminals,” he spits. “Criminals. If people were being raped in the streets and people were insisting it wasn’t happening, we’d be outraged; we’d put them away for good. But in this perverted society, we can sit in a building while people burn it to the ground and continue sipping our cocktails. I’m telling you, there’s nothing more frightening than that.”

Mark Fessenden’s words: The Last Winter will not be the last horror movie to feature a climate in chaos. “World events are going to start us down this path of telling these stories about how scarcity and the weather have become prominent elements in our daily lives,” he predicts. “As we start to face what we’ve done with our bad planning and selfish behavior, we’re going to experience a horror we never imagined.

“And suddenly,” he concludes, “an ax murderer is going to seem very quaint.”

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