Something's off - the permafrost is melting" isn't the usual ominous turn of phrase signaling bad things to come in a spooky thriller. Anyone with an old fridge has probably said the same thing as they've opened the freezer door.

But in The Last Winter, something really is off with the permafrost. A compellingly claustrophobic eco-suspenser with supernatural undertones directed and co-written by Larry Fessenden, the pic - like Alien, like The Thing - puts a small band of folks in an isolated environment, and then lets bad stuff happen.

The place is an Alaskan outpost, where an exploration team for a giant oil concern has set up camp. It's "the last pristine piece of land on the planet," and if Ron Perlman, playing a potbellied company man with a diamond stud in his ear, has his way, it won't be pristine for long.

But ravens start popping up, the weather goes weird, and one crew member after another starts to go nuts, paranoid, catatonic. James LeGros, as an environmental scientist - a greenie - hired to watch that things are done right, is especially good as his character wrestles first with his conscience, and then with his coworkers.

The Last Winter succeeds royally at building a sense of apocalyptic dread. It isn't quite so successful at sustaining that mood, and Fessenden resorts to blurry images of totemic spirit forces and stampeding moose specters to get where he's going. And where exactly is that?

To a place designed to scare the bejesus out of us planet-pillaging consumers.

- Steven Rea

Directed by Larry Fessenden. With Ron Perlman, James LeGros and Connie Britton. Distributed by IFC First Take. 1 hour, 41 mins. No MPAA rating (violence, gore, sex, adult themes). Playing at Ritz at the Bourse.