I love werewolf movies. I’m not sure where this love comes from because, quite frankly, there aren’t that many good ones out there. Maybe it’s the subtext-ready element of “the beast inside” that can represent any number of repressed emotions or hormonal changes. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that as a movie monster werewolves have consistently been under-used, allowing them to stay fresher than vampires or zombies. More than likely, it’s a combination of those two characteristics mixed with the fact that the werewolf is almost always a sympathetic monster. You can’t really blame the werewolf for behaving the way it does and that lends the better films an air of tragedy.
Even though I feel a lot of goodwill toward the genre, the lack of legitimately good werewolf movies has kept my expectations low when I encounter a new one. Despite having any number of unexplored avenues to go with the monster, most werewolf movies have tended to follow the template established in Universal’s The Wolf Man. While there is nothing wrong with that formula, it shows a dearth of imagination and has led to diminishing returns for the movies that aim to use the same arc that turned poor Larry Talbot into one of the great horror protagonists. Put simply, the original did this story the best, so why keep doing it?
That inability to think beyond the classical werewolf narrative is the main reason there have been so few classics in the subgenre. It’s also the reason there are so many clunkers. For every The Howling or An American Werewolf in London, there’s a Wolf or An American Werewolf in Paris. The better werewolf films of recent (the last twenty years) vintage are the ones that mix with other genres—films like Dog Soldiers or Ginger Snaps. But even these films still embraced several traditional werewolf tropes.
So what to make of Late Phases? It veers from the traditional werewolf tale in many ways while honoring the entrenched supernatural aspects. Thankfully, it does mostly move away from the idea of telling the story as a tragedy about someone doomed to kill until violently stopped. But it tries to be three different movies at once, never successfully integrating them into a fully satisfying whole. But the three separate movies it ends up being are still intriguing due to a very good performance by Nick Damici.
The wonderfully-named Ambrose McKinley (Damici) is a retired Army special weapons expert. Despite being in his late 60’s, Ambrose is in great shape—except for the fact that he has slowly gone blind. Blunt to the point of being surly, the blue-collar Ambrose is an odd fit at the retirement community he moves into as the film begins. Aside from his friendly next door neighbor Delores (Karen Lynn Gorney), Ambrose seems to rub everyone the wrong way—including his son, Will (Ethan Embry).
The film wastes no time cutting to the chase as Delores is savagely killed by a werewolf during Ambrose’s first night in his new home. It then comes for Ambrose, who is barely saved by his guide dog. The police brush off the killing as a wild animal attack, citing the nearby woods as being home to all sorts of predators. It doesn’t take long for Ambrose to chalk this explanation up to being the bullshit that it is.
But Ambrose also makes a very quick leap to deciding that the killer is a werewolf based merely on how it smelled, the timing of the attack during a full moon, and a claw found lodged in the wall of his home. To this point in the film, Ambrose has come across as a realist. At the very least, director Adrián García Bogliano and screenwriter Eric Stolze go out of their way to show him as a cynic who is so hopeless in his views that he manages to repel almost everyone he meets. He doesn’t seem like the type of man who would immediately jump into believing in werewolves with ease. But the plot requires Ambrose make this leap, so he does.
Having decided on the cause, Ambrose makes preparations to take on the werewolf during the next full moon, while trying to determine if any of his neighbors just might be the furry culprit.
Late Phases wants to be a rip-roarin’ werewolf movie that also makes a statement about the way the elderly are treated and operate as a character study of Ambrose. But Bogliano is unable to make those different elements blend together.
The werewolf plot works well in fits and starts. Bogliano tries to tease out the human identity of the werewolf, but it’s not difficult to tell who is a red herring and who the real deal is. The initial attack in the film is handled well through some clever editing, well-placed gore, and a terrific sound design. Later attacks don’t work as well because the werewolf is shown in clearer detail, revealing a design and makeup that gives away the film’s low budget. That said, it’s a relief to see actual physical effects being used to bring the creature to life, and there is a nicely inventive transformation scene that combines makeup effects and judicious use of CGI.
The look at what it means to be elderly and living on modest means is well-intentioned, but broadly presented. The retirement community looks pleasant enough at first glimpse, but closer inspection reveals how shoddy it actually is. The walls between neighbors are so thin the sounds of TVs can be heard as though they are in the same room. Train tracks run nearby, with the sound of the train whistle all too audible—especially to a blind man who has developed a keen sense of hearing. The placement of the community also isolates it from the nearest town, requiring the local Catholic Church to create a volunteer shuttle service to bring the residents into town for services. Bogliano hammers away at these details, only offering some subtle humor in the way the isolated residents have devolved into teenage-like cliques and Ambrose’s over-riding belief that no one will help because the outside world is simply waiting for them to die.
The character study of Ambrose is quite interesting and well-acted by Damici. Thankfully, Embry and Tom Noonan (as the local Priest) both give strong performances because Bogliano puts the most time and effort into showing Ambrose’s relationships with these men. The script is very insightful in showing how a stern, emotionally-unavailable man would raise a son who never feels comfortable being around him, even after he has become an adult. Making matters between them even more awkward, Ambrose’s blindness has altered the balance of power between the two, forcing Will to take on something of a nagging role in their relationship to make sure Ambrose doesn’t somehow get taken advantage of. It’s a situation that isn’t fair to either man, and Bogliano admirably avoids turning Will into a villain.
Bogliano seems an odd choice to direct Late Phases. Coming off the grimy, slightly seedy, and seriously weird Here Comes the Devil, he largely reins himself in and plays it straight. This is a shame because the film could use some more straight-up goofy elements beyond hitting on pop culture nostalgia in the supporting cast.
In fact, using actors associated so strongly with previous cult favorites (including Lance Guest from The Last Starfighter, Dana Ashbrook from Twin Peaks, and Gorney from Saturday Night Fever) actually works against the film. While it’s initially fun to see these familiar faces again after so many years, they each also pulled me out of the film at various points.
If you couldn’t tell by this point, I’m torn on how I feel about Late Phases. Damici grounds the film through the various tones and plot circles Ambrose has to navigate. It’s worth seeing for his performance alone. But the film that surrounds him is a mess of intriguing views on aging, stilted dialogue exchanges, good effects work, bad effects work, keenly observed character moments, broad comedy, the obligatory Larry Fessenden cameo, a great score by Wojciech Golczewski, and a final showdown that manages to excite at the same time that it disappoints.
Given the relative lack of werewolf films, Late Phases works just well enough to ultimately recommend to fans of the genre and horror fans looking for something different. Just be prepared to ride out the rough patches and perplexing tone.
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