Apparently, they do still make werewolf movies like they used to, and while Late Phases might be no An American Werewolf in London or Ginger Snaps, it is a capably effective horror film of two sides. In the one corner of the film, there is a werewolf on the loose, and in the other, a man who has seen it all is uncomfortably comfortable with death and making sacrifices by moving into a community where many go to die. Director Adrián García Bogliano (2012’s Here Comes the Devil and his “B Is for Bigfoot” segment in 2012’s The ABCs of Death) and writer Eric Stolze (2012’s Under the Bed) don’t invent the lycanthropic cycle, nor do they need to, as long as more is pulled off well rather than not. With enough of a pedigree for horror aficionados (Manhunter‘s Tom Noonan has a key role, and one Larry Fessenden is on hand in a peripheral role and has an executive producing credit), Late Phases infuses a very simple story with a complex protagonist and a rueful streak.
Picking out headstones, blind Vietnam war vet Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici), with loyal guide German shepherd Shadow, gets dropped off at the secluded retirement community of Crescent Bay by his adult son Will (Ethan Embry). On his first night of being all moved in, he hears something howling and hulking around on the other side of the wall and breaking into the house of neighbor Delores (Karen Lynn Gorney), and then that same thing fatally wounds Ambrose’s canine companion. The police don’t seem that surprised, considering Crescent Bay is positioned between a town and the woods — that and this isn’t the first “animal attack” in the community with a gate that doesn’t seem to be much use. From then on, Ambrose holds off on burying his dog but starts using the shovel he planned to use as a walking stick. While the old ladies of Crescent Bay see him as a disruption of their peaceful community, Ambrose is the first to sense a beastly killer afoot during the full moon and he will have his silver bullets ready to go.
Like any slasher film or whodunit, Late Phases sets up a string of red herrings, but it’s not immediately obvious. Could it be Father Roger (Tom Noonan)? Might it be lay minister Griffin (the aged-since-Jaws: The Revenge Lance Guest) who’s in charge of the community’s shuttle service? Complain-ready neighbor Gloria (Rutanya Alda, whom you might remember as Mrs. Mandrakis in When a Stranger Calls) and her husband in an iron lung? Or, since she’s the least suspect, is it biddy Clarissa (Tina Louise, or Ginger of TV’s Gilligan’s Island) who brings Ambrose baked goods? More to the point, the werewolf plot is of less importance than Ambrose’s mortality. Whether Ambrose dies naturally or dies by the bite of a manly wolf, it doesn’t matter; he is full of regret regarding his son Will and his late wife, and after Shadow is gone, Ambrose doesn’t really see a reason to live.
Convincingly making a case for fiftysomething actors playing older parts, Nick Damici (who has proven his kick of a presence since the apocalyptic vampire pic Stake Land) is just great as Ambrose, emotionally hard but amusing, vulnerable but stubborn; a man walking with contradiction. Even when someone tries to help guide him, he curmudgeonly spouts, “I’m blind, not crippled!” Or, if someone talks loudly, he reminds them, “I’m not deaf!” Ethan Embry isn’t on screen too long as Will, who seems to just want to continue his life with his newly pregnant wife Anne (Erin Cummings), but the tough-love relationship he builds with Damici is understandably strained. Giving creepy a respite as Father Roger, Tom Noonan makes a solidly warm impression, whom Ambrose confides in when they share their respective stories that brought them to their present lives.
As a traditional monster horror film in contemporary times, Late Phases is a rarity that might not be terrifying, but its grounded reality in an old folks’ home delivers moments of creepiness. A prayer with Clarissa builds tensely, until it doesn’t end too well, and there’s a darkly amusing new meaning to the gesture for prayer, “Can I have your hand?” Special effects veteran Robert Kurtzman’s work is pretty terrific, especially when the werewolf is mostly captured in shadow during the first seen attack, and the obligatory rip-through-the-clothes transformation scene is rendered intensely grotesque by back-to-the-basics craftsmanship. Also, Ernesto Herrera’s cinematography is embedded with just enough style, which can be sorely lacking in studio movies. Even with imperfections (the quick reveal of the werewolf is less than subtle in a jump cut and a shot of the beast captured on a surveillance camera might not receive the most proper reaction), Late Phases is a sharp cut above in the lycanthropic sub-genre that will be remembered mainly for Nick Damici’s kick-ass, ultimately poignant turn.
Late Phases opens in select theaters and is available on VOD platforms today, November 21st.