For his English-language debut Late Phases, Spanish director Adrián García Bogliano has done something special. He’s crafted a werewolf shocker that reads more like a revenge/vigilante flick than a horror film. All of the traditional werewolf elements are there – silver bullets, full moons, etc. – but at its core its really the tale of a tired Vietnam vet who was blinded in combat and went dark to the world, including to his family. In his recent films (Here Comes the Devil, Penumbra, Cold Sweat), Bogliano focused a lot on tricks and set pieces, rather than characters and emotion. With Late Phases, it’s all about heart. A torn up heart thrown against a wall spraying blood everywhere, but still, heart.
Nick Damici (Stake Land) stars as Ambrose McKinley, the aging veteran I mentioned earlier. He moves into the quaint retirement community of Crescent Bay, a secluded locale in upstate New York nestled in the bosom of a thick forest. The residents don’t take too kindly to Ambrose’s biting behavior, especially when he pulls a gun on the Stepford Wives-like welcoming committee. Soon Ambrose learns that aggressively friendly old bags are the least of his worries. Crescent Bay has been rocked lately by a series of grisly murders the cops are deeming “animal attacks.” After Ambrose experiences one of these “animal attacks” firsthand, he decides to get proactive on their hairy asses.
He figures the wolves will return during the next full moon in a month, so Ambrose spends the time preparing, training, and digging up dirt on the locals to try to figure out who’s the werewolf. Rather than carry a cane like a regular blind person, he carries a shovel around, which sets his neighbors on edge. There’s a shot of him training with it like a bo staff that gave me goosebumps. You can’t help but root for this blind codger.
Interspersed in this extended training montage are intimate moments between Ambrose and his son Will, played by Ethan Embry (Cheap Thrills). The shared history of pain and regret between them make up most of the story’s heart and adds incredible weight to the final showdown. Bogliano gives their tense aging father and son relationship plenty of screen time so that we actually care about them, something horror films don’t pay much attention to nowadays. It gives Ambrose’s rumble with the werewolves real stakes.
Late Phases is certain to satisfy fans of the classic creature features of the ’80s who crave a practical werewolf transformation. The crack special effects and makeup team (headed by From Dusk Till Dawn‘s Robert Kurtzman) put together some wonderfully gory gross-out shape-shifting moments. Sweeping CGI aside, they went practical with werewolf suits and they’re huge and AWESOME. Their faces look more like Critters than wolves, but that’s part of their charm.
As Ambrose, Nick Damici gives a genuinely powerful performance. He plays it kinda like Eastwood in Gran Torino, but with more hard-boiled dialogue to spit out in a thick “fuhgeddaboutit” accent. Embry does a great job acting alongside him as the concerned son wounded by his father’s detached attitude. Their scenes together are terrific and deliver the type of credible family tension that a lot of folks can relate to.
The script penned by Eric Stolze (Under the Bed) offers up a river of clever scenarios and interpersonal moments. The balance between horror, vigilante, and familial issues is handled very well. Bogliano infuses Stolze’s script with the dark and flashy style he’s become known for while also setting an edgy mood early on. The highlight of the film is, of course, the final showdown between Ambrose and the wolves. It plays out in a brutal fashion. It’s not a clean fight, oh no, it’s a real slobberknocker highlighted with loads of “oh shit!” moments as it’s revealed what Ambrose spent a month working on. It’s SO badass.
Late Phases is a tale of hardcore werewolf violence, a tangible father/son relationship, redemption, and a whole lotta heart. It’s funny, brash, and exciting, but knows when to pull back and let the emotion sink in. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece of the werewolf genre because of what it accomplishes on top of the scares, which is deliver a truly emotional, heartfelt story of a father and son. I don’t mean to make it sound all mushy though – Late Phases delivers solid horror thrills and amazing wolf transformations that are bloody, flesh-tearing wonders of practical effects.
What I’m trying to say is do not miss Late Phases or your eyeballs will never forgive you.
Originally published July 2014