GORE IN THE STORE
LATE PHASES ****
Directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano.
Starring Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, Erin Cummings, Tom Noonan, Dana Ashbrook, Lance Guest, Rutanya Alda, Tina Louise.
USA 2014 95 mins Certificate: 18
Released on Blu-ray by 101 Films on November 16th 2020.
Making his English language debut under the esteemed umbrella of Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix, Spanish filmmaker Adrian Garcia Bogliano had established himself before LATE PHASES with a growing worldwide reputation for striking/harrowing genre features like PENUMBRA (2011) and HERE COMES THE DEVIL (2012). This was the young director's most mature and thoughtful picture up to that point, shedding the overt influence of 1970s ordeal horror in favour of a disarmingly poignant – albeit characteristically gruesome – character-driven 21st century take on the cinema of lycanthropy. The movie is built around an excellent central performance from Nick Damici, sporting credible ageing make-up (in his mid-fifties at the time, he was a little young for the role) and then on a roll thanks to his work with Jim Mickle on STAKELAND and COLD IN JULY.
Damici is a blind, embittered, acid-tongued Vietnam veteran who moves into a gated retirement community with help from his son Lance Guest and a great deal of trademark cynicism. On the first night, his guide dog is mortally wounded courtesy of what the audience knows is a werewolf – a prowling beast that also kills a neighbour. Although on the surface, this is a slow-burning Guess the Werewolf monster movie in a novel setting, LATE PHASES stays one step ahead of the audience by refusing to conform to expectation. Boldly showing its werewolf early on, it also gathers together a great cast of oft-overlooked character actors and former TV stars, from veteran Rutanya Alda as a fellow resident to TWIN PEAKS alumnus Dana Ashbrook. Blessed with a sharp, rich sense of humour, Bogliano's film turns into a mordantly funny character piece that just happens to incorporate a werewolf rampage. Moreover, the script by Eric Stolze offers a piquant commentary on derogatory societal attitudes to the elderly: the cops investigating the sequence of mysterious deaths are, for starters, heard muttering patronising sentiments like "The problem is, the elderly can't defend themselves…"
It's a rare contemporary American horror film without a buff teenager insight and a retirement community backdrop that gives the characters time to talk and interact. The standout moments from LATE PHASES are the dialogue scenes between Damici and Tom Noonan's community priest. Noonan, a master of essaying insidious psychopaths like Francis Dolarhyde from MAHUNTER, is terrific in an uncharacteristically calm role. Damici, himself terrific, combines cynicism and harsh honesty that cuts through any potential sentimentality about his affliction ("By the time I went blind, I couldn't stand to look at the world anyway…") with the poignant sense of a man in his twilight years facing an isolated end. As a character study, it's restrained and smart, affording time and respect to unfashionable but recognisably human characters. Plus, it's frequently funny: "We're the police!" / "Yeah, I can smell the donuts…"
LATE PHASES also delivers on the horror front, with excellent practical FX, visceral attack scenes and one of the best werewolf transformations in years: a flesh-tearing, painful old-school AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON-inspired metamorphosis cleverly shot in long takes. We have had so few genuinely good 21st century werewolf movies – and so many lame CGI werewolf transformations – that this shines even brighter, rising way above a potentially gimmicky core concept of Blind Man vs Wolf Man.
101 Films have afforded the film its first UK Blu-ray release, and the transfer is terrific. Bogliano's articulate audio commentary takes us through its conception and making while conveying how much of a departure it was to create an American film in a familiar sub-genre using a classical approach. A 14 minute "Making of" raves about the fine, eclectic ensemble cast while the always charming Fessenden discusses the tradition of blind protagonists in horror movies. A 30-minute "Werewolf Diaries" feature captures the evolution of the film's lycanthrope in great detail, from initial processes to screen tests – an enlightening and now-rare practical FX guide equivalent to those old Fangoria features many of us grew up reading.