A few weeks ago, a friend of mine tweeted that a movie was about to hit VOD starring Nick Damici as a grumpy, blind war veteran who battles a werewolf brought to life entirely through practical FX. Needless to say I was sold, and that was before learning that Tom Noonan, Lance Guest, and Dana Ashbrook were a part of the show! If any horror film this year was up my alley, this was going to be the one.
Late Phases is a ridiculously good monster movie. It’s probably one of my favorite films of the year, horror or otherwise. A good bit of that has to do with the novelty of old school FX. It’s a movie that has no interest in supplementing its werewolves with CGI. The creature is a person in a furry suit, equipped with one hell of an expressive mask, and it’s something that I never thought I’d see again in modern day horror. A tip of my hat to Robert Kurtzman and his team for designing one of the most fun monsters the genre has seen of late. It feels great when my pessimism is proven wrong!
I don’t want to sell this movie as one that I liked merely because it rekindled a sense of nostalgia, though. On the contrary, director Adrián García Bogliano (Here Comes the Devil) knows how to tell a story, delivering an atmospheric film unlike any we’ve seen of late. It’s simple and low-key, ferreting out the discomfort and isolation in an elder village, while making everything feel “off” from the get go. We know there’s a werewolf on the loose, and there’s no shortage of suspects amidst the eccentric personalties neighboring Ambrose McKinley (Damici). It’s also just funny to watch him be a complete ass to just about everyone he encounters.
One of the most frustrating things about werewolf movies is that the creatures are often kept off screen due to budgetary limitations. More recently, they’ve become computer-generated animations that never resonate. The wolf in Late Phases is wonderfully low-fi, but Bogliano does’t let that stop his monster from dolling out some surprisingly vicious and suspenseful attacks. What could’ve been clunky and unconvincing in the hands of a lesser director is appropriately ferocious instead.
Honestly, I would’ve been happy if old school special effects and creepy atmosphere were all that Late Phases had to offer, but I’m glad that writer Eric Stolze’s ambitions were loftier than my expectations. Setting a werewolf loose in a retirement community might not sound like the most promising horror set up (or perhaps it does, you sadistic jerk!), but it effectively accents the main character’s despair and isolation. Ambrose is essentially confined to a prison of his own making: his wife has passed away before the story begins, and he’s alienated his son (Ethan Embry) to the point where he only comes around out of obligation, and is always in a hurry to go rushing back to his life. The inevitability of death hovers over Ambrose in more ways than one, with the creature becoming the literal embodiment of his personal demons, following him all the way to this, his final stop. Now that Ambrose can no longer run, there’s only one path to redemption.
Comparisons to Bubba Ho Tep are inevitable, but Late Phases’ tone is far more serious, even if it wrangles a few cheer-worthy moments during its final act. It’s a film about atoning for past sins, making this story a universal one. As such, there’s more potency in Late Phases than in any other horror film this year. We all have regrets. Things we wish we’d done differently. The only difference is that our demons are usually content to let us destroy ourselves. We so rarely fight back. Late Phases reminds us that it’s never too late to put things right.