“I feel like I’m dropping you off in prison,” Will says as he drives his father to the Crescent Bay retirement community in Rhineback, New York. Tight lipped and stubbornly self-sufficient, Ambrose McKinley doesn’t have a good relationship with his son, and with the recent death of his wife they have lost the buffer between them. A twenty year army veteran, blinded in action, all he has left is memories, meagre savings and Shadow, his loyal guide dog, yet he refuses Will’s offer to help him unpack.
Ambrose doesn’t exactly blend in well with the existing residents; resentful of their intrusion, the ladies of the community welcome wagon find Ambrose confrontational. Curtly refusing the cake they have baked for him before snapping “I’d see you ladies to the door, but I’m blind,” in his immediate neighbour Delores he finds the gentle beginnings of a friendship which is shockingly curtailed when she is savagely attacked in the night by an animal which then turns on Ambrose; both Delores and Shadow are killed.
The police are little help, having seen animal attacks before. “It’s a secluded location. The town ends there.” “And the woods begin,” Ambrose acknowledges, realising that they have no interest in investigating further, that because he saw nothing his account will be dismissed even though there have been previous deaths and he is convinced that it was no ordinary animal.
The English language debut of Spanish director Adrián García Bogliano (Here comes the Devil, The ABC’s of Death’s B is for Bigfoot), Late Phases makes no secret of the fact that it is a werewolf film, with the first appearance of the beast after less than quarter of an hour. Instead, with one month to make preparations to defend himself and his new community whilst amongst hostile strangers, it is the story of Ambrose’s attempts to identify the werewolf before the next full moon.
As Ambrose, the reliable Nick Damici who has made a name for himself in his collaborations with Jim Mickle, Stake Land, We Are What We Are and Cold In July, is predictably excellent though too young for the part, the makeup insufficient to convince that he is old enough to have served five years in Vietnam. Though not as manic as Damici’s first film with Mickle, Mulberry Street, Late Phases carries an aspect of the siege mentality of that skewed horror tale set on the Manhattan streets.
Supporting Damici are Can’t Hardly Wait’s Ethan Embry as Will, The House of the Devil’s Tom Noonan as Father Roger, the local priest who becomes Ambrose’s smoking buddy, The Last Starfighter’s Lance Guest as church handyman Griffin, Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook as Westmark, the armourer whom Ambrose asks to make silver bullets – and shotgun shells! – while for too brief a time the lovely Karen Lynn Gorney who once danced with John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever is Delores, and produced through Glass Eye Pix there is the expected cameo from Larry Fessenden.
Eric Stolze’s script has obvious and perhaps unavoidable echoes of Silver Bullet (1985), adapted by Stephen King from his own novella Cycle of the Werewolf, where a disabled child whom no-one believes battles the lycanthrope who is picking off members of his community across a summer.
While the transformation has aspects of both An American Werewolf in London and The Company of Wolves, the low budget is apparent in the full creature costume which is best when hidden, and the limitations become inescapable in the final attack which narrowly avoids pushing credulity so far over the top as to move the film into outright comedy, and it would have been preferable for Bogliano to observe a more artistic approach reflecting Ambrose’s lack of vision to suggest a more fearful creature out of sight than to show a stuntman in a ridiculous fursuit and mask. While modern horror too often forsakes the implication for the explicit, for many reasons it is often advantageous to opt for the former.
There are scenes where the performances are rushed and unnatural, where a clumsy fade stands in for a scene transition, and unfortunately the clarity of the picture actually works against the film, the images oddly flat during the daylight scenes and too much detail betrayed in the night time shadows, but consciously casting mature actors in an atypical setting marks it as an inherently more interesting and ambitious horror than the standard slashers the major studios offer.