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late-phases-poster

In the modern world of cinematic monsters, werewolves sure do seem to get the short end of the stick. Sure, they may have factored into the mega-colossi that were the Twilight and Underworld franchises and they’ll never be able to take Lon Chaney, Jr. away from us but, to quote the parlance of the time, “What have they done for us lately?” Compared to peers like zombies, vampires and space aliens, there’s a notable shortage of lycanthrope films to choose from but, ironically, some of the best werewolf films have also been some of the best horror films, period: the aforementioned classic The Wolf Man (1941), An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Company of Wolves (1984), Ginger Snaps (2000) and Dog Soldiers (2002) are not only shining examples of tortured folk howling at the full moon but they also hold fairly esteemed ranks within the horror genre, as a whole.

While it’s been some time since I’ve seen a werewolf film that’s good enough to howl about from the rooftops, it looks like the dry-spell has finally been broken: not only is Spanish auteur Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases (2014) the best werewolf film to come out in over a decade, it’s also one of the very best horror films I’ve seen this year. While it’s tempting to say that I’m surprised, I’m really not: with a track record that includes such essential cinema as Cold Sweat (2010), Penumbra (2011) and Here Comes the Devil (2012), I fully expect any and all Bogliano films to kick major ass over and above their daily allotted allowances. Truth be told, I can’t think of a better filmmaker to tell the story of a legally blind Vietnam vet who goes to war with the werewolves terrorizing his seemingly serene retirement community. In the simplest way possible: Adrián García Bogliano has done it again.

The fearless, tough-as-nails protagonist of our little tale is Ambrose McKinley (the always amazing Nick Damici), the aforementioned blind war veteran who has just been moved into a retirement community by his disapproving, micro-managing son, Will (Ethan Embry). Ambrose is a difficult guy, no two ways about it: with a perma-scowl affixed to his face, Ambrose’s unseeing eyes seem to peer right through everyone he meets, cutting through any societal pleasantries and exposing the rest of us for the bullshit artists we really are. Call him the AARP Holden Caulfield, if you must, but for god’s sake, don’t do it to his face.

As Ambrose settles into his new home, he immediately meets some of his new neighbors: his next-door-neighbor, Delores (Karen Lynn Gorney), and the local “welcoming committee” of Emma (Caitlin O’Heaney), Gloria (Rutanya Alda) and Clarissa (Tina Louise), as well as local preacher Father Roger (genre vet Tom Noonan) and church benefactor James Griffin (Lance Guest). As befits his nature, Ambrose does absolutely nothing to curtail favor with anyone, leading Delores to view him with something approaching puppy-dog infatuation, while the others react in ways ranging from extreme amusement to extreme suspicion.

Practically before he’s completely unpacked, however, Ambrose finds himself knee-deep in a grisly mystery: as he listens, helplessly, from his room, he hears Delores being savagely attacked on the other side of the wall. The local authorities blame it on vicious dogs, saying that “old people make good targets” and should be more aware of their surroundings. Ambrose is the furthest thing from stupid, however, and none of this makes sense to him, especially after he finds himself under attack from the same monstrous creature that mutilated his neighbor. Once he discovers that these attacks seem to occur once a month, around the full moon, Ambrose launches into his own investigation, much to the dismay of his put-upon son.

As he pokes around the retirement community, Ambrose begins to uncover the threads of a larger conspiracy, one that may or may not include the community’s quiet, slyly watchful man of God. Despite being blind, however, Ambrose can actually “see” better than anyone around him: he’s also a pretty damn good shot, a fact which certainly comes in handy when you’re hunting monsters. Before it’s all over, Ambrose, armed with a sharpened shovel, more moxie than a mob of Eastwoods and a studied disdain for morons, will become a one-man army. He’d better move fast, however: there’s another full moon on the horizon and it’s bringing a very hairy, very hungry beast with it. As Ambrose knows all too well, you don’t come to places like the retirement home to live: you come to places like this to die.

For his English-language debut, Bogliano turns in his most streamlined effort to date: not surprisingly, Late Phases ends up being the best film (thus far) in an extremely impressive body-of-work. Gone are the occasionally tedious flourishes and unnecessary camera zooms of his previous effort, the otherwise excellent Here Comes the Devil. Bogliano also minimizes the darkly humorous elements of previous films like Penumbra and Cold Sweat, making Late Phases seem more like a serious cousin to Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) than the natural successor to his earlier works. Despite being his most straight forward film, however, Late Phases is a virtual embarrassment of riches, thanks in no small part to a great script, fantastic performances and some truly amazing werewolf effects, courtesy of legendary SFX guru Robert Kurtzman.

One notable difference between Late Phases and Bogliano’s previous films is that he relinquishes the pen here, handing writing duties over to Under the Bed’s (2012) Eric Stolze. At first, this change carried the most potential for disappointment: after all, Bogliano’s earlier films were tightly plotted and often rather ingenious, whereas Stolze’s prior genre effort was disjointed and, frequently, kind of a mess. As it turns out, however, I had very little to fear: short of one completely unnecessary and confusing red herring involving certain characters coughing, the script and plotting for Late Phases is air-tight and easily comparable to Bogliano’s scripts, albeit without his (usually) overt political sensibilities.

From a technical aspect, Late Phases looks and sounds great: frequent Bogliano cinematographer Ernesto Herrera turns in some beautifully autumnal imagery, even managing to imbue the film’s frequent gore with a lovely, burnished quality that makes the entire film feel almost impossibly lush. He does some truly great things with light and shadow, not least of which is the quietly powerful scene where Ambrose slowly moves backwards into darkness, his craggy features slowly subsumed by inky nothingness. The gorgeous imagery is handily tied together by Wojciech Golczewski’s understated score: each aspect helps to elevate the film past its simple indie horror roots, taking it into the territory of something like Jim Mickle’s classic Stake Land (2010).

One of the main issues with any creature feature, dating all the way back to the Universal originals, is the actual depiction of said creature. In many cases, monster movies are inherently disappointing because whatever promise is set up by the movie’s mythology is usually dashed once we actually get to see the creature: anyone who grew up on old horror flicks will be more than familiar with that reliable old game of “spot the zipper.” Not so here, in any way, shape or form: Late Phases’ lycanthropes are brought to roaring, terrifying life by SFX pioneer Kurtzman (if you’re a horror fan and aren’t familiar with KNB, you need a refresher course, stat) and they’re easily the equal of any werewolves that came before, including Rick Baker’s iconic American ex-pat wolf man. Equally important for werewolf films are the obligatory transformation scenes: as expected, Late Phases knocks this out of the park with one of the goopiest, most painful-looking transformations ever put to film. If you’re not gritting your teeth by the time our monster rips his own skin off, like a snug t-shirt, well…you have more iron in your blood than I do, neighbor.

As a werewolf/horror film, Late Phases meets and exceeds pretty much every requirement: what really sets the film into its own class, however, is the high-quality performances that ground everything, starting with the film’s protagonist, Ambrose. Quite simply, Nick Damici is one of the greatest, unsung treasures of our modern era and Bogliano uses him to spectacular effect here. Ambrose is easily the equal of Damici’s iconic Mister (from Stake Land) and ends up being one of the most effortlessly cool, kickass heroes since Eastwood lost his name and donned his serape. The concept of a blind protagonist always brings issues with it: in many cases, plot developments like this are usually just ways for filmmakers to shoehorn in gimmicks involving dark rooms, night-vision, what have you. In Late Phases, however, Bogliano and Stolze do the best thing possible: they just establish Ambrose and then let Damici sell us on the character. In the best example of “show don’t tell” I’ve seen in years, he does just that. If there were any justice, Nick Damici would be a household name along the lines of Jason Statham or Scott Glenn.

Ably supporting Damici are a handful of some of the most accomplished character actors currently treading the cinematic boards: indie MVP Larry Fessenden has some nice scenes as a slightly bemused headstone salesman; Ethan Embry does great work as Ambrose’s son, with some genuinely touching moments between the two; Tom Noonan gets to don a priest’s collar, again, and his performance is his typically assured combo of quietly reptilian intelligence and paternal concern; and, of course, genre fans should recognize Lance Guest from more things than they can shake a stick at, including Halloween II (1981), The Last Starfighter (1984) and any number of ’80s and ’90s-era TV shows. We also get the phenomenal tag-team of Tina Louise (Ginger from Giligan’s Island), Rutanya Alda and Caitlin O’Heaney (who also appeared in the ’80s-era cult classic Wolfen (1981): between these three actresses, you’ve got more amazing horror and genre history than most films have in their entire casts.

Ultimately, there’s one big thing that separates Bogliano’s Late Phases from any number of pretenders: genuine passion. At no point in the proceedings is there ever the notion of “phoning it in” or “making do.” Unlike Álex de la Iglesia’s severely disappointing English-language-debut, The Oxford Murders (2008),  Bogliano’s film feels like it belongs squarely in his canon: it’s a natural progression from what came before, not a watered-down reminder of what worked better in the native tongue. At this rate, Adrián García Bogliano is quickly establishing himself as one of modern horror cinema’s foremost artists: with another potential masterpiece, Scherzo Diabolico (2015), on the horizon, I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Bogliano in the future. I, for one, can’t wait.

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