Late Phases (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

The first time we meet Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici), in the opening scene of Late Phases, he is checking out headstones for his own tomb. Blind, bitter and bilious, this recently widowed Vietnam vet is undergoing something of a transition, as he moves into the Crescent Bay Retirement Community, located in a liminal space where town meets woodland. He knows that he has one foot in the grave, and that he has “come here to die”, and yet he has regrets still to address, and important words still to say to his adult son Will (Ethan Embry) – and Ambrose, a tough old soldier who still carries a gun despite his lack of sight, is not one to go down without a fight.

On Ambrose’s first night in the Community, both his faithful guide dog and his new neighbour Delores are fatally attacked by something big and wild. The police insist that “attacks like these happen all the time around wooded areas”, the vet reveals that they have been a monthly occurrence at Crescent Bay, but Ambrose knows exactly what is going on and what needs to be done – and refuses simply to be easy prey. As he waits for the next full moon to come, he spends four weeks sounding out the Community for suspects and meticulously preparing for the beast’s return.

Directed by Adrián García Bogliano (Cold Sweat, Here Comes the Devil) and scripted by Eric Stotze, (Under the Bed), Late Phases is unequivocally a werewolf flick (even if the word ‘werewolf’ is never once uttered in it), but the film nonetheless wears its genre skin loose, instead preferring to focus on the receding life of its cantankerous protagonist, shining bright in his own late phase. We may get to see the lycanthropic creatures that Ambrose can only hear and smell, but nonetheless Damici proves by far the film’s greatest special effect, making an utterly convincing transformation from sighted, fifty-something actor to a much older blind man, even as he embodies a complex, nuanced war veteran whose decline and disillusion are implicitly also America’s.

Like Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), Late Phases uses an old-school monster of horror to allegorise the cruelly inexorable ravages of senescence and death. The film’s lycanthropic assailant, though real enough, is also a metaphor: for in the end, there is really only one uninvited visitor who comes regularly to take away the weak and the elderly. Ambrose’s armed resistance against this force of wild nature is ultimately quixotic, but that is precisely what makes it heroic too. After all, when death comes a-knocking, those facing it show who they both are and were – and here, even that headstone which at the film’s beginning symbolised Ambrose’s approaching demise becomes later a weapon and a marker of his defiant ingenuity.

Anton Bitel