By Keri O’Shea
Look, I was going to try to play coy on the source of the horror in this film, but seeing as ‘Night of the Wolf’ has been added to the title (sigh), and that to avoid any residual ambiguity there’s a massive savage wolf on the cover art, there’s little point really. With that out of the bag, I’ll get straight to the point: it always seems strange that there are so few successful werewolf movies being made these days, for all sorts of reasons. Aside from the fact that werewolves are folk demons par excellence, able to lend themselves to a variety of interpretations from monster flicks to psychological studies, their presence in horror films is intrinsically linked to the development of the genre in the first place. It was Universal’s spin on that folklore which was responsible for entrenching and embellishing it, putting werewolf horror on the silver screen, then providing us with the legend of the silver bullets which could put things right. Well, whatever the reasons for the wolf’s relatively quiet few years, we can at least be thankful for the existence of Late Phases, one of the best-crafted werewolf movies of recent decades.
Crescent Bay is one of those dreadfully euphemistic ‘retirement communities’: warm, sunny, cosy, and conveniently remote from grown children who have their lives to live, preferably with clear consciences. Crescent Bay is also the new home of Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici), ex-Army, who – in the wake of a family bereavement – arrives at the new place with the help of his son, Will (Ethan Embry) and moves in. Ambrose finds a few odd original features in his new house before the movers even get there, and it seems all is not well in his complex; both he and his neighbour Dolores are attacked that night. Given the circumstances, no one sees the assailant, but when Ambrose can finally get out of the house, he learns that these sorts of attacks are relatively commonplace. This may be enough for many of the residents, and indeed the police (who seem to feel that the attacks are collateral and not all that much to grieve over) but Ambrose won’t accept it. He wants to know more, and the discoveries he makes act like a touch-paper for a series of horrific events.
I was instantly engaged by this story: for starters, it looks beautiful, is fantastically well shot and lit, and it has a superb cast who have been chosen because they can act and tell a story, not because they have some debatable, anodyne Hollywood saleability. Seeing Nick Damici’s name attached to any project always makes my heart sing, and – although we could quibble over the fact that he is rather young for the role of a retired man – he is superb here. He’s made a hero out of a deeply flawed man; Ambrose is gruff, curt, and possessed of that bone-deep cold demeanour beloved of older generations, particularly military folk. He’s also eminently likeable, balancing his grave stoicism with vulnerability. As his son Will observes of him after he survives the attack at his house, “His ‘okay’ and his ‘not okay’ both look the same”. Ambrose is also a lynchpin of something else the film does incredibly well – a sense of humour which doesn’t feel insincere. Some of his one-liners absolutely cracked me up. The film is capable of sustaining the odd visual nod here, the odd knowing reference there (see: Crescent Moon Retirement Community, as one example) and having Ambrose deliver some pitch-perfect sneers only makes me warm to his predicament. He can be comical, but he’s certainly not a comic character. The supporting cast are great too and each bring something to the table. Via their interplay, the film handles its plot reveals seamlessly; subtle and purposeful, writers could take some great cues from Eric Stolze’s work here. You don’t have to yell everything into camera. Trust your audience to work things out.
Whilst it may by now be clear in which direction the film goes, the truly excellent work which Late Phases does, for me, is in how it depicts the treatment of the elderly. Here, we have a community of people – people who have raised families, worked all their lives – shown to be sidelined, exposed and expendable. So someone kills an old lady? Shame, but it’s not a tragedy; snide asides from the younger generations employed to help them, or brusque phonecalls from families all spell out in surprisingly poignant language that these people are seen as spent. Ambrose spits that Crescent Bay is “not a place to live, it’s a place to die”, and it’s indeed shown as a place where people die; the film pushes it to its extreme, sure, but ultimately this is because of how isolated and helpless they are. Having older characters as central characters is still in itself unusual. Without necessarily moralising, Late Phases merely uses their isolation to contextualise its story, one which can still muster some wonderful moments of vindication.
Of course, in terms of those moments, one of the biggest risks in making a film of this genre is deciding how much of the predator we need to see. I’ve talked about humour in the film; well, the wrong creature effects can derail an entire film, and it seems to be an especial problem with this genre. Directors have to juggle the expectation with the pay-off. I don’t envy them. Personally, I’d have gone with the whole ‘less is more’ approach, and shown even less on screen. What we see in Late Phases is by far and away not awful, and care has clearly gone into the design, but seeing this clearly on screen did feel like a tonal shift, one which necessitated some splattery elements which weren’t the film’s finest scenes. That said, we needed a conclusion to all this, and by the time the credits rolled, not only was I back on side – I was genuinely moved. That is a thing surprisingly rare, and – yeah, I’ll say it – precious.
An original entrant in the werewolf movie genre which nonetheless manages to pay its respects to films such as American Werewolf and The Beast Must Die, Late Phases is a complete – and welcome – surprise.
Late Phases will come to DVD and Blu-ray on 20th April 2015.