Monday, June 1, 2015

LATE PHASES (2014) Blu-ray Review

Late Phases (2014) d. Adrian Garcia Bogliano (USA)

Retired Vietnam War veteran Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici) has a disability and a problem. The disability? He’s blind. The problem? He’s been “reassigned” to a retirement community, or, in less politically correct parlance, an old folks’ neighborhood. As Ambrose puts it, “This isn’t where you go to live, it’s where you go to die.” Unfortunately, a bigger problem lies within the first, issuing forth once a month like a wolf in human’s clothing. Yes, Crescent Bay has become the favorite feeding spot of an insatiable lycanthrope, and the old soldier’s new neighbors are being picked off like so many sheep, quite possibly by one of their own. Will he be able to pick out/pick off the shapeshifter in time, or will the cycle of death and mutilation continue?

Ever since exploding onto the indie horror scene in Jim Mickle’s Mulberry St. and Stake Land, Damici has become one of my favorite onscreen presences, a modern-day ’70s tough guy in the vein of Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson with the cool gravitas and taciturn charisma to match. As such, it was with no small amount of anticipation that I approached his teaming with Bogliano, hot off the success of 2013’s Here Comes the Devil, making his English-language debut courtesy of a script by Eric Stolze (Under the Bed). There was the added bonus that all of the effects were promised to be practical in nature, i.e., no craptastic CGI. It finally seemed that, over a decade since Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, we finally had another werewolf classic in the making.

Late Phases (excessively subtitled – in larger font, no less – Night of the Lone Wolf for DarkSky Films’ home video release) fares somewhat better than other recent hairy scary efforts. But outside of Damici’s excellent central performance, it never quite realizes its fully potential, which is slightly disappointing. The transformed beasts are well articulated, but the designs by Robert Kurtzman are pretty ho-hum and/or silly, lacking the long-snouted menace of, say, Rob Bottin’s memorable efforts from The Howling or the aforementioned Dog Soldiers, courtesy of Bob Keen. There’s also the problematic central premise: Every month an old person gets devoured by a wild animal prowling the neighborhood and no one ever does anything about it or makes a connection between the moon’s cycle and the attacks? It’s a stretch, Mr. Stolze, and a big one at that.

The supporting cast is fine, and occasionally more so, as in the case with genre stalwart Tom Noonan (Manhunter, House of the Devil), who puts in a welcome appearance as a priest with attitude and a secret, and former Last Starfighter Lance Guest. But it is Damici, with his unblinking gaze, old-age makeup, and no-bullshit attitude, who makes it all worthwhile. Here is a guy who’s been through hell and back again, emerging with his sight gone and his heart hardened.

With a son (Ethan Embry, excellent as usual) with whom he can’t or won’t connect and a wife in the ground, his only true companion is a faithful German Shepherd, and while he’s not entirely averse to making friends (he comments to his new female neighbor that she “smells beautiful”), he doesn’t cotton much to welcome wagons, such as the one headed up by Rutanya Alda (Amityville II, The Dark Half) and Tina Louise (yes, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island). And even blind, he’s still handy with a military-issue pistol and a dead shot, a worthy skill when besieged by werewolves.

DarkSky Films recent Blu-ray release doesn’t match the deluxe treatment given their previous issue, Starry Eyes, but with a couple of featurettes and an audio commentary by Bogliano, they’re aren’t exactly skimping either. The 15-minute making-of segment offers up interviews with Damici, Bogliano, and producers Larry Fessenden and Brent Kunkle, providing a fair amount of context about how the various players came aboard, with equal attention given to the production design and practical effects. There’s also a funny little anecdote about how Damici prepared for the role using a blindfold, but after continuously burning himself with coffee and cigarettes, he opted for a “peripheral vision” approach. “It’s just technical, you know. It’s no big, deep thing. All those people who act like playing blind is great acting, it’s just bullshit. (laughs) It’s a trick.”

Next is a less-polished but lengthier FX featurette with lots of handheld shots in Kurtzman Creature Corps allowing us a fly-on-the-wall vantage point of the technicians doing their thing with clay and latex and fur. (It’s kind of fun and refreshing to see an equal number of men and women working alongside one another in a field that is often considered a boy’s club.) While a little more narration and/or signposting would have been welcome in terms of talking us through the various processes being undertaken before us, we still get a pretty good idea of what’s happening most of the time. Watching main suit performer David Greathouse working in the fully realized get-up on set is also quite the treat. (Prolific FX veterans Brian Spears and Pete Gerner, responsible for the film’s splattery blood effects as well as Damici’s aged appearance are unfortunately absent from the proceedings, though they are given a brief spotlight in the making-of segment.)

The audio commentary is worth a listen, especially for fans of the director’s previous work, who might be pleasantly surprised at Bogliano’s nimble phrasing and facility for articulate discourse. (I confess, I had mild language barrier concerns prior to interviewing him regarding Here Comes the Devil for HorrorHound last year. Would that all U.S. natives could speak so well.) Bogliano discusses with great eagerness how Stolze’s script came his way, the challenges of doing an effects-heavy monster movie, and the great respect he holds for his star. (I couldn’t help but wonder how hands-off Damici was with Stolze’s script, considering his own considerable skill behind the keyboard, but not much mention is made of the actor’s contributions or lack thereof.) Bogliano also speaks openly of being inspired by Joe R. Lansdale's Bubba Ho-Tep (another tale of the elderly resisting supernatural forces) and expresses his happiness that the Texas-based writer was present at Late Phases’ world premiere at SXSW “and he liked it!”

As a whole (or a howl), this is a worthwhile werewolf film if not the modern classic it could have been with a few script tweaks and another round of monster designs. As much a (heavy-handed) commentary on the younger generation’s disregard for the old as an old fashioned creature feature, it’s a terrific showcase for Damici who still deserves a higher profile along the lines of, say, Stephen McHattie. But Pontypool this ain’t, so we’ll just keep our fingers crossed for his and Mickle’s next project, which is as yet unannounced. (This is probably a good a place as any to express my concerns that Damici’s roles in his creative partner’s directorial efforts are falling more and more in the supporting categories – witness We Are What We Are and Cold in July – as opposed to the spotlight. Do us all a favor, Jim and Nick: write yourself bigger, better parts and tell the studios to suck it.)

Late Phases is available now from DarkSky Films on VOD (iTunes or Amazon) and can be ordered on Blu-ray or DVD HERE:


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