This month I am going to devote some quality time toward a surprisingly good modern day take on one of the oldest school fractions of the monster movie sub-genre. Said film, calling itself 'Late Phases' (with the subtitle, 'Night of the Lone Wolf' on the cover art but nowhere in the film) and hailing from the good folks at Glass Eye Pix (by way of Dark Sky Films) seeks to pull itself up from the oft tread conventions tied tight to the common fold of the werewolf film staple and branch off in a decidedly different, more character fueled, direction.
Situated in some far flung, small in scale New York state locale dubbed 'Crescent City', 'Late Phases' weds the viewer close to the pared down living situation of one vision free war vet name of Ambrose McKinley (realized onscreen by the ever dependable Nick Damici) with little more to yearn for but to count off the remaining days of his dwindling existence with his loyal pooch by his side. Our dutifully complacent chap has just freshly set down in these uneventful parts (with the aid of his always distracted son, played by Ethan Embry) when, from directly out of nowhere, arrives an intrusive menace of an extremely bestial nature. It would appear, as the pesky quirks of horror movie fate would have it, that the 'harmless' vibe of this community is seriously inflected by a heady dose of Lycanthropic corruption.
The first thick taste of such comes in very direct fashion one fitfully solemn evening wherein our main man cursed with the failed eyeballs must quickly acclimate to a violent, fatal attack upon, first his kindly neighbor and next his ever faithful, four legged best friend. Promptly following this unprovoked assault, Ambrose sets forth to plot a course of action that will, hopefully, locate, isolate and snuff out the savage culprit. What this will ultimately entail is the deeper delving into the predictably conservative social circles that inform the spine of this specific slice of small town Americana. Ambrose attempts (not often successfully) to win the trust of the resident old biddy greeting committee (designed, to a degree, after characters in the original 'Stepford Wives' as confessed by the director on the revelatory commentary track) as well as integrate himself into the thick of the area religious populace (which looks to be a fair chunk of the story's supporting players). This all unfolds in a fairly expected manner with a series of not-so-stable confrontations giving way to the inevitable red herring or two on the way to the customary human to were-thing transformation reveal that these kinds of pictures are cemented around.
Fortunately for us, this oh so potentially simple and cliché susceptible piece of lower budget, wolfman calamity is guided to a far nobler fruition by the totally able hand of a gent named Adrian Garcia Bogliano. Those precious few of you who actually follow my scattershot column on a constant basis may recall that name as being associated with a lively film I covered but a year ago called 'Here Comes the Devil'. That film proved itself the wealthy result of an ingenious and uber-resourceful filmmaker who could absorb and adapt his volumetric genre influences to the benefit of a work that, in itself, was wholly original and effortlessly engrossing. 'Here Comes the Devil' also marked the widest ever exposure in this America Bogliano had yet been graced with. This reasonable level of cult success on, mostly, the festival circuit served to put him in a position to take the next best step forward in his rising career, to craft a film within our lovely boarders. Thus, 'Late Phases' was born.
For this, Bogliano's official English lingo debut, the man has carted a few of his well honed directorial traits with him. Witness the soothing warmth of the often succulent cinematography that works one into a lull to pull them away from the danger you know damn well is impending. See, as well, the fetishistic dedication to utter practicality when it comes to the meat of his film's FX work. Minimal digital input was employed in the rendering of the beasties or their unsparing carnage. What you eventually lay eyes on is, for the most part, pure latex, body in suit reality (the 'from scratch to completion' details can be found in the 30 minute featurette 'Early Phases' which ventures into creature maker Robert Kurtzman's studio to casually observe the nuts and bolts behind it all). Now, while it makes for a slight case of sensory adjustment, these delightfully cheesy monstrosities actually prove to be effective throwback, shock horror material once the last stains of polished digital trickery fall from ones' psyche. They help to propel the mounting unease as generated throughout the narrative between our protagonist and a litany of set minded residents who can never really gel to Ambrose's somewhat cold, do it yourself persona.
It seems this fella's determined in-town snooping has raised up the red flag with a number of folks from the gabby spinsters to the local police and back around to the members of faith who express equal parts concern and distain at his disruptive behavior. In the end, it all must spiral back to a case of a life hardened man and his sharpened wits pairing up against a violent wall of supernatural opposition, something the film rather effectively marries to the concept of a fading mortal soul facing its' concluding moments.
'Late Phases' is, apart from being a solid genre entry occasioned by welcome bursts of quality gore, a very satisfying roll out of distinct characters and the fitting performances that breathe them to cinematic life. In addition to the fine, subtly rendered lead work by Damici (whom some may recall from his team ups with stellar director Jim Mickle, like 'Stakeland"), the picture is peppered with many a (semi) familiar mug from across the cult-pop culture entertainment landscape.
The statuesque Tom ('House of the Devil', 'Last Action Hero') Noonan takes part as a mentor like preacher with a soft spot for cigarettes, Tina Louise (Ginger from Gilligan's Island, now looking more like a Golden Girl) show up as one of the pesky neighbors, Lance Guest (the teen hero of 'The Last Starfighter') is a rather creepy hanger on at the church and former 'Twin Peaks' bad boy Dana Ashbrook cameos as an underground gun dealer. All help to fill out the background details nicely. Each piece of this decent cast works to raise the end product well above the standards long set down by one too many a slapped together, direct to the shelf, werewolf themed time killer.
'Late Phases' features the usual extra stuff (some of it mentioned above); play by play audio commentary, a pair of featurettes and the film's trailer. It comes to availability on Blu Ray and/or DVD from the aforementioned Dark Sky Films (darkskyfilms.com).
Worth a shot, I say.
Now, for a much needed passing mention to the ongoing phenomenon of the film festival in this state of ours. With many such cinema based gatherings taking place all across Wisconsin (Wildwood in Appleton, Wisconsin International Film Fest in Madison plus collectives in Green Bay, Milwaukee, Weyauwega and many, many others) I thought it only fitting to pass along a quick assemblage of my own make pretend fest line up culled from many recent finds that I just never got around to rambling about in a regular column.
1. 'Whiplash'-Call it 'Full Metal Jazz Band'. Young drummer with obvious skill set comes under the intense tutelage of a firebrand instructor (J.K. Simmons in an Oscar winning, volcano of a performance). The film charts how the poor lad must endure relentless immersion into the methods of his chosen craft (often to the sharp accompaniment of a barrage of profane insults) in order to come out the other side as one of the greats. The best I've seen, thus far, of the most recent slate of Academy Award darlings (sorry Birdman).
2. 'Under the Skin'- Scarlett Johansson is an alien newly arrived on Earth (more explicitly, Scotland) with an apparent agenda of luring suitable human males, by virtue of her foxy exterior, to her mysterious lair for abduction and...uh...processing purposes or something. Slow, spare and enigmatic, the film marks a return to filmmaking after a near decade of absence for Jonathan Glazer ('Sexy Beast', 'Birth') who takes the bare skeleton of Michel Faber's source novel and has crafted an absorbing study of a being out of place in an environment made all the more alien in itself as the whole film seems to align with Scarlett's character's somewhat abstracted point of view. Dense and challenging in its ambiguity.
3. 'The Guest'- Those clever, 'wink, wink', cats behind the home invasion splat fest 'You're Next', Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, are back with another jumpy thriller that repeatedly nods back in time toward entries from multiple genres from the 80s and 90s. A soldier on return from the Afghan war ingratiates himself as the proposed combat pal of a naïve family's fallen son. The mystery thickens as the man (essayed by 'Downton Abby' star Dan Stevens) turns out to hold secrets that could prove quite threatening to his obliging hosts. Twisty, stylish fun in an old school, accidental video store discovery kind of way.
4. 'Starry Eyes'- Think of one of David Lynch's starlet in trouble scenarios played out on a more straight arrow path, for awhile, until the darker themes of the storyline bleed vividly to the surface. Somebody named Alex Essoe stars as Sarah, a waitress at a typically degrading Hooters knock off joint who yearns to be a star, awww. She claims she'll do anything to get the part and soon finds herself put to the test of making good on her word in the most unexpected and disturbing way. Relentless once it kicks into its' true narrative intent, with a game lead performance by Essoe that runs an emotional gauntlet that stands to gut the soul of any timid viewer.
5. 'VHS Viral'+'The ABC's of Death 2'- The latest additions to the two anthology franchises that have done all in their power to fully revitalize the format to the level once held by the likes of 'Creepshow'. They're not quite there, but not for lack of persistence and notable improvement of product (especially 'ABC's' which had a lot to make up for in relation to its inaugural entry). Segments very wildly as per usual, but there seems to be a shift in favor of craftsmanship and stronger ideas (as opposed to beat you over the head gross out/shock tactics) which gives me great hope as this whole concept continues to move foreword. Bring on the next round.
6. 'Life Itself'- A look at the life and uneasy death (more to the point, dying days) of the most famous of all movie critics, Roger Ebert. 'Hoops Dreams' creator Steve James conducts a series of interviews with a post speech, jaw removal Ebert in his hospital room and interweaves the recollection of Roger's rise from lowly Illinois newspaper lackey to the heights of cinematic analysis as the co-host of the popular 'At The Movies' syndicated program and beyond with input from some of the man's big name pals like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. We see images from Ebert's youth in Urbana, IL and hear recollections from many mouths of his tussle with serious alcohol abuse before he became the sweater sporting rival to fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel. Funny, revealing and a bit unsettling (James is often present for Ebert's sometimes unpleasant medical upkeep), 'Life Itself' is a fully rewarding look at one of the most unique of all modern celebrities, in this overburdened age of self indulgent blogging and social network info-overkill will there ever be elbow room enough for another like him? Me thinks not.
That's enough. Happy festing, no matter how or where you do it.