We often talk about common tropes in horror films -- everything from characters running purposely into the direction of the danger to the family pet being the most intelligent characters in the film. When we get to the topic of older characters in the genre, there isn't really much to say about them. They're either possessed (The Taking of Deborah Logan), the maniacal villain (Drag Me to Hell) or a peripheral character that's irrelevant to the central story. Rarely are they protagonists, someone we can root for. Which is what makes Adrián García Bogliano's LATE PHASES so interesting to watch. It propels the senior character into a role that isn't instantaneously definable.
From its start, there's a sadness about LATE PHASES. The film opens as Ambrose (Nick Damici) is sitting tensely in the passenger seat of his son Will's (Ethan Embry) car as he's driven to Crescent Bay, an out-of-the-way retirement community where he is to spend the rest of his days alone. He doesn't speak much, despite the effort Will puts into the conversation. We soon realize that this has been designated his final destination without his full consent, which has left him cantankerous and bewildered. Ambrose's failure to connect with his son is no longer because he is unable to but because he simply doesn't want to. A widowed veteran left blinded by the Vietnam war, Ambrose is at the point where he feels it's too late for him to start being the man he's supposed to be. Rather, he's settling for the man he actually is.
The idea of settling is a strong component of LATE PHASES. The word is often used in describing the twilight years of someone's life, the notion that at this stage it's all about merely existing, reflecting and, well, waiting for death to arrive. But Ambrose doesn't fit that stereotype. When he looks back on his life, it's filled with pain and regret -- punctuated by the thought that the only honorable thing he's ever done was serve his country in a war it ultimately lost. He's more than simply present; he's restless, radioactive and frustratingly aware of his desolate surroundings. As he seeks for an activity to fill his days, he quickly finds one when he learns of the frightening events that are decimating the people of Crescent Bay quicker than old age ever can: werewolves.
The irony of wolves attacking people in a community where they've essentially been dropped off to die isn't lost on the audience. They're the forgotten family members, pushed away from society, neglected by both their loved ones and even law enforcement -- who have all but given up on trying to protect the neighborhood that's become under siege. So Ambrose channels the one thing he's confident in, his military skills (miraculously sharpened by his blindness), as he comes to terms with the fact that he will likely die in this community, but not without winning the grizzly war that's taken out so many of his neighbors. As he gathers his ammo and military attire, he embarks on the greatest battle of his life.
Interestingly, many think of old age and immediately think of death, when in fact the bigger concern among seniors tends to be loneliness -- the idea that they're no longer needed or even wanted. What Bogliano and screenwriter Eric Stolze do is give the senior agency to take claim of his life one final time, giving him something to fight for before he takes his last breath -- using the idea of wolves terrorizing residents of a retirement community only as an allegory to present this more poignant message. Though LATE PHASES isn't as smart as Bogliano's excellent Here Comes the Devil, the filmmaker once again provides terror where you least expect it, blending themes of faith and redemption. As the film leads up to its bloody conclusion, there's a sense of peace that falls upon our hero, a reparation that he is unable to find at the local church or even with his son.
LATE PHASES is influenced by the success of many classic horrors in that it doesn't allow the element of fear to be the film's only value. Though the special effects in the werewolf transformation scenes come off more cheesy than terrifying (I kinda wish Bogliano chose to cut away from those scenes and focus the camera on the victims' faces instead), it is the imminence of death even before we actually see the wolves that incites such an unsettling feeling. As the lead antihero, Damici embodies the film's strongest themes in a performance that is physical, emotional as well as psychological.
Rating: B (*** out of *****)
LATE PHASES opens Friday in select theaters and on VOD.