Great werewolf films are few and far between, so when I heard that Toronto After Dark would be hosting a Werewolf Night during their festival this year, I was cautiously optimistic and knew that I had to attend in order to see the fresh blood first-hand. In the end I found that Adrián García Bogliano‘s film Late Phases really struck a chord with me, delivering on all the bloody indulgences of the genre while simultaneously speaking to dramatic themes that reach above and beyond a simple werewolf story. On a purely literal level, the film is an entertaining and at times darkly comic story of a man’s fight for survival against inhuman forces, complete with gruesome transformations, a puzzling mystery plot, silver bullets, and werewolf-head-exploding shotgun blasts. But aside from all that, Bogliano has also crafted a poignant criticism of our society and it’s deteriorating treatment of senior citizens, with the iconic lycanthrope monster providing a backdrop and context for the larger questions of personal loss, social indifference, and mortality.
The success of Late Phases hinges almost entirely on a tour-de-force performance by Nick Damici in the role of Ambrose, a blind and stubborn war vet who is being sent away to live out his final years at a retirement community chosen by his emotionally detached son Will (Ethan Embry). The first night at his new home, Nick barely escapes a fatal encounter with a massive wolf-like creature which claims the life of his neighbour, only to discover the following day that attacks by creatures matching this description occur on a monthly basis in this community. With nowhere else to go due to limited retirement housing in the area, Ambrose gradually begins preparations to hunt down and kill the monster. But as he learns more about the community itself, he begins to suspect that the creature may in fact be someone he knows, and he must find out who before the next full moon arrives.
Feeling at times like a blend of Gran Torino and Bubba Ho-Tep, this horror/drama is extremely effective at balancing its fantastic monster-movie elements with dark comedy and touching real-world drama, all of which is anchored by Damici’s committed and captivating performance that merges tragic hero with certified bad-ass. He is also backed by genre veterans Tom Noonan and Lance Guest in supporting roles, and I’m always happy to see Ethan Embry even if he isn’t as fun here as in last year’s Cheap Thrills. Admittedly, there are some issues with the physical design of the werewolves – something that I feel is always the biggest hurdle with one of these films – however they do make up for it by using the coolest method of transformation, whereby the skin is actually ripped off to reveal the monster beneath (e.g.Trick ‘R Treat). It makes for some pretty gruesome stuff once the film rolls into its final act, but thankfully Late Phases never falls into self-parody, instead offering up a captivating story and shocking finale that is over-the-top in all the right ways. As werewolf movies go, it certainly makes an admirable case for itself, and one that may just earn it a lasting cult following, even if for Damici’s performance alone.
The film screened following a Canadian short entitled Dead Hearts by writer/director Stephen W. Martin, which told a twisted yet lighthearted story about a young boy born into family of morticians who falls in love with a blind girl, and eventually gives his heart away to her only to come back from the dead to claim it when they have both grown old. This is certainly one of the best shorts I’ve seen at the festival, and certainly one of the funniest, capturing a whimsical fairytale quality infused with a perfect amount of the macabre. If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend it.
The Toronto After Dark Film Festival continues with two films tonight and another final two on Friday night including the hotly anticipated Closing Gala feature The Babadook which sold out so quickly that the festival was able to negotiate a SECOND SCREENING immediately following the first one. This new screening will take place Friday night at 11:45pm at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. Check out the festival’s official website for details and tickets.