C.H. Newell talks with producer Heather Buckley about THE RANGER, plus lots more interesting stuff.
Trigger Man. 2007. Directed, Edited, & Written by Ti West.
Starring Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, Sean Reid, Heather Robb, James Felix McKenney, Seth Abrams, & Larry Fessenden.
KINO International/Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix/CCR Productions.
Unrated. 80 minutes.
This is a slightly unusual film out of Ti West’s filmography. He is a great director, in my opinion. You either dig him, or you don’t; no middle ground. And that’s fine, if everybody liked the same thing we’d be a boring lot of humans. For those of us who enjoy West and his brand of horror, Trigger Man comes as a surprise. I remember listening to an interview he did talking about how this film sort of came up on a whim. He wrote a script, brought it to Larry Fessenden, and then they had time to shoot it, so a real indie shoot came about. Ultra low budget. Almost rogue-style filmmaking.
Apart from the visual feel and the actual use of digital rather shooting on film, West looks at a more dramatic thriller angle than anything horror. Sure, the horror of humanity comes out. That’s a huge element. Most of his movies, aside from recently with The Sacrament, tend to go for classic horror elements while he does his best to subvert expectations, keeping with the spirit of indie film. Trigger Man works because it doesn’t necessarily try to change anything. It works by building up an atmosphere of dread, each scene slowly, steadily amping up the feeling that at any moment a horrible event is about to take place. True to what later became signature to his personal directorial style, West slow burns through his plot before reaching a nicely executed finale. Then if the terror isn’t enough for you concerning real people and their sometimes hideous actions in this raw look at a story that’s not unbelievable in the slightest, maybe I’m weak. Maybe I should hang up the ole horror hat.
Nah. I dig this one. It isn’t near perfect. However, West makes me sweat enough throughout this sparse flick that I can’t help watching it now and then. It’s a tough one to find on DVD, but luckily I picked it up last year. I’ll always support West’s films and I can admit when there are faults. I refuse to not acknowledge a solid low budget thriller when it’s in front of my face. You shouldn’t expect his best, though don’t sell West short here.
This movie was never intended to be on a grand scale. West had the time and wanted to make something with a very minimalist take, so instead of opting to shoot on film (as he usually does) he went digital. The entire film is much different from any of his other work, even his early feature The Roost. With a handheld and kinetic style, West uses this feel to create as much tension possible. If anything, this is a nice exercise in suspense. You can judge this for being low budget and all that, but it wasn’t ever meant to be anything more. Larry Fessenden, a mentor of West’s in the industry, gave him about $10K to make it. They found some nice locations, kept the cast to a bare minimum. West had a small story that worked for the basic needs. Nobody’s expecting a reinvention of the genre. Part of me enjoys Trigger Man because West isn’t exactly swinging for the fences, as he so often does with his other brilliant features. Here, he does his best at cultivating a specific mood of tension that worms its way through the short 80 minute runtime. Many might not find the finale rewarding. I do. The tension pays off in an excellent way and I find it properly horrifying. Along the way we’re treated to a couple smatterings of blood, one particularly chunky, gross practical effect honestly looks real. I found that one unsettling, in the best kind of horror way.
Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s even a lick of truth to the concept that West claims this is inspired by a true story. If so, I’d love to see what the real scenario was, how it played out, what exactly went down the whole time. But forgetting all that this is still a real-feeling situation. These guys essentially wander into the path of something over which they have no control. Then it’s a sort of city dweller v. backwoods story that descends into utter nastiness. Part of the ultra-realism is the sound design by Graham Reznick. When these guys are out in the midst of the forest, near the river, running for their lives, we get the feeling of being right next to them, as the river rushes and their voices carry. Some likely find that annoying, which I totally understand. To me, these elements only add to the extremely raw atmosphere. There’s also not so much a score as there is this wonderfully ambient noise from Jeff Grace . At times that does morph into something more musical in terms of short pieces that accompany specific moments. Still, the best parts Grace offers up are these brutish shrieks and hypnotizing swirls of sound that wrap you up then rattle you; almost representative of the mental processes going on in someone’s head were they in such a life threatening, insane situation as these guys. Everything is minimal. The story is contained. The blood is gruesome when it comes, but only comes in a couple little bursts. The camera work consists of digital handheld shooting, nothing fancy; only once or twice do we get shots that are motionless, everything else keeps the chaotic pace by wavering and keeping on the move with the characters, zooming from the landscape to their faces and expressions of fear. The music is kept down to a handful of places where it’s nearly perfect. Through and through, Trigger Man is a utilitarian production that if anything knows how to use its bare necessities and structures itself accordingly.
You’ll either dig it a bit, or find it unappealing. There’s really nothing halfway about Trigger Man. Similar to the way people seem to feel about its director. Personally, Ti West is someone I find incredibly talented. He and I are close in age, so part of my affinity for his work has to do with the fact many of the movies he seems to admire and have grown up watching are the same ones as myself. Because of that they reflect in his own work, in turn capturing my attention. Not only that, though. West is simply a great director. He makes interesting choices, as well as the fact he’s an interesting writer. Preferring to take things slow, his films are sometimes categorized as being boring. A word I’ll never use in reference to any of his features. But to each their own. For me, he’s a fascinating artist that often takes a genre story we know and brings his unique vision to a story in order to freshen things up. Trigger Man doesn’t necessarily liven the survival thriller sub-genre. It does excite and keep you on edge, or at least it does for me. Give this one the chance, it’s a taut piece of work. Ignore the flaws and get past the handheld stuff. West is a scary guy, no matter if he’s working within the walls of a haunted hotel, dealing with vampire bats that turn people into the living dead, or wandering the forest with people running for their lives. It’s all spooky.
The Last Winter. 2006. Directed by Larry Fessenden. Screenplay by Fessenden & Robert Leaver.
Starring Ron Perlman, Connie Britton, James Le Gros, Jamie Harrold, Zach Gilford, Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold, Pato Hoffmann, Joanne Shenandoah, Larry Fessenden, and Oscar Miller. Antidote Films/Glass Eye Pix/Zik Zak Kvikmyndir. Rated 18A. 101 minutes.
It’s no secret I’m a huge Larry Fessenden fan. His collection of films recently hit Blu ray, so I luckily snatched up a copy from eBay at a solid price. The entire 4-disc collection includes his films No Telling, Habit, Wendigo, and of course The Last Winter. Included are a ton of extra bits like music videos and short films Fessenden pulls out of virtual obscurity, as well as the man himself talking us into the pictures, plus the short pieces too. The commentary is great all around, everything about this collection is magic.
The Last Winter is a rare bird. While I’m not huge on certain special effects in this movie, I can’t fault it much more outside those elements. In a day and age where too many people deny climate change, not to mention its impact(s), Fessenden takes the horror genre and weaves a contemporary issue through its cliches and tropes in a unique way. The story, above all else, is what matters. Add to that some solid performances, excellent tension developed by Fessenden’s directorial style, and this is a supremely creepy effort among a ton of post-2000 horror movies which aren’t worth their weight.
American oil company KIC Corporation is drilling in the arctic, constructing an ice road into the Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to find more locations in which they’ll explore for more deposits. At a station ran by corporate shill Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), a team of environmentalists work side by side with people from KIC. James Hoffman (James Le Gros) and his assistant Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold) are the most recent scientists evaluating the project. When Pollack bumps heads with Hoffman, the latter is taken away from the project permanently; no doubt due to Ed’s pull at KIC. At the same time, young crew member Maxwell McKinder (Zach Gilford) goes missing for a while. Upon his return, he seems distant, disturbed. One night, he wanders out into the wilderness, naked and mentally unstable. The rest of the crew find him dead, eyes only empty sockets. And then, they realize the environment may be starting to take back what they’ve drilled so relentlessly out of its bones.
Hoffman: “Why do we despise the world that gave us life? Why wouldn’t the world survive us, like any organism survives a virus. The world that we grew up in is changed forever. There is no way home. Is there something beyond science that is happening out here? What if the very thing we were here to pull out of the ground were to rise willingly – confront us. What would that look like? What if this is the last winter, before the collapse? And hope dies.”
The cinematography is spectacular. So many of the exterior shots in particular, they’re marvelous to look at – from the wide shots of the Arctic Circle, to the helicopter and sweeping crane shots of the camp. Every last sequence in the entire film looks gorgeous, even the dark, shadowy moments. Again, as I said earlier, there are a few shots involving special effects I don’t think come off so great. At the same time, the camerawork itself is all around fascinating. Fessenden has a great eye for unique looking shots, things which catch the eye: crane and helicopter shots, tight and wide angles, the whole spectrum alike. Here, he’s aided by cinematographer G. Magni Ágústsson.
Together with a distinctive look and feel, The Last Winter‘s atmosphere comes across so feverishly in part due to the inclusion of an eerie score by Jeff Grace (Cold in July, The House of the Devil, The Roost). Not only is there a quality score, the tone consistently set between that and the visuals, there’s incredible sound design courtesy of Abigail Savage (who many will know well from her turn as Gina Murphy on Orange is the New Black). Everything is creeping, in terms of sound: the wind in the background, the stamp of ghostly hooves across the frozen arctic plains, and later the crashing plane, all the fire which follows and so on. I’m always keeping my ear out for good sound design, as well as score. But there’s something about the background sounds and noise of a film which really elevates a film properly if accomplished well. The sound design can truly make a movie less interesting if the sounds incorporated are annoying or aggravating, instead of compelling and rich, as they certainly are in this film.
While I could rave on about Ron Perlman, even James Le Gros or Connie Britton, most of what interests me about The Last Winter is the plot and the story. Fessenden creates an ecological horror film out of the fear of global warming/climate change. The character of Pollack (Perlman) represents those stubborn sort who think the tipping point has passed, even if they’re willing to admit the world climate is changing for the worse. His hardheaded nature is the type which got us to this point. But yet in this film, we literally see the evidence climbing up and out of the ground. The living embodiment of nature fighting back against us. I know a lot of viewers may find Fessenden’s themes here heavy handed and obvious. However, I find the presentation makes things so interesting, it’s hard to deny the thematic power at play. Fessenden uses many typical horror genre tropes to explore the sociopolitical issues inherent in the dynamic between those who quest for oil versus those who keep telling us to be wary of our reliance on fossil fuels without worrying (or caring) about the consequences.
The Last Winter, despite some of its less than stellar computer generated imagery, is a 4 out of 5 star film. For me, it is. Others may be turned away from its environmental message, buried beneath its thrills and its horrific moments. Some might not like other aspects, who knows. But I cannot tear myself away from the grim tone, the compelling cinematography, sound design and writing. Even more than that, the writing helps bring out some timely messages about us, our world, and the future that could come to be eventually. I don’t think it’ll look exactly like this portrait of madness Fessenden illustrates. All the same, I’m inclined to feel we’ve absolutely treated this planet like shit. Some day we might pay for all our transgressions against this world we claim to love.
No Telling. 1991. Directed by Larry Fessenden. Screenplay by Larry Fessenden & Beck Underwood.
Starring Miriam Healy-Louie, Stephen Ramsey, David Van Tieghem, Richard Topol, Ashley Arcement, Robert Brady, Susan Doukas, Ward Burlingham, J.J. Clark, Stanley Taub, Francois Lampietti, and John Van Couvering.
Glass Eye Pix.
Not Rated. 93 minutes.
Larry Fessenden has long been a filmmaker in which I’ve had intense interest. There’s a quality about all his films, no matter how far apart thematically or plot-wise they may be, I’m consistently drawn in by and after every watch, regardless which movie, I usually find his stories on my mind for days.
The first time I saw a Fessenden film was about a decade ago – more like 11 years ago, to be exact. I saw his flick Wendigo on a whim. It was being screened by some group in St. Catharine’s, Ontario where I went to school at the time. There’s a mysterious and eerie air to that movie I couldn’t compare to anything else, at least nothing I’d seen at that point. Not only that, I was going to film school and his filmmaking struck me as such a beautiful, natural process. After seeing more of his work, eventually getting the chance to see Habit, Fessenden became a beacon of light in the indie world. Because his movies, while low budget compared to Hollywood, didn’t feel low budget. He makes use of interesting locations, as well as talented actors to make all the horrific and sometimes completely terrifying aspects of his writing come across.
No Telling is perhaps some of his best work, honestly. Though it isn’t a comment on his skills – he’s always improving, like any true artist. But I find most interesting here the weight and execution of what he’s getting across in this film. Plus, there’s a lovably indie quality to this film which gives it a subtle, special quality. Certainly Fessenden doesn’t appeal to everyone as it is. At the same time, if any of his movies might divide people it is this one – paced with a wonderfully slow burn, there are some intensely gruesome moments in terms of animals; something a portion of people appear to have trouble with. Either way, be prepared: it’s a great non-conventional horror movie.
Geoffrey and Lillian Gaines (Stephen Ramsey/Miriam Healy-Louie) move into a a house during the summer, out in the countryside. Geoffrey is a scientist. He does top-secret work in his barn where a lab is setup. His artist wife Lillian becomes friendly with an activist named Alex Vine (David Van Tieghem), which becomes more frequent as time goes on.
Soon enough, though, Lillian begins to wonder what it is exactly her husband does out in the laboratory. Some days she barely sees him at all. Others, he’s there yet not really, or he sweats uncontrollably, nervous and awkward around any other people. Once Lillian manages to get into the secretive lab, she sees pictures of dissected animals, she finds one of the old traps, and their relationship begins to crumble.
In the same vein as Mary Shelley and her mad Dr. Frankenstein, Fessenden’s No Telling pits man against nature, man against man, and even woman again man.
The basic look of this film is actually incredible. Funny enough, the cinematographer David Shaw actually did nothing after this movie, which is a shame. Though, he did operate Steadicam on a film in’95. It’s crazy because one of the first things I enjoyed about No Telling was the look. The Blu ray comes courtesy of the Larry Fessenden Collection, only recently released; also comes with Habit, Wendigo, and the Last Winter, as well as a ton of extras including short films, music videos and lots of commentary. Really this Blu ray collection is a fucking treasure.
No Telling‘s audio and picture are both unbelievably perfect. The exterior shots are something to behold, then there are great contrasted shots of shadowy goodness inside the barn-laboratory and even at times in the house itself. Again, I’m so amazed Shaw didn’t go on to do more work as cinematographer. Between him and Fessenden there is a wealth of beautifully composed shots, interesting camerawork (angles particularly) and an all around nice style.
Obviously, when you look at this film’s alternate title The Frankenstein Complex, you can easily see – even without doing so – there are roots of this story growing out of Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein. Lots of interesting things happening in this movie, courtesy of the tight screenplay from Fessenden and Beck Underwood. Naturally, this comes out from the young doctor and his experiments. However, the movie takes it further into the idea of man playing god using animals as his subject. You can clearly see how Fessenden feels about animal experimentation; at the same time, he makes a good point for the side of the scientist, as well. As I mentioned earlier, there are a couple particularly savage shots where Geoffrey (Ramsey) is in his barn-lab doing work that might get touchy for anyone sensitive seeing animals in horror movies. But this only serves to create a weird character in Geoffrey, the heinous doctor working out in the isolated farmlands on who knows what sort of mental medical experiments.
The whole film is very heavy in theme. We watch this doctor and his wife sort of spiral into a descent towards a place where life is dark and dangerous. To compliment such darkness, again it’s the camerawork and the style of Fessenden which make it all compelling. One specific shot I can’t stop thinking of comes after Geoffrey puts a few small metal traps out to catch animals around the property – as Lillian is upstairs, the snap of a trap comes in the distance and then a red filter takes over the visuals, slowly cutting and cutting, editing towards shots of a fox (or something similar) baring its teeth, no doubt caught in the trap’s jaws. Very, very effective and such a neat moment. I was caught off-guard, in such a perfect sense. Made my eyes widen and excited me with all its horror. This is only one of the awesome sequences out of this fascinating film.
This is one of my favourite Larry Fessenden films. I’ve seen them all now, especially since getting this collection it’s been easy. 4.5 out of 5 stars, none less. No Telling has a ton of spooky horror, but it isn’t conventional like jumpy stuff. Nor is there a lot of the typical sort of reliance on genre tropes. What Fessenden does here is a create a unique and intensely modern story using Mary Shelley as a very basic framework. Too many seem to pass this off as a mere retelling of Frankenstein. It is so much more. Just take a chance and watch this excellent little indie horror. It will compel and disturb you and surprise you even.
The Innkeepers. 2011. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, Brenda Cooney, George Riddle, John Speredakos, and Lena Dunham. Glass Eye Pix.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
Every time I’ve got a particular bias going into a review, one that I can recognize, I always like to take a moment to recognize that. Such is the case with myself and Ti West. I love his work, even when others tell me personally they don’t like a movie of his I can’t help but find myself thinking “Why the hell not?”. I just love his movies. Years ago I got the chance to see The Roost, which I thought was a clever genre film and a gnarly creature feature horror movie. After that I had him on my radar, then as soon as I’d seen that out he came with The House of the Devil, and that one floored me; an overall amazing aesthetic, harkening back to the best of the 1980s, this is a slow burn horror with that Satanic Panic edge. After that I secured a copy of Trigger Man and, while much different than his other films, I enjoyed it. Even later, after he did this movie, his segment in the first V/H/S was probably my favourite – “Second Honeymoon” – his “M is for Miscarriage” out of The ABCs of Death was a saucy piece of raw, reality driven horror. Perhaps my favourite of all his work, The Sacrament is an obvious re-telling of the Jonestown Massacre yet using found footage and the VICE News name he makes it into so much more, something visceral and savage.
So, have you got an understanding of how much I’m a fan of Ti West? Maybe that paints my view of The Innkeepers a little too subjectively. Who knows. Either way, I think this is a fun little ghost story in a spooky location. It’s got a good atmosphere, something to which West is no stranger at pulling together. As well as the fact Pat Healy and Sara Paxton give good performances which are effective and at the same time quirky, but not so quirky you want to roll the eyes out of the back of your head. This film has charm, darkness, and even a few good old fashioned horror jump scares.
In the last few days before the Yankee Pedlar Inn closes down forever, two employees – Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) – attempt to find evidence of the ghost of a woman named Madeline O’Malley (Brenda Cooney) who supposedly haunts the halls. They’re amateur ghost hunters; Luke runs a website about Pedlar’s apparent hauntings, Claire just dropped out of college.
As the last few guests arrive for a stay at the Pedlar, Claire in particular gets closer and closer to the spirit of Madeline, whose story is a sad one; how and why she ended up trapped at the hotel in the afterlife. But once Claire gets a little too close, things may change – and definitely for the worse.
One unique little scene/shot I love is when Claire (Paxton) is using the recording equipment. The first moment is so cool, as the camera tracks along as if on a soundwave, moving slowly around almost wandering. The music and everything make this a creepy little bit, even with nothing creepy happening. I think this is the first scene where Ti West begins to set up a definitive atmosphere and tone for the scarier bits of the film.
The music gives way to more of a silence, a dim hum, some static, while watching Claire listening in another room than the one previous. This also leads into Claire discovering a presence in the big dining room, a piano playing softly amongst the hum of the static in her headphones. Nice little scene following her as she finds the piano itself around the lobby and watches it play by itself. Or rather it bangs the keys by itself. Spooky and an effective jump scare.
Really dig the score for The Innkeepers. Sure enough, when I looked up the composer it was Jeff Grace. For those who may not know, Grace has worked on some incredible stuff. Most recently he’s composed scores for Jim Mickle’s Cold in July and We Are What We Are, Night Moves, Mickle’s Stake Land, Meek’s Cutoff. Then he’s done other probably lesser known films – though they ought to be more recognized – such as Bitter Feast, The House of the Devil, The Last Winter, Joshua, and another of Ti West’s again The Roost.
Part of any great horror, in my opinion, is a solid score to help with the atmosphere. Grace’s excellent music feels very haunted house worthy. This is, essentially, a haunted house horror movie. Instead of a house, we’re getting the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is just as creepy in the end. Grace does a good job with ambient noise, strings, and some electronic sounds in aiding the direction of West to supply a nice feeling from start to finish. At times it grabs us, gripping hold and not letting go, other times it lulls us into a spooky mood or a false sense of security before a nice scare; proper horror score.
Aside from the lead characters played by Healy and Paxton, I couldn’t get enough of the fact West included Kelly McGillis in the cast. What a wonderful surprise. Most known for her work in the ’80s like Witness, Top Gun, and The Accused, in the past few years she’s been a part of the indie horror revival. Particularly, after being cast in Stake Land by Jim Mickle, McGillis put in a performance here, as well as in the remake of We Are What We Are again from Mickle. So I love that she’s been a part of these films. She adds a great air of authenticity, I’m not sure what it is, but there’s an elegant quality to her; no matter the character. One of those classy older women with a lot of grace, at the same time there’s something sassy and fun about her, too. Here her turn as an actress turned psychic is a good show, wonderful addition and she works great opposite Paxton.
Which leads me to Pat Healy and Sara Paxton. They’ve got real good chemistry in their scenes, reminding me of employee-employee relationships I’ve had at jobs in the past. What I love is that they aren’t two characters of the same age, like two young people. Having the character of Luke (Healy) as a bit of an older guy compared to Claire (Paxton) made for a more interesting relationship between the two, in opposition to so many horror movies featuring all young, teenage-ish characters with the same attitudes, same inflections in their voice, same problems and lives. Not saying it’s some revolutionary tactic, but I do think it was a smart writing move on the part of West, who could’ve easily strayed into complete typicalness. Rather, here he gives us two fun, weird characters who’ve got an equally fun, weird relationship.
Paxton is my favourite, though. Because so often horror movies have characters that do not feel real. Claire, on the other hand, feels real to me, she’s a new college dropout, she works at an old school hotel that’s shutting down after one last weekend. There’s a sort of angst built up inside Claire that I understand; a lot of people could understand her. Yet she isn’t some snotty young girl or anything, merely she gives me that sense of being a woman who is straddling the edge of being young – a woman, maybe not totally prepared to become one.
Most likely the greatest part of The Innkeepers is how Ti West shot it on film. I mean, I don’t have anything against digital, not in the slightest. That being said, there’s something to be said for movies still shot on film. There’s a depth to it, perhaps that’s the best way I can describe it – a fullness – that isn’t always present when shooting on digital. I don’t know, I could be talking out my ass. My love for the look of film has to do with a richness, a broader spectrum of what it can capture. This provides West the opportunity here to frame so many wonderful shots and catch every last bit of it in lush, dark detail. Makes a haunted house horror movie creepier. Honestly, I think that’s part of why so many found footage horrors ultimately fall flat is because on digital the exposure issues end up blocking out so much of a frame that, at times, this renders much of what’s in the frame not as creepy as it might have been had the movie been shot with film. With this movie, it helps West insisted on using film because there are a lot of wonderfully constructed shots here which pull their style from out of every corner of the frame.
I think some of the complaints about The Innkeepers seem to revolve around the fact there’s not a HUGE amount of ghost activity or full-on horror. However, I’d say to those detractors that it isn’t mean to be that sort of film. If you want that type of haunted house horror, stick with even something more like Insidious – West works more here at mood and tone than anything else, and I think that’s totally fine. There are most CERTAINLY a few classic horror movie scares, both of the jumpy variety and real tense, suspenseful moments. They don’t come in spades, it’s a slow burn film. Regardless, to me the all-out scary stuff here pays off because West does a good job slowly cultivating a spooky atmosphere.
With a slow and deliberate style – aided by great editing – a creepy backstory that isn’t served up for us like a prequel within the movie itself but rather alluded to appropriately, and good writing/directing, Ti West’s The Innkeepers is a pretty solid haunted house horror. 4.5 out of 5 stars on this one, all the way. Again, as I started out in this review, I could be biased towards West and his films because I’m such a hardcore fan of his. I don’t think so, though, because there’s just something special about his filmmaking to me. He has old school sensibilities while also bringing a modern, fresh edge to his subjects at the same time.
If you haven’t yet seen anything by West, I suggest starting with The Roost if you can find a DVD copy; worth it. Afterwards, move on to this, The House of the Devil, The Sacrament, and see if there’s anything about him you’ll agree with me on. I know others who feel he’s decent but nothing special. Me? I think he’s one of the new hopes for horror cinema and genre filmmaking, right alongside Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die).
Late Phases. 2014. Dir. Adrián García Bogliano. Screenplay by Eric Stolze.
Starring Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, and Lance Guest. Dark Sky Films/Glass Eye Pix.
Not Rated. 95 minutes.
Werewolf movies are a real hit or miss for me. That being said, I love a good werewolf flick. If it’s done right. The problem with creature features in general is the presentation of the monster itself. People want to say it’s shown too much, not enough, too soon, too late. So many complaints. Honestly, I could care less how long the monster is onscreen. Though I care about two things: as long as it looks decent, and as long as the rest of the film holds up its end. Late Phases is a particularly interesting character piece. Of course it all revolves around the werewolf. It’s the catalyst for the events in the film.
But the whole story really revolves around Ambrose (Damici).
Ambrose moves into a new neighbourhood, into a new home. His son (played by a favourite of mine, Ethan Embry) tries to help him settle, but his father is a bit of a surly war veteran, retired from the United States Armed Forces; he served during the Vietnam war. On the first night in his new place, Ambrose experiences some strange events. Next door is a lot of noise. Banging on the door. Followed later by screams, a loud crashing, terrible sounds. Something kills the lady next door. Then it bursts its way into his home, killing his service dog. Ambrose is left with his bloody canine friend in his arms, but alive.
Something seems to be plaguing the community. The werewolf of course could not fully be identified by Ambrose. He is blind. This is what heightens the plot of Late Phases from a simple creature feature to a werewolf horror containing a character study.
Also, while I do enjoy certain werewolf films focusing on a person becoming the monster, it’s excellent that Late Phases opts to instead take on the perspective of an outsider. It really works to have Damici’s character as a blind man. The heightened sense of smell he sorts of develops (nothing inhuman, simply an army man whose whole professional life perhaps has been spent relying on his abilities to pay attention to more detail than the average man, and now blind uses it as a means of retaining some sort of control over his life) almost puts him in the same league as the werewolf; he has an animalistic side, coupled with the war veteran in him. Damici himself does an excellent job as Ambrose. Not only does Damici nail the movements of a blind man (at least as far as I can tell), he really gets into this character. We’ve seen the ‘wounded war veteran’ a hundred times; some performances are great, others very typical or even boring. The Vietnam vet in particular has been done to death. Everything from the 1980s horror-comedy House to one of my favourite films of all-time, featuring Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken both playing fantastic roles, The Deer Hunter. However, Damici manages to not go all the typical routes. His blindness is a part of that, but really he keeps it subdued. He isn’t the typical binge drinking or depressed type of person. Ambrose is most certainly a cynical and mostly hopeless, in terms of his outlook on life, yet he isn’t a man without purpose. And once his dog is killed by the werewolf, he knows something is not right. He can tell. This particular event gives him more purpose. Damici plays Ambrose in a subtle fashion, which really helps Late Phases elevate itself from just a creature feature to something more.
There are some other little treats as far as acting goes in this film. Ever since I first saw Manhunter I thought Tom Noonan was perfect for horror. He is fascinatingly creepy, and a wonderful actor. Here he plays a priest who gets close (or as close as anybody can get) to Ambrose. Even more, Larry Fessenden shows up, right off the bat even, in a few scenes as a man trying to sell a headstone to Ambrose. All around everyone does a great job, too. Even Fessenden in his brief part.
As I mentioned before, Ethan Embry is an actor I really enjoy. He has this sort of energy about it which really lends itself to dark roles in horror and thrillers, or even just a very black comedy like his recent film Cheap Thrills. He does a good job playing son Will to Damici’s Ambrose. They give off that troubled relationship quite easily. A great pairing here. One scene I really enjoyed comes when Ambrose nearly shoots Will after believing him to be an intruder initially. This gives way to some real serious father-son drama for a few moments. Really tense.
The cinematography is also pretty awesome. Adrián García Bogliano, who previously did the gritty rape-revenge thriller I’ll Never Die Alone, as well as Penumba, Here Comes the Devil, and the segment “B is for Bigfoot” in The ABCs of Death, really knows how to draw out creepy imagery. There are times when it’s very subtle, like the acting in Late Phases, while at others it can be very striking. The beginning of the film opens with a real bang. It isn’t long until we’re treated to a look at the monster. Leading up to this there are a couple shadowy shots, but Bogliano doesn’t pull any punches. There are some good little bloody bits. There are also a few quieter moments, such as Ambrose sitting in the dark of the shadows; he slowly pulls back into the black, disappearing. There’s enough balance between outright horror and restraint to make this a creature feature, but also put it in the category of being a slow burn. Bogliano works on the characters and then brings out shades of horror from time to time.
Then in the last 25 minutes we’re treated to a transformation. Yes, you do get to see a man become a werewolf here. Even if his perspective is not the chief point-of-view throughout the film. And this transformation scene is really awesome. The effects were pretty great, and definitely old school. It helped that the whole thing didn’t look like a CGI-fest because that’s often what takes me out of a good film. The creature doesn’t have to be perfect, but if we’re going to have a good look at it, as we do a few times throughout Late Phases and particularly during the finale, it has to look at least decent. And CGI just can’t cut it in that sense. At least for me. I like to see at least some use of practical make-up effects when it comes to werewolves. I don’t know, maybe that’s silly of me – who knows. It helps make horror specifically look better if the effects are done in practical fashion. CGI takes the life out of it. It doesn’t have to be every bit practical, but the more lifeless and computer-ish things look the more the humanity comes out of it. I know we’re talking about a movie concerning werewolves. There just still needs to be some sort of way to emotionally connect people to a horror film, if it’s going to be a great one. And once the effects, essentially the “pay offs”, become more and more fake there’s less and less connection on the part of the audience. In my opinion. Late Phases succeeds by having a pretty creepy werewolf design.
Overall I’d have to say Late Phases is a near flawless addition to the werewolf sub-genre of horror films. A great central performance by Nick Damici. The film is basically a character study dropped into the framework of a werewolf horror. It works because Damici is a talented actor. Late Phases also knocks it out of the park as a creature feature style flick. Especially in the finale. You’ll really get a kick out of Damici’s battle with the werewolf. It really pays its dues as a werewolf movie at the end when we get to see a little more of the creature (plus extra wildness I’d not anticipated & of course I will not spoil) and there are balls-out sequences to really get excited about.
This a 5 out of 5 star film for me. It completely subverted my expectations. I thought for awhile I knew where things were going, but then the movie took a different path. I can’t often say that these days about too many films.
Movies like this one, as well as the recent indie Starry Eyes, are the reason why I pay less and less attention to the ‘horror’ bullshit pulling in hundreds of millions at the box office, and keep more of an eye on independent horror, and any smaller films willing to take chances instead of sticking with a moneymaking formula or whatever is the trend of today.
See this now! It’s available on VOD. Support it. We need more horror like this in a market inundated with shit.