The modern werewolf movie lives or dies by the success of its transformation scene. It is a function of the genre that so much rests on the hairy back of a single element of the movie, and it is a quirk which unfortunately is the bane of Late Phases, a movie about which there is little to admire and even less to truly recommend. Perhaps blame John Landis, not only for the current centrality of the transformation scene to the werewolf sub-genre, but also the urge to make wolf puns and dog references when discussing the subject.
An American Werewolf in London sets the transformation scene front and center: it is a movie that shows everything. Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning special effects break the transformation down like never before, while Landis’ humor confirms to the audience that the movie is aware of its genre and the history on which it is building. David Naughton looks wide-eyed at the end of his newly ‘be-pawed’ wrist and screams like a Looney Toons character, while Sam Cooke’s “Blue Moon” plays on the soundtrack. Thereafter, the course of the werewolf sub-genre was irrevocably altered. Since then, the audience has needed a satisfying transformation, and to know that the film is as hip to its heritage as they are. The best examples of the werewolf movie — for example, the excellent Ginger Snaps trilogy, Dog Soldiers, and Bad Moon — fulfill one or both demands.
It may perhaps seem unfair to hold Late Phases up to such high standards, or even to harp on about the importance of the transformation, but consider the story of any werewolf movie in its most basic terms: (1) There’s a man, (2) he becomes a wolf, (3) then some other stuff happens. The transformation is undeniably the central phenomenon, the hook on which everything else hangs, no matter how sophisticated any of the prenominate “other stuff” happens to be; for example, any canine-free storylines and subject matter that are grafted on, or the level of nuance with which the characters are written. From the start of the movie, the audience is waiting for the moment of metamorphosis. The previous hour could feature Vin Diesel surfing a commuter train down a lava flow, Scarlett Johansson backflipping off the Sears Tower into a teacup, or any manner of exotic delights, and the question would still be, “So are we going to see this guy turn into a wolf, or what?”
It’s not so much that the transformation in Late Phases is unremarkable, or the wolf make-up and costumes generally poor — respectively, it is, and they are. It’s more that this key scene is made to seem like a hastily fulfilled obligation, which is itself a symptom of a deeper problem. The movie flirts with various themes without properly committing to any.
Nick Damici plays Ambrose, a Vietnam vet who soon discovers that the retirement community he has moved into has a little werewolf problem. His neighbor is slaughtered, and he himself barely escapes. The indifference of the police, who confirm, as badly clichéd horror movie cops do, that this happens all the time around these parts, functions as a slight gesture to satire. Yes, we are apathetic when it comes to the elderly, filing them away, and forgetting about them, but that’s about as far as the movie goes with the subject.
Another example of this fitfulness is the depiction of Ambrose’s uneasy relationship with his adult son. They love one another, but they have a difficult time connecting and showing it. The interviews in the DVD extras suggest that the exploration of this father-son dynamic is something the cast and crew are particularly proud of. However, while it’s entirely admirable that the film should try to be more than a slash-’em-up — to tell a story, essentially — the examination of this relationship never develops into anything more than a superficial skate across the surface. It’s hardly East of Eden. It’s hardly The Lion King, for that matter.
Late Phases is a movie which refuses to go for the jugular in almost every sense. There is gore, but very few scares and only the faintest trace of horror, and the other elements do not make up for it. The werewolves look like men wearing cheap ape costumes. When the transformation comes, it is cursory at best. Clothes tear. Claws pop. Human skin is shed. It is not the weakest scene of its kind, but it feels like it was made to fill a gap in the film where a transformation scene should be, created merely because it had to be there, or because it was part of a checklist of “Things This Sub-Genre Demands”.
One of the qualities that makes a great horror movie is zeal: an appetite for the subject matter, a desire to revel in the very worst of experience. There is no such thing as a little haunting or a tasteful stabbing. In the end, walls must shake and ceilings must drip with blood. In opposition to this ideal, Late Phases seems very much like a reluctant horror movie.