Dark Sky Films
Another week, another handful of new films searching for a way into our eyeballs via VOD and/or a limited theatrical release. Big movies often hit VOD in the weeks before their home video release, but for the smaller films this is basically their premiere opportunity to find an audience. Such is the case with two new thrillers that approach their narratives and topics in slightly off kilter ways.
Late Phases is a creature feature – a werewolf film to be precise – and it avoids current conventions in a couple different ways. It focuses on an elderly protagonist rather than featuring a cast of attractive, young people, and it relies almost exclusively on practical effects for its bloodletting and werewolf fun. The Sleepwalker is more of an emotional thriller than one based on action as it follows a pair of somewhat estranged sisters, their respective boyfriends and a family secret that threatens to derail them all.
Ambrose (Nick Damici) is a blind Vietnam veteran who we first meet while shopping for his own headstone. It seemed appropriate as he heads for his new home in a remote retirement community, and it’s not long after his son Will (Ethan Embry) drops him off that Ambrose starts making enemies of his neighbors with his short temper and gruff demeanor. He settles in for his first night alongside his guide dog Shadow only to be disturbed by a loud disturbance next door. We see what he doesn’t – a werewolf has smashed its way into the woman’s home where it proceeds to disembowel her before heading over to Ambrose’s with similar intentions. Shadow fends off the furry intruder only to be injured in the process, and when Ambrose is found in his blood-spattered kitchen the next day he learns that the community has experienced a series of vicious animal attacks over the last few months.
And they’ve all occurred on a night with a full moon.
From there the film follows Ambrose across the next four weeks as he investigates and prepares for the creature’s return. He mingles with his neighbors in search of a suspect, and the film offers a few potentials in a local priest (Tom Noonan), a quirky churchgoer (Lance Guest) and a headstone salesman who, if I’m being honest, is only a suspect because he’s played by Larry Fessenden. Ambrose also takes time to prepare weaponry, grow familiar with his home and continue to shortchange Will emotionally, and as the next full moon approaches everything turns red.
Damici is a hard-assed powerhouse here, and his character follows suit with smart moves and aggressive energy, but the supporting players don’t fare as well. The murders are erroneously viewed as animal deaths, but even so the non-reactions on behalf of the local police and other residents just feel poorly scripted and played too broadly. Much of it feels like attempts at comedy, but almost all of it falls flat. It’s a shame as these moments of misaligned tone interrupt the residual effect of some very cool sequences.
One thing that tone can’t diminish is the film’s central transformation sequence. Creative camerawork and some fantastic prosthetic work combine for a fairly stunning sequence the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. The werewolf costume itself isn’t nearly as impressive, but it works well enough.
Director Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s (Here Comes the Devil, Cold Sweat) English-language feature debut is flawed but easily his most cohesive and entertaining film. The premise is straight-forward and propelled by strong effects work, well-crafted scenes of suspense and a fun finale. It’s no lycanthropic masterpiece (An American Werewolf in London, The Howling), but it deserves a spot further down the shelf beside the likes of Silver Bullet. (That’s a compliment.)
Late Phases is currently available on VOD and opens in limited theatrical release on 11/21.
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Andrew (Christopher Abbott) and Kaia (Gitte Witt) are renovating her late father’s enormous house in the woods into their new home when a late night phone call threatens to upset their serenity. The voice on the other end belongs to her sister, Christine (Stephanie Ellis), and it’s a plea for a late-night pick-up from a nearby train station. Christine reveals that she’s pregnant and hoping to reconnect with her sister, and the next day her fiance Ira (Brady Corbet) arrives to take her home. Instead, the two arrange to stay for the weekend, but what should be a time for familial love turns into a collision of emotional truths.
Kaia has burns on her body, burns it turns out were caused by a fire set by Christine when they were younger. Christine’s past troubles rear their ugly head again as her childhood sleepwalking affliction returns leading to inappropriate behaviors and increased friction between the men in their lives. Everyone has a past better left buried it seems, but the shovels come out when Christine goes missing and none of them will be the same.
Director Mona Fastvold (who co-wrote the script with Corbet) has secured four strong performances from her cast, and they’re the glue that holds the film together. All four of them do impressive, draining work here in moments both loud and silent, and surprisingly it’s Abbott who stands out the most. He comes across like a fiercely imposing Mandy Patinkin that’s enough to make you forget his lazy days on Girls. A dinner conversation that quickly turns from polite conversation to a wicked peek behind their various curtains is made more powerful by Fastvold’s decision to keep focus on one actor at a time during lengthy exchanges. We see their delivery and the reaction to the comments made out of frame, and it helps form a more complete picture of these people.
But then it all goes to hell. The script reaches a point where inappropriate behavior has crossed too many lines and any rational person would react a certain way, and yet nobody does. Instead a central truth, one that feels fairly obvious and somewhat weightless (in the confines of this story), takes over as the film’s driving narrative sending everyone into a tizzy of illogical actions and reactions. It’s the kind of thing that could possibly be salvaged by a strong third act and finale, but neither is in the cards here as instead we end with very little of anything at all.
The Sleepwalker is being billed as something of a thriller, but it’s more about the promise than the actuality. Watch it for the performances, but don’t expect to be moved or enthralled by the story they’re spinning.
The Sleepwalker releases on VOD and in limited theatrical engagement on 11/21.