He Never Died
Henry Rollins casts an almighty pall over He Never Died, a cold splash of a horror film that is more fried, irreverent noir than monster mash. In his music and public persona, the consummate and inimitable madman Rollins sours every heckle, hellhound howl, and vulture screech to an aria of menace and punk-certified nihilism. But, in He Never Died, his viciously, aggressively minimalist performance likens even a simple stare to a barely-sublimated volcano of enthralling agony brewing inside him. Wearing scars like an eldritch horror hiding in a grey hairdo and dad-core attire, he feels like the brutal punk troubadour and restless social freedom fighter beaten into ragged, deeply frayed middle-age.
Although Rollin’s morbidly funny, definitively deadpan (one might even say comatose), and trenchantly sad performance as a man in the deepest throes of a depression even he doesn’t seem to realize is the sharpest tack in He Never Died’s bundle of jagged nerves, the entire film is wicked and worthwhile, if somewhat insubstantial. Rollins, ginning up peak levels of that famous Rollins anger, radiates so much negative charisma as the rotting dead center here that the film around can feel a little spineless by comparison. But writer-director Jason Krawczyk exhibits an anti-social flair for filming lonely spaces and lonelier minds that fits Rollins’ intimidating, close-to-the-vest performance like a glove. Talking like Christian Bale’s Batman without all the adolescent melodrama, he musters a more genuine grumble straight from the innards of the diaphragm and the bowels of years (decades even) or self-loathing. This isn’t the sound or attitude of someone trying to impress or frighten anyone or mutate into some mythic bogeyman. It’s the anti-swagger of someone hoping to fade into the shadows and the worrying recesses of normal spaces.
Rollins plays a man named Jack who lives alone in a barren apartment, seemingly staggering through an even more vacant life of bingo, walking, sleeping, and meeting with a medical intern who sells him blood, for some apparent. As we learn, that reason is that Jack is a cannibal who has erected a self-alienating routine in order to stay away from anyone who would meaningfully tempt him to satiate his addiction. When his seller gets in trouble with the mafia at the same time as Jack’s daughter happens into his life, Jack is forced to abandon his regularly scheduled programming for a more social mode of being. Simple stuff, but the more we learn about Jack’s history, the more the film christens itself a blasphemous exercise in damning the “all-story superhero he’s-the-one Jesus savior myth” that’s been slathered all over every damn genre film like a nagging third-wheeler since the Wachowski’s had their way with genre cinema.
Bitter without dripping into miserabilism and astringent without ever being glib or neutering the brimstone and damnation of this Biblical tale of retribution and teaching an old dog new tricks, this effortlessly pared-down tale, etched like an old-school B-picture, lives much like its protagonist does: with as little effort as possible. Although that may sound lazy, played by Rollins, the only thing cooler than the film’s lethargic saunter is his ice cold demeanor. Instead of jostling us around vacillating comic, tragic, and horrific impulses, Krawczyk hard-sears the comedy and arouses the horror ever so slightly, conjuring a unified tone that might be described as laconically mordant, an aura everyone involved pulls off with disturbed panache. There’s a reason the film is so leisurely, although ruminative is a better word. Beneath its reflexively silly exterior lies the low-level record-scratch buzz of an anxious life fading into the dulling migraine ache of past-your-prime existence, a study in self-imposed isolation and a life lived too much.
Ambling through life with significantly less exultancy for anything than a werewolf might exhibit for threshing human flesh, ex-military retiree Ambrose (Nick Damici) paradoxically gets a new lease of life only when a night-beast gnaws into his dog, In Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s film, of course, “new lease on life” entails getting down and dirty, but also some preliminary investigation into the hearts of the elderly cast-offs of a retirement community located, symbolically, on the edge of a forest and near the last breaths of ever-motile civilization’s interest. Bogliano’s Late Phases is hardly as Bergman-lite as all that might suggest, but Bogliano launders his bestial carnage in a weathered and satisfyingly weary sense of old souls coping with the alienating pulse of a society that is too busy for them.
It’s also a breath of fresh air that the film threads the needle so carefully between its empathy-for-the-elderly themes and not erring into curmudgeonly anti-social nihilism aimed squarely at the young. In an age of horror films too often defined by filmmakers paying homage to the old stalwarts without bringing any of their own feisty energy to the table, that Bogliano’s film doesn’t demean the young is reflective of the fact that he very much does bring his own spry youthful energy to this age-old tale of man vs. beast. Late Phases earns its title and wears the scares of aged tropes proudly. But it is just frisky enough to thrive off of the paradoxical energy of hungry-young-man and wisened-old-seer trapped in an unalterable collision course.
The film flexes its bloody incisors once or twice, but the general tone is of malarial aging and the slow crawl into irrelevance only exacerbated by the inferred class divisions in the retirement community and the darkly comic treatment of the police officers who write off the increasing body count as random animal attacks that are themselves exacerbated by what is perceived as elderly incompetence. Unfortunately, the film’s eventual testosterone rush for the climax (a bit too much of that youthful indiscretion) leaves too many frayed, tattered, partially gnawed chunks of thematic meat dangling in the air not fully digested. Age-ism is an adequate thesis, but the classism suggested once or twice in Ambrose’s early interactions with the other more obviously well-off members of the community eventually becomes a carcass the film leaves on the road after rubber-necking for a few minutes. The fascinating implications of the other men and women of the community off-loading their own forgotten-status in society onto Ambrose, who is similarly aged but of less cultural capital than they, never goes anywhere.
The real find here is Damici’s slightly off-kilter, even coy performance, which never indulges the screenplay’s tendencies to paint him as a crotchety old “cool” grandfather-Plissken whose central features are his resourcefulness and panache with a gun. Instead, Damici puckers up the character with flutters of his brittle loneliness and the weight of unfulfilled expectations hanging over him. His performance reinforces how the film casts, in part, the eventual slug-off with the neighbors-turned-werewolves less as an opportunity to show off and more as one more meaningless instance of the elderly forced to snap at one another (now with sharper claws, mind you) rather than collectivize around community or shared loss. A Marxist parable, of course, this is not. In fact, it’s little more than acceptable leftovers, but they’re pretty tasty.