Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

Even if “Phantasm” were nowhere near as good a series as it is, you’d have to give it some credit for its continuity. Going since 1979, no reboots or anything like that, with the same guy in charge (writer/director Don Coscarelli just co-wrote and produced this most recent instalment) and the same four actors starring in this one as starred in the first one 37 years before. Also, they bring back one of the actors from part 3 in 1994, who basically quit acting back then but looks like she hasn’t aged a day. It has, admittedly, been 18 years since the last instalment, but they’re still keeping on.

 

One of the things that was most unusual about part 1, the dream-like logic that came with filming on off-days and weekends over a two year period with no money, is right back at the centre of things here, for a similar reason. Director David Hartman (best known for the Transformers animated series) and Coscarelli were making a series of “Phantasm” shorts and realised they had enough footage to turn it into a movie. The leaps between realities are handled pretty well, though.

 

Anyway, we first see Reggie (Reggie Bannister), still in his ice-cream man outfit, trudging down a desert road, lamenting the loss of the car he hid out in the desert 18 years ago. But luckily, the thief drives up to him and Reggie’s able to get it back. He’s chased by silver balls, and then gives us a line which he’s used at least once before – “like all good stories, it starts with a girl”. This is Dawn (Dawn Cody), and Reggie helps her before doing a bit of mild flirting, but she rebukes him and he immediately accepts it – a pleasant change from the old days. But then the silver balls come again and he’s on the run.

Or is he in a mental hospital, after having been found wandering the desert, being looked after by his old friend Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), apparently suffering from dementia? Or is he in a nightmarish future of an Earth completely taken over by the Tall Man and his silver balls, having been asleep for a decade? These are the main strands of story which are weaved through over the course of the movie.

 

I sort of assume you know the rough story of the Phantasm franchise, if you’re reading a review of part 5, but perhaps not. The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) is first seen as an undertaker, stealing bodies in his hearse and taking them to (SPOILERS) an alternate dimension where they’re turned into midget minions and…not really sure what his end-game was, honestly. Universal domination? What happens with a person when they actually achieve their plans, I wonder? What would you do if you owned literally everything? He merrily goes on with this plan over the course of the series while Reggie tries to stop him. The two brothers who were the stars of part 1 (Reggie being the comic relief, sort-of) pop up to help out too.

 

Anyway, Reggie is reunited with Mike and even Mike’s older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury, whose last non-Phantasm acting role was in 1984), and it’s really cool, seeing the three of them together again after little more than cameos in the previous couple of movies. Which strand of reality is the “real” one? Will the Tall Man finally be defeated, this being the last movie and all?

Here’s where I’d like to get on my soap-box a little. Those of you who remember the last episode of “Quantum Leap”, where they knew without a doubt it was the end, may sympathise with me. At the very end, they just throw their hands up and say “yeah, he never made it home, just carried on leaping for the rest of eternity”. Is this satisfying?

 

I think it’s fair to want an ending to a piece of entertainment, for the foe to be defeated and for the sacrifices made by the main characters to mean something. This doesn’t apply to everything, of course, but it feels like a slight cheat to know you’re not making any more movies (your lead villain being terminally ill during shooting) but still to just leave it open-ended. There are other analyses of the ending of “Phantasm: Ravager”, but it’s still us imposing our wishes, desires, or whatever, on an unfinished piece of entertainment. Imagine if “Moby Dick” had ended with Ahab still chasing the whale?

All that aside, it’s not bad! The main actors and Coscarelli clearly have a deep friendship that’s lasted down the decades, and it was nice to see Gloria Lynn Henry as Rocky again, although it was weird that, during the mid-credits sequence where she and Reggie meet up again, he’s not more pleased to see the last woman he had sex with (in fact, he makes a reference to her companion, who he briefly met earlier in the movie, and not her, as if she was added in at the last moment after they’d already filmed Bannister’s scenes). It was a little sad to see Angus Scrimm so frail, though, although they hid it well by having one scene be filmed in bed, and lots of middle-distance shots where you can CGI his head onto someone else’s body.

 

I didn’t love the almost non-story, the cheap special effects or the disjointed-for-its-own-sake narrative, though. I’m surprised there was so little money available for a “Phantasm” sequel in 2016, given the generations of fans it had, but I wish they’d sat down and written a proper movie, or kept it as the web-series it was originally intended as, because this halfway house is unlikely to really please anyone. Amazingly, the budget of “Ravager” was the same as the budget of the first movie from 1979! ($300,000)

 

One last thing is the interesting ambience that parts of 3 and 4 had. The Tall Man took over whole cities, after starting with small towns, not to invade but to use humans as slaves to do whatever it was he was doing elsewhere in the universe. Villages were empty, and at the end of part 4 LA is completely taken over. This is an interesting idea, but although they have the same setting for this one – empty roads, desolate areas – they have none of the same atmosphere. There’s always the idea that humanity is carrying on as before, just off camera, and the Tall Man is just after the three of them.

I’m sorry to see the end of “Phantasm”, but perhaps it was for the best. RIP Angus Scrimm, and the franchise you made so memorable.

 

Rating: thumbs down

 

 

 

 

 

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Beastmaster (1982)

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The very first thing I need to mention is a spoiler, because it will immediately rule out a certain section of the viewing public and they deserve to know about it beforehand. The dog dies. He gets an arrow to the gut and still manages to drag our hero to safety. After that, I was fully prepared to beat the bad guys to death myself, but luckily we have Marc Singer to do that for us.

This is a classic movie. Not necessarily great, but classic – if you think swords-and-sorcery, chances are this will be one of the first movies that pops into your head. Marc Singer is Dar (the first of a huge number of truly awful fantasy names), who is torn from the stomach of his murdered mother and is about to be sacrificed by Maax until his father, the King, intervenes and banishes the evil priest-wizard. The reason for all these shenanigans, aside from Maax just really liking to sacrifice children, is there’s a prophecy that the King’s unborn son will be the man who eventually kills him. Or so his hideous crones tell him, anyway. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a film where the prophecy was a load of rubbish?

Dar is taken from the city for his own safety and is brought up in a peaceful village, trained by his foster-father and he also grows to realise he has the power to commune with animals – he can read their thoughts, and they his; plus he can communicate with them, which may help him a time or two in the 120 minutes to come (this is a long, epic-feeling movie). Of course, the evil Jun, with their horned helmets and general unpleasant demeanour, come to wipe out his village, and were it not for the dog I mentioned above, Dar would be a goner too. Anyway, off he sets on his quest to kill Maax and restore peace to the kingdom.

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Now, if you’re an animal rights supporter, enthusiast, or are just a bit squeamish, this will probably not be the film for you. A couple of ferrets come to Dar’s rescue when he falls in quicksand, and after he gets out one of them falls in – if you’re thinking “there’s no way they’d actually put a ferret in quicksand” you’d be wrong. It disappears under the surface, and it’s not an effect of any sort (luckily, it’s either the world’s most docile creature, or just stunned at how it nearly died, when it’s pulled out). He meets up with a black tiger later on, which is just a normal tiger with dyed fur. A badass creature, you’d think, until you read about it and realise the tiger died a little over a year later from an infection caused by that same dye. I thought watching it fall into a trap was bad enough! The horses that are forced to run through fire, and the eagle who refused to fly on cue so they dropped it from a hot air balloon, are mild by comparison…it feels incredibly uncomfortable to watch these segments, to be honest, and makes me wish they’d just used crappy models.

If you can get past all that stuff, though, you’ll get a film which has a lovely visual aspect and some really impressive sequences. The bat-vampire-people who Dar “befriends” look amazing, and the final battle on the steps of the temple looks like they used a real temple – it does not appear to be a set at all. This visual flair is more understandable when you learn that the director is the great Don Coscarelli, who made the “Phantasm” films, “John Dies At The End” and “Bubba-Ho-Tep”. There’s just enough humour to keep things going, another Coscarelli trademark, and he gets a truly fantastic performance from Rip Torn, who in his every look and movement knows he’s doomed, knows he’s at the end of his days, but still desperately tries to save himself. Almost too good for a film like this, if I’m being honest.

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Add in the awesome John Amos to the mix, and a pretty decent turn from Singer, looking absolutely ripped at all times, and the Plus column is starting to look fuller. The very beautiful and very 80s Tanya Roberts plays the slave-girl love interest, although interestingly Coscarelli’s first choice was an 18 year old Demi Moore. Its length plays in its favour, as well, giving it the sense of an epic rather than just one individual story – there are many bad S&S films I’d never have been able to stand if they’d gone 2 hours, but this one was a breeze. The animals are used in interesting ways – stealing important stuff, opening doors, seeing great distances…just keep repeating “they didn’t know the dye was poisonous, and they had a ferret wrangler on hand the instant that fella disappeared under the quicksand” and you should be alright.

Coscarelli sold his rights to the franchise and the characters, and has nothing to do with the sequels, or the much later TV series. Hopefully the people behind parts 2 and 3 had a nicer attitude to the animals, eh?

Rating: thumbs up

John Dies At The End (2012)

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The book that this film was based on is one of my favourite novels of recent years, so I was a little nervous when approaching this. How would they put in all my favourite bits? What about the actors playing John and David? Would they get the tone right? Most importantly, would the dog die?

David Wong is telling the story of his recent life to Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), a journalist who specialises in the weird and the wonderful. This framing device is revisited throughout the film, but it’s also a capper to the story and…I’m getting ahead of myself. David and John are slackers who’ve stumbled upon a supernatural conspiracy to invade our universe, thanks to tiny flying worm things. They know about this thanks to “soy sauce”, some sort of by-product of weird crab-spider things, which when ingested will either kill you or give you beyond phenomenal powers of perception.

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As you can see, this film is a tough one to describe. It’s an absolutely superb adaptation, though – by stripping out some of the subplots and minor characters, they’ve taken a complex book and turned it into a surprisingly rich film (for a shade over 90 minutes). They’ve also made some fairly serious changes to a few characters, but it all works, so if you’ve read the book too and are wondering if you ought to risk seeing this adaptation, risk away I say. John and David become psychic investigators, and it’s their meeting with the beautiful Amy and her very intelligent dog that starts one of the main plot strands along.

Wait! Keep reading! I’ve not mentioned the director yet, ISCFC favourite Don Coscarelli, writer / director of the “Phantasm” movies and “Bubba Ho-Tep”. His love of dream imagery and logic absolutely helps this film along, even though there’s no indication any of this is happening in anyone’s head. It keeps several timelines and genres going at once, smoothly, with humour and while there aren’t too many genuine scares (it’s sort of difficult to be too worried about a film like this, which has a sarcastic voiceover at times) the escalating sense of chaos really works.

Because I can’t be too positive, David (Chase Williamson) is a little too flat, or he’s too detached from the story. John is great though, and so of course is Paul Giamatti (who produced too, which indicates he loved the story before getting involved – well, that and he’s the biggest name in this film by a mile). It’s also nice to see Angus Scrimm, the Tall Man himself, pop up in a brief appearance. Give it a go, I say. Don’t let it be dismissed to genre mashup purgatory like “Bubba Ho-Tep”.

Rating: thumbs up

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Phantasm 2 (1988)

A mere 8 years after the first film in the series, Don Coscarelli decided to revisit the franchise that made his name and gave us the first of three sequels to “Phantasm”. The first film was surprisingly good, if a bit confusing, so now the film’s got rid of its annoying kid star, will it improve?

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First things first, it starts just like “Halloween 2” (and “Porky’s 2”, if you want to talk about the real classics) by starting immediately after the first film finished. Mike goes up to his room and meets the Tall Man, then is dragged through his bedroom mirror by one of the Jawas (please read the review of part 1). Reggie comes to the rescue and prevents the Jawas carrying Mike to the Tall Man’s hearse, and the Tall Man accepts this with remarkable stoicism, giving an almost imperceptible shrug as Reggie blows up his own house.

Fast forward 8 years, and Mike is now James LeGros. This was his breakout role, pretty much, and he’s accompanied by Reggie Bannister returning to play Reggie, a slightly more obvious comic force in this installment, as well as being much more central to the plot. Fun fact – Reggie Bannister only acted in Don Coscarelli films for the first 12 years of his career, if IMDB is to be believed, and didn’t work at all between Phantasm 1 and 2. Maybe he really was an ice cream man?

Are you a tenth as badass as Reggie Bannister? Thought not

Are you a tenth as badass as Reggie Bannister? Thought not

Reggie tries to convince Mike that the stuff from the first film was a dream, unconvincingly, until his house (plus family) is blown up – again! – and that hardens both their hearts and sets them on their way towards revenge. The next section of the film is stylistically pretty interesting, as the two of them drive across America in a black muscle car trying to track the Tall Man. It’s like a very small seed of what became “Supernatural”, and I wonder if Eric Kripke would acknowledge the influence? Reggie provides a voiceover as the car drives down empty highways and through desolate, boarded up towns, evidence of the Tall Man’s work – remember, he’s an alien who steals corpses, compresses them into midgets and sends them through a portal to his home planet to work as slaves.

Mike is drifting in and out of dreams where he talks to a beautiful woman called Elizabeth, who’s also aware of the Tall Man, and fate seems to be bringing the two of them closer to each other. The Tall Man leaves little traps for Mike and Reggie, like an abandoned mortuary with a perfectly preserved corpse in it (come on guys, you really should have been suspicious of that one), but after picking up a hitchhiker called Alchemy who needs a ride to her small town home, the stage is set for the main section of the film. Two groups – one, Reggie, Mike and Alchemy; the other, Elizabeth and the local Vicar, who’s apparently turned a blind eye to the almost complete destruction of his town but no longer!

Every mausoleum in this world looks exactly the same. It’s entirely possible every one in this film is the same one, with differences in lighting and angles to distract us from that fact, but it’s both a little confusing and quite clever – this is the Tall Man’s world. The last section of this film is the fight between our heroes and him, and I love how well prepared Reggie and Mike are – they’ve tooled up, they’ve got a plan, and they’re not stupid. It’s a bit more meaty than part 1, with less of the dream-logic that looks more and more like something the director was forced into due to budget. It’s more action oriented, and better for it I think.

So, I’ve been pretty positive about the film so far. Reggie is great, the Tall Man is a brilliant villain, and the humour is welcome. Unfortunately, we’ve got an ending to be let down by, and here’s where I suppose you either ought to stop reading or watch the Youtube link above, if you’ve not done already. It’s such a boring paint-by-numbers 80s horror ending, where the victory so hard won by Reggie and Mike is rendered absolutely meaningless, and the Tall Man goes from alien to indestructible force of nature. Every single one of the big horror franchises made the same mistake, though, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on this one. Jason Voorhees went from misunderstood dead kid to supernatural representation of evil; Michael Myers, the same, probably (I’m not watching those damn films again to find out); Freddy Krueger ignored every single rule that the film had expected you to pay to see adhered to; Death went “sorry you guys, no matter what you do or what convoluted hoops you jump through, you’re all going to die” in the Final Destination films; in fact, Angela from “Sleepaway Camp” is the only one who doesn’t die and then get brought back, or get supernatural powers for no reason, and that I’m mentioning those films in a positive tone is something I never thought I’d do.

Anyway, it’s still annoying, even though it’s been going on so long that it’s the norm rather than the exception. Amazingly, “Phantasm” has avoided the other main horror franchise problem, of them needing to reboot rather than just tell new stories, partly due to it being all written and directed by one person, and it looks like the now fifteen year old part 4 will not be the last in the franchise. But more on that later.

It’s not a bad film, certainly. It’s got solid building blocks – decent central performances, a good original idea, and a healthy streak of humour. Its problems are the same problems that so many other films had, and if you can get over that fact (as horror fans presumably keep on doing) it’s another solid entry in a surprisingly good horror franchise. Also, the facial expressions that Reggie pulls during his big chainsaw fight scene are a joy to behold, and almost worth the price of admission on their own.

The eroticism is too much!

The eroticism is too much!

Youtube Film Club: Phantasm (1979)

I knew I was going to like this film from even before it started – the version I have includes an introduction from primary bad guy Angus Scrimm, who inadvertently spoiled the big reveal for me, while being quite charming for an old man whose biggest role is playing a…heck, I’m not going to spoil what he is for you. That’ll have to wait til part 2 (or until you watch it on Youtube).

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The story goes, Don Coscarelli, who wrote, directed, produced, filmed and edited this  due to it being almost self-funded, saw how audiences responded to jump-scares in non-horror movies and decided his next film ought to be horror. He’d met Scrimm on a previous set and liked him (while being a little intimidated) so cast him as the villain – thus began a well-regarded horror franchise which I’ve managed to not see a single second of until now.

After some of the least erotic graveyard sex ever captured on film, the woman shapeshifts into the Tall Man and stabs the fella – that a “male” character does this is unremarked on during the film and is left to us to mull over. The funeral is attended by Jody, a musician who’s looking after his 13 year old brother Mike following the mysterious death of their parents; Jody’s friend Reggie, who drives an old-timey ice cream truck and has a wicked skullet, rounds out the cast. Mike has some anxiety over losing his parents and follows Jody everywhere, and while watching the funeral from afar with binoculars, sees the Tall Man (who’s the town undertaker) pick up a very heavy coffin single-handedly and throw it in the back of his hearse.

The Tall Man, at first glance, appears to be very badly overacting, but it’s one of those criticisms of the film I had while making notes that turned out to be proved wrong by later developments, which is a good way of doing things. Although that first scene is still pretty silly.

After what might charitably be described as a fairly meandering first half hour or so, Jody and Reggie are very quickly convinced that there’s something really wrong with the Tall Man and the three of them go after him (even though there’s a bit too much of Jody trying to stop Mike from following them on some dangerous outing). There’s an important scene where Mike goes to a fortune teller and he’s taught about how to control fear – not only important to this film but to those works inspired by it (Nightmare on Elm Street, for one).

If you’re like me and haven’t seen the films, chances are you’ll know about its most iconic image, the flying silver balls. They attach themselves to your head and then drill in, but they don’t show up til 38 minutes and even then, don’t play much of a part in the rest of the film. I’ll lay good money on them showing up more in the sequels, though. They’re part of the Tall Man’s arsenal, along with intermittent telekinesis and the dwarves. To reveal what the dwarves are would spoil the film a little, I think, but I can reveal that it looks like Coscarelli got a job lot of jawa costumes from “Star Wars” for a low price.

Coscarelli would film this on weekends as his cast had regular jobs, and out of this disjointed method of doing things came a film with the feel of a bad dream. He very cleverly turned this to his advantage, I think, with some previous reviewers saying that it took place entirely in Mike’s imagination. I don’t think this is the case (the presence of sequels would appear to back me up, even though I’m sure Coscarelli would be aware of that reading and even encouraging of it with some of the scenes) but there’s a lot of that dream-logic in the film and the Tall Man is a pretty brilliant embodiment of the sort of adult who kids are petrified of. The silver ball is an image straight out of the director’s dreams, apparently, and it’s another bit that shouldn’t really fit in the film, but does.

To prepare for this review, I did a bit of reading round on it, and it seems that the film is really about Mike and the way he deals with the loss of his parents. I’ll buy that, I suppose, but he’s an incredibly annoying lead character to any viewer who’s not roughly of his age. As a grown man, I wish he’d shut up and do as he’s told…that he’s pretty much directly responsible for all the deaths in the film barring the first one is something the film seems unwilling to explore.

Haveat him, Tall Man

Have at him, Tall Man

Talking of death, in keeping with the two other great horror film franchise openers of the late 70s (Halloween and Friday the 13th), the body count is surprisingly low – up to the 75 minute mark, the only person we see die is the guy right at the beginning who, if he’d been better at sex with the Scrimm-shapeshifting-woman, may have survived anyway. Although there’s a room near the end of the film which indicates the Tall Man has been very busy indeed…

After taking on this series for the ISCFC as a bit of a lark, I’ve come away from the first film with a great deal of respect for it. Although it’s pretty slow to get going, and the first half is quite disjointed, it’s an interesting concept and has a lot of original and interesting images in it. A horror film set mainly in well-lit rooms (even if there is a graveyard nearby) is interesting in itself, really. It owes a debt to both “Halloween” and Jodorowsky, but has certainly gone on to influence a lot of films itself. There’s also a nice vein of humour running through it, never enough to take you out of the danger that Jody, Mike and Reggie are in but certainly reflecting the nature of real people, who laugh and joke in the face of all sorts.

So, a definite thumbs up from me, and I look forward to the rest of the films in the series. While not the most prolific filmmaker, Coscarelli has made some fun films – as well as directing all four Phantasm films, he also did the first “Beastmaster”, “Bubba-Ho-Tep” and “John Dies At The End”.