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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Disaster Wars: Earthquake vs. Tsunami (2013)

aka “Stormageddon” (which will get us loads of hits, because it’s also apparently a character from Doctor Who).

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When we reviewed “Captain Battle: Legacy War”, I dismissed the filmmakers as having contempt for their audience, and that they should be banned from ever getting anywhere near a set ever again. But, keep swimming in the fetid pool of low-budget cinema, and you encounter the same names, so that’s how I found myself watching yet another David Palmieri masterpiece, whose day job is grip / gaffer for “CSI” and occasional big-budget Hollywood films.

This one put me on the back foot, though. The first person we see is ISCFC Hall of Famer Reggie Bannister (the “Phantasm” series, “Bloody Bloody Bible Camp”), in charge of some mini-submarine which is doing something science-y. Luckily, the film quickly establishes its garbage bona fides by throwing in a guy on the surface who’s in charge of the winch cable. Pick the weirdest thing about him? It’s a tie between his complete indifference to the presumably incredibly expensive submarine he’s the lifeline for, and the fact that the boat that’s supposed to be their lifeline is tiny, has one guy on it and the winch is the same one that your average fisherman would use. Oh, and it’s supposed to be sat above some deep trench, when it’s obviously about 20 feet off the shore.

Sadness reigned when Reggie and his crew died, seconds after setting off a pulse – part of the experiment. This triggers an underwater earthquake which triggers a huge tsunami, and it’s heading right for the west coast of the USA. Turns out it was done deliberately, so a billionaire with a bunch of satellites could sell the solution (firing lasers into the ocean) to the US government and make a ton of money. Yes, really. While you’re guessing if his plan works out for him or not, I’ll move on.

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I try to give the super-low-budget films an easier ride when it comes to technical shortcomings, maybe a little with narrative shortcomings, but with some films literally all they are is a catalogue of mistakes, stupidity and laziness, and I would be remiss in my duty as a reviewer if I didn’t gleefully mock them all.

The tsunami wipes out Hawaii first, after they’re given about 30 seconds warning. This is the first of many, many timeline problems with the film, where short conversations will start in bright daylight and end in darkness; where the bad guy’s ship is apparently an hour or so tsunami-speed away from the coast of California, but a film crew can get to and from him with no problem almost instantaneously; and so on. I would find myself going “well, that wouldn’t work because…” and then stopping several times, because it’s just a futile exercise. I even started wondering if this was an elaborate joke at our expense.

No-one’s in a hurry. Just to refresh everyone’s memory, the biggest tsunami in the history of the world is due to hit California in 4 hours (at the beginning of the movie), and everyone just seems happy to have leisurely conversations, to stroll not run anywhere, and generally not to worry. This, admittedly, isn’t helped by the editing, where absolute nothing scenes are stretched to unbearable length – the crazy scientist with the plan that just might work is shown for what seems like an eternity, drinking a cup of coffee. My notes have “SPEED UP PLEASE” underlined and circled several times.

Last in this cavalcade of incompetence is under the heading “locations and general technical”. The military go to pick up a scientist to help them combat the tsunami, but he’s got no idea why, despite remembering later on. If you were a government specialist, wouldn’t someone mention this to you? Like, to give you clearance or something? The secret underground military base they take the scientist to is…I really can’t believe this isn’t a joke…on a normal city street, with a single wrought-iron fence guarded by a local police officer. The nerve centre of the base is a table, with the Vice President, two army guys, an army gal, a secretary and the scientist sat round it; the big computer screen is clearly a green-screen effect, and a bad one at that, because whenever the camera moves the graphics stay in exactly the same place.

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The sole half-decent actor is sadly subjected to a spot of general technical incompetence too. Jenny Allford is a regular in grade-Z cinema like this, despite being a bit too good for it all. She’s the villain’s assistant / lover, and in the time it takes her to walk from one side of his tiny boat to the other, she’s managed to change bikini from white to a sort of leopard-print. I feel sorry for her, as she’s obviously only there to be eye-candy (during a “press conference”, the screen is half taken up with the reporter in the middle distance, half with an extreme close-up of her ass). Well, I feel sorry for everyone who agreed to be in a film like this, but especially the women who are glorified props.

I could go on, but there seems little point. I beg you, dear reader, to avoid this film, and if there are any pyromaniacs reading this, I’ll send you the film company’s address and a box of matches. It’s another one of those films where the only question you’re left with is why? Why bother making any of this? Can they possibly have watched the final edit of this film and gone “yes, this is as good as we could have made it”? Who aside from a mug like me is spending money on this film? Is it a front for money laundering, because it can’t possibly be an attempt to make a good film?

Rating: thumbs down

Bloody Bloody Bible Camp (2012)

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If the ISCFC ever has a Hall Of Fame, two of its inaugural members will be Tim Thomerson, star of “Dollman”, the “Trancers” movies and many others; and Reggie Bannister, star of the “Phantasm” series and, a couple of years ago, this film. Reggie’s skullet and faint air of self-mockery at the cheap genre cinema he finds himself in is always entertaining, but can he lift this slasher film parody out of the sludge?

I know nothing about Bible camps (or “camps” generally, sorry to any American readers) but from this film, I gather that everyone that goes to them is horny and way older than I’d have expected summer-campers to be. In 1977, we meet a group of campers, a fairly horrible group if truth be told. The discussion about the size of God’s penis was one of those moments designed early on to tell you what sort of film you’re going to get, and I laughed. Ugly nerdy looking men drug some beautiful women with Spanish Fly; one of them is killed while he’s mid-penetration with what turns out to be the girl’s headless corpse, and the other is slaughtered while on the toilet. This entire thing, apart from the killings I suppose, has a real improv feel to it which I rather like, and I was sort of bummed out when the killer finished their work quite quickly and we jump forward to 1984.

The camp’s been closed since the previous murders, but Father Richard (Bannister) is taking a new group of kids up to the camp for some good old Bible-stuff. Actually, it really doesn’t matter why they’re going up there and the film realises this and just doesn’t bother mentioning it, apart from a weirdly inserted game of “Bible Bowl Trivia” which doubles as a theological discussion.

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We discover Sister Mary Chopper is the name of the killer, and after a fairly long period in the film between the initial 1977 killings and the first one in the “present day” of 1984, she’s back doing her work. As in all good slasher films, that’s really all the plot you need, but this film is a knowing homage / parody of those old films, so you get tons of oddity and atmosphere (and quite a few solid laughs). The female camp counsellor appears to be sexually fixated on the goth girl who’s there, a plot strand which goes absolutely nowhere (literally and metaphorically), and indeed there’s a couple of hints that this might be a cure-your-gayness sort of group, but again nothing really comes out of any of it. The reveal of the masked killer really is gloriously pointless though. Porn superstar Ron Jeremy shows up as Jesus, which is a great cameo…throughout the film, a few of the actors wear incredibly obvious wigs, fake noses and so on. I can’t quite fathom why – the Ron Jeremy connection had me thinking they were porn stars who were moonlighting in “real” cinema, but it’s another dropped thread that never had a resolution.

I think the poor kid whose head basically explodes from having a breezeblock dropped on it could feel quite aggrieved – skulls aren’t that fragile, are they? – and one of the girls has a dream about an event she couldn’t possibly have witnessed. But these are small potatoes, and I am a nitpicking nerd. Also, I suppose they can get away with justifying this as it’s a tribute to the old slasher movies, but there’s tons of female nudity in this film and not a bit of male. Come on, modern films! This stupid “titillation” should be a thing of the past – either exploit everyone or no-one!

I rather liked this film. It’s got a great sense of humour and a few little touches that show the people who worked on this cared about it. I look forward to seeing what these filmmakers do next.

Rating: thumbs up

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Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead (1994)

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Don Coscarelli, writer-director of all four “Phantasm” films, clearly saw part 2 and thought “I’ve made some mistakes here. What I need to do is tell that same story again, only a bit different and bring back all the actors from part 1 as well.” Would the five year wait have been worth it, had we all been horror film buffs back then? Read on.

In the tradition of all the films so far, part 3 starts the instant part 2 ends. We actually get some flashbacks to scenes in that film that we never saw, and James LeGros’s last scene as Mike is reshot with a new actor. Only it turns out it’s an old actor – A. Michael Baldwin, who played the young Mike in the 1979 original, is back in one of the odder casting choices I can remember.

After a brief scene where Reggie holds off the Tall Man with a grenade, and we discover that the iconic silver balls have got brains in them, “Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead” gets going. Reggie rescues Mike from hospital (zombie nurses, the worst sort of nurses) and the two of them hit the road. This isn’t the first similarity between parts 2 and 3, and you definitely get the feeling quite a few times that you’re just watching the same film with a few different actors.

Mike gets kidnapped quite early on and misses the entire middle of the film, so Reggie travels on his own to yet another desolate small town, only this time immediately comes across three criminals who throw him in his own trunk and take him to what looks like a house they picked pretty much at random. This house, for no real reason, is full of “Home Alone” style traps and a kid, who after slaughtering the three bad guys, joins Reggie on his adventures. After finding yet another mausoleum, they meet Rocky, a Grace Jones lookalike badass who makes up the third part of their happy little crew.

It's only a flesh wound

It’s only a flesh wound

I’d forgotten this series’ reliance on dream logic and full-on dream sequences, and there’s an excellent dream sequence in this, where Reggie is having sex with Rocky, only to be interrupted by Jody, Mike’s big brother who died at the end of the first film. He’s back too! And played by the original actor, to boot. Reggie seems happy to continue with the task at hand until he is forced…further into his dream?…and manages to rescue Mike.

The balls appear to have had a power-up for part 3. They now have extra little doohickeys that come out of them, can operate as remote cameras for the Tall Man and can project laser light shows – and now our heroes have a friendly silver ball which has Jody’s brain inside it. Yes, that makes sense. They have another bash at killing the Tall Man for good – I’ll let the presence of Phantasm 4 and a potential Phantasm 5 clue you in on how successful they are.

The Tall Man’s process for making his dwarf slaves – oh, sorry, they’re different in this film and are actually dwarf soldiers he’s using to take over the Universe – is labour intensive and pretty slow. If what we see is his process for making one new slave, then he could be at it from now til doomsday and never make enough to take over a small town, much less the whole universe. His interest in Mike is never really explained, either, but I can’t tell if that’s a plot hole or more of that dream logic I dislike so much. Perhaps he just wants a friend? It must be pretty lonely, with just silver balls and mindless dwarves to keep you company.

I think Reggie Bannister is great, Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man is a suitably alien villain, and I like the sense of humour that the films have, even if Reggie’s attempts to woo Rocky bordered on the creepy at times. But the problem is, nothing has progressed. Our heroes are in largely the same position they were in part 2, even down to using the same main weapon, and we know nothing new about the Tall Man or about how they hope to finish him off. Also, the Tall Man’s plans are still frustratingly unclear, with no sense of how he’s doing – and with him being essentially indestructible, there’s not a lot of dramatic tension about the ending battle.

But maybe I’m being too harsh, or looking at it the wrong way. If you want Reggie and friends vs. The Tall Man, then this film delivers in spades. It’s no worse than the legion of other horror franchises of the time, it’s light-hearted in places, serious in others, and has a nice smattering of gore. It’s certainly not a bad film. It just could be a bit “more”, is all.

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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!