Wednesday, 30 August 2017
Ok, so like the man said – I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.
To begin by getting the negatives out of the way then, let’s grit our teeth and say it straight: ‘Phantasm: RaVager’ is not, in the conventional sense, a good film.
First time director/cinematographer/editor/co-writer David Hartman (do you hear any alarm bells ringing yet?) is undoubtedly a genuine fan of the Phantasm series, and clearly did his best to do right by it, and I’m sure he’s a lovely guy too, but… sadly it takes more than good intentions to make a good movie – especially when one is stepping into the shoes of a filmmaker as gifted and conscientious as Don Coscarelli.
I could be wrong on this, but I believe that ‘RaVager’, which sneaking out quietly towards the end of 2016 and thus far largely seen via its inclusion on the Phantasm blu-ray box sets released in the US and UK in 2017, was initially conceived as some kind of series of online short films, and was only reconfigured as a stand-alone feature fairly late in the planning process. This could account to some extent for the finished film’s disjointed structure, erratic pacing and wildly inconsistent production values – not to mention the grim decision to shoot the whole thing on all too obvious digital video – but, sadly, there are clearly some failings here that run even deeper than that.
For much of its run-time, ‘RaVager’ basically plays out like a student film made by a Phantasm super-fan who was lucky enough to persuade the original cast members to help him out. Framing, editing, and sound-mix are frankly all over the place, and, during Reggie’s action/adventure scenes in particular, tribute is paid to the earlier films largely by means of merely repeating bits from them in a cheaper and more amateurish fashion.
But, I can deal with this. It could even be considered kind of charming, in a big-hearted DIY/’fan fic’ sort of way. No, what really gets my goat here is the egregious and often absurd reliance on CGI effects, which more or less dominate the second half of the picture.
Now, this isn’t so much a criticism of the decision to render the film’s obligatory sphere effects through digital means. As much as we may wish to celebrate the work of the poor guys who spent pain-staking weeks swinging those things around on fishing lines and pitching them down corridors like baseballs during the production of the earlier films, we probably also need the recognise the fact that, for a one-camera guerrilla production in the 21st century, that was not really a realistic option.
So - computer-generated balls I can live with. Entire computer-generated landscapes and people however – that’s a bit much, especially when they’re realised with the kind of limited resources and time constraints that were obviously in place here.
Looking somewhat like ‘90s video game cut scenes reprogrammed by a fevered teenager with a head full of Michael Bay movies, ‘RaVager’s “animated” sequences – which purport to depict a kind of ‘dark future’ apocalyptic cityscape full of gun-wielding fighting goons, ruled over by The Tall Man and his tower block-incinerating giant spheres(!) – are mind-bogglingly awful.
In conception as well as execution, this whole aspect of the film is infuriatingly misguided, essentially disregarding the carefully-wrought sense of apocalyptic dread that Coscarelli painstakingly built up through the preceding films [see my earlier post on the subject here], and replacing it with… a load of absolute nonsense, to be frank. I mean – why are there giant spheres, for pete’s sake? How do they in any way correspond to the information regarding the creation and function of the spheres we have gained from previous films?
“This is HIS world now” is supposed to be the big revelatory line before we’re taken on a whistle-stop tour of this imaginary landscape, but, we have *already* seen plenty of “his” plans for the world in Phantasms III and IV - and weird, red-tinted 16-bit Duke Nukem nightmare cities did not feature within them.
But - never mind. I’ve made my point, no sense in dwelling on it. Let’s move on. I believe I mentioned some good news, so let’s get to that.
Basically: just to see Reggie, Michael, Angus, and indeed Bill Thornbury, reunited, playing their long-standing roles one more time after a gap of nearly two decades, is a joyful occurrence. As Kim Newman points out in his essay accompanying the UK Phantasm box set, the sheer length of time over the which the series was shot – over thirty-five years – is one of its most unique features, allowing the films, when taken together, to assume a feeling of “strangeness and melancholy” that extends beyond each individual instalment. Watching actors mature before our eyes, “from childhood to middle age” (in Baldwin’s case), or “from black-haired maturity to white-haired last days” (in Scrimm’s case) can be a jarring experience indeed for first-time viewers, and it is against this background that some of ‘RaVager’s ‘character’ scenes are able to emerge as genuinely very good, irrespective of the intermittent silliness that surrounds them.
As well as retaining a role here as producer, Don Coscarelli also receives a credit as co-writer with Hartman, and, I’m going to *assume* (perhaps incorrectly) that he contributed the idea for what is the best of several mixed up plot strands running through ‘RaVager’ - namely the one that deals with an elderly Reggie waking to discover that he is confined to a nursing home, suffering from dementia.
In a direct reversal of the situation at the start of Phantasm II, Reggie is still ranting about The Tall Man and his machinations whilst Mike – now a rather cold, middle-aged professional – tries to talk him out of it, and to push his mind in a healthier direction.
This, I think, is an absolutely beautiful way in which to end the series, which, in taking us through the stages of its’ characters’ lives, has essentially gone full circle, moving from Mike as a child, battling The Tall Man as he faces the outset of maturity and adulthood, to his older friend remaining similarly preoccupied as he faces up to his own mortality.
Mirroring the fondness many of ‘Phantasm’s fans feel for the series, which in some cases has been with them for most of their lives, this fifth film finally sees the supernatural paradigm that our characters experienced as a living nightmare in 1979 transformed into a reassuring, comfortable fantasy.
By escaping into his dreams(?) of battling The Tall Man with his loyal buddies at his side, Reggie finds a peace beyond the inevitable progress of his debilitating and ultimately chronic illness. For all of Mike’s futile efforts, it is hardly surprising he doesn't want to come back to “reality”.
Inevitably, the fact that the real life Reggie Bannister is celebrating his 72nd birthday next month, whilst the late Angus Scrimm was approaching his 90th when he filmed his scenes for ‘RaVager’, adds a great deal of weight to these themes, and both performers, along with Baldwin, step up to the plate to do full justice to this somewhat more potent aspect of the film.
To not put too fine a point on it, death – the ways in which we cope with it, the ways we contextualise the death of loved ones, and the ways we can understand, avoid or accept our own experience of aging - has always been the main theme of the ‘Phantasm’ series.
And, you would be hard-pressed to find a better way to bring this home than the brief scene in ‘RaVager’ that sees the hospitalised Reggie awakening from a medicated stupor to find himself face to face with none other than Angus Scrimm – in his benevolent Jedidiah Morningside alter-ego – who is occupying the bed next to him.
“You know Reggie,” says Jebidiah, “I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings… but I believe they bring us here to die”. Both actors – friends in real life for as long as their characters have been enemies on screen - seem to have been fully aware of how heavily loaded with secondary meaning this dialogue is for them, and I wish that this storyline (which is somewhat reminiscent of the themes Coscarelli explored in his 2002 film ‘Bubba Ho Tep’) could have been explored more fully in ‘RaVager’.
Aside from a few token appearances in his familiar Tall Man guise, this was Scrimm’s last proper dialogue scene in a ‘Phantasm’ film (and indeed, in any film) before he passed away in January 2016, and it provides an perfectly poignant way for this widely loved actor to bow out.
For all its faults, moments like this more than justify ‘RaVager’s existence, and, as Reggie subsequently fantasizes his way into a nightmare world of Star Wars-esque underground resistance to The Tall Man’s evil empire, eventually finding himself zooming along the cracked highway into the hills in a battle-rigged, Mad Maxed-out Cuda, with Jody at the wheel and Mike beside him in the front seat, ready to fight for humanity and friendship…. well, it’s as happy an ending as we could wish for for ol’ Reggie too.
In its best moments, ‘RaVager’s woozy blurring of reality, fantasy and meta-textual commentary, its uneasy shifts between the chilling sadness of Reg’s bed-bound paranoid reveries and the promised future of camaraderie and adventure with his old buddies, creates a knot in our guts that hits as hard as anything in Coscarelli’s preceding films.
Though probably best viewed more as an epilogue / fan love letter to the ‘Phantasm’ series than a fully-fledged new instalment, speaking as one of those fans, I am still happy ‘RaVager’ exists. For the warmth it has for its characters, and for the space it gives the cast to flesh them out just one last time, I am thankful to Hartman, and to everyone else concerned, for bringing this story to a fitting and heart-felt close.
Saturday, 26 August 2017
Whilst it takes a pretty determined miserablist to dredge up the unsettling sub-texts I have previously identified within the relatively upbeat environs of Phantasms II and III, the awkwardly named 1998’s ‘Phantasm: OblIVion’ is (forgive me) a whole different ball game.
With studio funding long gone, ‘OblIVion’ forcibly returns the series to its independent roots, as Don Coscarelli and his collaborators set about the production with what under most circumstances would be considered a prohibitively low budget.
Thankfully though, it is also clear that by this point Phantasm had become very much a “family affair”, driven on to a great extent by the camaraderie established over the course of the preceding three films. Reggie Bannister and his wife Gigi (both occasional dabblers in low budget film production) were heavily involved in a variety of capacities behind the scenes, whilst A. Michael Baldwin stepped up as ‘co-producer’ and, by all accounts, many veterans of the earlier films’ crew and effects teams waived their usual fees in order to take part.
As such, it makes sense that, whereas Phantasms II and III tried to pitch themselves as solidly commercial, stand-alone ventures - fun Friday night horror flicks for casual viewers, despite the complexity of their ongoing characters and mythos – ‘OblIVion’ by contrast is a film made purely for the fans.
Certainly, anyone who had the misfortune to come to the film cold must have found it absolutely mystifying, and even series followers who had become a bit rusty on the details of its predecessors must have struggled to acclimatise themselves, as Coscarelli shifts gears hard toward the more unsettling and surreal aspects of his 1979 original, detourning even the by now mandatory “setting the scene” flashback introduction sequence into a delirious, near-avant garde montage of old and new footage, far more concerned with obtusely symbolic imagery and general psychedelic disorientation that it is with the expected recapping of plot detail.
This more challenging approach remains consistent throughout the film that follows, and, though we get to enjoy the sight of the ever-faithful Reggie battling his new through a few conventional horror set-pieces, the bulk of the running time is dedicated the strange journey of Mike, who, trapped in the rear of a self-driving hearse, finds himself transported through the apocalyptic wasteland of the American mid-west to (where else?) Death Valley – The Tall Man’s chosen venue for what I suppose we must see as their final confrontation, pushing Mike on into what can only be described as a kind of trans-dimensional ‘vision quest’, as the boundaries of time and space become increasingly unstuck.
‘OblIVion’s ace in the hole when it comes to realising this temporal dislocation is that fact that Coscarelli – oft characterised by his colleagues as an obsessive hoarder of Phantasm-related props and materials – was apparently still in possession of a large quantity of unused footage shot for the original ‘Phantasm’ in the late ‘70s. Comprising a number of complete, lengthy scenes and numerous partial sequences, this allows for something in the region of twenty minutes of archived footage to be worked into the structure of ‘OblIVion’, intersecting with the newly shot footage in a more coherent and thematically appropriate manner than anyone might have anticipated.
So well does the older footage seem to compliment the new material in fact that, when I first watched ‘OblIVion’ a few years back, I assumed that they must have been deliberately re-staged, with lookalike actors standing in for the younger cast members, and thus spent much of the film marvelling at how flawlessly the effect had been achieved.
Returning to the film in the knowledge that the ‘70s footage is genuine however, it becomes clear that the ‘90s footage has to some extent been shaped by the imagery provided by the unused ‘Phantasm’ material, which in turn gains new significance in the context of the new story that now surrounds it, leading to the creation of a very weird symbiotic feedback loop between the two eras that could swiftly make a film theorist’s head hurt pretty badly, should they deign to spend any length of time thinking about it.
Certainly, seeing actors apparently interacting with themselves playing the same role twenty years earlier is a fairly unique prospect in cinema, and watching A. Michael Baldwin ricochet between his early teens and mid ‘30s from scene to scene proves particularly unnerving – especially given that his extended dialogue and metaphysical tug of war with Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man seems to continue, uninterrupted, through both time periods.
To some extent, Mike’s younger self seems to represent his “spirit self”, fighting an astral battle with The Tall Man, just as his older self physically combats his minions in the material world. There is a suggestion here that, in his mind, Mike is still the kid we met in the first ‘Phantasm’ film, still inhabiting the suburban idyll of California 1979. To him, the subsequent years of incarceration, hospitalisation, imprisonment and the occasional fiery show-down simply haven’t happened, as The Tall Man still looms over him, blocking his path to adulthood.
In this context, the disturbing imagery of the famous “hanging tree” sequence – a wisely unused alternative ending for the original ‘Phantasm’ in which the teenage Mike ensnares The Tall Man in a noose and is subsequently sweet-talked into cutting him down – feels far more potent and suggestive than it would have been in its original context, where the fable/fairy tale-like quality of the dialogue would have rendered it a fairly ridiculous conclusion to the first film.
Here though, teenage Mike’s curious decision to cut down/release his antagonist highlights the strange symbiosis that exists between the two characters – especially when the scene is directly mirrored by one in which The Tall Man steps in the prevent the adult Mike from hanging himself in Death Valley.
Throughout ‘OblIVion’ in fact, Mike’s actions seem to echo those of The Tall Man. Not only are both of them hanged, and subsequently saved by each other, but both are pictured holding spheres aloft in a strikingly similar fashion, both turn to the camera, assuming blank and baleful expressions, before stalking through the film’s ever-present dimensional gates, and so forth.
Are we meant to assume that the two characters are becoming closer together, as Mike prepares to merge with, or supersede The Tall Man? Or, is Coscarelli simply reminding us that they have in fact been one and the same all along – The Tall Man drawn from somewhere deep within Mike’s troubled psyche, gradually consuming him, just as he has consumed the American landscape against which their battles take place?
As the “hanging tree” scene demonstrates, Mike needs The Tall Man to fight against, just as much as his enemy needs him. His journey through the ‘chapel perilous’ proposed by the first film has failed, and the shock of facing life without the spectre of a supernatural opponent to take the blame for his troubles has proved too much for him to bear.
Elsewhere in ‘OblIVion’, viewers still hoping for a more conventional “explanation” of The Tall Man and his machinations are granted some imaginative insights into his background, as Mike’s journeys through the dimensional gateways take him, surprisingly, back to the Civil War era (furthering the very American Gothic sense of history that has always underpinned the Phantasm series to some extent), where we learn that our favourite towering ghoul was once a field surgeon and mild-mannered old coot named Jedidiah Morningside, whose Frankensteinian experiments took him through one of the dimensional portals. (Also, he apparently lived with the fortune teller from the first ‘Phantasm’, because… hey, why not?)
Naturally, all this kept as ambiguous as ever; we never learn what happened to poor old Jedidiah when he stepped through the gate, how long he was away, or the nature of intelligence that was seemingly inhabiting his body when he returned – although we may at least assume that, whatever happened, a similar fate is in store for Mike.
Needless to say, ‘OblIVion’ is a rather oblique film to say the least, returning very much to the shifting sands and Poe-esque phantasmagoria that played into Coscarelli’s original conception of the Phantasm series.
Working as much on a purely emotional / imagistic level as a narrative one, the film often feels more like a meditative reflection upon (or extended remix of) the earlier instalments in the series (and the legacy of the first film in particular) than a story in its own right, framing even its remaining action scenes (of which there are, actually, plenty) within a cracked, quasi-mystical framework that purposefully holds back on any kind of answers.
All of this is fully embodied by ‘OblIVion’s ending, which is, I think, my favourite moment in the entire series, bringing us to the end of our characters’ long journey with a curtain call both wordlessly poignant and – as per Phantasm tradition – heroically unresolved.
Like the haunting, unreadable expression Angus Scrimm offers us as he disappears through the dimensional gateway one final time, this is one of those movie endings whose power is difficult to meaningfully convey in words. All that’s left to do really is merely describe it, and hope some of the feeling comes across.
As the adult Mike’s bodily form lies dying on the sand, a sphere-shaped hole in his head, Reggie, wearing his old ice cream seller’s uniform and wielding his quadruple-barrelled shotgun, takes one anguished look back before launching himself through the dimensional gates in pursuit of The Tall Man. Reggie, by this stage, has become an iconic avatar of himself – a deathless video game protagonist, doggedly embarking upon an eternity of fruitless, Doom-style adventures in search of his friend’s stolen soul. “I was an ice cream vendor by trade, but now I am a solider”, he opined during the film’s opening narration, and now he’s ready to play that role to the bitter end.
As we zoom in on Mike’s blank, dilated pupil, we return to 1979. Young Mike, looking despondent as ever, walks down an empty street, until Reggie stops in his ice cream truck to give him a lift. “Did you hear something, partner?”, Reggie asks as they drive along. “It’s only the wind… just the wind…”, Mike replies as he sheds a tear. The ice cream truck is now travelling through a formless black void; the outside world has disappeared. The last thing we see are the truck’s red tail-lights fading into the darkness; then the theme music hits and the familiar writer/director’s credit appears, in the exact same shade of red.
Whilst I don’t begrudge the existence of a fifth Phantasm film (Coscarelli’s creation is by design a never-ending, ever-changing beast), I think most fans can agree that this is the true end to the story we have been following through these four films, and, for me personally, it is also one of the more inexplicably devastating few minutes of cinema I’ve seen anywhere.
Incidentally, during those closing credits, we also get to hear ‘Have You Seen It?’, a Phantasm-themed composition performed by Reggie B & the Jizz Wailin' Ya' Doggies. Keep on rockin’, Regman.
Monday, 21 August 2017
Before moving on to part IV, I’d like to spend some time discussing one of my favourite aspects of the ‘Phantasm’ series, which I have only mentioned in passing in my earlier posts - namely the increasingly apocalyptic nature of the world in which the films’ primary action takes place.
Rather than sticking to the “weird stuff happens in a familiar location” set up of the first film (which would certainly have seemed the default setting for an ‘80s/’90s horror landscape dominated by Stephen King adaptations, slashers etc), the creeping realisation across Phantasms II, III and IV that The Tall Man is actually in the process of destroying the world - transforming it into a hostile and barren place - is both surprising and beautifully handled.
Post-apocalyptic themes are rarely in the forefront of the films’ storylines (though they were clearly on Don Coscerelli’s mind, as evidenced by his little-seen wilderness survival epic Survival Quest (1988)), but they increasingly define the background against which each subsequent movie unfolds, eerily mirroring the protagonists’ fixation with self-sufficiency and improvised weaponry.
As Mike and Reggie pursue their battle against the Tall Man in a monomaniacal, “you and me against the world” sort of fashion, the issue of what is actually happening to that world becomes merely a side detail, leading to a peculiarly slow, almost incidental ‘End of the World’ narrative that few other filmmakers have had the opportunity to realise over the space of several decades.
It is in Phantasm II that we first see the end result of The Tall Man’s intervention in a community, as our heroes track him from California to the American North-West, where, we are told in voiceover, that he has left a trail of small towns decimated in his wake – their populations vanished (presumably ‘harvested’ to provide raw materials for his dwarfs and spheres) and their streets fallen into ruin, with residents of neighbouring areas rationalising the resulting ghost-towns as the result of closed factories, vanished industries and so forth.
In a sense, this notion both looks back to the ‘dust-bowls’ of the Great Depression, and forward to the process of depopulation that has struck cities like Detroit in recent years, but I like the way that this idea reframes The Tall Man as a kind of itinerant ‘plague-bringer’ figure – an industrious colonial cousin of Murnau’s Nosferatu, perhaps.
By the time we reach ‘Phantasm III’, it seems as if huge swatches of the Mid-West and Pacific coast have become an uninhabited no-man’s-land, frequented only by armed vigilantes (Gloria Lynne Henry’s Rocky and her short-lived friend), criminal scavengers (John Chandler and his unsavoury buddies) and lone, besieged survivalists, defending their territory against left-over remnants of The tall Man’s sentinels and creatures that seem to swarm at night like lost bees in search of a hive. (Kevin Connors’ Tim, when we first meet him, is living like a pre-teen equivalent of the protagonist of Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’.)
When Reggie subsequently tries to ditch Tim at a safe location before moving on, we find the pair visiting a rural, roadside homestead where a friendly lady has (along with some other people, we must assume) effectively set up a refugee camp for orphaned children displaced from the blighted towns in the surrounding area. Again, an interesting and somewhat chilling exploration of an aspect of societal collapse that more testosterone-fuelled post-apocalyptic cinema rarely makes time for.
Next up, 1998’s ‘Phantasm: OblIVion’ takes things one step further – partly, it must be said, as a result of a miniscule budget that sees the series’ four principal actors joined by only one other character with a speaking role.
By this stage, even the buildings seem to have disappeared from the landscape, as Reggie’s journey from the Mid-West toward a reunion with Mike in Death Valley sees him traversing a featureless desert wasteland worthy of a Mad Max movie. The only living(?) creatures he encounters along the way are a demonic/zombified State Trooper, and a too-good-to-be-true damsel in distress (played by Heidi Marnhout) who is soon revealed to be precisely the kind of sphere-implanted honey-trap anyone but the ever-hopeful Reggie may have suspected from the outset.
On first glance, these episodic encounters seem completely arbitrary – stand-alone horror/action set-pieces thrown in to liven up what is otherwise a rather sombre and contemplative movie – but nonetheless, I rather like the impression they create of a totally desiccated American landscape, in which the only things still moving are deadly, mutant predators – weird, left-over by-products of The Tall Man’s human harvest, wearing familiar skins designed to fool or entice any luckless survivors who stumble across them.
When Reggie picks up “Jennifer” (the aforementioned Marnhout) and offers to drop her at “the next town” – the same line he has fed to hitchhikers in earlier instalments – he now swiftly corrects himself, specifying “the next INHABITED town”.
But, finding one of *those* any time soon frankly seems an unlikely prospect, given that the pair are forced to spend the night in a derelict motel cabin most recently occupied by some (presumably deceased) vagrants – itself a quantifiable step-down from the shifty and paranoid fleabag motel owner Reggie dealt with in part III, and the perfectly functional motel he and Mike stayed at in part II.
All this serves to create the impression, when Mike and Reggie are eventually reunited for whatever passes for a ‘final confrontation’ with The Tall Man, that they are absolutely alone – facing their enemy on the surface of what might as well be an alien world. Indeed, it is looking increasingly like the ‘red planet’ on which his columns of dwarfs toil, as glimpsed through the dimensional portals that pop up throughout the series, perhaps giving us a glimpse of the eventual outcome The Tall Man has in mind for “our” world.
But – we’re getting ahead of ourselves. With this apocalyptic side-bar now thoroughly covered, it’s time to shift our attention back to the main event. So, be sure to tune in in a few days for my run-down of Phantasm parts four and – cue nervous, uncomfortable silence – five.
Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Inevitably, the challenge of weaving the murky sub-texts of death, bereavement and mental illness that underpin the ‘Phantasm’ mythos into the fabric of some fairly light-hearted, good-times horror movies creates a friction that persists throughout the series.
In the case of 1994’s ‘Phantasm III’ (sometimes sub-titled as ‘Lord of the Dead’), more-so even than Phantasm II, Don Coscarelli seems to have chosen to deal with this tension by pushing that uncomfortable baggage so far under the carpet that he seems to be pretty much denying its existence altogether – but all to no avail. The imagery and characters he created for the first film back in 1979 continue to resonate, not only through his writing on each subsequent film, but through the thematic logic upon which the whole Phantasm universe has been constructed.
For some reason, ‘Phantasm III’ often seems to emerge as the least popular entry in the series amongst fans – a reputation I feel is thoroughly undeserved. If the film has a fault, it is that it swings just a little *too* close to hitting the same plot beats as its predecessor, but it nonetheless throws in enough unique material along the way to arguably emerge as an even more enjoyable thrill-ride than the all-singing, all-dancing Part II.
As well as reshuffling the by-now-familiar series elements, III adds a surprisingly likeable ‘Home Alone’-style survivalist orphan kid and a nunchuck-wielding black female vigilante to the ranks of the good guys, and evens out the odds by pitting them against an adorably vile trio of early ‘90s styled zombie sleazebags in a pink Cadillac (venerable character actor John Chandler amongst them) – all of which results in what is by some distance the breeziest and conventionally ‘fun’ of all the Phantasm movies.
Despite working with a significantly lower budget this time around, Coscarelli and his collaborators somehow manage to incorporate an even more impressive array of practical make up effects and fight choreography, some great location shooting (most notably a breathtaking Moorish/gothic mausoleum) and many of the series’ most inspired sphere attacks and show-downs.
In tone in fact, ‘Phantasm III’ puts me in mind of a slightly slicker and more ambitious version of the kind of movie Stuart Gordon might have made for Charles Band in the late 1980s – and long-time readers will realise that, when I say that, I intend it as a pretty massive compliment. It’s just a really kick-ass flick, to not put too fine a point on it, and I think it deserves some recognition for that.
Happily, PIII also sees the return to the series both of Bill Thornbury in the role of Jody – his character from this point on becoming an ambiguous and rather distrustful figure, as befits one who has returned from the dead and/or the realm of The Tall Man for reasons unknown – and, more significantly, of A. Michael Baldwin as Mike.
In the fifteen years separating Phantasms I and III, Baldwin has grown into a slightly haggard and perpetually worried looking adult, but has crucially retained the big, sad eyes that helped define his performance in the first film. Doing his best no doubt to extenuate these qualities as he returns to the role of Mike, Baldwin’s ‘had a tough life’ features and weary, pain-wracked mannerisms add melancholic undertow to both this film and the subsequent sequels, with his character’s identity as a man who has grown up haunted by grief, fear and metaphysical uncertainty always hovering in the background.
Reflecting this, and establishing a pattern that would continue into Phantasm IV, part III sees its two returning heroes separated for much of the film. Carrying the bulk of the screen time, Reggie handles the crowd-pleasing, down-to-earth action stuff in his own inimitable fashion, but for Mike meanwhile, PIII becomes a rather different kind of nightmare – a painful ordeal in which he is pretty much denied any independent agency whatsoever.
As the film opens, we find Mike experiencing a near death experience as he lays in a hospital bed, encountering both The Tall Man and his brother Jody as they intrude upon his walk toward the light and drag him back to the world of the living. Soon thereafter, having been revived and rescued by Reggie, he finds himself snatched once again from what passes as the “waking world”, hopelessly entrapped in the realm of The Tall Man, where he undergoes various horrific and unknowable procedures, carried out by his enemy seemingly in order to permanently alter his body and spirit for reasons unknown.
Indeed, most of PIII’s wider plot revelations are concerned with the notion that The Tall Man places great importance in Mike, deliberately keeping him alive and trying to force him to submit to his will – not only in psychic terms, but by means of a kind of physical/technological transformation.
As ever, The Tall Man’s motivations for doing this remain pointedly undisclosed by the series, and the natural assumption of many fans has been that he is attempting to groom Mike as some kind of successor/inheritor of his inter-dimensional legacy.
This makes a lot of sense, and can certainly be chalked up as our “most likely explanation” in linear story terms. But, in keeping with some of the ideas I have set out in my writing on the earlier films, I also find myself leaning heavily toward idea that The Tall Man is simply *playing* with both Mike and Reggie (note should be made here of his repeated references to their struggle as a “game”). Could he not be keeping them both alive, suffering and struggling, simply because he is aware of the fact that their violent opposition not only feeds him, but actually allows him his continued existence?
As an externalised bogeyman created from the fear and anguish of an adolescent boy, The Tall Man cannot allow those fears to be snuffed out by either maturity or death, and, by taking direct control of Mike – by removing him from the “real world” in which he has the power to change the path of his own life, or end it altogether - he realises that he can continue farming these negative emotions, keeping the “boy” in torment and thus keeping himself in business forevermore.
Needless to say, Mike’s travails, and the speculations that arise from them, serve to add a very dark undercurrent to what is otherwise a straight-forwardly enjoyable horror shoot ‘em up, laying the groundwork for what would emerge a few years later as the most challenging and introspective instalment of the ‘Phantasm’ series.
Friday, 11 August 2017
When I first ploughed my way through the sequels to ‘Phantasm’ a few years back, I enjoyed them all as entertaining, well-made horror/action/comedies full of cool ideas and likeable characters, but at the same time, I was disappointed by what I saw as writer/director Don Coscarelli’s failure to follow up on the more emotionally resonant sub-texts of the first film. Instead, he seemed to have concentrated his efforts on more audience-pleasing stuff like stunts, practical make-up/gore effects and fantasy world-building, enjoying the comfort of his own hit franchise - and, in fairness, why shouldn’t he?
Furthermore, watching parts II, III and IV in quick succession, the films’ deliberately cyclical (detractors may claim, “repetitive”) scenarios - wherein the familiar elements of dwarfs, spheres, mausoleums, graveyards, dimensional gateways, dead towns, hitchhikers, hearses etc are shuffled around like self-generating levels in a video game – caused all three to blur together to a certain extent, making it difficult for me to really get an angle on each individual instalment, which didn’t exactly help matters when it came to keeping my (ahem) ‘critical faculties’ on-point.
Having recently revisited the sequels however, I now believe I had considerably underestimated them. Not only are they all excellent films in their own right, adding weight to the argument that Coscerelli is one of the most talented and undervalued directors working in the realm of American genre cinema over the past few decades, but, upon closer scrutiny, they also all retain glimpses and reflections of that certain *something* I valued so much in the first Phantasm, reframed and repurposed for each film in much the same manner that The Tall Man’s manipulations of reality constantly shift the goal posts of the story’s surface level narrative.
Somewhat surprisingly in retrospect, 1988’s ‘Phantasm II’ was entirely bankrolled by Universal - the result of a short-lived studio head with a yen to build up some Freddy/Jason-rivalling horror franchises, I gather – and as such, it is by far the most generously budgeted and commercially inclined entry in the series.
Although the studio’s insistence on re-casting A. Michael Baldwin’s character in the more conventionally handsome form of James Le Gros is an regrettable blot on the series’ copybook (allegedly Coscarelli was told he could have either Baldwin or Reggie Bannister back, but not both), this budgetary upgrade otherwise works out rather well. I have seen ‘Phantasm II’ described as ‘Aliens’ to the first film’s ‘Alien’, which seems an apt comparison.
Certainly, we’re looking here at a full scale “this time it’s war” type proposition, with a fully tooled up Reggie and Mike back on the road in the now iconic Hemi Cuda, ready to avenge themselves against The Tall Man by means of flame, bullets, explosives, power tools and anything else that comes to hand - resulting in a thoroughly satisfying rampage of ‘Evil Dead’-indebted action-horror splatter that pulls a pure 180 on the more reflective tone of the original film.
Before that all gets underway though, this initial sequel actually opens in a manner very much in keeping with the thematic schema underlying the first film. Following a prologue that sets the pace for the flashback-heavy “plot recap” montages that open each subsequent Phantasm instalment, the basic gist here is that a now fully grown Mike has been released from a long spell in a psychiatric institution following the events of the first film, but he remains secretly fixated with tracking down and battling The Tall Man, to whom he still feels some kind of psychic link.
Reg, as Mike’s only remaining friend and guardian, looks upon him with pity. For Reg, it seems, has successfully made it through The Tall Man’s ‘chapel perilous’ – tragically, the only point in the series in which any of the central characters succeeds in doing so. Having graduated to a quiet, adult life with a beloved family and a steady job, he nervously dismisses Mike’s tales of The Tall Man as a paranoid delusion, hoping to snap his unfortunate friend out of it.
But, Universal weren’t coughing up the dough for Coscarelli to make a bittersweet comedy about Reggie Bannister helping his institutionalised buddy readjust to everyday life (hey, I’d watch it), so naturally this state of affairs can’t last for long.
Arguably, the gas leak and subsequent spectacular explosion that soon takes Reggie’s family and home from him can be read not so much as the handiwork of The Tall Man’s evil powers, but simply as another meaningless, random accident – no different to the one that took Mike’s family from him before the start of the first film.
When Reg sees the unmistakable shadow of Angus Scrimm stalking from the flames, it simply signals that, in the face of his shock and grief, he has suffered a massive relapse, allowing the world of The Tall Man to once again form itself around him, becoming his primary reality.
When, in one of ‘Phantasm II’s key scenes, Reggie and Mike break into a hardware store to stock up for their forthcoming quest for vengeance, revelling in the simple pleasures of modified shotguns, chainsaws and DIY flamethrowers, we are encouraged to see it as a triumphant moment; our heroes are back and they’re gonna kick some ass!
On another level though, it is deeply sad. Unable to move on from his loss, Reg has resorted to simply wallowing in the adolescent fetishes that he and his friends built their lives around in happier times, taking them to a dangerous new level of obsession, whilst Mike – whose own troubles have never allowed him the chance to grow beyond them – merely encourages him.
From this point on, the Phantasm series can easily be read as a tragedy.
With The Tall Man foremost in their minds, our protagonists’ world becomes a foreboding, apocalyptic place. The suburban idyll in which Reg, Jody and Mike made their home in the first film has literally collapsed and died in the wake of The Tall Man’s passage, and, the harder our heroes fight back against him, the darker things become for them; the further they get from understanding what is happening to them, from finding peace or from developing any kind of meaningful human relationships.
(It is certainly no coincidence that, each time Reg or Mike become involved with a female character, the arc of their relationship dive-bombs into death or betrayal almost immediately – a state of affairs that, in Reggie’s case, becomes a running joke through the subsequent sequels.)
If The Tall Man is indeed an avatar of death, aging, and fear of one’s own mortality, what can possibly be achieved by attacking him with bullets and hand grenades? As any bereavement counsellor will tell you, grief can never be overcome whilst sufferers persist in trying to fight against the circumstances that have befallen them; it’s all about accepting, and moving on, and all that jazz.
Whether Reggie and Mike simply fail to realise this, or else are consciously taking on the “doomed hero” mantle by refusing to surrender to it, is up for debate - but either way, they are questers of a chronically doomed stripe. The harder they struggle, the longer they search for answers - and the more we in the audience laugh and cheer with them on in their exploits - the stronger and more omniscient their enemy becomes… and the further they stray from finding happiness or meaning in their increasingly barren lives.
Saturday, 5 August 2017
By this point, I think I can say with confidence that Don Coscarelli’s ‘Phantasm’ is one of my favourite films. Of course I liked it a great deal from the first time I watched it, but it is one of those movies that affects me more deeply each time I return to it. It’s become a kind of “totem pole” movie for me, I suppose – its familiar faces and words and images always there to provide new glimmers of comfort and meaning.
In a sense I think, the real genius of the first ‘Phantasm’ is the light touch Coscarelli brings to the story’s human drama – a careful balance that ensures it is never so ‘heavy’ that it can’t be enjoyed with friends or family in its primary capacity as a wildly imaginative, action-packed sci-fi/horror movie. But, each time around, the ineffable sadness at its core becomes harder to shake.
Reading reviews of ‘Phantasm’, I get the impression that the ‘two-tier’ system upon which the film operates proves pretty difficult for many viewers to get their heads around. Horror fans are often riled by the “quirky” indie drama moments, which they see as naïve and unnecessary flashbacks to Coscarelli’s earlier independent films, whilst others meanwhile find ‘Phantasm’s attempts at emotional engagement impossible to reconcile with a film that also includes gratuitous tit shots, killer dwarfs and the sight of a man having his blood extracted through his forehead and sprayed across the floor by a robotic alien sphere. (1)
Are we to interpret the implacable Tall Man and his minions as a “real”, existing threat, to be combatted with guns and traps and explosives? Or is he merely a fantasy concocted by young Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) - a way of coping with the trauma caused by the sudden loss of his family, inspired by the young boy’s (entirely understandable) phobia of the rituals surrounding death and funerals?
Wisely, ‘Phantasm’ deliberately frustrates a thorough-going application of either of these theories, causing annoyance to many, but prompting me to ask yet again – why do we have to choose? Can’t we have both? Isn’t this intractable fusion of fantasy and reality in some sense the very point of cinema? Especially here, where, well… the clue is in the name, y’know?
As a choice of title, “Phantasm” does rather hammer home the point regarding the shifting, subjective nature of the world portrayed on-screen, even as its itinerary of classic American Gothic imagery pulls us straight back to Poe’s obsessive blurring of the boundaries between life and death, waking and sleep. Coscerelli has often claimed in interviews that he pulled the word ‘phantasm’ from Poe’s work, and as such it’s perhaps no surprise that finished film sees the author’s “dream within a dream” methodology pulled kicking and screaming into the placid environs of ‘Star Wars’-era suburban USA.
This latter realm is the native home of Mike, Jody and Reggie, three young(ish) men who, despite the age gaps that separate them, are all trying to cope with the shadow that grief and loss has already cast into their sheltered world of eternal adolescence.
From tweaking the engines of their muscle cars to playing rock n’ roll music, scoping out “babes”, fetishising guns and knives, crafting homemade explosives and – yes – selling ice cream, everything these boys do (and they ARE boys – even rotund, balding Reggie) seems to hark back to childhood aspirations, speaking to some dream of a perfect, carefree teenage male existence.
And yet, the kind of macho braggadocio that usually accompanies such activities is entirely absent from their behaviour, as if it has been surgically removed, leaving just a numbness, a sense of empty space.
Coscarelli gives us very little in the way of background for his characters, but he doesn’t really need to. The silence and darkened rooms of Mike and Jody’s cosy family home speaks for itself, as does the gentle, somewhat awkward, but always caring way in which the three friends relate to each other. There is a feeling here of life rolling on day by day, even as our characters occupy a kind of limbo in which their normal routines have been forcibly disrupted.
Some seem to feel this material irksome, or find the performances of the inexperienced cast clumsy, but personally I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film that so touchingly, so effortlessly, conveyed the sense of a mismatched family group re-forming itself into a new shape after its central members have been lost.
And, in the wake of this loss of course comes The Tall Man. A veritable avatar of the ravages of age even though the late Angus Scrimm was a relatively sprightly fifty-three at the time this first film was made, this fearsome antagonist literally crushes deceased adults down into child-sized dwarfs [an observation I owe to Stephen Thrower’s review of ‘Phantasm’ in his essential Nightmare USA], whilst the mortuary that forms his domain can be seen to represent a kind of ‘chapel perilous’ through which are our three (overgrown or actual) adolescent heroes must pass in order to overcome their fear of death, and to move forward into their life as adults.
I confess I find this schema an absolutely beautiful prism through which to view the film - and indeed the entire ‘Phantasm’ series - but again, Coscarelli unpacks it so gently for us that it is easy to miss completely, lost amid the rock ‘em sock ‘em horror set pieces that are ostensibly the movie’s primary attraction, until it is pointed out.
As mentioned above, it was Thrower’s extremely insightful review that first pointed me in the right direction, and since then, I’ve just kind of run with it. ‘Phantasm’ is a film I think of often, and Mike and Reggie and Jody – whether as archetypes, as characters, even as actors – remain with me always.
(1)Lest we forget, Coscerelli became the youngest director ever to see his work distributed by a major studio, when his independently produced films ‘Jim, The World’s Greatest’ and ‘Kenny & Company’, both completed before the director’s twentieth birthday, were picked up by Universal Pictures in 1976. Quite an achievement, to say the least.
Friday, 4 August 2017
For no particular reason, August here on BITR is going to be Phantasm Month. After re-watching the five entries in Don Coscerelli’s long-running sci-fi/horror franchise recently, I have found myself writing a fairly massive “think piece” type article aimed at re-evaluating the series in a manner that I hope will provide fans with a few new angles from which to approach it, and/or persuade non-fans to consider giving the movies a second look.
To make things more manageable, I have split my ramblings up into a series of separate posts, roughly covering each film, which I will endeavour to publish over the next few weeks, beginning tomorrow. I hope you can get something out of it, but if you’re an inveterate Phantasm hater, then, well… sorry. I hope we’ll see you again in September.