Apr 24, 2019

HANNIBAL LECTER, ARTISTE










Sketches that appeared intermittently throughout NBC's short lived but incredible series, Hannibal. Actual artist unknown. 


Apr 22, 2019

‘THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK’ AND THE PARANOID THRILLER


Distrust peaked during the 1970s across a variety of arenas: domestically, societally, and politically. Multiple facets of life had been disrupted by the scathing publication of the Pentagon Papers regarding the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal, the ongoing Cold War, fallout from the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family, and the list goes on. Trust in the individual and the institution was at an all-time low, and art on the screen began imitating life on the street and in the home. 

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a modern production, but it’s cut, utterly, from the 1970s paranoid thriller. And there’s been no better era in which to resurrect the sub-genre than right now: current trust in the government is the lowest it’s ever been. And it’s not just the White House we can’t trust, but the very news media that reports on it --  peppered with the president’s constant slogans of “Fake News!” and “Witch Hunt!” – as well as the people who subscribe to their reality of choice and sell it as truth to someone who might not know any better. We live in an age where the news media you consume determines the philosophies and ideologies you align with, but it also determines that the people who watch those other kinds of news media already have a preconceived notion of you: if you’re a hard-right conservative, you watch Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal; if you’re a hard-left liberal “snowflake,” you watch MSNBC and read the New York Times – these are the new “rules.”


The Standoff at Sparrow Creek was likely inspired by the 2016 Bundy standoff, which saw a family-led militia taking control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 40 days over a dispute regarding a million-dollar payment to the government. Militia culture had been prevalent in U.S. culture at least since the Clinton Administration, although there seemed to be a spike during the Obama era due in part to the disinformation campaign accented with the constant proclamations of “they’re coming for your guns!” (Raise your hand if you still have your guns.) (You should be raising your hand.) Doomsday Preppers, though not militia-based, shares the same militia mindset, which is that the government and/or civilized order is going to collapse, and once that happens, it’s very man for himself. 

Interestingly, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek plays twice with the concept of paranoia. That the men have joined a militia at all, choosing a dilapidated warehouse as a home-base cache for their firearms, explosives, bottled water, and CB radio, is the first touch of this. The second, which embodies the main conflict, is that one of their numbers has attacked a nearby police funeral, killing several attendees, and it’s a race against time to out the shooter among them and turn him over to authorities before they all go down in a hail of gunfire. 


The Standoff at Sparrow Creek plays out like a clever combination of Quentin Tarantino’s first low-fi feature, Reservoir Dogs -- about a group of robbers whose diamond heist goes wrong and leads to belief of an undercover cop among them – and John Carpenter’s The Thing -- about a group of men marooned by the elements and forced to locate the shape-shifting alien lifeform hiding behind one of their faces. There’s very little trust among the men of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, not helped by their overly radical philosophies, their former professional ties to the police, and the fact that some of them are just friggin’ weird. Take a group of men already paranoid enough to join a militia, insert a reason for them suspect each other, and you’ve got yourself a situation that’s rife with conflict and wholly removes predictability from the table. 

Director Henry Dunham presents The Standoff at Sparrow Creek as realistically as possible, bringing together a parliament of personalities to embody the different kinds of people who would be attracted to joining a militia: a former cop disillusioned with the system, a man whose daughter suffered a vicious attack and for whom the government provided no justice, and a young man so detached that he keeps a manifesto of anger scrawled between the printed lines of Catcher in the Rye.  (A weird mystique has always hung over this particular novel, likely due to it being found in the homes of John Hinkley, Mark David Chapman, and Robert John Bardo.) Certain members of the militia are more eccentric than others, while some are more bloodthirsty. One of them, which the film subtly suggests is the leader, comes off as more of a crime boss than a redneck good ol’ boy with a burly beard. What unites them is the belief that not only do they have the right to assemble arms and prepare for conflict, but that it’s their duty to do so. “We always knew this was going to happen,” says one of the more unhinged members of the militia regarding the massacre at the police funeral, which visibly sets some of the other members at unease. Their similar philosophies has brought them together, but their unique dedications to their philosophies is going to be what tears them apart.

 A conceit of the paranoid thriller is the isolation of the main protagonist, who is forced to act alone to shed light on the truth of the conspiracy afoot. Francis Ford Coppola did this masterfully with 1974’s The Conversation, about a CIA surveillance expert who becomes convinced he’s the one being surveilled. 1976’s infamous Marathon Man, directed by John Schlesinger, permanently bequeathed to the world two mainstays: fear of the dentist, and “Is it safe?” Next came the game-changing, real-life All The President’s Men, about journalistic duo Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein chasing down leads and consorting with shadowy men in parking garages to irrefutably prove President Nixon’s ties to the Watergate Hotel break-in; however, the reporters are soon the ones being investigated, themselves followed and their home phones bugged. 1977 was an ideal time for Philip Kaufman to remake Invasion Of The Body Snatchers; the amassing pod people were perfect metaphors for so many things that the American people felt were threatening their society: the Soviets, gay culture, the sexual revolution, the hippie movement (the film is set in San Francisco), all worsening the ongoing alienation caused by urbanization. The list of paranoid thrillers continues, with George A. Romero’s The Crazies, Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green, Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, James Bridges’s The China Syndrome, and Franklin J. Schaffner’s bizarre Nazi tale The Boys From Brazil.

 

Following its birth in the ‘70s, the paranoid thriller has never gone away, and has since been explored in every genre. In the ‘80s, we had Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (one of the all-time best), George Lucas’s THX 1138, and Richard Badham’s Wargames. In the ‘90s came Oliver Stone’s JFK, Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory, and even comedy satires like Peter Weir’s The Truman Show and the All The President’s Men spoof Dick, directed by The Craft’s Andrew Fleming. The 2000s gave us Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity, a redo of The Manchurian Candidate by Jonathan Demme, Chan-wook Park’s wicked Oldboy, and the most unnerving sequence in Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds involving an unhinged Tim Robbins. Echoes of this continued in the 2010’s with Martin Scorsese’s underrated Shutter Island and Dan Trachtenberg’s Ten Cloverfield Lane. And let’s not forget the juggernaut that dominated the ‘90s before returning just a couple years ago – the pop culture phenomenon heavily inspired by All The President’s Men and The Andromeda Strain known as The X-Files.  

Mistrust is part of human nature. We exist in a cloud of paranoia where there’s plenty of reason not to put trust in anything or anyone. On personal levels, we’ve been betrayed by those we love. On professional levels, especially for those of us still existing in work landscapes that haven’t quite bounced back from the 2008 recession, the threat of being unceremoniously laid off feels constant. And as for the government, forget it: we can only see so many clips of the president saying something incriminating, only for him to later on swear he never said it, before we totally give up on putting our faith in him, his administration, or in the loyal congregation who reject reality just to believe him. In the age of “fake news,” disinformation campaigns across social media, and the ensuing threat of video manipulation techniques known as “deep fakes” (Google it if you’re not familiar, and be terrified), there’s never been less trust to go around. If the 1970s were any indication, we’ll soon be inundated by films in which the principle cast exists entirely in their own self-made isolation, grasping their guns, peering out of their fortified homes between the slats of their window shades, and asking….“Is it safe?”

 

[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]

Apr 21, 2019

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ANTONIO BAY

 
"In five minutes, it will be the 21st of April. One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot in front of them. Then, they saw a light. By God, it was a fire burning on the shore, strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks, the hull sheared in two, mars snapped like a twig. The wreckage sank, with all the men aboard. At the bottom of the sea, lay the Elizabeth Dane, with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open, staring to the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen, and their fathers and grandfathers, that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death."

Apr 19, 2019

PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016)


[This review contains spoilers for Phantasm: Ravager.]

No horror fan has ever had to endure such a long wait between sequels as Phantasm phans. Making it harder is that we can’t liken Phantasm to a more traditional horror series like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. The simplicity of those films, though they vary in quality, don’t create the same kind of angst in between entries. Mini-arcs, one-offs, ret-cons, or now, reboots, comprise those series. Neither series told one over-arcing story, or featured the same creative team or repertoire of actors. And none of them made their fanbase wait eighteen years for the concluding entry.

Phantasm did.

Begun in 1979 as just a creepy, low budget horror tale set against the night, which found the Pearson brothers and their family friend, Reggie, squaring off against an evil from — another dimension? planet? world? time? existence? — their nightmares, Phantasm was never meant to become what it became. And no one seemed more surprised by that than its creator, Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep; John Dies at the End).


The Phantasm series would continue down a strange path, its trajectory constantly changing. Phantasm II, the only sequel to be funded and released by a major studio, jettisoned the more dreamlike aspects of the series that would have confused mainstream audiences. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead was shot independently, which revisited those dreamlike aspects with a vengeance. Phantasm IV: Oblivion was shot with the same mindset, but with a twist: a large portion of the film was assembled using cut footage from the very first Phantasm, leaving its modern-day characters to look back on their memories that didn’t jive with their realities. It was a beautiful and frustrating experiment that further clouded the waters of the Phantasm mythos, leaving it all in the hands of the phan to determine what really happened.

Eighteen years later, after a couple false starts, rumored projects, nearly a New Line Cinema-funded remake-trilogy of the series, and a lot of post-trailer announcement dead air, Phantasm: Ravager is here — for better or worse.

Picking up where Oblivion left off (kind of), Ravager finds Reggie (Reggie Bannister) wandering the desert, his ice cream suit bloodied and torn from an unseen battle, looking for his ‘Cuda, or his friend Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), or a friendly face. But it also finds him in a nursing home, sat in a wheelchair, being comforted by Mike, who is telling him that he’s been diagnosed with dementia — that these “stories” about The Tall Man are, this time, Reggie’s delusions. And there’s yet another Reggie wandering his own desert, in his usual flannel and jeans garb. There are multiple Reggies, multiple Mikes. What is happening? How is this possible?

Because much of this footage had been originally shot as the basis for webisodes called Reggie’s Tales over the course of 6-7 years, which were then co-opted by Ravager. (If you're wondering why Coscarelli didn't serve as director on Ravager, it's because these webisodes were all directed by special effects guru David Hartman, which weren't originally intended to be folded into a feature sequel.)

In what was promised as the concluding chapter that would answer nearly all the questions posed by the series, Ravager is strangely experimental — to the point where the physical manifestation of alternate dimensions colliding with each other, which up to this point in the series had been merely theoretical, feels almost as if it were manufactured to purposely conjure confusion. The Phantasm series has always been willing to screw with its audience, leaving them to wonder what was real and what wasn’t, and so far, it was through the films’ construction where that confusion felt earned and all part of the plan. But Ravager feels intent on flat-out mystifying its audience, injecting a sort of series ret-con that never feels like it were destined, but more like a response to the slow, organic change that has carried through the entire Phantasm series so far — the evolution of Reggie from supporting character to lead hero. Ravager suggests that the series has always been about Reggie, and though Reggie Bannister is a wonderful human being, and his on-screen Reggie is the kind of loyal, loving, guitar-strumming hippy friend we all wish we could have, the series was never about him. It was about the strange link between Mike Pearson and The Tall Man. How was it that this thirteen-year-old kid (at first) had the power and the knowledge to best an evil being from another world? And what did The Tall Man mean when he said he and Mike “have things to do” during Oblivion? Indeed, every entry of the Phantasm series reinforced the idea that there existed a special link between Mike and The Tall Man. Ravager, except for a single line during a confrontation between Reggie and the infamous tall boogey-alien, seems to have forgotten all that. Mike, though Baldwin is featured somewhat prominently, comes off as an afterthought — almost like a plot hole that Coscarelli and new director Hartman had to contend with in order to satisfy “the Reggie story.” And that, more than anything else about Ravager, feels very wrong.


Like all the other films in the series, Ravager is very ambitious. With eyes larger than its budget, Ravager wants to be the be-all, end-all flashbang ending to the series that the phans have been clamoring for since 1998 (and which seems to have borrowed elements from Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary’s unproduced Phantasm’s End script). The problem is whatever budget Coscarelli and co. had couldn’t support that ambitious vision. From a production standpoint, Ravager feels instantly at odds with the series; its obvious digital shoot doesn’t mesh with the previous shot-on-film predecessors, including the lushly photographed Oblivion. None of the CGI, which is relied on far too often, looks convincing, and the sequences showing widespread hell-like destruction across entire cities look straight out of a video game. (By comparison, the original film’s technique of literally throwing silver sphere Christmas ornaments down a mausoleum hallway, or hanging them from fishing line, look a damn sight better. It’s ironic that Coscarelli and J.J. Abrams embarked on a two-year journey to restore Phantasm and digitally erase all the “mistakes” and “tricks” with the special effects that bothered Coscarelli for years — including that fishing line — but apparently he’s totally fine with the effects in Ravager.)

The phan in you will want to ignore all this; the love you have for the series will want you to push it all aside and say, “they’re really going for it, aren’t they? Good for them!” But the phan in you also recognizes that, after eighteen years, you deserved better. You deserved something with a look beyond that of a Sy-Fy Channel original, or a production from The Asylum. You deserved Coscarelli being in the trenches with his audience and himself helming the last entry of the series he created, and for which he oversaw every entry. But really, what you deserved was Coscarelli deciding, “if we can’t do this right, we’re not going to do it at all.”

The Phantasm series has always posed a lot of questions, but Ravager poses the wrong ones. Why reduce The Tall Man’s role from lead horror villain to a quasi-philosophical bargainer whom none of our protagonists seem especially fearful of confronting, relegating his role to man who lays in a bed or stands around? (He doesn’t even backhand anyone across the room! That’s, like, his signature move!) Why give this entry’s destruction of The Tall Man to an inconsequential character who was never involved in the series until this entry, robbing Mike and Reggie of their own final confrontation? Why bother bringing back Bill Thornbury (the series’ Jody Pearson), Kat Lester (Phantasm‘s Lady in Lavender) and Gloria Lynne Henry (Phantasm III’s beloved Rocky) for…that? (And why rob the phans of an on-screen reunion of Rocky and Reggie, being they spent all of Phantasm III together? They're in the same car but never share the same shot once. I mean, what the fuck!) And perhaps the most concerning of all, why has Coscarelli forgotten that Mike Pearson is the main character — the trigger around which the entire series has been constructed?


But it’s not all doom and gloom, however. There are sequences and moments in Ravager that really work. Reggie’s very first non-voiceover line of dialogue will have you laughing out loud, and his ongoing struggle to get laid concludes in the most appropriate way. The bond between our characters, especially Reggie and Mike, is as strong as ever. And how could it not be? They’ve been real-life family since before the first frame of the first Phantasm was ever shot. That final “real world” sequence between Reggie, Mike, and Jody — even though it feels at odds with the overall series story — still works on an emotional level, because we have been with these characters for forty years; we’ve grown older just as they’ve gown older, but throughout this time, we never lost touch with them, and we tagged along during their night-time adventures in Morningside, or Perigord, or Holtsville, or Death Valley.

In keeping with that longevity, seeing Angus Scrimm embody The Tall Man one last time (it’s fitting that his swan song was a return to the role which has earned him infinite infamy) is a delight, especially being that he may be older (although the film digitally de-ages him), but he hasn’t lost his edge, or his grasp on the character. Composer Christopher L. Stone has created the best musical score of the series since the first film, which somehow doesn’t sound cheap, but rather large, flourishing, and wide reaching. Hartman stages some moments of genuine eeriness as well as some exciting sequences, most of them having to do with high-speed chases on desert highways between the series’ beloved ‘Cuda and a swath of brain-drilling silver spheres. The scene set in the hospital that sees the “real” world and the possible dream world colliding with each other, with Mike tossing Reggie a gun to aerate the droves of gravers attacking him — while also fleeing reality — was beautifully done. And the ending — not the “real” ending, but the one that, oddly, seems more optimistic — was strikingly poetic, doing a fine job summarizing what the series has always been about: brotherhood, loyalty, and defiance in the face of death.

Was Phantasm: Ravager worth the wait? That’s a hard question to ask, and an even harder one to answer. Because at this point, it’s the phans who own the Phantasm series and no one else — not mainstream audiences, not critics, and not the casual horror crowd. Everything about the series is beyond those demographics’ criticisms. It’s up to the individual phan to determine whether Ravager was a fitting end to the long-running series, or a blown opportunity for the catharsis that Oblivion had the decency to temporarily provide, even within its fog of ambiguity. For this particular phan, eighteen years is a hell of a long wait to end up with something like PhantasmRavager.