Apr 19, 2019


[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.

Apr 16, 2019


[The following contains spoilers for The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot.]

There’s a scene in Tombstone where Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp, caught in a gunfight across a river, suddenly decides enough’s enough. He steps out from the safety of the tree line and begins marching directly to the men firing at him, bellowing “NO!” repeatedly, ending their lives one shotgun shell at a time, all while somehow escaping every single bullet fired at him. Now, did this really happen? Historians claim it did. They claim it went down exactly as depicted. But did it really? Or was it all just the stuff of legend — the exaggerated version of something less impressive but more indicative of reality? 

Braveheart burdens its dramatized character of William Wallace with a legend that grows so absurd that Mel Gibson’s character is lambasted for claiming to be him. Willingly, he mocks how outlandish his own legend has become: “[William Wallace] kills men by the hundreds. And if he were here, he’d consume the English with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse.” 

Charles Bronson’s western-comedy From Noon Till Three psychoanalyzes the idea of the western — and really the old west in general — and cleverly spins it on its axis. The word “legend” seems to have been borne out of the west; the idea of one man, or woman — one gunslinger in a sea of hundreds — achieving infamy, and being remembered above all those other nameless, anonymous faces. When Bronson’s character of Graham Dorsey absently achieves legendary status, no one believes that it’s him. His legend grew so big that the real Dorsey, by comparison, couldn’t hold a candle.

And of course there’s probably the most famous line in John Carpenter’s apocalyptic western Escape From New York, which is uttered by every character who meets Snake Plissken for the first time: “I thought you were dead” (which becomes “I thought you’d be taller” in Escape From L.A.).

The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot tells its own kind of legend. The title alone supports that approach. Its star, Sam Elliott, has done some of the best work of his career over just the last few years – and, not coincidentally, they were films in which Elliott was playing a character forced to reconcile the loss of his youth and the simmering threat of his irrelevance. First came a semi-meta drama about an aging western actor in The Hero, and then his supporting role in the cinematic juggernaut A Star Is Born, which sees both his personal and business relationships with his much younger half-brother (Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine) falling apart. With The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot, Elliott plays Calvin Barr, a former military operative from World War II who – at least according to what the film shows us – really did kill Hitler. (“I killed the man, but not the monster,” he later sadly grumbles to a pair of shadowy government agents.) Of course, when you’re dealing with a plot as outlandish as this one, you have to constantly ask yourself, “Is this really happening?” 

The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot doesn’t drop any obvious hints that the more absurd events are figments of Calvin’s imagination – the only real hint regarding this reality is how completely unbelievable these events are. Just look at the plot: an old man who once killed Hitler is asked by the government to also kill Bigfoot because it carries the plague that has the power to destroy all of mankind, and oh, FYI, Elliott is immune to this plague. In a key scene, Elliott goes to visit his barber brother (a restrained Larry Miller), who cuts his hair as the two men catch up. At one point, Elliott gets lost in his memories and jerks his head, leaving his brother to admonish him, “I could’ve cut your ear off.” Later, during the climactic battle with the film’s titular monster, Calvin does lose an ear. Now sure, we can write that off as foreshadowing. Or we can accept that Calvin is writing his own life story – one that imagines him to be a legendary hero, and one so legendary that the world isn’t allowed to know.  And it should be absolutely noted that if Calvin’s journeys are nothing more than fantasy, consider the implications he presents when he shows regret over successfully killing Hitler, but not the hateful philosophies still practiced in his name. Even in Calvin’s mind where he is the sole author, and can create any version of himself, he still takes such a wild concept and spins it into a failure, suggesting that he will never be as legendary as he wants to believe because he hasn’t earned it. 

It should come as no surprise that Elliott is great, managing to take such a wild concept for a film and driving it toward some kind of poignancy. His monologue to the government agents about killing “the man but not the monster” and his subsequent escape from Germany is helplessly transfixing, and there are very few actors alive who could have delivered such a subtly emotional moment about something so ludicrous while also selling it to the audience. Whether or not he’s telling the truth, he believes it -- that’s his truth – and The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot knows it can use Elliott to sell its audience almost anything. Elliott has always had that ability. Even his appearance in The Big Lebowski plays on this, casting him as a mysterious cowboy who serves as the film’s de facto narrator – someone with an omniscient and objective view of the world. His Southern drawl makes him exotic. His career playing cowboys and tough guys has made him formidable. His intense voice and effortless swagger has made him cool. And his recent journey into geriatric drama has made him poignant. We believe in Calvin Barr because Elliott makes it so easy. 

We’ve seen this kind of concept before in film – the sad, broken-down, isolated protagonist re-envisioning his or her own life as something far more impressive and implicative than their reality, from Taxi Driver to The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. Perhaps The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot wants to do the very same, allowing its hero to make peace with a past that includes a doomed romance and a despondent relationship with his brother by creating a version of Calvin Barr who quite literally changed the world. Or, perhaps, everything the film presents to you happened in its own reality. On the merits of the film alone, we’ll never know, but we’ll wonder. We’ll dissect the narrative. We’ll divvy what was real, what was exaggerated, and what was completely fiction. Only then will it become legend. 

[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]

Apr 13, 2019


Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is one of Shout! Factory’s recent quieter releases and comes courtesy of their partnership with GKIDS, a distributor of animated indie features. Despite their name and the animated nature of their acquisitions, GKIDS don’t distribute your typical animated kids films. Their past releases, such as The Girl Without Hands, have been of a dark nature, and sometimes even disturbing. GKIDS’ daringness to release films that are challenging and bleak, but which seem to be geared toward younger audiences, comes to a fever pitch with Birdboy, an extremely dark tale that includes drug abuse and addiction, terminal and mental illness, depression, and suicide, all playing out between warring animals who engage in bloody and violent warfare. (You know, for kids!) Maybe I’m just not understanding GKIDS’ mission statement. Maybe the “kids” part of GKIDS stands for something else. But Birdboy, though it’s an excellent and eerie animated horror/fantasy/drama, is not for kids — not unless you want to scar them at a young age. My age is somewhere between 33 and Skeleton, and there were moments where even I was unnerved, or disturbed, or saddened. (Pretty sure one of the more angry adolescent characters drops the fuck bomb at some point, and not too long after a dog humps his owner’s leg and reveals his big red dog boner.)

The animation is beautiful and there’s an inherent sadness which drapes over every frame, and I’m not talking about the occasional Pixar sadness, but a more powerful one that goes for the throat and doesn’t let up. Tonally it’s similar to the animated adaptation of Watership Down, while stylistically there’s a slight Burtonesque look and feel that should appeal to those who prefer their art a little darker a la The Nightmare Before Christmas. (The titular character even has a slight Slenderman appearance, complete with large black expressionless eyes and a plain black suit.)

The synopsis refers to Birdboy: The Forgotten Children as “darkly comic,” and while there are moments of levity, they are very few and far between. I can’t promise that anyone will have a good time watching it, but it’s a dark and affecting tale which pretty much accentuates the sadness and complications of childhood and presents the pretty blunt statement that some children are doomed — in one way or another.