Dec 31, 2019

NEW YEAR'S WATCHING: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (2005)


Remakes of John Carpenter’s films so far haven’t really yielded anything considered a total success in that they were both critically and commercially successful. Even though Rob Zombie’s awful Halloween remake somehow has its defenders, the 2005 remake of The Fog is universally derided, and rightfully so (though both made obscene money at the box office). Meanwhile, the maiden voyage of the Carpenter remake trend was 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13, directed by French filmmaker Jean-François Richet (the similarly underrated Blood Father with Mel Gibson) and boasting a pretty excellent cast of Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne, Brian Dennehy, Maria Bello, Drea de Matteo, John Leguizamo, and lots more recognizable faces. It came and left theaters quickly, doing moderately well with critics, who apparently were the only ones who saw the thing, which is a shame, because—remake of a beloved cult film or not—it’s pretty damn entertaining.


Like any good remake should do, Assault on Precinct 13 takes the basic concept of the original, maintaining the setting, the characters, and the siege-like component, and throws it all into a blender along with some shake-ups to the story. This time, instead of gang members descending on a decommissioned police precinct, it’s a horde of corrupt cops trying to assassinate gang leader Marion Bishop (Fishburne), who has done his fair share of dirty dealings with those cops and has the power to put them away for good—if he survives New Year’s Eve and testifies against them in court. (Bishop was the name of the hero in the original, played by Austin Stoker; though Fishburne steps into the villain role, it’s without the name “Napoleon Wilson,” which I guess didn’t sound as bad-ass thirty years later.)  Naturally, once the corrupt cops descend on the police station, which lacks any kind of communication lines since the place is no longer “on duty,” and with a blinding New Year’s Eve snowstorm isolating them even further, the precinct’s cops and crooks must band together if they want to survive the night.

The screenplay was handled by James DeMonaco, who had just written the very successful hostage thriller The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and then-beloved Kevin Spacey. Interestingly, DeMonaco would become a force ten years later in Hollywood alongside Blumhouse by writing and directing the Purge series, which DeMonaco had said from the very beginning was inspired by Carpenter and his penchant for siege and anti-order films. Obviously, the original Assault on Precinct 13 was a very low budget affair bordering on grindhouse cinema, made by an unknown and untested director (who in typical Carpenter style also wrote, edited, and scored the film) and starred a cast of unknown or obscure actors. Meanwhile, 2005’s remake is big, glossy, and made with as much spectacle as director Richet can get away with while remaining faithful to the claustrophobic setting. Carpenter has admitted over the years that the original Assault on Precinct 13 was a loose remake/combination of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, referring to it nearly as a zombie movie, and the redux maintains that same kind of claustrophobic environment where hope for rescue dwindles by the hour.


Appropriately, Richet and DeMonaco are very aware of Carpenter’s overall career as a horror director, even though he’d wandered away from that genre several times to make action-thrillers (Escape from New York), comedies (Memoirs of an Invisible Man), dramas (Elvis), and, as Carpenter likes to put it, “girly movies” (Starman). Because of this, even though this Assault on Precinct 13 is still well within the action-thriller genre, it unfolds almost like a slasher movie, in that several members of its ensemble cast are picked off one by one in violent ways, with many of them not being characters (or actors) you’d ever expect to see bite the big one.  

Ethan Hawke jumps from genre to genre as well, never hanging his hat too long in any one place, though he seldom played the role of action hero even in his youth. Besides the terrible Getaway and the obscure but decent 24 Hours to LiveAssault on Precinct 13 sees Hawke in a rare full-on popcorn action role and you can tell he’s having fun with material that doesn’t require as much psychological pathos as the parts he ordinarily likes to play. (He was phenomenal in last year’s First Reformed, for example.)  Like the geekiest of directors, Hawke respects and enjoys different kinds of films, and he puts in a laudable amount of effort to make his character of Sgt. Jake Roenick more than just your typical apprehensive hero.  As for Fishburne as the “bad guy,” well, as most actors will tell you, it’s always much more fun to play the villain, and he knows it, and he does it well. Fishburne’s intensity and swagger has always cast an intimidating pallor over many of his roles, even when playing the good guy, so it’s not exactly necessary to suspend disbelief when seeing him in this kind of role. 


Carpenter has been sly over the years when asked for his opinions on remakes of his films, saying that though the remakes were based on his movies, those remakes belong to other filmmakers and it wouldn’t be his place to comment. (Me thinks this was mostly his way of having to avoid publicly calling Rob Zombie’s Halloween a piece of shit considering they were friends, even though he basically did that very same thing later on.) Still, Carpenter had kind things to say about Assault on Precinct 13, saying in an interview, “I thought it was terrific. I thought the cast was sensational. I just loved it.” 

He’s not the only one.

Dec 30, 2019

HÄXAN (1922)


Generally, when it comes to genre films from the earliest part of the 20th century, two films often come into the conversation: 1920’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (an all-time favorite) and 1922’s Nosferatu. Given the era, both are silent, black and white, and hail from Germany. Also released during this time, and not too far away, is 1922’s Häxan (meaning The Witches), which hails from nearby Sweden. Though all three films have a lot in common, Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari get much of the credit for invigorating the horror genre and film in general; meanwhile, Häxan never got as much love and exposure, which is a shame because it shows just as much ingenuity and creativity—if not more so—but also tells its story in a more provocative and less typical manner. 


Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, Häxan is broken up into chapters, of sorts, and lives up to its often-used subtitle, Witchcraft through the Ages. Instead of telling a linear plot, Häxan explores different eras and aspects of witchcraft through what could be described as visual essays, relying on incredibly creative on-set special effects and in-camera illusions (as to be expected, being that Häxan  is nearly 100 hundred years old). Though largely a documentary, Häxan presents as a horror-tinged docu-drama with actors standing in to represent various character archetypes who loomed large in the different aspects of witchcraft, magic, and the so-called black arts, which, naturally, were blamed on the influence of the devil (who appears, and is played by director Christensen).

In many ways, Häxan’s approach is relevant even today, in that the film looks at real-life maladies like mental illness, which throughout time was blamed on witchcraft, and warns that misinterpretation, ignorance, and even fear of these issues have the potential to lead down the wrong path. Unfortunately we’re still dealing with this even in our so-called civilized, technologically advanced modern era, in that people with real mental illness are supposed to just “get over it,” or be treated like social pariahs instead of trying to put more effort into what it is, why it is, and what can be done to help.


Häxan is broken up into four parts, each exploring different aspects of mysticism and presenting them in distinct ways. The first part plays almost like a slideshow at a museum, showing different artist creations in the form of paintings and woodcuttings that depict man’s fear of the devil, hell, and his so-called concubines on earth. By the end of the fourth part, Häxan nearly becomes a narrative, following the experiences of inmates at a mental institution, whose barbaric treatment by hospital personnel draw very specific and purposeful parallels to how people (mainly women) were treated during the medieval era once they were accused of witchery. 

Though Häxan evolves as a film over its running time, the finger it points at the problem remains firm and steadfast, blaming, above all, ignorance as the main culprit in how poorly man has treated man since the beginning of recorded history. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s assured, confident, and well made; as a documentary, it’s interesting, insightful, and eye-opening; but as a social piece that reflects the time in which it was made, it’s bleak and even a little depressing, because while it was meant to serve as a warning to future generations to increase their understanding, it instead serves as a reminder of our reality, in that we’re just as ignorant as we ever were—just that our ignorance has since changed forms. 


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Dec 28, 2019

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (2019)


One of the most consistent complaints I’ve seen regarding Rambo: Last Blood, the newest entry in Sylvester Stallone’s long-running Rambo series, was that it “didn’t feel like a Rambo” movie, and in the most superficial of ways, I would agree. Stallone’s shaggy hair is long gone and it feels odd to see him lording over a home that he’d spent the previous 40 years feeling that he could never go back to. Beyond that, though, the claims of Rambo: Last Blood feeling like an outlier is, to be blunt, a misguided outlook. Thanks to pop culture, when you say the name “Rambo,” it conjures certain images that come not from 1982’s First Blood, the legitimately great original where John Rambo kills ZERO people, but the increasingly goofy sequels that veered further and further away from the whole point of the character, which was created to embody the horrors of war-caused PTSD and to highlight the distrustful, aggressive society Vietnam War soldiers came home to. Appropriately, even the naming convention of all the sequels seemed to mirror what the sequels were doing. 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II tried to maintain some of the pathos from the original, personified by Stallone’s steely question, “Do we get to win this time?” 1988’s Rambo III drops the “First Blood” portion of the title altogether because, by then, all pathos and subtext was gone in favor of your generic ‘80s action movie that was most certainly a direct response to 1985’s massively successful Commando. And then came 2008’s Rambo, just one of many long-delayed sequels to drop all roman numerals in hopes of luring in a new generational audience who have no idea there are previous films in the franchise, while the brevity of the title also alerts franchise fans that they know exactly what they’re getting. Rambo: Last Blood is probably the most appropriately titled of the sequels, because despite what you may have heard, it’s the sequel that feels the most like First Blood, while also taking one very wide step back from it. 


As tends to happen with all “action” movie franchises, each subsequent sequel feels the need to outdo the previous one’s sheer size and spectacle until the situations become so outlandish that they take you out of the movie. Look no further than the Die Hard or Death Wish series, the latter of which was based on a film that didn’t come close to being an action movie. The Rambo franchise is a perfect example of this. No, Rambo: Last Blood doesn’t feel like the previous few Rambo flicks because the character isn’t engaging in war in some kind of militaristic capacity. He’s not in some third-world country saving POWs or well-meaning missionaries. He’s back at home in Arizona, on the Rambo family ranch, doing his best to quell his demons and focus on the only family he has left – caretakers of the ranch, Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter, Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), whom Rambo considers to be his  daughter. It’s when Gabriela becomes kidnapped by human traffickers in Mexico while trying to find her birth father that Rambo: Last Blood essentially becomes Taken mixed with a western while still falling back on John Rambo’s utter hopeless view on the goodness of man and the world at large. 

Rambo: Last Blood, actually, begins on a melancholy note, in that, though John Rambo has been trying to come home ever since the war, even when he finally did, he never really did. His PTSD still looms large, and he spends most of his time in the labyrinthine tunnels below his ranch, alongside his cache of weapons bought and made. While this could simply be a coincidence, or meant to mirror the foxholes in which he’d spent his time as a soldier in Vietnam, it could also be the most direct connective tissue with First Blood, during which he spent a large portion of the second act hiding in an underground cave because it was the only place he felt safe from the world – this along with his homage Home Alone-like booby-traps that litter the third act, and which he'd similarly crafted to use against some angry Washington State cops  almost 40 years prior. Yes, the family angle—the personal, take-revenge angle—doesn’t gel with the character of John Rambo as we know him, but it does gel with this idea that Rambo doesn’t believe the world is capable of good and isn’t worth fighting for; there’s always some kind of instance where injustice weighs heavily on his heart and he can’t not act – he can’t not react and achieve justice for those that weren’t strong enough to obtain it on their own, and who were taken hostage by the evils of the world. 


Being that this is a Rambo flick, and being that it boasts a screenplay by Stallone, it maintains the typical amount of overwrought dialogue and sensibilities audiences have come to expect from him (along with an alarming dip into xenophobia, in that, apparently, all of Mexico is a death trap and should be avoided whenever possible). As a writer, whether throughout his Rambo or Rocky series, Stallone has always been willing to write from the heart, even if he’s making a particular character say or do something corny or unrealistic. He’s always been willing to risk covering his characters in cheese so long as they were coming from a genuine place. Rambo: Last Blood is a continuing example of this philosophy, and there’s an earnest attempt to elevate the material into a drama with action elements rather than the flipside. (Unfortunately, most of this whispered, overwrought dialogue comes from his character, and Stallone’s old age has worsened his lisp to the degree that some of his lines are nearly incomprehensible.) By doing this, audiences who wanted a shirtless Rambo firing double AK-47s into enemy faces were likely disappointed, but those going in with an open mind—who remember and point to First Blood as the truest embodiment of the John Rambo character—stood a better chance of appreciating the experience. I think it’s less that Stallone no longer understands the character, but more that he understands who John Rambo has become in his twilight years. A search-and-rescue mission doesn’t necessarily jive with the Rambo aesthetic, but if John Rambo were facing that conflict head on, Rambo: Last Blood is pretty much what John Rambo would do. He is a warrior on loan to the world, stepping in wherever necessary and bringing his adept skill at taking lives along for the journey. That’s who John Rambo is.

Rambo: Last Blood had been in development since 2008’s Rambo (it currently boasts twenty-eight producers), and went through a couple different early iterations, including one really wacky plotline that saw Rambo being brought in by the U.S. military to hunt an escaped, genetically-engineered panther (this is real), which was based on the book Hunter by James Byron Huggins. (Stallone owns the movie rights and has been trying to adapt it since the mid-‘90s.) Rambo V’s production was plagued by so many false starts, at one point with Stallone saying the movie was probably never going to happen, that it seemed unlikely his version of the character would ever return. In spite of that, Rambo: Last Blood survived a critical drubbing to become the second-best opening of the series at the box office, and you know what that means… Is Rambo: Last Blood truly the last blood? Well, as Hollywood likes to say, never say never. According to Wikipedia, “Stallone has expressed interest in having Rambo take refuge in an Indian reservation for the sixth Rambo film.” If it takes another ten years to develop this sequel, it’s likely that Rambo: Last Blood will live up to its title after all. 


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Dec 26, 2019

AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING (2017)



Oh, the Amityville Horror series. How many of you are there now? Eleven? Twelve? Way more if we count all those bogus distributors legally exploiting the “Amityville” name?

And how many of you are actually “good”?

Counting the 1976 original…not a one. And Amityville: The Awakening definitely isn’t going to change that.

Amityville: The Awakening began life way back in 2011 as Amityville: The Lost Tapes, a Paranormal Activity-ish take on the most marquee-famous haunted house horror series there is. This version ultimately didn’t come together and was heavily revised; ditching the script and concept in favor of something more traditional, Maniac remake director Franck Khalfoun pretty much started from scratch. What resulted was something definitely traditional — in fact, too traditional — resulting in a very standard haunted house chiller.


Khalfoun gets absolute credit for at least introducing a novel concept into the Amtityville mythos — even if it’s a riff on the Australia ‘70s chiller Patrick — in the form of a comatose member of the family who may or may not be invaded by the evil spirits of 112 Ocean Avenue. Khalfoun also attempts to softly “reboot” the Amityville name by acknowledging the existence of The Amityville Horror franchise as simply that — DVDs for a handful of the original films (and the remake, which “sucks”) make cameos — and this feels clever and necessary for about two seconds until you realize that Amityville: The Awakening is going to hit all the same beats those previous films did, anyway, right down to how the original and the remake conclude.

Four years ago, the concept of Blumhouse and Jennifer Jason Leigh collaborating on a micro-budget take on The Amityville Horror would have been a cause for excitement, but the finished product lacks the ingenuity and eye for creative talent that Blumhouse has brought to previous productions. And poor Jennifer Jason Leigh is totally wasted in the “mom” role (and you can tell she’s not into it), while real lead Bella Thorne’s atrocious acting only moderately improves when she’s walking around her creepy old house with no pants on, or doing her biology homework with no pants on, or putting her baby sister to bed with no pants on. (And for the nth time in movies like this, her character is a pariah at school and referred to as “freaky girl,” even though Thorne is absolutely gorgeous.)

Moments meant to spur horror are instead hilariously over the top and only effective in causing bursts of laughter — the film gets its creepiest mileage by having Cameron Monaghan, who plays the comatose veggie, lay in a hospital bed with his creepy unblinking eyes wide open and staring. Following all the DOA jump scares, snippets of profanity-spewing demons, and wondering what on earth Kurtwood Smith is doing here, you, too, will want to put this Amityville house back on the market as soon as possible.


Dec 24, 2019

BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)


My first encounter with Black Christmas was under the wrong circumstances. After having gone through a slam-viewing of My Bloody Valentine, Don’t Open Till Christmas, and Happy Birthday to Me, I ventured into Black Christmas expecting more of the same — entertaining murder sequences, silly killer and character motivations, and that late ’70s/’80s sense of fun that seemed to be missing from more modern horror.

That didn’t happen.

As Black Christmas played on, I continued to anticipate schlock to hit the screen, but all this goodkept getting in the way. Instead of exaggerated characters and head-fall-off murders, I kept getting subtle, eerie, and even disturbing scenes, one after the other — and, when mixed together, they were forming something…yeah, good. Great even. I expected coal and instead I got a bonafide present.

Merry Christmas!


From the director of A Christmas Story and Porky’s comes an unlikely and effective horror film made by a director whom one would assume had spent his entire career working in the horror genre. But he was a director who worked in only two genres, horror and comedy, and that makes sense when you realize that the two are more alike than they are different — mostly because they both live and die by their sense of timing.

Black Christmas is more of an Agatha Christie mystery filtered through the sensibilities of a slasher than something more traditional (even though the slasher as a concept was still in its infancy at that time).  The murders are there, of course, and they’re certainly grisly, but a lot of emphasis is made on the who of it all. Who is this person who continues to call and sexually harass the girls, saying the most awful things, but while also referring to himself in the third person as Billy? Added to that is an almost supernatural sense to his presence, in that Billy seems to be having entire conversations with more than one person on his end of the phone — so much that they manage to overlap each other Exorcist style.

Above all, Black Christmas is eerie across the board — from the opening titles set to “Silent Night” to the disturbing phone calls to the unsettling murder sequences. A dead girl with a bag tied to her face sitting unseen behind an attic window is still one of the eeriest images ever birthed from the genre, and this in a low budget slasher that recently turned 40 years old.


For years an urban legend about Black Christmas has circulated the net involving its much more famous slasher sister, Halloween. The legend suggests that Bob Clark and John Carpenter knew each other personally, and had even begun collaborating on a possible project together that Carpenter would write and Clark would direct — a Black Christmas sequel, which saw Billy escaping from a mental institution and wreaking havoc in a small suburban town. Allegedly this collaboration fell apart, yada yada yada, and then Carpenter made Halloween. Mind you, this legend wasn’t chatter on IMDB message boards, but was being perpetuated by Clark himself. Carpenter has gone on record for years refuting this story, stating that conversations with Clark in any kind of professional or collaborating manner never happened, even later describing Black Christmas as “how not to make a horror movie.”

While Halloween being Black Christmas 2 is a dubious claim to begin with, especially when you take into consideration that Carpenter was actually provided for the basic story details for Halloween by its eventual producer Irwin Yablans, the similarities between the two films can’t be dismissed. The unseen killer stalking a group of teenagers on a major holiday is enough to get us started, but even the films share a similar opening sequence — from the point of view of the killer, the audience, seeing through his eyes, creeps around a house looking through windows before entering, unseen, to commit a grisly murder. (The optimistic way to come away from all this second-guessing is that we’ve got not just one but two holiday-themed horror classics to enjoy over and over, so let’s maybe move on.)


Black Christmas isn’t obvious programming for the holiday season — not just because young people being picked off one by one seems like an odd choice for celebrating Santa’s coming — but because of the deeply disturbing undertones about the killer’s history which suggests familial physical and possibly sexual abuse, which has left him with a damaged psyche and severe issues with the opposite sex. But, subject matter aside, Black Christmas is a very well made and eerie little horror number with an undeniably wintry aesthetic. (Thanks, Canada!) During the Christmas season, some households put on Clark’s own 24 hours of A Christmas Story or throw in their DVDs of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (or Die Hard!), but for the more…adventurous of us, Black Christmas feels right at home. Take note, however, that along with its jolly-less tone, Black Christmas isn’t a very pretty looking production. Low budget and not particularly colorful, the film is dark and dour, taking place mostly at night in dim interiors. If you're the type to wander around the house depressed on Christmas, like me, Black Christmas will suit your festivities just fine.

Cinephiles and genre buffs who enjoy counter-programming come the holiday probably have a whole list of Christmas-themed horror that gets frequent yearly play. For me, Black Christmas is one that gets a heavy rotation in my house during those yuletide months. (Because yes, in America, Christmas lasts from end of October to mid-January.) And it’s not just because Black Christmas is holiday-themed, but because it’s a tremendous and sometimes overlooked horror classic that never loses its ability to unnerve. How a static shot of a house set to a traditional recording of a choir singing “Silent Night” can be effortlessly eerie is — much like the unseen killer — a complete mystery, but Bob Clark managed to fill Black Christmas with little moments like this, giving it an undeniable ability to set its audience at unease. 


Dec 23, 2019

SHIT LOG


All you need to know is that everything below is real.

From Wiki:


Tió de Nadal
The Tió de Nadal (meaning in English "Christmas Log"), also known simply as Tió or Soca ("Trunk" or "Log", a big piece of cut wood) or Tronca ("Log"), is a character in Catalan mythology relating to a Christmas tradition widespread in Catalonia and some regions of Aragon. A similar tradition exists in other places, such as the Cachafuòc or Soc de Nadal in Occitania. In Aragon it is also called Tizón de Nadal or Toza.


Christmas Logs
The form of the Tió de Nadal found in many Aragonese and Catalan homes during the holiday season is a hollow log about thirty centimetres long. Recently, the Tió has come to stand up on two or four stick legs with a broad smiling face painted on its higher end, enhanced by a little red sock hat (a miniature of the traditional barretina) and often a three-dimensional nose. Those accessories have been added only in recent times, altering the more traditional and rough natural appearance of a dead piece of wood.

Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), one gives the tió a little bit to "eat" every night and usually covers him with a blanket so that he will not be cold. The story goes that in the days preceding Christmas, children must take good care of the log, keeping it warm and feeding it, so that it will defecate presents on Christmas Day or Eve. 

On Christmas Day or, in some households, on Christmas Eve, one puts the tió partly into the fireplace and orders it to defecate. The fire part of this tradition is no longer as widespread as it once was, since many modern homes do not have a fireplace. To make it defecate, one beats the tió with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal.

The tradition says that before beating the tió all the kids have to leave the room and go to another place of the house to pray, asking for the tió to deliver a lot of presents. Nowadays, the praying tradition has been left behind. Still, children go to a different room, usually the kitchen, to warm their stick next to a fire. This makes the perfect excuse for the relatives to do the trick and put the presents under the blanket while the kids are praying or warming their sticks.

The tió does not drop larger objects, as those are considered to be brought by the Three Wise Men. It does leave candies, nuts and torrons, and small toys. Depending on the region of Catalonia, it may also give out dried figs. What comes out of the Tió is a communal rather than individual gift, shared by everyone there.

The tió is often popularly called Caga tió ("shitting log", "poo log"). This derives from the many songs of Tió de Nadal that begin with this phrase, which was originally (in the context of the songs) an imperative ("Shit, log!"). The use of this expression as a name is not believed to be part of the ancient tradition.

Beating the Tió de Nadal
A song is sung during this celebration. After hitting the tió softly with a stick during the song, it is hit harder on the words Caga tió! Then somebody puts their hand under the blanket and takes a gift. The gift is opened and then the song begins again. There are many different songs; the following are some examples.

"Caga tió,
caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
caga tió!"

Translation:

shit, log,
shit nougats (turrón),
hazelnuts and mató cheese,
if you don't shit well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
shit, log!

Dec 21, 2019

RED CHRISTMAS (2016)


Red Christmas, right off the bat, is intent on establishing that it’s not going to be like other holiday-themed slashers that have come before. It’s not the fun, spook show experience that Halloween perfected, and it’s certainly not the no-brained, silly affair like Silent Night, Deadly Night. More closely aligned with Black Christmas in terms of mood and bleakness, but absolutely still inspired by the ‘80s slasher movement based on the graphic and icky murder sequences, Red Christmas cannot be easily categorized. Any horror film that opens within an abortion clinic in the midst of an attack from Christian fundamentalists in which a fetus thought aborted is tossed in a bucket and kicked in a corner, only to reach up a tiny bloody hand to signify that it still lives, isn’t looking to entertain its audience with LOLs.

Despite setting what is essentially slasher film on a holiday and giving it a typically ironic title, Red Christmas is actually based on a pretty original premise, and stocked with characters you wouldn’t necessarily see in a film like this: one of the siblings is pregnant, another is adopted, another is very buttoned-up and married to a priest, and one has down syndrome. And what a fine dysfunctional family they make. But holding it together is America’s favorite genre mother, Dee Wallace, most famous for Momming it in E.T., Cujo, Critters, The Hills Have Eyes, and… Rob Zombie’s Halloween (boo-hiss). Enjoying the rare leading role, Wallace embraces the lunatic concept of Red Christmas to maximum effect, earning the audience’s sympathy not just because of her awful, squabbling family, but because of the past that comes back to haunt her.


Red Christmas can be fun at times, but deeply upsetting at others, and so many taboos are broken that it’s easy to wonder how anyone with a conscious could enjoy the film at all. And while Red Christmas is hard to watch, it oddly satisfies in that way only an ‘80s slasher could, while also going for the jugular a bit more feverishly.

Writer/director Craig Anderson’s Suspiria-inspired lighting scheme dazzles and adds to the uniqueness of Red Christmas, bathing several environments in red and green, giving it both your typical holiday look but also making everything feel off and unsettling.

Red Christmas has flaws, to be sure, but its daringness to break taboos and to be utterly bleak by its end make up for them. It has brains (for once), heart (though it wants to break yours), and it certainly has spirit. It’s one of the most unique horror films of the year, but one that’s also a tough watch. Be sure that you’re ready.

Know before going in that Red Christmas might show a familiar face and a well-worn concept, but it’s not your typical slasher flick. Much more intent on upsetting rather than amusing, Red Christmas is definitely what a horror film should be: unique, uncomfortable, and at times difficult to watch. 

Dec 18, 2019

BETTER WATCH OUT (2016)


Better Watch Out is a surprise in more way than one — not just how it flips the script on a pretty standard concept, but also how smart and quirky the film itself is executed. Playing out almost like a twisted take on Home Alone, a group of kids at opposite ends of the teenage spectrum find themselves in a grim and deadly situation one night during what was supposed to be a quiet and calm babysitting gig. It’s difficult to review a film that depends highly on a major twist that comes fairly early; in the interest of preserving that twist, I’m going to keep it vague and short.

In a film mainly cast with young actors (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen, the stock parents, are fleshed out enough to feel like actual characters, although they only bookend the first and last ten minutes), all the performances are excellent — each knows his or her own role and plays it extremely well. Levi Miller, especially, shows a tremendous amount of range for a young actor, and Dacre Montgomery (Billy in Stranger Things 2 & 3) gets a lot of mileage from playing your typical teen-boy asshole, and this in a reduced role.


Better Watch Out plays more like a horror/comedy rather than out-and-out horror, but not in a broad kind of way. Hewing closer to a dark tone as compared to something like, say, Krampus, Better Watch Out has a very sly and sneaky sense of humor — one far more subtle. Basically, if you’re taking Better Watch Out 100% seriously, you’re doing it wrong. It also gets some satirical mileage from its environment. The entirety of the film, except for a handful of exteriors, take place in the warm inviting home of young Luke, filled with bright colors, Christmas twinkly things, and other finery that upper-class people love. Then it gets covered in blood and murder and it's very holly jolly.

If you want violence and grue, you Better Watch Out ha ha puns. But seriously, gorehounds should be reasonably satisfied. Limbs don’t go flying, but within the confines of the home invasion sub-genre, what’s on display is perfectly reasonable. Some gags are left up to the imagination, but still manage to pack a mean punch anyway.

If you’re at all curious, see Better Watch Out before social media ruins the twist (and if there’s anything social media does, it’s ruin pretty much everything — twists included). Much — but not all — of your enjoyment rides on going in as fresh as possible.

Dec 15, 2019

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) & SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 2 (1987)


Silent Night, Deadly Night is an unremarkable, yet fun and unapologetically gimmicky slasher movie whose late-1980s presence at theaters was very brief; lame parents with lame ideals protested the movie’s depiction of a killer Santa offing “naughty” people and had the movie successfully banned from all theaters. For a long time, Silent Night, Deadly Night was a mirage until it was released on VHS years later and became a cult favorite. The flick isn’t groundbreaking in any way, and compared to today’s standards, where we’re able to see testicles ripped off a man and fed to wild dogs in theatrical films preceded by commercials for Fanta, the idea of a man in a Santa costume offing people doesn’t just pale in comparison—it’s become its own punchline. During the time it was released, and for several years after, Silent Night, Deadly Night was more well known for the controversy it caused in featuring a killer Santa Claus than by its substance as a reasonably well made slasher movie. Over the years, it’s been whispered about in the same breath as other post-Halloween holiday-exploiting slashers like My Bloody Valentine and April Fools Day –– which are fun and well made in their own right — but it’s not really deserving of their company. For genre fans who aren’t necessarily slasher fans, I can picture them turning down their noses at such an odd declaration and shutting it down with “but all slashers are the same.”

Not remotely true.

To be fair, Silent Night, Deadly Night offers the viewer a fairly standard slasher experience, and on paper, it offers a typically hokey premise: a young boy named Billy witnesses the death of his parents at the hands of someone dressed like Santa Claus and he loses his mind, eventually donning the garb himself as an adult and wrecking the halls with an ax. But there’s an inherent sleaze in Silent Night, Deadly Night that threatens to diminish its overall fun tone (and it is fun, don’t get me wrong), which gives it kind of an icky feeling. John Carpenter once “sincerely apologized” for inadvertently creating the trope that sexual active teens in horror films are the first to go, and Silent Night, Deadly Night seems to be the most directly inspired by that concept. The Santa assault against Billy’s mother, which revealed her glory to his young eyes, remained ingrained in him just as much as the imagery of Santa itself. That he spies sexual trysts several times throughout Silent Night, Deadly Night and mutters “punish!” or “naughty!” to himself seems to be a direct response to that Carpenter trope.


But hey, this is Silent Night, Deadly Night — we’re only here for effective murder scenes and a reasonably engaging plot, and we definitely get both. There are additional and unexpected touches that also offer something a bit out of the norm in this subgenre — consider the pre-Santa massacre opening scene where the family visits Billy’s deranged grandfather in a convalescent home where he somehow has the foresight to warn young Billy that Santa Claus is evil and Christmas Eve is the “scariest damned night of the year.” This makes absolutely no sense and is way too convenient; it only exists to arbitrarily manufacture foreshadowing, but something about it still manages to establish a bit of an edge.

Silent Night, Deadly Night would somehow go on to birth a franchise, which maintains one linear story line until its forth entry, after which the series enjoys a series of very different one-off adventures. (The fifth entry stars Mickey Rooney!)  As a member of the holiday-slasher ’80s craze, it’s mid- to upper-level B team, which is fine. It’s entertaining enough to justify existing, and when you’ve got a headless body sledding down a hill followed by its bouncing, rolling head, well, I guess I can’t be too hard on it.


A few years down the road, folks decided that Silent Night, Deadly Night—the movie that no one saw—needed a sequel, anyway. And with an entire first film from which to haphazardly pluck footage, a lazy and monotonous wrap-around story was written so audiences could see the original movie that disappeared from theaters, but in a new way.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (longer examination here) is absurd in every way, from its Frankensteinian presentation to an exercise in how to make a tone-deaf horror film whose new footage is completely unlike the older footage it’s desperately depending on to help tell its story, all while not looking to it for any kind of guidance on how the new portions should feel. It's as if the cult horror film spoof Silence of the Hams was actually a sequel to Silence of the Lambs and borrowed footage from the famed horror thriller to piggyback off and make an entirely new movie. Silent Night, Deadly Night is silly, sure, but it was trying to be visceral. Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 knows right off the bat that it’s dumb and doesn’t try to hide it. Every single moment of Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 could be capped and turned into a gif or a meme (or both). This sequel's killer is Ricky (Eric Freeman), Billy's brother, who is apparently cut from the same Santa cloth and dons his own holly jolly murder outfit to commit murders...at the end of the movie, anyway. Up until then, he's just...some guy. Killing people. It's weird and inconsistent, but Freeman's performance is astounding terrible. His eyebrows do all the acting, and every single line-reading from his mouth sounds like he’s saying his dialogue out of spite instead of menace. It’s truly a thing to behold.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 is a silly good time, and has a nice little body count for slasher flick aficionados. It’s not taking things nearly as seriously as its predecessor, but it’s also not out-and-out going for humor, either; it exists in a weird no-man’s-land where the film it’s following is its own kind of silly, but which isn’t nearly as silly as its sequel that is wholly incomplete without that old footage. It’s an odd way to construct a sequel, but it is unique — I have to give it that.



Dec 14, 2019

THE GAME IS FINISHED: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE 'PHANTASM' SERIES (1979-2017)

The below is an archival piece that was originally published on Cut Print Film in 2016, parts of which have since been excerpted in author Dustin McNeill's book, Further Exhumed: The Strange Case of Phantasm: Ravager, the sequel to Phantasm Exhumed: The Unauthorized Companion. It has since been slightly updated, and concludes with a full review on the article's mooted Phantasm: Ravager.



[Contains spoilers for the Phantasm series. Run!]

“Seeing is easy. Understanding… that takes a little more time.”
— Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead 


Since 1979, the Phantasm series has been both entertaining and baffling the brave and dedicated few willing to traverse its bumpy path of seemingly plothole-infested mythos and attempt to comprehend its bizarre storytelling. The original Phantasm, released at the height of the ’70s, came out of nowhere. Along with Phantasm, the decade had blessed horror-loving audiences with its most important additions since the Universal monsters of the 1930s: The Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, JAWS, Carrie, The Omen, Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, and Alien. There’s a reason why this decade is looked upon as the greatest for horror cinema: classics were born, and eventual franchises were in their infancy. The listed films boast more than fifty sequels, remakes, and television series, and to list the countless “homages” (read: rip offs) that would soon follow is nearly impossible.

However, as groundbreaking as each of these films may have been, each was linear, told in a traditional narrative, and except for Suspiria, were mostly decipherable. In a scenario that would soon become paramount to the horror genre, the films’ antagonists were clearly defined—be it flesh-and-blood monsters, undead, or from hell itself—and the conflicts, though greatly varied, unfolded in a straightforward fashion:

Michael Myers kills his sister one Halloween night for no particular reason. Fifteen years later, he returns home to kill again.

Carrie White, a social outcast at both school and home, begins to develop telekinetic powers in conjunction with her maturing sexuality.

The Sawyers, a family of inbred psychopaths, are economically hurt by the dismantling of their only means of support—the local slaughterhouse—so they turn to the next most viable source of food: human flesh.

To our protagonists who either eluded or subjugated their respective boogeymen, their confrontations seemed culled from their darkest nightmares...but did the films themselves feel like a nightmare? Were they filled with surreal images and out-there concepts? Did characters flee strange mechanical objects with lives of their own? Did they encounter otherworldly biological entities capable of changing physical form? Nope—not till 1979.


To the religious, the events of The Exorcist or The Omen aren’t unbelievable. To the Darwinian, the events of JAWS or Carrie could possibly happen. And let’s face it: if we’re playing fast and loose with history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre already happened, while The Last House on the Left happens every day, in one form or another. But Phantasm was a strange journey for anyone watching, and it was unlike anything else the world had ever seen. Oh, sure, by this time, David Lynch’s Eraserhead was already two years old and had caused its audience to murmur “what the fuck?” on their way out of the theater, but unlike Eraserhead, Phantasm wasn’t cavorting as an art picture. Trailers sold it as some goofy B-movie about a killer mortician: young adults were stabbed in cemeteries, sex was had, breasts were flashed, and the young hero of the story was routinely dismissed by those around him. They were familiar tropes in familiar surroundings. To judge it from its marketing alone, it was just another “dead teenager” flick. Phantasm wasn’t supposed to be as surreal as it was…it had no right.

But it was. After gaining distribution by Avco Embassy, Phantasm would go on to gross $12 million ($43 million when adjusted for inflation) on its budget of $300,000. And these paying audiences were simply not prepared for the strange story unfurling before them.

Solidifying Phantasm’s individuality is its bizarre blending of genres: straight-up supernatural horror peppered with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and bits of slasher. The hero is not an older man, distinguished with a PhD, nor a Roman Catholic priest armed with a briefcase of holy waters, religious texts, and his faith. The hero is thirteen-year-old Mike Pearson, mourning his recently deceased parents and living with his older brother, Jody. Precocious to the point of recklessness, he speeds on his motorbike across cemetery grounds or wanders through the main street of his town checking payphones for lost change...but he also investigates grave-robbing dwarves, mindless mortuary slaves, cut-off fingers that morph into monstrous insects, and self-driving hearses. And he does so because of what he sees one day while spying on a funeral for the film’s opening victim: the mortician—a very Tall Man—picking up the departed’s coffin by himself and sliding it easily back into the hearse before driving off with it. Understandably, Mike is perplexed, and he knows he’s got to find out everything he can about the owner/operator of Morningside Cemetery.


Phantasm then mushrooms into a wonderful cacophony of late-night escapades bathed in the dreamlike imagery by a young and unproven but inexplicably masterful Don Coscarelli. Over the course of two production years, an epic three-hour tale of good versus evil was completed, which was then pared down into the ninety-minute cut that lives today and which is mostly responsible for giving the film its strength. Scenes aren’t so much seamlessly attached with graceful fluidity as they are hastily stapled together, with a continuity-be-damned aesthetic accidentally achieved but entirely appropriate. Such juxtaposition would be jarring and distracting for your more traditional horror romp, but it felt right at home within the dreamy confines of Phantasm, where by design everything felt just the least bit…off. Random characters are introduced, such as Jody’s friend, Toby, or Myrtle, the Pearson house keeper, never to be seen again. Any sense of a physical timeline is nearly incomprehensible. Day becomes night becomes day, while offering no concrete idea as to how much time is passing. Such observations would be considered flaws in a film with a more traditional construct, and perhaps Phantasm itself is flawed for these same reasons, but it’s through these imperfections that the film embraces perfection.

As Mike dives deeper and deeper into the Morningside mystery, he learns some disturbing facts about the Tall Man: he might very well be an alien from another planet, or a demon from another dimension. The brown-robed dwarves often seen scurrying around the marble floors of the mortuary are his pint-sized slaves—corpses harvested from the cemetery and mausoleum. And don’t forget the silver sphere, equipped with an array of knives and drills, which patrols the halls of the mortuary with a reverberating hum—an image that would soon become synonymous with the Phantasm series.


Largely a parable about death, Phantasm presents a fascinating character study of an adolescent stunted by his overnight transformation from child to adult in the wake of parental demise. Forced to become a man based on sheer necessity, Mike has no choice but to investigate all the creepy goings-on at Morningside Cemetery by himself, much in the same way he has no choice but to, going forward, navigate a life lacking parental guidance—and both for the same reason: because except for his older brother, who is ready to blow town at a moment’s notice, Mike has essentially become orphaned during the most formative years of his young life. Such a presentation of a tragic figure is engaging and saddening in equal measures, and in the same way Ray Bradbury had the ability to convey intangible but detectable sadness obscured by clouds of nostalgia, Coscarelli writes and shoots Phantasm through the eyes of a young boy who on the surface is brave, forthright, and resourceful, but who on the inside is heartbroken over the death of his parents and terrified that he’s going to wake up one morning and find that his brother has abandoned him. If you sit down with an auditory eye and look beyond Phantasm’s more typical horror front, you’ll notice that the film is constructed by sequences in which the two brothers repeatedly separate: Mike leaves Jody to investigate; Jody leaves Mike to investigate; Jody locks Mike in his room; Jody drops off Mike at a friend’s antique store—and after every single time the brothers aren’t together, something awful happens. That right there is the heart of Phantasm: the fear of letting go.

Even with these thematics aside, this approach also allows Phantasm to show off some refreshingly antiquated political incorrectness, depicting a thirteen-year-old as swigging beer, driving muscle cars, shooting guns, building makeshift explosives, and cursing up a storm. (Speaking of political incorrectness, one of the most memorable lines in the film belongs to Jody, who dismisses all the strange noises Mike hears in the garage one night as he works on the undercarriage of the series’ legendary Hemi Barracuda as being “that retarded kid Timmy up the street.” Put this in any modern film and you’ll be issuing apology press releases long after it stops trending on Twitter.) What seems like a minor point to include in the midst of a discussion on thematics is actually fairly significant, as it somewhat summarizes the legacy of the Phantasm series in general: they just don’t make ’em like this anymore, and it’s getting harder and harder to do so.


Immediately following the alleged resolution of the story, in which the Pearson brothers trap the Tall Man in an abandoned mine with a multitude of heavy boulders, the film ends with a revelation that would soon become a storytelling cliché:

It was all just a dream.

Mike and Reggie, Pearson family friend, sit by the fireplace as Mike recounts this dream (aka the entire preceding film)—how scary it was, and how realistic it seemed. According to this brand new reality, Jody is dead—killed in a car wreck—and Reggie has become Mike’s guardian. Such a revelation, however shocking, remains secondary to another realization: Reggie, whom we had all witnessed killed in the climax of the film, is not only alive and well, but refuses to recognize the Tall Man as anything other than a figment of Mike’s imagination. He shows no signs of remembering the battle at Morningside Cemetery, nor the (mortal?) wounds he suffered. Mike fervently believes the Tall Man is real, but with Reggie being there when he otherwise shouldn’t, audiences exhale and settle back in their seats. It must’ve been a dream, after all—a nightmare concocted by Mike’s tortured mind to refute his brother’s death. Reggie suggests they get out of dodge for a while, so Mike runs up to his room to pack. It is there he finds the Tall Man, who it seems is real after all. But to what extent? How is it that the Tall Man can actually exist, yet nothing we had previously witnessed in the film seems to have happened? How can Mike know all about the Tall Man if it was all just a dream? Did anything we see truly take place? There is no time to analyze the enigmatic revelation of the Tall Man’s existence, as Mike is soon attacked and pulled through his closet mirror, screaming into the darkness beyond. And the amazing Phantasm theme—one which gives Halloween‘s own a run for its money—kicks in as the screen cuts to black.


It would be easy to point fingers and call this a cop-out ending, and if it had been any other film, it would be right to do so. But as an ending following Phantasm's bizarre occurrences, it was fucking poetry.

Audiences’ minds were blown and critics were baffled. How do you properly critique a film that could either be an artistic dreamlike masterpiece, or a muddled mess of incoherence—a film originally designed to be three hours, but which was whittled down into half that running time? What do you do with a story that, according to its own ending, never even happened…but at the same time…did?

Following these questions, the legacy of Phantasm was born. Three sequels would eventually follow over a span of twenty years, each written and directed by Coscarelli.

Phantasm II was released in 1988, nine years after the release of the original film. The Aliens of the franchise, Phantasm II is a no-holds-barred shoot ’em up that turns the action up to eleven. Because it was the only Phantasm film to receive a wide release from a major studio, artless suits ordered Coscarelli to cut out the dreamy imagery and surreal plot points that gave the original its reputation (and identity). Coscarelli obliged for the sake of his production. While still a great film, and cited by many as their favorite entry, many of the ideas Coscarelli wanted to include were left on the cutting room floor—along with actor A. Michael Baldwin, replaced by James LeGros at studio’s orders—and that’s a damn shame, because the absence of both are felt and missed.


Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead was originally meant to immediately follow Phantasm II, but wasn't released until 1994…and went direct-to-video after a very select release. With Coscarelli promised full artistic freedom this time around, the dreamlike state of the series returned in full force…and brought with it a lot of strange Evil Dead 2-esque comedy, as well as the very welcomed return of A. Michael Baldwin. While this entry turned off some longtime phans, Lord of the Dead introduced a lot of important ideas that carry through to the next entry and rewrite the relationship between Mike and the Tall Man as far back as the first film.

Flash forward to the following year: 1995. In a very strange and unexpected development, and now forever embedded in the Phantasm's series bizarre saga, screenwriter Roger Avary, fresh off his Oscar win for his work on Pulp Fiction, proudly announced he was going to write the be-all, end-all, kick-ass conclusion Phantasm sequel that the series deserved. Originally titled Phantasm 1999, then Phantasm: Millennium; then Phantasm: 2012 A.D.; then Phantasm 2013; and finally Phantasm’s End, the story was large in scope and introduced several new characters to fight alongside Reggie, the main-man who’d organically inherited the role of hero throughout the Phantasm series. In Avary’s script, the majority of the U.S. had been turned into a quarantined contaminated zone where the Tall Man thrived and continued his scheme to take over the world, with a legion of the undead under his power. While Coscarelli was enthusiastic about the story, he was unable to find a studio willing to finance such an ambitious project birthed from what had long been considered a cult series. Coscarelli’s consolation prize was to write his own sequel script, which would become the official fourth installment of the franchise, Phantasm IV: Oblivion, hoping to shelve Avary’s script for later use, and perhaps for the series’ final bow.


Phantasm IV: Oblivion was released in 1998 and for a long time seemed to signal the end of the Phantasm series. Every subsequent sequel following the original’s release found Coscarelli forced to work with diminishing budgets, relegating him to try another tactic for this particular entry: sifting through that ninety minutes of unused footage from the original Phantasm shoot to find cut scenes or new revelations that could add to the mythos, which he then weaved into a fresh story—one which found Mike Pearson hurtling alone into the desert in an attempt to escape the Tall Man-induced transformation happening inside him. Failed suicide attempts, memories thought lost, and a last minute deus ex machina involving Mike’s brother, Jody—all allowed Coscarelli to dip into the past and unearth footage to carry his saga to its conclusion. No ongoing series had ever, and likely will never, attempt such a maneuver.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion successfully returned to the nightmarish elements and intimate restraint of the first film, but even in its attempts to continue explaining the myth of the Tall Man, would only produce more questions. Despite its very finite ending that definitely stated “this is the end of the journey,” some phans were left feeling unsatisfied, and thanks to that conclusion’s slight tease of further adventures, they hoped more would soon come.

Reggie Bannister, the hot-as-love bad-ass who would go on to become the face of the series—even more so than the Tall Man himself—told Fangoria on the release of Phantasm: Oblivion: “This could very well be the last one…but then again, every one could have been the last one.” For years following the release of the “final” Phantasm, phans hoped for one last battle between good and evil—and it’s one Coscarelli had been diligently promising ever since Oblivion hit video. Much like the Tall Man himself, the prospect of a Phantasm V just wouldn’t die.

Following the release of Oblivion, rumors of Phantasm V infected the Internet for years, none of which came to fruition:
  • Roger Avary’s Phantasm 1999 script would finally be dusted off for the epic conclusion the series deserved.
  • Ice cream man and Phantasm hero Reggie Bannister had written his own Phantasm script centered around two remaining cities in an otherwise barren wasteland of the United States.
  • Bruce Campbell would star in a Phantasm V variation…alongside a monkey.
  • Writer Stephen Romano had pitched Phantasm Forever, said to begin with Mike waking from a years-long coma to find he’s being treated by Dr. Morningside, who in actuality is the Tall Man in disguise, as well as a scene including a confrontation between the two actors to have played Mike throughout the series: A. Michael Baldwin and James LeGros.
  • Phantasm V wasn’t going to happen at all, but instead the series would be remade into a new trilogy by New Line Cinema.
  • Phantasm V would happen…in 3D.
  • Phantasm V would be made…intermittently, in the form of webisodes called “Reggie’s Tales.”
Throughout these misleading years, Coscarelli felt obligated to keep the lighthouse burning for another entry, and in an unprecedented move, actually told a major studio, “No, you can’t remake Phantasm because,” basically, “you’ll fuck it up.” Being not just the creator of the series but the father of the phans meant having to go to bat for them while delivering years and years of bad news. He grew used to releasing public statements that dismissed any and all rumors of an impending Phantasm V, and with each denial, phans’ hopes were crushed just a bit more. He also didn’t help by adding fuel to the fire when he released this Alamo Drafthouse tribute video (in 2008!), which featured the director editing a potential teaser scene from a read-through of an unproduced Phantasm V script.

Speculation immediately went through the roof.

It was happening!

Phantasm V was finally on its way!

And then…nothing happened.

Time went on and the possibility of a proper Phantasm V dwindled from inevitability to despair. Coscarelli continued to openly state that following his work on John Dies at the End, he wanted to “get something going in the Phantasm world,” having admitted to writing not just one Phantasm sequel script, but several, and stated, “it would be a shame not to realize any of that.” But, as has always plagued the Phantasm series up to this point, financing continued to be an issue, not to mention that phans had gotten used to Coscarelli’s non-committal hopeful statements and were sadly accustomed to dismissing them.

And then, in March of 2014…

It. Finally. Happened.


The teaser trailer for Phantasm V, called Phantasm: Ravager, was released. It exploded across the internet like a sawed-off four-barrel shotgun, causing all kinds of celebration, starting with the phans and ending with the most unlikely of sources. In a moment of utter surrealism, it was enthusiastically picked up by Entertainment Weekly, a move that didn’t mesh at all with their “we love anything that’s popular!” philosophy. The trailer, which featured global destruction, silver spheres the size of houses, and the return of Mike, Reggie, Jody, the Tall Man, and even the Lady in Lavender, not seen since the first film), naturally sent everyone into a fan-geek blast of exhilaration.

That exhilaration only lasted so long, because a disturbing new development came to light: Coscarelli had opted not to direct the newest installment, having handed over the reins to longtime collaborator David Hartman, an unproven director. This served as a somewhat disappointing blow to phans who shared the mindset that whatever Coscarelli had begun in 1979, it would be up to him to finish. That he remains a co-writer of the screenplay and a very hands-on producer has helped to allay some of those fears, but for some, it wasn’t enough. Though phans are thrilled to receive any iteration of a new Phantasm film, some are approaching this Ravager with a great sense of caution, and in the same way they were hesitant to laud Roger Avary’s unmade Phantasm script: because no matter how strange and unorthodox the Phantasm journey has been, and despite all of the questions posed since that first night-drenched hearse ride back in 1979, each entry has been written solely by Coscarelli. Because of this, some of the more ardent phans believe that whatever fragmented story he has been telling for the last 40 years belongs only to him, and that to have handed off the mythos to another writer at this point in time seems very wrong. To some, it would be better to get a shitty Phantasm V written/directed by Don Coscarelli than a fantastic Phantasm V written/directed by anyone else.

Still, the explosion of excitement the trailer caused couldn’t be ignored. The film wasn’t just in production, but had been fully shot in secret over the last few years. (Its existence can be tracked back at least as far as John Dies at the End, in which one character has a DVD for Phantasm: Ravager sitting next to his television.) Ravager was done, and in the can, so it seemed like only a matter of time before solid release plans were formally announced.

More than one year later, the wait continued. Things were disconcertingly quiet over in the Phantasm camp, as the last word on the subject had been that Coscarelli and co. were “still trying to find distribution.” Speculation soon began on who would step up, with Anchor Bay/Starz and Shout! Factory being touted as the likeliest of candidates, being that they’ve both released video editions of the previous films in the past. Other rumors suggested Image Entertainment had been flirting with releasing Blu-ray editions of the Phantasm series, and so by default also had their hat in the ring. 

And then in December of 2014, Coscarelli and Hartman released a lovably dorky video teasing a bit more footage from the new entry, as if to touch base with phans and say, “Yeah, we know this is taking a while” and “No, we haven’t forgotten about the damned thing.”


Some interpreted this inability to secure distribution pointed to Phantasm: Ravager being an artistic disaster, and the longer it took for the film to see the light of day, the harder that fear became to refute. After all, why release a teaser trailer so soon in advance if the filmmakers weren’t confident it was close to completion and could easily find a home? (“Warning shots are bullshit,” Jody says while handing Mike a gun in the first Phantasm, and the phrase seems ironically appropriate.) That Ravager had issues requiring some minor-to-major post-production finessing were not an absurd assumption to make, but others preferred to think (and hope) that Coscarelli was instead exhibiting an inordinate amount of care over what may very well be the final Phantasm film. (Rumors suggest he’d already been offered a distribution deal and turned it down.) Sixteen years came and went between the release of Oblivion and Ravager teaser trailer debut. Phans had already waited that long, and depending on which of them you asked, some said they could wait just a little bit longer…while others said they’d waited long enough. A lot of time had been lost thanks to the myriad of difficulties Coscarelli endured in trying to secure financing in the past, and on locating a studio with the vision and balls to take the risk on a lesser-exposed property with out-there concepts. That Sharknado and The Human Centipede have each become a trilogy, the former in just three years’ time, yet it’s taken nearly forty years for Phantasm to reach its fifth film, is at the least disappointing and at the most offensive, but it, as we know, it eventually arrived, and there’s no sense whining over spilled dwarf blood.

With Ravager likely being the final installment of the long-running series (though Don recently had the loving audacity to muse on Phantasm VI), all phans were hoping it was the definitive sequel they’d been waiting for, and so certain expectations were in place. Series stalwarts know Coscarelli likes to fuck with his audience — to make them question nearly everything they see, and leave them wondering what was real. For nearly forty years, he’s triggered multitudes of questions. With the series' swan song, phans were hoping for some answers — phans who had been aching to find out just what the hell was going on in this universe.

And that's where it got dangerous.

Leading up to Phantasm: Ravager's release, I was hoping it would be a satisfying finale. I was hoping it felt familiar despite being entirely brand new. I was hoping it looked to the first and fourth entries for the heart of its story; to the second for an inspiring dose of action and that perfect blending of humor and terror; and to the third for a 100% free-to-do-whatever independent mentality. I was hoping that the final entry successfully straddled that line between poetic ambiguity and satisfying revelation, because phans know Phantasm thrives on mystery. So was it finally time for some closure? Should phans finally know if everything Mike has seen and experienced been real, or if it’s all just his psychosis — an escape into the muddied, morbid world he’s created inside his head to rebuke his own mortality?

Maybe it would've been best never knowing that for sure, but the sequel was finally coming...one way or another. 


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 .


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.