Apr 30, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEWS: ANTHROPOPHAGOUS & ABSURD

“There’s evil on this island. An evil that won’t let us get away. An evil that sends out an inhuman, diabolic power. I sense its vibrations now. The vibrations are an intense horror. It will destroy us! The very same way it did all the others!”
“Shut up, Carol!
Italian filmmaker Aristide Massaccesi is more commonly known as Joe D’Amato, the most prominent of his many pseudonyms. Like his colleagues Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Michele Soavi, Bruno Mattei, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, and the Bavas — Mario and Lamberto — D’Amato was a director and producer primarily known for gross-out, gory horror that featured the kind of gags you’d never have seen during the same era of American filmmaking. I guess it’s because Italians are inherently fucked up (I’m allowed to say that), but even during the video nasty era of Britain, or when Reagan et al. were cracking down on R-rated movies and profane lyrics in music, Italian filmmakers were also pushing back on violence and gore — but in the opposite direction. They pushed violence and gore to the breaking point — beyond “this is fun!” to “I’d like to vomit!” D’Amato was the hardest working one among his colleagues, averaging FIVE feature films a year, and he directed EIGHT in 1981 alone. (To put things in perspective, similarly “boundary-pushing” horror director Eli Roth has been making features for 16 years and he currently has only seven features to his name.) By the time of his death at 62 years old, D’Amato had 197 directorial credits. Granted, a lot of this was porn, but hey — a movie’s a movie. (My favorite title from this era of D’Amato’s filmography is definitely Robin Hood: Thief of Wives.)


1980’s Anthropophagous (The Grim Reaper) is one of D’Amato’s most famous efforts, which would be one of several collaborations with actor/screenwriter Luigi Montefiori (pseudonym George Eastman), who wrote Anthropophagous and its sequel, Absurd, while also playing the maniacal cannibal/killer in each. Anthropophagous was one of many titles infamously included on Britain’s official Video Nasty list, which nearly declared this and films of its ilk illegal and was pulled from video store shelves. I won’t go as far as calling it “tame by today’s standards,” which is a go-to line for retrospectives on once-infamous films, but it’s not a constant collection of gross-out gore, either. For much of its running time, it unfolds as your fairly typical slasher flick: a group of attractive youngin’s go where they ought not to have gone and run afoul of a cannibalistic madman who begins to kill and semi-eat them one by one. 

At film’s end, the villainous Man Eater suffers a fatal blow to his stomach, out of which flow his intestines, which he promptly sticks in his mouth and begins to eat as he stares into the eyes of the man who wounded him, which is the greatest spite-suicide I’ve ever seen.

Sure, Anthropophagous is definitely gross, and its infamous fetus-eating scene is one of the grossest things from this genre, but it’s also more well made than you might expect based on its reputation. For much of the first half, in spite of the intermittent murder scenes, D’Amato is much more interested in creating tension and setting a mysterious and creepy mood. A night-brought storm rages, dumping buckets of rain on the crumbling structure where the friends are hunkering down and filling its darkened rooms with blazes of lightning flashes. He also sticks Eastman’s killer, Man Eater, in dark corners and other faraway places nearly offscreen, revealing him in small bursts like a bearded Michael Myers. Reputation aside, D’Amato was a competent director, and it’s to his credit that he was able to work in every genre beyond horror, and especially beyond gross-out horror, even if the horror genre would come to define his legacy.


A soft sequel to Anthropophagous, called Absurd, would follow just one year and ten more D’Amato-directed films later, and would travel much of the same path, although this time, Eastman’s script would borrow heavily from elements from the first two Halloween films: Eastman, this time given the name of Mikos Stenopolis, is your de facto Michael Myers; Edward Purdom (from the legendary slasher flick Pieces), though whose trench coat may be black, is definitely the regretful Sam Loomis; and young bedridden Katia is doomed to act as the film’s beleaguered Laurie Strode. There’s even a subplot of a babysitter watching two kids while the parents fuck off to a party, both of whom having to contend with a killer in their house. (The babysitter, however, isn’t so lucky this time.)

The reason I call Absurd a soft sequel to Anthropophagous is because it doesn’t feature any returning cast members beyond Eastman, and even then he’s playing a brand new/basically the same character. The film also finds a way during its opening scene to replicate the fatal wound that Eastman’s Man Eater is dealt in the final moments of Anthropophagous in an additional effort to tie the films together. However, Absurd isn’t nearly the same success as its predecessor, surrendering to a more common and less interesting setting and falling back on a less assured pace. In Anthropophagous, tension built from having our characters wander a desolate location where we know the killer to be and slowly put together the events of the dastardly deeds that have gone down there. In Absurd, we spend way too much time watching a bunch of middle-aged party-goers standing around watching American football on TV and eating spaghetti. That sounds like I’m making a joke, but I’m not — that’s really what happen. (Spaghet!) Obsession with American football must’ve been at an all-time high in ‘81 because every character beyond Eastman (who never speaks) mentions football at least once. Like Antropophagus, the murder sequences in Absurd are top notch, but they all occur so far from each other that we’re forced to spend most of our time with the police investigation side of things, led by Sgt. Ben Engleman (Charles Borromel, who looks freakily like Robin Williams).


Interestingly, though Absurd borrows heavily from the plot of Halloween, both Absurd and Halloween 2 were released in October of 1981, and both feature a finale in which the maniacal killer is blinded and the final girl begins throwing off the path of the coming killer by creating false signs of her presence around the room using anything that makes noise, allowing for someone else to come in and dispatch the killer. The very ending even predicts that of Halloween 4, which wouldn’t be released for seven more years, so apparently Eastman piped into the official Halloween series wormhole and got a glimpse of what was to come.

Severin Films’ releases of both titles look phenomenal, as they are finally free from years of cramped and murky transfers that plagued previous video releases.

Supplements-wise, Severin never disappoint, and this duo of garbage cinema titles are no different. Anthropophagus offers several interviews with the flick’s participants: “Don’t Fear The Man-Eater: Interview with Writer/Star Luigi Montefiori a.k.a. George Eastman,” “The Man Who Killed The Anthropophagus: Interview with Actor Saverio Vallone,” “Cannibal Frenzy: Interview with FX Artist Pietro Tenoglio,” “Brother And Sister In Editing: Interview With Editor Bruno Micheli,” “Inside Zora’s Mouth(!): Interview with Actress Zora Kerova,” and caps it off with a collection of trailers. Moving on, Absurd offers an alternate Italian cut (with optional English subtitles), along with “The Return of the Grim Reaper: Interview With Actor / Writer / Co-Producer Luigi Montefiore (George Eastman),” “D’Amato on Video: Archive Interview With Director Aristide Massaccesi,” “A Biker (Uncredited): Interview With Michele Soavi,” the trailer, and a bonus CD soundtrack (first 2500 copies only). Yes, Eastman is on hand to provide interviews for each title, and as he’s proven on prior Code Red releases, he’s extremely to the point. (He calls Anthropophagous, a film he wrote and starred in, “shit.”)

Fans of Italian horror should see each title at least once. I wouldn’t go as far to call them cult classics, but they do feel like necessary viewing for those who have a predisposition toward “extreme” Italian horror cinema.




Apr 26, 2019

IT (2017)


The genesis of this new version of Stephen King’s IT was a bumpy ride. I greeted its initial announcement with a resounding “oh” -- especially when hack novelty writer Seth Grahame-Smith came on board as producer. I’ve read the original King novel twice now, and in my mind, no standard-length film or even reasonable number of films could do it justice. And granted, despite a flawless Pennywise portrayal by Tim Curry, the original miniseries is far from perfect, chucking out a lot of rich and creepy Derry history, along with the novel’s depravity, to conform to ABC television standards. But, as imperfect and cheesy and cheap looking as it sometimes is, I can’t help but love it. Nostalgia often overrides good taste, after all, and the miniseries was a huge part of my childhood. 

When True Detective director Cary Fukunaga came aboard to adapt and direct, my “oh” became “oh fuck yes.” And for months I eagerly awaited any developments -- casting, shooting locales, and any early signs of a rating. One day, there was an update: New Line Cinema, who was originally financing the film before parent company Warner Bros. took over, balked at Fukunaga’s proposed budget, so he walked. My hopes were dashed, and I stopped caring again. Eventually, when Mama director Andrés Muschietti was brought on board as a replacement, I felt nothing. It seemed, to me, that this was nothing more than a studio making that typical studio move of hiring someone with reasonable talent but with a short tenure in Hollywood -- i.e., someone to tow the company line, back down from his demands, and hopefully still conjure up something halfway well made. 

IT -- a novel whose concept was very daring, and which could easily be turned into something cheesy and terrible if not done the right way -- seemed doomed.

 

Despite my misgivings and its shortcomings, this new ITeration (ha!), if not a totally faithful retelling of the original story, is totally faithful to its core essence, themes, and intent for relentless terror. And speaking of, is IT scary? Well, as usual in this genre, fear is subjective. What I can say is IT is obsessed with scaring you -- is willing to show you some ghastly and taboo-shattering images in order to do so.

The terror in IT is exaggerated -- almost fairy tale-like -- right down to the design of Pennywise himself. From a horror standpoint, he’s a frightening figure, and of course that’s great. But when taking into account Stephen King’s original intent for this character, as subsequently presented in the original miniseries, it can seem like a bit much. King’s Pennywise was just a clown -- not a purposely scary looking clown -- because his image was supposed to make him immediately trustworthy to children.The Pennywise of 1990 wasn’t scary except for when Tim Curry’s still amazing performance (and some monster teeth) wanted to make him so. This exaggerated terror doesn't stop and start with Pennywise, but all the specters the kids see, including the infamous house on Neibolt street -- everything has been designed to seem extra scary, like you're walking through a haunt during the Halloween season. Sometimes this works in the film’s favor, and sometimes it can seem artificial. It’s clear that another Warner Bros./New Line Cinema horror franchise -- The Conjuring -- was a large influence on IT’s design, and it’s a good measuring tool for what kind of fear mileage you should expect. (Frequent Conjuring-universe screenwriter Gary Dauberman was on script clean-up duty as well.) The Sy-Fy Channel's beloved cult series hit, Channel Zero, also seems to have informed a small bit of the script, mostly in the form of under-the-surface segments glimpsed on televisions in the form of a kids' show, during which the too-happy host eerily tells its kid viewers that "the sewer is a fun place to play with all of your friends."

 

The new Losers’ Club is great, with the standouts being Beverly's Sophia Lillis (Sharp Objects) and  Eddie's Fred-Savage-looking Jack Dylan Grazer (Tales of Halloween). Bev’s very first appearance is gif worthy, and Eddie is more than just the Opie-ish dweeb as essayed in the miniseries. He’s the same hypochondriac he ever was, but with the same smart-aleck mouth of his friends, which helps the character feel less like an archetype. The bond that formed between the young actors during the shoot is evident, which offers the film an additional emotional weight. Bill Skarsgård has the unenviable task of stepping into the clown shoes of a character previously made infamous by Tim Curry, which results in a performance that’s unusual -- one that hews closer to another famous cinematic clown, The Dark Knight's Joker -- but also fitting, and thankfully the makeup and costume aids in hiding the actor’s youth and boyish appearance. 

Granted, not everything works. In an understandable move, the filmmakers decided to concoct some new scares for the film that are different from both the novel and the miniseries in an effort to surprise the portion of the audience who are familiar with both. Some of the kids' unique scares remained -- Beverly's father, Eddie's leper -- but some were entirely invented, along with one that seemed like a throwaway comment, but which inadvertently introduced perhaps unconsidered thematic implications. During one pivotal scene when all the kids meet and admit to seeing some heinous stuff, only for it to be revealed that a mysterious clown was behind it all, each kid shares his or her hidden fear. Richie nervously looks around at all the costumed street performers practicing for Derry's July 4th parade, pushes up his glasses, and admits his fear...is clowns. With this simple admission, IT suggests that there is almost a mythological relationship between himself and Pennywise -- that Richie is, in essence, the leader. Seldom do conflicts remain surface level in films of this sort: the kids aren't just fighting a clown, they're rebelling against the fears and perils of childhood and are rejecting adulthood in general. Richie's admission suggests he's going to be the one to single-handedly battle the clown head-on, subjugating his fear in the same way the other kids are subjugating their own. Why this particular bit was given to Richie, instead of Bill, who is for all intents and purposes the leader of the Losers Club, seems very wrong. (Or perhaps I'm just being overly analytical about a horror flick with a kid-eating, sewer-dwelling clown.)

Speaking of Richie, Wolfhard as the smart-mouthed amateur impressionist likely walks away with the showiest part, as his character is there to constantly make off-color jokes and keep things light, which he does, and the actor is great, although there are a couple instances where he robs the scene of its intended emotion. (A problem with the script -- not the actor.) For the most part, the film handles the use of humor well, but it seems to struggle with how to hold and maintain scenes of high drama or fear without letting the audience off the hook by giving them a moment of levity.

 

The musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch isn’t particularly memorable, except when it takes a page out of the movie's book and tries to extra-scare the audience by utilizing a creepy child chorus to sing creepy child songs, one of which includes the lyric "chop off your dead." Additionally, some of the soundtrack selections are jarring and tonally at odds with what’s going on in the scene. (The Cure’s “Six Different Ways” plays over the scene where the kids clean up Bev’s bloody bathroom -- a moment that played as somber and ominous in the novel and miniseries -- which completely lets the air out of the drama and neutralizes its nasty implications. The New Kids on the Block poster gag, also, is far too jarring -- an example of the movie itself trying to be funny instead of its kid characters.)

And as for the changes made from the book, I could go on and on, but no one ever wants to see the book purist complain. In fact, some of the changes actually pair really well with the mainstays from the novel. That Bev's sink drain vomits blood all over her bathroom only after she's begun menstruating offers Pennywise a truly sadistic sense of humor, and updating the kids' era from the '50s to the '80s easily benefits from modern pop culture's new love for everything from the magical decade of hairspray and cocaine. Overall, what’s important is that IT remains faithful to King’s original story: good vs. evil; the power of friendship, faith, loss, etc. If you’ve read King’s massive tome or seen the miniseries and still remember much of its content, you’ll have fun spotting the subtle nods throughout. Bully Patrick Hockstetter licking his lips as the kids pass by him in school hints at the sexual depravity his character exerts in the book (and which could never appear in a mainstream film); the handful of references to or appearances of a turtle refer to the more mystical elements from the novel that are meant to represent the power of light that guides the kids through their fight against Derry’s evil; and the appearance of a clown doll that closely mirrors the Pennywise design from the miniseries was a very nice, loving touch.

As far as King adaptations go, there hasn’t been one this great since 2007’s The Mist, which is a relief to say, being that IT seemed like a huge gamble from the beginning. IT: Chapter Two is filming now, so there’s still a way to go before we get to see the adult Losers Club return to Derry for one more go-around with Pennywise the Dancing Clown.


Apr 24, 2019

HANNIBAL LECTER, ARTISTE










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

Apr 22, 2019

‘THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK’ AND THE PARANOID THRILLER


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

 

[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]

Apr 21, 2019

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ANTONIO BAY

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

Apr 19, 2019

PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016)


[This review contains spoilers for Phantasm: Ravager.]

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

Phantasm did.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Apr 16, 2019

‘THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT’ AND LEGEND-BASED STORYTELLING


[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.]