Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

Cast: Milla Jovovich, Iain Glen, Ali Larter, Shawn Roberts, Ruby Rose, and Eoin Macken

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

106 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Narrated by Alice, the recap montage presents the horror story so far, sketching out 15 years worth of game movie plots and extreme survivalism, from Resident Evil (2002), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), and Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) to Resident Evil: Retribution (2012). Following the above, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016) starts in a devastated Washington D.C. where a troublesome dragonoid is slain by a well-placed claymore mine. The history of Umbrella’s corporate bio-tech evil is a conspiracy of viral corruption that abandons all humanity in favour of archiving their elite for re-populating a replenished Earth long after the infected world ends. The heroine’s mission quest here is to find the secret antivirus and save the planet.



On the road to hell, Alice goes by Hummer, by car, on a motorbike, and, when captured, she’s pulled along behind a mega-tank. Escaping from predators, she meets old friends and forms a new gang to fight against the overwhelming numbers of bad guys and nasty creatures. A tower siege using improved heavy weapons results in demolition mayhem. The only way to escape from a pack of zombie dogs is for everybody to jump off a cliff. This sixth outing returns to the beginning, with the first movie’s location now under the bomb crater in the ruins of Raccoon city. Once inside the Hive bunker complex, there are various puzzles to solve, lethal obstacles to overcome, and nested plot twists that unpack with witty references to Aliens, Blade Runner, and RoboCop to mention just a few of the notable genre franchises that Resident Evil is influenced by. 


Strobe lighting effects and fast editing techniques enhance a busy narrative giving the movie its non-stop action appeal. Despite antagonism for the protagonist, the arrogant chief villain eventually proves t be his own worst enemy. This offers a slick entertainment milieu combining the best of post-apocalyptic zombie-mania, giant monster movie action, comic-book sci-fi scenarios, supporting an iconic super-heroine character franchise. It is a better effort than Underworld saga, if only for the more colourful variety of lighting set-ups that avoid blue-filtered monotony of Beckinsale’s adventures. Fans of the animated series of RE movies can expect a third feature, Resident Evil: Vendetta, due to be released this year.





Sunday, 11 June 2017

Ip Man: The Final Fight

Cast: Anthony Wong, Gillian Chung, Jordan Chan, Eric Tsang, and Marvel Chow

Director: Herman Yau

100 minutes (15) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Cine Asia blu-ray region B
[Released 12th June]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Jeff Young

A biographical action drama set in post-war Hong Kong, this chronicles the last chapter in the life of a martial arts grandmaster who became Bruce Lee’s teacher. The famous Wing Chun warrior and scholar, Ip Man here gets an immensely sympathetic portrayal by great British-Chinese actor Anthony Wong with his quiet dignity concealing an indomitable will. Previously played by Donnie Yen in Wilson Yip’s series, Ip Man (2008), Ip Man 2 (2010), and Ip Man 3 (2015), and by Tony Leung in Wong Kar-Wai’s stylish The Grandmaster (2013), Ip Man is certainly something of a genre giant whose fascinating life-story offers a variety of interpretations in movies that range from docudrama to outright fantasy-fu.


This rather melancholy picture favours the realistic, as Ip Man lives under the constraints of poverty, willing to teach disciples and students but wholly reluctant to risk running an academy on business terms. In a pivotal sequence, he fights Master Ng (Eric Tsang) who runs a friendly rival school of kung fu. After that, competitive acrobatics in the lion dance turn into a brawl between gangs with political and criminal ambitions behind the violence and chaos. Following the death of his wife, Ip Man finds comfort in his relationship with a singer, until his son Chun moves from the family’s home in Foshan to live in Hong Kong.



Finally, a typhoon and murderous treachery strike at once, leading to a moral challenge from top villain, kingpin Dragon, who rules a boxing ring in the walled city. Ip Man: The Final Fight offers a tale of loyalty and honour in a crucible of social distress and political turmoil. It focuses upon heroism as a matter of natural survival within a cine-framework that blends cultural asides, nostalgic reverie, and emotional transparency. We see how Ip Man suffered bouts of poor health that are just as important in this drama as the fighting sequences. The movie ends with historical points, as Ip Man is visited by the enthusiastic Bruce Lee, and actor Wong performs Wing Chun on film “for posterity,” followed by a clip from the actual documentary footage.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Underworld: Blood Wars

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, and Charles Dance

Director: Anna Foerster

91 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Sony blu-ray region ABC
[Released 29 May]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

“Don’t think... you’ll hurt yourself.” This fantasy action movie rattles along without pause for much ponderous horror, but Underworld: Blood Wars still offers a highly effective showcase for various gothic a-go-go riffs on the bloody legacy of a battle against beasts within. Following Underworld (2003), Underworld: Evolution (2006), prequel Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (2009), and previous instalment Underworld Awakening (2012), this is the first of this franchise to be directed by a woman. However, the milieu of vampire-superheroine death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) looks pretty much the same. Selene is invited back into the coven, where she is betrayed yet again by one of the council.



As a vampire elder, Charles Dance brings gravitas to this movie’s first act, setting up the premise of a new Lycan leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) who wants to end the feudal war, but only with full victory against the vampires, not a peaceful resolution to the seemingly eternal conflict. Sub-plots about festering revenge and unanticipated discoveries a propos the gloomy future of vampirism keep everything ticking over, until the final battles with a pivotal duel. Eventually finding refuge in the frozen north, Selene soon finds that her kind have mutated beyond death into more wraith-like creatures.   


Facing up to revolutionary challenges and the evolutionary changes of techno-modernity, as the 21st century’s science results in weaponised silver and UV light, Underworld has a lively narrative about struggles to maintain order, uphold and honour the ancient familial traditions, and explore the ramifications of a magical yet synthesised mythology. As ever for this genre franchise, and others like it, what makes the movie work as entertainment is the production’s seamless combinations of live-action stunts and photo-real animation (PRA) effects. It’s never difficult to accept the otherworldly qualities of this stylised action  adventure because the polished visuals maintain a superb standard throughout.    


Of course, it would also be easy to view this on-going storyline as a metaphor of class war, with vampires as wealthy overlords - favouring swordfights, and werewolves as the beastly proles - armed with machine-guns like army grunts. Allegorical interpretations aside, twisty plot elements converge on the final conflict where sunlight not moonlight might be decisive, but it is enemy memories derived from blood-tasting that reveals all the secrets and lies. So, in the end, blood will out, one way or another.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Passengers

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, and Andy Garcia

Director: Morten Tyldum

116 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Christopher Geary

A shipboard romance in space? Yes, sci-fi trappings provide refreshingly cool backdrops to this otherwise insufferably corny adventure of, as the old song goes - ‘if you were the only girl in the world, and I was the only boy’. The boy is a mechanic named Jim (played by the ‘Star Lord’ himself, Chris Pratt), while the girl is Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora, and, perhaps, no other name screams ‘space-girl’ as loudly; not even Stella. Directed by the Norwegian maker of thriller Headhunters (2011), and Alan Turing bio-pic The Imitation Game (2014), Passengers is basically Titanic (1997) with twiddle knobs on, where one rogue asteroid from the cosmic depths replaces an iceberg in the North Atlantic.


While another couple in a movie like Arrival have to deal with first contact problems, this drama has only social contact problems, while it promotes the great human myth of love. Romance is fiction, not fact. Love is the greatest fantasy fixation of literature and cinema and TV, and the stories that we tell each other - to survive life in an indifferent universe. Love is a dream, that we all dream of; but nothing more than that. Love is the singularly perfect thing that cannot be true because all of humanity shares the flaw of an imperfect reasoning bound to our feelings of gross inadequacy. Love is like god because one has to believe in something, and big love makes sense got any pointless life, because it appears to be selfless when, in fact, it is merely evidence of selfishness. That’s why Jim wakes up Aurora when he knows it’s wrong. 



Jim’s awakening from hibernation is an unfortunate accident, just a glitch in the starship systems, but his decision to select a female companion from the trope of sleeping beauty in space is quite premeditated and yet an obvious act of desperation. Passengers is a sci-fi amalgam of various familiar plot details and genre visualisations. Its blatant borrowings include some classics - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979), The Cold Equations (1996), Sunshine (2007), and Prometheus (2012), and not to mention an heroic tragedy stolen from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn (1982). The only way forwards for Jim and Aurora is to adapt to their circumstances and accept the curse of their lost futures apart, and tolerate the necessity of a second chance together.


Explosive decompression is another instance common to space opera cinema, and here it might be applied as a metaphor to a cross-genre plot mixing lonely stalker themes with a united-we-stand, like it or not, against impending catastrophe - when the starship seems doomed by failing tech. Can the hero fix it, saving thousands of wannabe colonists and so gain redemption for his betrayal? Passengers is not the worst sci-fi production of this type to appear since Alien Cargo (1999), but the 21st century’s new big-budget space movies should really be aiming higher in terms of concepts than this passable genre-tourist fare.


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

XX

Cast: Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, and Christina Kirk

Directors: Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Erin ‘St Vincent’ Clark, and Jovanka Vuckovic

78 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.39:1
Soda DVD Region 2
[Released 8th May]

Rating: 5/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

The big lipstick kiss-print on the DVD cover-art, which also forms a skull, neatly catches the tone. Less triple-X status, more a defiant gesture. Although surely a female-centric project such as this is already as much an anachronism as a crusading quartet by gay directors or black directors? At the risk of sounding tokenist, we already have movie-activists Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body, 2009), Drew Barrymore (Charlie’s Angels, 2000), Megan Ellison (Zero Dark Thirty, 2012), Karen Rosenfelt (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 2, 2012), Nina Jacobson (The Hunger Games, 2012), as well as Kathryn Bigelow, Gale Anne Hurd, Sofia Coppola, Emma Thomas, and on. But glass ceilings are there to be shattered, and every splinter counts.


This is an anthology, or portmanteau movie of four 20-minute segments. Arty ‘Twilight Zone’ short story episodes with no obvious theme, linked only by spooked nursery inter-titles of decapitated dolls, butterfly animations, a pincushion with human teeth, and a haunted doll’s house. Cine-literate Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box quotes from George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), but its ambiguity has an inexorably clinical momentum sprung from a seemingly random incident on the 3:55 subway back to the suburbs. Little Danny (Peter DaCunha) asks the stranger with the lazy eye what he has in the red gift box tied up in a red ribbon. After glimpsing inside, he loses his appetite. No breakfast, no evening meal. Is he sneaking junk-food from the school cafeteria? No, despite the delectable culinary food-porn on offer, despite daddy (Jonathan Watton) Robert’s ultimatum, he refuses. After five days without food they take him to the doctor who explains “if you don’t eat, you’ll die.” “So?” says Danny. Mom Susan (Natalie Brown) resumes secret smoking, and Dad’s under pressure. Danny whispers the secret of the box to sister Jenny (Peyton Kennedy), then to Daddy, who both also stop eating. On Xmas Day nobody’s new clothes fit, they’re all too skinny. With the three in terminal intensive care Mom starts haunting the subway hunting the man with the red box. She’s hungry. Zero resolution.


Despite Annie Clark’s primary genre being experimental rock under her 'St Vincent' persona – collaborating with Sufjan Stevens and David Byrne across five albums, her one-woman segment The Birthday Party is a contrasting black comedy, albeit Mom-themed and with a twittering electro-score. Subtitled ‘The memory Lucy suppressed from her seventh birthday...’ it has moments recalling the Fawlty Towers episode The Kipper And The Corpse, as effectively-frazzled Mom Mary (Melanie Lynskey) strives to conceal Daddy David’s corpse from creepy Nanny Carla (Sheila Vand), so as not to embarrass her daughter’s birthday event. With dead-Daddy finally revealed as the funky-panda head sitting at the table. Cue kiddy-screams, and long-term trauma.

From domestic interiors to “so fucking epic” vast desert exterior, Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall moves into more gut-wrenching traditional Horror Channel group-jeopardy splatter-core. Four slackers who’s “internal compass has failed me never” go off-trail in a camper-van, and find pre-Native American rock-art in the form of a horned beast territorial marker. “Maybe it’s cursed?” Yup, it’s cursed. Gretchen’s toxic graze turns shock-mutational in a convincingly nasty slasher killing spree. Her physical contortions recall Andy Serkis at his most grotesque. Until the rock-art has a new set of blood-red additional images.


Finally, Karyn Kusama has the strongest resumé, directing femme-actioner Aeon Flux (2005), and The Invitation (2016) as well as cheer-leader flesh-eating romp Jennifer’s Body. In Her Only Living Son single-Mom Cora (Christina Kirk) wears a cross on a chain, while bratty tousle-haired son Andy (Kyle Allen), is a troubled prodigy who also tears classmate Stacy’s fingernails off, spatters bloodstains across the bathroom, and has hairy horned toes. Everyone, including the postman, seems in on the secret that this episode envisages the outcome of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), with Andy’s real father – Satan, soon coming to claim him. Which force will triumph, Mom’s love or Andy’s dreams of “empires of misery”? With the same kind of maternal self-immolation as the vivid dream sequence in The Box, where the family carve and devour Mom as she’s sprawled on the dinner-table, making the ultimate sacrifice for their appetites, mother and son crush each other to death in a killer embrace. A closure probably dictated more by time-constraints than by reasoned plotting. By necessity sharp and razored to the bone, as a show-reel, this impressive and disturbingly varied female-centric quartet of miniatures should lead to follow-on mainstream commissions very soon.


Friday, 28 April 2017

The 5th Wave

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Ron Livingston, Nick Robinson, Maria Bello, and Liev Schreiber

Director: J. Blakeson

108 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington  

Rick Yancey’s novel The Fifth Wave was huge on the New York Times ‘young adult’ best-seller lists. So it’s inevitable, in the light of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga franchises, that there’d be a movie. And in that hormonally-driven originality-light kidult sense, it’s a movie that works efficiently. A lone 16-year-old blonde girl with a high-velocity gun, a deserted truck-stop, it’s post-apocalypse-a-go-go… the story of how totally normal high-school girl Cassiopeia Sullivan from “just a happy-go-lucky family” becomes ‘Cassie who kills’. In ‘Anytown America’ she’s into hook-ups with boys with Spider-Man cell-phones, and cheer-leader pom-poms. Until the galactic party-crashers arrive, the ‘mysterious object in orbit’ spotted over white picket-fences Ohio, brings ‘The Others’ hovering overhead.


The First Wave attack is an EM-pulse – cars crash, planes fall out of the sky, product-placement Sony mobiles fail. The Second Wave is quakes and tsunamis that smash every coastal city, inundate islands, and devour Tower Bridge. Cassie and little brother Sam (Zachary Arthur) get stranded in a tree. The Third Wave is a modified avian flu that decimates global populations. Mommy (Maggie Siff) dies. “They’re careful not to damage Earth too much,” observes Daddy (Ron Livingston), “they need Earth.” “But not us,” adds Cassie perceptively. He gives her a handgun, because “there’s nothing safe anymore.” There’s regulation devastation as they travel towards the refugee camp, where the army arrives with news of ‘imminent threat’. The Fourth Wave is happening. The ‘Others’ are tentacular green nasties who’ve descended to inhabit human skulls. The children are to be evacuated in a convoy of school coaches. Daddy is killed when a protest gets out of hand and turns into a bloody riot, and Sam gets inadvertently separated from Cassie, who is left alone in the forest. Walking all the usual highways of endless desolation, stalled auto-wrecks and corpses.

It’s been said the idea of green helmet visors enabling squaddies to see the aliens was lifted from John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). True, but equally, there’s not a single idea here that’s not recognisably recycled. Nasty envious aliens have been drawing their plans against us and perpetrating diabolical invasions at least since the 1930s pulp magazines, and sci-fi horror comics. That it’s astutely targeted at a youth demographic to whom it’s freshly-minted doesn’t entirely stack up. Yet there are some fine participants aboard the movie. The very lovely Chloe Grace Moretz, proved her action Hit-Girl credentials in Kick-Ass (2010), and her talent at portraying sensitivity in the remade Let The Right One In (2010). Both qualities employed to good effect here, as Cassie. Akiva Goldsman has writing credits clear across the genre, all the way from the family-in-crisis Lost In Space (1998), to Will Smith in both Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (2004), and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (2007).


Liev Schreiber was also a strong presence in TheLast Days On Mars (2013), as well as his various X-Men contributions. Now he’s Colonel Vosch who delivers crock-patriotic spiel at the Wright-Patterson military base, intent on organising the global strike-back – or is he? When he’s shock-unmasked as an alien himself, training the kids to kill human stragglers, he gets the movie’s best lines, people simply “occupy a space we need.” And when Cassie’s high-school crush Ben ‘Zombie’ Parrish (Nick Robinson) argues that “our kind wouldn’t wipe out entire species,” he retorts “of course you would, you’ve been doing it for centuries.” Ask the dodo. And the white rhino. But putting their roles in context, Ben was named after Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, while Cassie is named after a star-cluster. Needless to say little-brother Sam is processed at the same internment centre as Ben, in another of those tedious boot-camp things that movies seem to love so much, alongside token feisty street-wise punk ‘Ringer’ (Maika Munroe) who is already into the scam, “we didn’t get rescued,” she says, “we got drafted!”


Alien drones hunt survivors. “If you bug-bomb a house there’s always a few cockroaches left. Now we are like those cockroaches. And the Others are picking us off one by one,” Cassie’s voice-over journal explains. She gets major romantic complications when she’s rescued by darkly hunky Evan Walker (Alex Roe), and watches him skinny-dipping in the lake, to libidinous effect. But not everything is as it seems. The full-on end-of-the-world sex got deleted in favour of a chaste kiss, and in the movie’s second switch-around it turns out he’s a planted part-Other sleeper agent. “Our kind believe that love is just a trick. An instinct. A way to protect your genetic future,” he deadpans. “Do you really believe that?” queries Cassie. “I did. But then I saw you.” He can’t be both. He has to choose. He chooses her. He’s been redeemed by love. Which ticks another focus-group box.

In an efficiently undemanding film, there are shoot-outs and an exploding coach in a Middle American war-zone city. As a rite of passage, blowing up the yellow school bus is probably the most extreme form of putting aside childish things. But ultimately The 5th Wave is reassuringly about family values, as the various factions bond around a campfire. Yancey’s novel was a trilogy, so the fight-back goes on. “It’s our hope that makes us human,” Cassie’s final journal voice-over explains.




Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Movies with balls

Phantasm series 
reviews by Steven Hampton 
Yes, there really are two kinds of people in the world...
There are people who watch a mystery movie - a movie with mysteriousness at its heart, and then say: “I don’t get that [frowns]. It’s rubbish!”
And there are people that watch that same movie with a mystery in its dark heart, and say: “I don’t understand that [frowns, thoughtfully]. I’ll watch it again.”

Phantasm (1979)
Writer and director: Don Coscarelli 
8/10

Teenage orphan Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) snoops around Morningside cemetery, where the powerful and malevolent Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) lurches about robbing graves and, apparently, uses alien technology to produce midget homunculi (resembling the child-sized Jawas of Star Wars, 1977) for expendable slave labour sent to another dimension or inhospitable alien planet. Mike’s older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), and the town’s ice-cream seller, Reg (Reggie Bannister), are eventually convinced that Mike’s fantastic story is all true, and eventually this gang of three mount an armed raid on Morningside...

Considering that Phantasm was a low-budget genre offering, it became a remarkable cult success when released on video. The script is clearly the work of a tyro filmmaker, and the cast have more amateurish charm than professional competence, but the movie is an efficiently produced combination of scares and laughs, and boasts an inspired level of real creativity from young filmmaker Don Coscarelli.

Although it features ostensibly supernatural set pieces, Phantasm also has overtly SF elements that are elegantly simple: blue barrels contain and preserve the remains of harvested corpses, a pair of vibrating metal posts (the space-gate) in a secret room mark the dimensional boundary of an interplanetary teleportation device, and there’s a flying mechanical sphere (the sentinel) with built-in power tools. This chromed device latches onto its victim’s head, drills noisily into the skull and then pumps out every last drop of blood. Credited to one Willard Green, it’s like a heat-seeking cannonball from Black & Decker!

Sci-fi paraphernalia, childhood melancholy, and its evocative sense of the macabre aside, Phantasm stands apart from conventional American horror movies due to its ominous surrealism. Mike is morbidly curious because his parents are dead but, in place of the nitty-gritty of mortuary customs, his investigation into the mysteries of death uncovers the shocking and arcane practices of the Tall Man, a figure of terror that later haunts the boy's dreams. The Tall Man is a ‘boogeyman’ more fearsome than Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and perhaps even more horrible than the original incarnation of Freddy Krueger - before numerous Elm Street sequels and the spin-off TV series turned the uncanny serial killer into an icon of black comedy.

The Tall Man lives among the townspeople masquerading as an undertaker, yet Mike perceives his inhuman nature in daylight via psychic visions of him walking in slow motion down the street, his footfalls accompanied by a thunderous noise indicating menace like the beating of some almighty great doomsday drum. This disturbing scene of unreality is heightened by surrealist ambiguity, its meaning unclear beyond adolescent Mike’s emotional response. Another memorable sequence sees the Tall Man’s severed finger (lost in a splash of yellow blood during his frenzied pursuit of Mike), transform overnight into a strange bug creature that buzzes angrily around the boy's bedroom at home.

These startling and fascinatingly grotesque images, and the wholesale plundering of graves, may be interpreted as signifiers of alien invasion and the ultimate enslavement of mankind, but Coscarelli holds back from making these points clear in the first movie.

Phantasm II (1988)
Writer and director: Don Coscarelli
6/10


After directing sword ‘n’ sorcery adventure, The Beastmaster (1982), based on a fantasy novel by Andre Norton, the more experienced and bankable Coscarelli secured finance to make Phantasm II, though the resulting movie, which featured quality effects work by Mark Shostrom and Dream Quest Images, was (in the manner of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, 1987) a bigger budgeted remake as much as a narrative sequel.

After seven years in a psych hospital, Mike (here played by James Le Gros) is released and immediately sets out with Reg in search of the menacing Tall Man - who has taken to the road in his hearse, emptying whole towns of their buried dead. Breaking into a hardware store, Reg and Mike assemble weapons including a homemade flamethrower and a pair of double-barrelled shotguns fixed together (similar to a heavy duty firearm used by the protagonist of New Zealand director Geoff Murphy’s historical adventure Utu, 1983), and their preparations copy the improvised armoury techniques of TV’s The A-Team. In the devastated town of Perigord, our vigilante heroes find the Tall Man lurking about and stealing corpses from a funeral parlour, and their battle against evil is resumed...

Horror drama concerns the traumatic ‘return of the repressed’, ‘encounters with death’ and the loss of identity. Phantasm II features one of the most inspired screen images ever to touch on the mystery of what death ‘means’. In an early night scene, we follow Mike and Reg as they enter a small town cemetery and, with the camera on a crane, Coscarelli pulls back for a high-angle, wide shot revealing that every grave in sight is empty. The moonlit darkness is filled with headstones, long shadows and the gaping black rectangles of all those deep holes in the ground. It’s an intensely chilling movie moment (representing the physical erasure of entire family lineages and histories, and, by extension, the human past), and by depicting the ghastly impact of absolute evil at large in the modern world it becomes as perfectly realised a glimpse of pure gothic visual imagination as any piece of artwork you may find in this genre.

Perhaps thankfully, though, Phantasm II isn’t all arty aesthetics. Fans of gore and action will also get their money’s worth here. The diversion into road movie traditions recalls Race With The Devil (1975) and yet, unlike director Jack Starrett’s assured mixing of the supernatural with standard car chase thrills, the heroes of Phantasm II are intent upon hunting down and destroying their powerful enemy, rather than simply trying to escape with their lives. Fight sequences offer sufficient amusement value despite some grim use of fire and bullets. In particular, the ever-busy Reg’s chainsaw duel with one of the Tall Man’s masked drones is terrific fun, as it evokes the crazed power-tool abuse of a certain vengeful Texas Ranger (Dennis Hopper) in Tobe Hooper’s cult sequel, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (1986). The ghastliest sequence is undoubtedly foreshadowed by Reg’s sabotage of an embalming machine, which results in the climactic meltdown of the Tall Man when his body is pumped full of hydrochloric acid.

SF riffs in Phantasm II include the unexplained telepathic link between Mike and young blonde Liz (Paula Irvine), another brief but suitably eerie trip through the space-gate to revisit the bleak alien world where midget workers are visible in the distance still toiling away at some unspecified task, new functions for the flying balls, such as a gold coloured variety which fires a laser beam (and mimics the light-sabres of Star Wars), and the first hints that these spheres can enter and re-animate human corpses after they have done killing people.

Phantasm III: Lord Of The Dead (1994)
Writer and director: Don Coscarelli
6/10

As the common attention span dwindles from two hours to two minutes, the film trilogy or series loses impact with each new outing. Scary jolts tend to replace the development of characters because, ever since the halcyon days of 1970s disaster movies, the average life expectancy of supporting players in horror drama is rarely more than 50 minutes.

Phantasm III is not immune to sequelitis and, even though it picks up exactly where the second film left off, and the filmmakers benefit from a further budget increase (enabling better production values), there's little here that's fresh or innovative. With the aid of ex-army girl, Rocky (Gloria-Lynne Henry), and young orphan Tim (Kevin Conners) - who bring kung fu training and shooting skills to the heroes' cause - Reg goes in search of the kidnapped Mike (A. Michael Baldwin returns, in a casting twist that adds another layer of weirdness to this movie series!), tracking the indestructible Tall Man through more Midwest ghost towns with names like Holtsville and Boulton.

”What the hell are you doing here? You’re dead!” Reg and his newfound allies encounter an amoral gang of violent scavengers and explore the creepy marbled halls of yet bigger mausoleums, but are now guided on their quest by Mike’s older brother Jody (who was killed in a car wreck), appearing in human-spirit form and as a dark tarnished version of the multipurpose spheres. In addition to more night raids on cemeteries, looking for any new way to stop the conquering plans of their enemy, Reg and friends find that the Tall Man (the imposing Mr Scrimm is mesmerising here) has no use for ‘corpsicles’ (frozen heads are discarded) and is afraid of the cold. This makes the refrigeration room scene, and the use a cryogenic storage vat is put to, rather predictable in a weak plot that tends to ignore the potential of intriguing SF ideas in the previous movies - as Coscarelli seems content to simply replay, re-stage or restyle scenes from Phantasm and Phantasm II on a grander, though sadly unimaginative, scale. So, when the unexpected closing of a space-gate cuts off the Tall Man's hands at his wrists, they shed disguising skins and transform into a pair of skittering toothy lizard-things.

What saves Phantasm III from watch ‘n’ wipe recycled video ranking is its adroit use of humour. It’s not the first time a horror sequel has been salvaged by memorable in-jokes but here, Coscarelli’s main cast inhabit their roles with such easy assurance that their diehard habits (Reg, as per usual, lusting after the spirited heroine) and characteristic expressions (the Tall Man’s quizzically arched eyebrow speaks in proverbial volumes) are indicative of a finely-honed professional attitude from all concerned behind-the-scenes. And so the witty banter between Reg and Rocky stems from temperament and motivation, and rarely depends on throwaway one-liners, while Mike's confrontations with the Tall Man are fraught with the appropriate wordless intensity of a clash of wills between champion and nemesis.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
Writer and director: Don Coscarelli
8/10


While many other directors are glad to hand over the reins for their genre creations to others, Coscarelli has strayed bravely from the usual franchising path and maintained a high degree of quality control over his unique concepts, thus ensuring a brand name continuity of vision that many film series lack. In this, he follows the example set by George A. Romero (whose zombie trilogy is now highly respected), and so Coscarelli deserves to be ranked as a genre auteur, rather than just another of that legion of unremarkable, low-budget exploitation-movie directors (you know who they are).

Phantasm IV sees a broadening of the SF and fantasy tropes, which celebrate many key events of the first movie via flashback clips - now re-viewed as fresh interpretations of lucid dreaming and, to some extent, demystified memories - while cleverly redefining the milieu inhabited by the ubiquitous Tall Man with a tour of post-holocaust America for our lost heroes, fielding an allegorical dark fantasy of a shattered human psyche. In redrawing the boundaries of the Phantasm universe, Coscarelli brings the story almost full circle by means of a looped narrative, which permits the sort of temporal paradox that SF fans will recognise instantly.

Reg follows Mike down the highway to Death Valley on a forsaken route leading straight to hell and back. Along this almost mythological road to nowhere, Reg fends off repeated attacks by the hideous dwarves, and deals with the menace of a bullet-proof cop. Out on the heat-hazed desert plain, neat rows of space-gate posts stand like a carpet of needles; a bed of nails for the nostalgic reverie of our chosen survivors. The hitherto unsuspected name of the Tall Man is revealed to be that of diabolical inventor Jedediah Morningside, a mad doctor from the Civil War period, but we must doubt the veracity of such time travel disclosures - because they are inextricably linked to Mike's futile attempt to hang himself in a scene reminiscent of award-winning French short film, An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (1963), which appeared as an episode of TV anthology series, The Twilight Zone. The nihilism of our hero’s failed suicide is balanced, albeit imperfectly, with hope (just a smidgen, though). In spite of this film’s downbeat subtitle - Oblivion Phantasm IV has upbeat moments, not of joy but of possibilities for the future.

Genre films tend to appear and develop in cycles. An original work is almost inevitably succeeded by numerous cash-ins and rip-offs, before a spate of parodies brings closure to all prospects for the burnt-out trend. However, the film industry does not always obey this familiar cyclical model of the boom/ bust economy because, occasionally, aesthetics get in the way of passing fads.

Like Romero's classic Dead trilogy, and unlike a majority of other franchised production lines, Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies have worthy artistic merits (provocative symbolism, narrative ambiguity, unpretentious ambition, authentic innovation, creative integrity and, oh yes... balls), which facilitates escape from the video schlock ghetto to rise above their humble beginnings as a low-budget exploitation flick, and challenge audience perceptions and jaded critical judgments of what modern horror films can do, and say, and what they may become.

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)
Director: David Hartman
7/10

“I can’t tell what’s real any more because of him.” The series becomes a proper cinematic franchise with its fifth adventure, Phantasm: Ravager. Reggie is back. He’s here to bust balls and cope with early dementia, and he’s all out of crazy. On back roads through small towns, driving along in his favourite muscle car, romantic hero Reg picks up the stranded Dawn, and strums his guitar “in the glow of a new song,” but he soon finds that new horrors are simply inescapable, whether he is actually delusional or not. Even when he’s tooled up, ready to fight the flying spheres of death, Reg must consider whether finding a gateway portal with a giant sentinel is the best answer to his various problems, or just the start of a brand new level of insanity.

While too many sequels, remakes, and re-boots play out their scenarios with borrowed themes like overblown fan-fiction, this feels like nightmare paths crossing from different directions and creative directors. With all of its 21st century genre riffs carrying a similar yet queasy bi-polar intensity of weirdo imagination, teleporting in from realms of acidic flashbacks that are just as startling cruel as before, this belated addition to the Phantasm milieu offers a Matrixology of Caligarism. CGI visions of apocalyptic shock and awesome gore, fully re-animated and manifesting as both tribute and reinterpretation, with vividly composed shots expanding a claustrophobic, suffocating dream into comicbook hyper-reality and beyond. Boy, oh boy!