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 

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

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

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

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

“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!


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