Phantasm: Ravager


A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

A dramatic background befits the late Angus Scrimm.

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Dawn Cody, Daniel Roebuck, Bill Thornbury, Stephen Jutras, Kathy Lester, Daniel Schweiger, John Johannessen, Ken Jones, Cesare Gagliardoni, Tim Devar, Vinton Heuck, Jonathan Sims, Kyle Shire, Jay Oliva, Gloria Lynne Henry, Cean Okada. Directed by David Hartman

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In many ways, the late 70s and early 80s were a golden age of horror that ranked right up there with the 30s when Universal seemed to release a classic horror movie every other week. Starting In 1978, low-budget indies were cranked out at an astonishing rate; most were in the vein of Halloween and Friday the 13th, both the 400-lb gorillas of the horror genre of the era, but some were a little bit different.

Phantasm was not a traditional film by any stretch of the imagination; it combines demonic horror, multi-dimensional head-trips and a kind of post-hippie weirdness that created a movie that was both spooky and trippy at once. So what if the mausoleum sets were obviously sets? So what if some of the editing was just a little bit awful? So what if the hot chicks just disappear from the movie without explanation? It didn’t get a lot of love at the box office or even on the home video front, but the love it got was forever, man. The people who got into the whole Phantasm franchise got into it heart and soul supporting it through three additional sequels.

This year has been a godsend for fans of the original. Not only is the original film being re-released with a digital restoration (funded partially by superfan J.J. Abrams) but also the first sequel to the franchise to make it into theaters in 18 years. It will almost certainly be the last, sadly; Angus Scrimm, who played the seminal villain The Tall Man passed away this past January 9th of natural causes at the age of 89. Hopefully he didn’t get sent to an alternate dimension as a misshapen dwarf to be a slave.

Like the original movie, this one is a bit of a mindbender. Reggie (Bannister), the ice cream vendor who has become something of a Rambo-esque warrior battling the machinations of The Tall Man, ends up in several different dimensions; one a post-apocalyptic future in which the Tall Man has won and gigantic spheres monitor the planet, indiscriminately killing anyone whom it seems fit to destroy, and the world is overwhelmed by the yellow-blooded slave-dwarves who resemble Jawas from the Star Wars franchise somewhat.

At the same time, he is in a rest home, infected by a disease released into the world by the Tall Man but in the present. After picking up a beautiful young woman named Dawn (Cody) while out in the desert, he observes her murder at the hands of one of the Tall Man’s silver spheres which uses a fork-like appendage to lock into her forehead, and then a drill spirals into her skull and into her brain. Not cool at all, Tall Man.

Now he is reunited with Michael (Baldwin), the kid brother of Jody (Thornbury) who died in the first movie – except that in the apocalyptic dimension Jody is alive and fighting with Michael and Dawn (who’s alive in that dimension too) against the Tall Man. Reggie seems to be the key to chasing him out of all the dimensions – except that Reggie might just be crazy as a bedbug.

Some of you may have read the synopsis and started to type in a different web address in your browser, but just bear with me for a moment. Yeah, I know it sounds insane and confusing but as you’re watching it things just make a weird kind of sense. Of all the sequels in the franchise, this one comes closest to replicating the out-there vibe of the original and ends up being a little bit of an homage as well as a sequel.

Another thing the movie does incredibly well is capture the 70s horror film vibe that is so very much missing from modern horror films (particularly those of the studio variety) which often feel mass-produced and soulless. Say what you want about the production values (and some of the computer effects are genuinely cringe-inducing), this movie has heart and that counts for something.

Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the most genuinely scary movie villains of all time; I used to have nightmares about him standing in front of an inter-dimensional rift, pointing a finger at me and intoning “BOYYYYYYY!!!” If you’ve seen him do it in any of the five Phantasm films, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. While many horror movie villains these days are creepy, few are as genuinely scary as the Tall Man.

Scrimm still is a force of nature here but the rest of the cast is just adequate, acting-wise. Mostly original writer-director Don Coscarelli hired people he knew and they’ve stuck with him (and he with them) through thick and thin and there’s something to be said for that. They aren’t likely to contend for Oscars anytime soon, but they do the job as well as they’re able and seeing all the familiar faces onscreen evokes a pretty strong sense of nostalgia, for which there is something also to be said. However, I would like to tell these gentlemen those ponytails just look kind of douche-y on men. There are more Brony tails here than there should be in a single movie. It’s just not right.

There are a couple of other obstacles to giving this a much higher score. The ending is a disappointment and there is also a scene involving a horse which is likely to give animal lovers serious nightmares – if you are sensitive to violence to animals, you might want to think twice about seeing this or if you do, have someone with you who can tell you when the scene ends. I’m not particularly a lover of horses but I found the scene kind of wrenching.

If this is to be the final film in the series and there’s no reason to think it won’t be, it’s a fitting send-off. I hope Coscarelli and his crew leave on this high note. I don’t think Scrimm can be replaced, and putting a different villain in will simply call attention to the glaring absence of the REAL Tall Man. I suspect that the movie will be much more meaningful to people of my age group who grew up with the series rather than those discovering it for the first time; while Ravager can probably be watched without seeing the first four movies in the series, I think it will be helpful to at least be familiar with them before seeing this one. Fans of the series will likely be satisfied with this one. And for my money, it’s kind of comforting to know that in fact they can make them like they used to.

REASONS TO GO: The film really captures the vibe of 70s horror films. Scrimm remains one of the iconic horror villains. It ends up being a nice tribute to the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit off-putting. The horse scene may be too disturbing for animal lovers. There are too many “Brony tails” for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of frightening images and gore as well as a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only film in the franchise not directed by Don Coscarelli who remained with the project as a producer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!

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John Dies at the End


You don't want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

You don’t want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

(2012) Horror (Magnet) Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett, Allison Weissman, Angus Scrimm, Prandihi Varshney, Riley Rose Critchlow, Helena Mehalis, Maria Mehalis. Directed by Don Coscarelli

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The world is divided into two kinds of people; those who get John Dies at the End and those who don’t. Those who do appreciate fun for its own sake, and don’t mind a good genre mash-up. They don’t need a conventional narrative structure and are willing to sacrifice plot coherency for a good laugh…or a fiendishly fun gross-out. They are the sorts who read webcomics religiously, are students of pop culture, think Arrested Development just might be the best television show ever made, don’t mind staying up 36 straight hours playing a good videogame or occasionally partake of a little recreational drug use. Or perhaps all of the above.

David Wong (Williamson) – who isn’t Chinese; he just changed his name to make it harder to find him – meets with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Giamatti) – who isn’t blonde – in a Chinese restaurant. David and his partner John (Mayes) are a kind of demonic Ghostbusters if you will. They’re nearly as well known in the community as Dr. Albert Marconi (Brown) and Arnie wants to get their story.

But David’s story is not the usual kind. David and John have been using a drug with the street name of soy sauce because of its appearance. However this is one of those drugs that you don’t choose, it chooses you. Some people ingest it and become…altered. For David and John however, they develop some rudimentary psychic powers like the ability to read minds, see the future, communicate with the dead and more importantly see demonic presences that the ordinary living can’t detect.

Basically, what’s going on is that there is a biological supercomputer in an alternate universe that wants to break into our universe and take over since it already reigns supreme where it lives. I guess even near-omnipotent biological supercomputers get bored too. Anyway it, and the people that it controls, have been trying to break into our dimension for decades without success but now that David and John have actually done it, the computer wants to know how they did it and is willing to do whatever it takes to get that knowledge. For David and John’s part they’d much rather be sleeping.

That’s a very rudimentary outline of the plot and doesn’t really give you too much of a sense of the real lunacy going on. Based on the book by the same name by David Wong (who is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin), the movie has all the genre-bending fun from the novel coupled with the visual sense of Coscarelli who some might remember as the man who gave us the Phantasm movies as well as the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep. As you can tell from his resume, this kind of thing is right in his wheelhouse.

Some will find a bit of glee in trying to determine which other movies this most resembles. For example, it has the philosophical sci-fi ramblings of a Donnie Darko but also the hip quotient of a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There’s the roller coaster gore quotient of Army of Darkness and the trans-dimensional goof of Big Trouble in Little China. I could go on but you get the picture.

Williamson and Mayes make a good team. The chemistry is right there between them, two longtime friends who often speak in their own code (brought to ridiculous levels) but are nonetheless insanely loyal to each other. Their banter is realistic and makes the relationship and bond between them seem more natural and organic.

They get some decent support as well. Turman is good as a philosophical police detective who knows a lot more than he wants to know, while Brown plays a kind of Eurotrash self-help book author who has a beautiful entourage but doesn’t just talk the talk. I was also kind of fond of Weston as a hip-hop talking gangsta who is lily-white and looks and sounds ridiculous but doesn’t know it; you see a lot of those sorts on TV and in real life and it’s nice to see someone acknowledge that it’s moronic even though it’s probably not politically correct to do so. Le sigh.

The effects are mostly practical and a bit old school but they still work. Some of them are pretty nifty, like the police officer’s moustache that abruptly comes to life and starts fluttering about the room like a butterfly, or a freezer full of meat that assembles to become a meat monster (okay, that one was a bit cheesy I’ll grant you).

This one’s a roller coaster ride through current slacker culture and if there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that this is probably not a movie that’s going to age well and will be likely viewed as a product of its time as movies that cater to youth culture inevitably do. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is in the here and now, nor does it mean that it doesn’t excel at what it is aiming for. This isn’t exactly fun for the whole family – some people are simply not going to get it and truthfully they’re probably never going to get it – but that doesn’t mean that those who do shouldn’t get the pleasure of knowing they’re one of the club.

REASONS TO GO: One hell of a mindf*ck. Psychedelic horror that refuses to take itself seriously. Imaginative visuals and fun throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: May freak one’s freak a little too much. Some may find the story confusing and convoluted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of bad language,  a scene or two of nudity and plenty of drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the FedEx package that John sends himself at the mall, his full name is John Cheese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100; the reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Olympus Has Fallen

I Sell the Dead


I Sell the Dead

There are many things out there much worse than grave robbers.

(2008) Horror Comedy (IFC) Dominic Monaghan, Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman, Angus Scrimm, Eileen Colgan, John Speredakos, Brenda Cooney, Heather Bullock. Directed by Glenn McQuaid

Perhaps one of the worst professions ever conceived by the ever-fevered mind of man is that of grave robber, those who steal human corpses for use by anatomists, doctors and whoever is willing to pay for them to dig one up. However, as bad as they are, there are worse things out there.

Arthur Blake (Monaghan) is a grave robber and he and his partner Willie Grimes (Fessenden, who also wrote and produced the film) are about to be executed for their crimes. While Arthur awaits his turn at the guillotine, he confesses his sins to Father Duffy (Perlman) who comes in to give the boy absolution.

Instead, Arthur tells the tale of his apprenticeship with Grimes and their slow make-over from run-of-the-mill body snatchers to those specializing in, well, special cases. Their penchant for turning up vampires, aliens and zombies runs them afoul of Cornelius Murphy (Speredakos), head of a rival gang.

Burke and Hare…I mean, Blake and Grimes are used to running afoul of people. They have a business relationship with Dr. Quint (Scrimm) to provide corpses for dissection but that doesn’t do the good doctor any good if the damn things won’t stay dead.

The movie has an off-the-scale silliness factor which actually adds to the charm. I honestly didn’t expect much from this one, which got such a limited release that most of its cast never knew it actually got one.

McQuaid, a fine cinematographer in his own right, shot this on a micro-budget mostly in the United States (substituting for Ireland, which its often mistaken for) and has a nice sense of flair for the homage. He seems to have been greatly influenced by the Hammer horror films of the 70s which is what this movie most resembles.

There are also some nice little touches, such as Scrimm, who played the Tall Man (a mortuary worker) in Phantasm, here as (wait for it) a mortuary worker. (TA-DAAAAAAAA!) It shows a deft touch not often found in horror directors these days who prefer to bludgeon the viewer with gore and effects make-up to the point where old fashioned horror movies with great premises are an endangered species.

Not if McQuaid and Fessenden have anything to do with it. Fessenden, although ostensibly a supporting player, actually steals the show in many ways. He appears to be having the best time of any in the cast, and plays his character with an air of jaded disbelief that helps move the comic timing of the movie quite nicely.

Monaghan, a genre favorite for his work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as the cult classic television show “Lost,” makes do with a part that probably could have used Ricky Gervais instead. Still, he’s got a beguiling charisma that audiences just naturally gravitate towards; he’s got a great shot at a political career if he ever decides to go that route.

Quite frankly, this is low budget and it shows in the sets as well as in the set pieces. To be fair, McQuaid wasn’t looking to reinvent the wheel here and he uses a lot of conventional genre tricks in getting his point across, relying more on practical effects than in digital ones. He also has a good script, a solid cast and a fair amount of talent of his own; there is an economy of energy here that allows the actors to underplay things a bit so it doesn’t descend into parody (a la the Scary Movie franchise) or cheesiness (the Abbott and Costello classics). From that standpoint, you have to be impressed with the talent behind the camera as it’s pretty difficult to pull off that kind of feat. Certainly I’ll be looking forward with anticipation for further projects from McQuaid.

Horror fans are going to get a kick out of this one, which shows off impressive genre chops that give props to everything from the Universal monster pictures to soft-core porn. Doesn’t sound compatible, I grant you but then that kind of imaginative genre-bending is part of why this charming and witty film works.

WHY RENT THIS: It has a certain off-beat charm that’s infectious. Monaghan is extremely likable and Fessenden is having a jolly good time with this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely suffers from a Grade Z budget with A-list aspirations. Film is disjointed and drags early on.

FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly ghoulish themes and images, as well as a smattering of foul language and a bit of horror violence make this suitable only for those of legal drinking age or greater.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A huge hit on the festival circuit (particularly at Slamdance where it was nominated for a cinematography award), IFC picked up the movie for a (very) brief U.S. run before sending it off for home video, on demand and eventually, cable release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD comes with a comic book version of the movie done in the style of the animations that appear periodically in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,050 on an unreported production budget; the movie certainly lost money here, but overseas may have made enough to at least break even, or maybe not.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day