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

sixdays2016-3

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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Train to Busan (Busanhaeng)


Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Ahn So-hee, Eui-sung Kim, Gwi-ha Choi, Jang Hyuk-Jin, Seok-yong Jeong, Chang Hwan Kim, Myong-sin Park, Eun-kyung Shim, Soo-jung Ye. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

I have always loved trains. It’s a nice way to travel; just watch the countryside pass by or engage with your fellow passengers. I find the sound of the clackety-clack of the rails soothing. However, the trouble with trains is that you are locked on board with your fellow passengers.

Seok Woo (Gong) is a workaholic hedge fund manager whose wife has walked out. He has custody of their cute little daughter Soo-an (Kim) and she’s caught in the middle of their bickering. It is the little girl’s birthday and daddy remembers to buy her a gift…a Nintendo which she already has. Soo-an wants to visit her mommy who lives in Busan (Daddy works out of Seoul) and she figures she can take the train by herself. Seok refuses to allow that and insists on accompanying her. He’s incredibly busy at work with one of his prize biotech stocks beset by what appears to be a massive worker’s strike but when his daughter insists, he reluctantly agrees to go with her to Busan.

Meanwhile, the last person on the train is a young woman with a strange bite mark on her leg. She is clearly terrified and soon has a seizure and apparently dies as a conductor frantically calls for help. Then the dead passenger suddenly returns to life and attacks the conductor and the two begin spreading the disease through the cabin like wildfire.

It turns out that there is a disease that has spread from a leak at the bio-engineering company that Seok Woo has been championing in his hedge fund. That leak is turning people into zombies and not the slow-moving zombies of George Romero; these zombies turn from human to zombie in seconds and they are fast as blazes, faster than the humans in the train. Darkness confuses them (they only react to humans they can see) and they behave and move in herds. As the number of humans on the train dwindle and civilization crumbling outside the train, is there any hope for those left on board the train that haven’t been turned into zombies?

I would characterize this as a cross between The Walking Dead, World War Z and Snowpiercer. You get the swarming zombies who sometimes pile up on top of each other like ants, but you also get the individual zombies that are ravenous and milky-eyed. The zombies are fast and deadly and as the movie goes on, they get even more dangerous.

This is definitely an action-oriented horror movie. There is some gore but they don’t really linger on it. There’s far more running, chasing, fighting and hiding going on than actual zombie battles, although there is some of that. Mostly, there is some social commentary which puts a cowardly businessman as the bad guy, taking over from Seok Woo himself who initially is selfish and sociopathic, although his love for his daughter and his desire to protect her changes him over the course of the movie. I wouldn’t have minded keeping Seok as the bad guy throughout, having one of those rare instances of the same character being both hero and villain.

We’ve seen a lot of zombie movies and zombie TV shows and it’s no secret that Walking Dead is the most popular show on television right now, but that’s mainly because it’s not about the zombies; it’s about the relationships and it’s about surviving in a world that has been obliterated. This ranks right up there among the best of them. The storyline is plausible and even though there are some cliches that begin to cycle in towards the end, it still kicks ass. After all, what more do you really want out of a zombie flick?

REASONS TO GO: Quite a roller coaster ride, if you like that sort of thing. Irreverent without sinking into satire. A bit of social commentary is sprinkled in.
REASONS TO STAY: A few horror movie cliches can be found, particularly in the third act.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of zombie violence and gore, a bit of foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first live action film for Sang-ho Yeon who had previously only made animated features.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Dheepan

Kill Your Friends


Alone in a crowd.

Alone in a crowd.

(2015) Comedy (Well Go USA) Nicholas Hoult, James Corden, Georgia King, Craig Roberts, Jim Piddock, Joseph Mawle, Dustin Demri-Burns, Damien Molony, Bronson Webb, Emma Smith, Rosanna Hoult, Ed Skrein, Tom Riley, Edward Hogg, Kurt Egyiawan, Hugh Skinner, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alex Gillison, Ieva Andrejevaite, Osy Ikhile, David Avery, Alannah Olivia. Directed by Owen Harris

Music is a highly personal thing. It can define you, it can color your world, it can take you back to good memories in an instant. It can also make a lot of money for someone.

In the 1990s, it was the era of Cool Brittania, when music from the UK ruled the airwaves. Blur, Oasis and Radiohead were at the top of the charts and even lesser-known bands had their moments in the sun. That was a really good time to be a record company A&R man in Britain.

Steve Stelfox (Hoult) has that very job, and judging from the tabloids it’s all drugs, sex and concerts and that’s pretty much true, but he actually has to sign some bands and those bands actually have to make some money for the label. His good friend Roger (Corden) wants to sign bands that matter, but Steve thinks that’s silly – except that the head of A&R for the label has essentially had a breakdown and the open job is likely Roger’s because he’s been there the longest – and Steve wants that job.

So Steve takes drastic steps to ensure that he has the longest tenure but a curveball is thrown his way when Parker Hall (Riley) is hired; and Hall is bringing with him a highly coveted indie band, the Lazies, in with him. Steve has in turn signed the Songbirds, a Spice Girls-wannabe act who are temperamental and damn near impossible to work with and look to be a dead end for the label.

Steve is aided by his secretary Rebecca (King) who is blackmailing him for a promotion and there is a detective (Hogg)  investigating what happened to Roger, who after interrogating Steve slips him a demo because, you know, he always wanted to be a singer-songwriter. Steve is clever and Steve is ruthless and Steve doesn’t really have much of a conscience; perfect qualifications for the music industry.

Screenwriter John Niven adapted the material from his own novel, and he certainly has some background in the subject – he was actually an A&R guy during the period the novel takes place in. So you figure that some of the goings on had some basis in fact, particularly the back-biting and hustling. That lends an air of authenticity which differentiates this from other films set within the music industry, in which plucky young songwriters who have something to say end up getting a contract. The cynicism here is well-earned.

Hoult is perfectly cast as Stelfox, operating with a furrowed WTF brow alternating with an eye-rolling sneer. The character has been compared to Patrick Bateman in American Psycho but I think that’s a bit of an easy cop-out; Stelfox may be amoral and cynical but he’s not psychotic; he simply has no ethics whatsoever. There’s a very important difference there.

He does the voiceover narration as well, and it’s pretty damn funny. In fact, a lot of the material here is funny to the point I was laughing out loud – possibly because I have an insider’s perspective to the music industry (I was a rock critic for more than a decade) but also because it’s just so damn mean. If you’re in the right mood for this kind of stuff (and I clearly was) there’s a gold mine of laughs here.

I wanted to call attention to the soundtrack. It has a lot of period-accurate and place-accurate music that will instantly bring you back to the era. It’s not all hits either; some of the songs you’ll here were essentially album tracks, but they were not the filler – they were the tracks that could have been singles. There is also some original music and the score is by Junkie XL, who is rapidly becoming one of the best there is.

The movie was a touch too long and there will be plenty who will find it too dark. I will definitely give the caveat that this isn’t the movie for everyone and there are some who won’t take well to the cynical tone. However, as far as it goes, I think the movie accomplishes what it set out to and in fact exceeded my expectations. This is going to be one of those movies you’ve probably never heard of but when you find it on Netflix or some other streaming service you’ll be delighted that you did.

REASONS TO GO: A really great soundtrack. Black comedy that’s laugh-out-loud funny. Nicholas Hoult is spot on in his performance.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long and maybe too cynical for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a ton of drug use, as well as some nudity, plenty of violence and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s protagonist is partly inspired by A&R legend Don Simpson.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: High Fidelity
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: London Has Fallen

The Zero Theorem


Qohen Leth parties like it's 2099.

Qohen Leth parties like it’s 2099.

(2014) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rupert Friend, Peter Stormare, Dana Rogoz, Madison Lygo, Ingrid Bisu, Naomi Everson, Radu Andrei Micu, Tudor Istodor, Olivia Nita, George Remes, Iulia Verdes, Alin Olteanu, Margarita Doyle. Directed by Terry Gilliam

The more complicated life gets – and make no mistake, it grows more complex with each passing day – the more we struggle to make sense of it. If you think it’s bad now, just imagine with those living in the future are going to have to contend with.

Qohen Leth (Waltz) is an office drone who has all sorts of issues. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac, sure that he is dying. He refers to himself in the second person – we instead of I, us instead of me. He works for Mancom, a company that makes some kind of software that brings convenience – or nothing at all. He is a data cruncher which in the future involves a Tetris-like placing of data squares into geometric city-like constructions, while furiously pedaling a flywheel. Data is transferred in vials of liquid. Being an office worker in the future sucks.

Qohen lives in an abandoned church infested with rats and pigeons, leaking from the roof and looking inside like a bomb hit it. He sleeps in the pipe organ and really would prefer to work at home, having no love for his fellow man. He’s also obsessed with a phone call he is sure is coming – one which will explain to him What It All Means and what his place in the grand scheme of things is. He’s twitchy, neurotic and in short, the very model of a modern Major General.

He asks his boss Joby (Thewlis) to get him permission to telecommute which doesn’t seem likely; the company likes keeping track of its workers. Qohen also meets Bainsley (Thierry) at a party thrown by Joby that Qohen goes to reluctantly, mainly to try and get a one-on-one audience with Management (Damon), the reclusive CEO of Mancom. He doesn’t know how to handle the forward Bainsley and although she gives him her card, there doesn’t seem to be any future for a relationship there. However, he is successful in getting time with Management (who wears clothing to blend into the decor) and at last is given a project he can work on at home.

New equipment is installed in his cluttered cathedral, mainly by the genius level Bob (Hedges) who turns out to be the son of Management (now doesn’t that sound like an office-based horror flick?) who addresses everyone as Bob because he doesn’t have time to learn their names. But he really isn’t a bad sort.

In the meantime Qohen is doing strikingly well with the project and getting close to making it work and things with Bainsley are turning out superbly, particularly when they meet on a digital beach where the sun is eternally setting. Life is good online at least.

But the closer Qohen gets to completing his project, the more frustrated he gets and the more he begins to retreat back into his shell. As it turns out, the project is about mathematically proving that everything equals nothing, which proves that there’s no point to life. The chaos this will create Mancom will profit from. And so it goes.

This has director Terry Gilliam’s thumbprint all over it, from the details, the somewhat wacky atmosphere that has marked all his work from his time as the only American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus through his visionary career. Gilliam is certainly an acquired taste; not everyone gets his sense of humor and clearly his films don’t make a lot of money with few exceptions (Time Bandits being one). However, his work can be startlingly good and when it works he is one of the best directors living today. Even throwaway lines – an advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer – can bust me up laughing.

Waltz, head shaved and twitchy, is terrific here. You get the sense that this is an individual who is in deep pain and takes great pains to make sure he remains so. There are some hints that give background into his psyche  but clearly this is a man who in our society would be undergoing all sorts of therapy and might well be committed. He seems to fit in real well in the future.

He gets some fine support, particularly from Hedges whose Bob becomes good friends with Qohen in an oddball way, and Thierry who is beautiful and charismatic as the love interest. All of the characters show some sort of vulnerability at some point, wearing masks to hide their pain. Qohen is a little more up-front about it. Management, being management, shows no weakness.

Visually this is an amazing movie, from majestic scenes of a black hole to the rotting interior of Leth’s home and the clever scenes of what is supposed to be London (maybe) in the near future but is more than likely Bucharest. There is a definite steampunk look to the film which is kind of a thing this year in indie films.

This hasn’t received any sort of release yet, although the movie’s website is promising a summer release. I hope that the distributors deliver on this; this is a movie that should be seen, by Gilliam’s fanbase if by nobody else. This is among his very best films which makes it a classic in the making, so serious film buffs should check this out even if they aren’t especially fond of Gilliam’s work.

REASONS TO GO: When it hits the mark, it’s mind-blowing. Terrific set design and Waltz is terrific in a very different role than you’re used to seeing for him.

REASONS TO STAY: As Gilliam films are prone to do, they can meander sometimes. If you don’t like Gilliam’s films, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some expletives here and there as well as some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the park scene, screenwriter Pat Rushin (who also teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida) can be seen on a bench writing on his briefcase; he’s actually writing motivational lines that scroll across the computer screen in the cubicles during a different part of the film. His wife can also be glimpsed reading a newspaper.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Railway Man