Tag Archives: Angus Scrimm

PHANTASM: SPECIAL EDITION BOX SET (2017)

THE FEATURES: Spanning release dates from 1979 through 2016, one can reasonably expect a certain amount of unevenness in this long-running series. The first film, Phantasm, stands up well, despite some lo-fi clutter. The troubling story of Mikey, a boy who lost his parents and fears abandonment by his brother, is spiked by the supernatural presence of an inter-dimensional undertaker, the Tall Man, and the iconic spheres he sends to slaughter his enemies. Weirdness abounds, not least in the random inclusion of an ice-cream man instrumental in saving the day.

The 1988 sequel, Phantasm II, was intended to start off a BIG franchise. It had enough of the right ingredients: scary bad guy, relatable protagonists, and murderous spheres. However, its release among dozens of bigger name, bigger-budgeted features (Rambo III, Who Frame Roger Rabbit?Die Hard, and so on) doomed the rest of the series to a “direct-to-video” fate.

Things take a turn for the worse with the largely time-wasting, but not wholly unpleasant Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), in which the director makes the (admitted) mistake of going too far in a silly direction. It was further marred by the presence of an eleven-year-old character who utterly fails to make an impression comparable to the first movie’s protagonist.

Sharply improving for the fourth go-around, Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998) explains a number of things in the sometimes confounding Phantasm universe as the ice-cream man’s journey toward action hero shuffles forward. With a now mature “Mikey” trying to turn the tables on the Tall Man, it ends with a satisfying bit of bleak closure: a seeming victory for the Tall Man.

Resurrecting the project for one final(?) spin, Phantasm: Ravager (2016) brings the whole gang back together to face off against the Tall Man, sinister dwarfs and, of course, more deadly metallic spheres.

Promotional art for Phantasm box set

THE EXTRAS: Each movie is accompanied by a thorough documentary featuring behind-the-scenes remarks from creator , as well as pertinent anecdotes from most everyone else involved in the production, from the actors to the good people behind the creepy dwarf sounds and sinister sphere effects. Of particular interest are the stories from crazy-go-nuts stuntman Bob Ivy (who also played the title role in Coscarelli’s Certified Weird Bubba Ho-Tep). Ivy never found a car stunt too fast nor an explosion too dangerous for his liking. And that’s just the start. The running time of the extras exceeds that of the movies quite handily, and I admit that I didn’t dive (yet) into the movie commentaries. (To highlight the thoroughness , just when I thought I was finished after the fifth movie’s disc, I discovered “Disc 6: the Extras.”) Impressively, everything was a lot of fun to watch, as well as incredibly informative.

THE VERDICT: Needless to say, there is enough here for any fan of the franchise. (If you find yourself wanting more, I suspect you’ll only be satisfied if one of the actors were to move in with you). The movies all look good—really good. They sound good. And they have mostly stood up to the test of time. With Phantasm: Ravager, Coscarelli sets up director David Hartman as the new minder of the franchise. Of course, this prompts the question: with the recent death of Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm, who could possibly play the role of the wicked undertaker? In a somewhat out-of-the-way bonus feature on the first disc, we get to see Scrimm’s first run-in with film, acting in a 1951 short playing Abraham Lincoln. So, the obvious replacement to carry on the Tall Man’s evil legacy in the Phantasm universe is none other than Daniel Day-Lewis. (Hartman and Coscarelli, you heard it here first.)

CAPSULE: PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016)

DIRECTED BY: David Hartman

FEATURING: , , Angus Scrimm

PLOT: Reggie and Mikey try to thwart the Tall Man’s  plans to dominate our world, slipping between different realities as things build toward an explosive showdown in a post-apocalyptic America.

Still from Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While this is the second-least-straight-forward movie in the five-film franchise, Phantasm: Ravager isn’t quite worthy of a Certified slot (an honor that perhaps should be reserved solely for the original entry). Certainly there are time slips, an unreliable narrator, and the ever-nebulous Tall Man, but everything’s well grounded in context. Gargantuan Sentinel Spheres looming over a blasted metropolis do provide a pretty weird sight, though.

COMMENTS: The Tall Man waits for no man. In this, the (allegedly) final chapter of the long-running Phantasm franchise, his assault on mankind reaches a crescendo in a whirl-wind of Plymouth Barracuda stunts, reality jumps, and spheres both large and small. Passing the reigns on to David Hartman, Don Coscarelli readies himself for his post-Phantasm career. But Phantasm: Ravager is still very much Coscarelli’s baby, and he bears that responsibility with all due gravity. And just what kind of final chapter are the fans given? As one wag from Variety quipped, “It’s kinda-sorta like an Alain Resnais movie, only with zombie dwarfs.

Hewing to precedent, Phantasm V picks up right where Phantasm IV left off, with the Reg-man (Reggie Bannister) emerging from the barren distance with his quad-shotgun over his shoulder. He’s just come back from the Tall Man’s world to find his ‘Cuda has been jacked. He is not a happy camper. Events proceed, spheres appear, and then something odd happens. With a gasp, we see Reggie again, being pushed in a wheelchair by long-time friend Mikey (A. Michael Baldwin). Our dear hero may not be a hero so much as a poor old man succumbing to dementia. Or…maybe not. Time and space keep shuffling, and as we hear Reggie’s story, a new adventure unfurls that shows a future grimmer, perhaps, than mental decay. The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) has laid waste to large swaths of humanity and Mikey, after years of being pursued by the Tall Man, now finds himself leading the resistance.

It’s clear early on that Phantasm: Ravager is for the fans. I mean this as no criticism, but this movie has little to offer those just jumping on the Phantasm bandwagon. This series became a by-word for clever low-budget horror, and it does not disappoint in this installment. CGI abounds here, but enthusiasts will hopefully be forgiving: the vision for Ravager requires a much larger canvas than the original. The editing of the narrative keeps you on your toes, and much like the four preceding pictures, Ravager‘s claim of explaining all the mysteries is undermined by considerable ambiguity. As a director, David Hartman keeps things novel, with perhaps his greatest coup being that by the end, the audience is hoping that it’s not the story of an Alzheimer’s victim, but that the world as we know it has been done in by gargantuan laser-equipped flying balls.

Staggered over the years (’79, ’88, ’94, ’98, and 2016), the franchise  has maintained a grip on a large group of horror fans. The movies’ linchpin—the Tall Man—stands as one of the great figures of horror film history. Angus Scrimm was pushing 90 when filming began, and while Phantasm: Ravager won’t go down in history as a great movie, there’s something gratifying about the fact that he got one more go-around in the role that made him famous. Ravager is an adequate capstone to a film series that, against all odds, made itself an institution. Certainly more “horror” than “weird,” the Phantasm phenomenon is well worth a look: a look that we will soon give with the review of the holy-mega-totally-comprehensive Phantasm Blu-ray box set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the surreal thing, a time-tripping, dimension-hopping whirligig that suggests ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (or, better still, Resnais’ ‘Je t’aime, je t’aime’) reconstituted as the fever dream of a horror-fantasy aficionado.”–Joe Leydon, Variety (contemporaneous)

SHORT: THE TRICK IS THE TREAT (2013)

recites a list of yummy Halloween treats, but something is a bit off… This short by 366 fave celebrates “the euphoria of the Halloween candy score… and the paranoia of the Halloween candy predator…”

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As our own Pamela De Graff  likes to say, everyone out there have an unsafe and insane Halloween!

PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION (1998)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: The Tall Man, a satanic funeral director from another dimension, continues to use his infinite superpowers to turn corpses into an army of zombie midgets with which to conquer the Universe, just as he did in the previous three films.

Still from Phantasm IV (1998)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a thematically identical but vastly inferior third sequel to the Certified Weird original.

COMMENTS: If you’ve ever wondered why , who started out making low-budget cult horror movies, is now a mainstream director of blockbuster superhero films, yet Don Coscarelli, whose breakthrough hit Phantasm is vastly more imaginative, ambitious, and technically accomplished than Raimi’s debut The Evil Dead, is still making odd little movies for a niche market, look no further than Phantasm IV: Oblivion.

The original Phantasm has been praised on this site and elsewhere for the gleeful absence of logic which contributes to its nightmare quality, but by the time the third sequel was churned out, it had become all too obvious that Coscarelli wasn’t so much being wildly imaginative as abandoning any pretense at creating a logically structured narrative because he wasn’t much good at that sort of thing, and didn’t particularly care. All four movies in this franchise end in exactly the same way: the heroes figure out the Tall Man’s weakness and destroy him, but then, minutes later, he pops up again as good as new and apparently wins. This would be fine in a weekly serial where every episode has to end on a cliff-hanger, but at intervals of roughly six years between films? Not so much. Even worse, Coscarelli’s use of this and many other increasingly predictable plot-devices in every one of the four movies makes the first one seem less imaginative in retrospect.

Phantasm IV is an anticlimax in every way. Even Coscarelli admitted at the time that he was only making it to squeeze the last few bucks out of the franchise. Having managed to obtain a budget of only $650,000, because nobody except the usual rabid clique of obsessive fanboys wanted more installments in this worn-out saga, he must have known all along that the proposed fifth movie—in which a near-future USA has been totally devastated by the Tall Man’s hordes, and the heroes face literally thousands of zombie midgets, silver balls, etc. in a post-apocalyptic wasteland—stood no chance whatsoever of getting the vast funding it would require. But he cynically shot a cheap, tired, inconclusive prequel to it anyway for the money.

In the laziest opening sequence ever, Reggie Baldwin, who ended the previous movie completely helpless and obviously doomed, is released for no reason whatsoever by the Tall Man, who mutters something cryptic about it all being a game, and then spends the rest of the film trying to kill him in ludicrously over-elaborate ways. As for Tim, a major character in Phantasm III whose final fate was extremely vague, he was supposed to be shown getting devoured alive by zombie dwarves. But they couldn’t afford the gore effects, so he’s simply forgotten about. Deleted scenes from the first and third films are used to pad out the running-time, and since they’re completely out of context, the narrative becomes especially muddled at these points.

The silver ball scenes are perfunctory this time; apparently they were only affordable because exceptionally rabid fans had worked out how to do the effect fairly well (and cheaply) for their amateur homages. The few prosthetics are extremely crude compared with those in previous movies. The most significant new monster is a big guy in a rubber mask. A great deal of footage was shot in Death Valley, because it was cheaper than building a set, but most of it consists of A. Michael Baldwin standing around having internal monologues and looking angsty. And the brief glimpse we get of post-zombie-holocaust LA, which, though deserted, is oddly un-devastated, is very obviously guerrilla footage shot at dawn when there was nobody about (the same trick was used in the Doctor Who serial “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” in 1963).

Rumors still persist that Phantasm V will finally go into production and the series will conclude properly, but with no serious claims that the project is alive since 2008, it doesn’t seem likely, especially as Angus Scrimm is, at the time of writing, 87 years old. So as far as the movies are concerned, the story ends here. For the fourth and final time, the Tall Man won.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I suppose that it’s very weirdness that makes it so distinctive and hypnotic becomes suffocating after awhile; parts of it are so arbitrary that they cross the line from surreality to pointlessness. Still, it’s a one-of-a-kind thing, a feverish gust of the warped and uncanny that works on a part of your brain older and more susceptible than the bits that deal with logic and reason.”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)

CAPSULE: SATAN HATES YOU (2009)

DIRECTED BYJames Felix McKenney

FEATURING: Don Wood, Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, Debbie Rochon, Michael Berryman, Larry Fessenden

PLOT: In this re-imagining of the “Christ-sploitation” films shown in churches and

Still from Satan Hates You (2009)

probably a few Southern gynecologists’ offices of the 60s and 70s, we follow a young man and woman who make all the wrong choices in a haze of drugs, alcohol, and rock music while unknowingly under the influence of two demonic imps.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Satan Hates You, while initially very jarring in its lack of self-explanation, is a satisfying experience in terms of its Troma-esque shock horror and its acute satirical edge.  But its freaky imagery leans too often on a bland naturalistic style that mars its individuality and chokes the weirdness out of the movie.

COMMENTS: Satan Hates You is a very hard film to place.  Being a satire, a dark comedy, and a horror film is no ordinary pedigree, and Satan Hates You maniacally shifts from one of these genres to the next every few minutes.  It is a wicked send-up of those fear-mongering Christian PSA films that pop into existence every generation about the dangers of doing ungodly things like having abortions and doing drugs.  But it honestly doesn’t hit you that way when you watch it if you don’t do your research.  The first time watching it, I felt this to just be a dark, meandering horror-comedy about two idiots who make a lot of bad choices.  Director James Felix McKenney doesn’t really go out of his way to make this idea pop out at the audience with staples of the “Christ-sploitation” genre, like cheesy acting, an oversimplification of right and wrong, and loads of self-righteous condemnation.  We are instead tossed quite objectively into these people’s lives, full of sex, murder, and self-sabotage, and don’t get dropped many hints that we’re supposed to be in on a joke.

Once one understands the idea, everything falls into place a little more, and it does Continue reading CAPSULE: SATAN HATES YOU (2009)

CAPSULE: AUTOMATONS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: James Felix McKenny

FEATURING: Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm

PLOT: The lone survivor of a devastated nation lives in an underground bunker; her only companions are the voice recordings of a long-dead scientist and the robots she sends out to do battle with the enemy on the planet’s poisoned surface.

Still from Automatons (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the underground hype regarding this 2006 indie from James Felix McKenny and Glass Eye Pix likens Automatons to a cross between Eraserhead and Ed Wood, with Guy Maddin‘s name bandied about for good measure. There is nothing remotely arthouse or surreal about Atomatons, however, and the only identifying aesthetic McKenney might share with Maddin is an obsessive love of a genre. Maddin’s love of baroque silent film expressiveness hardly compares to McKenney’s hard-on for 1950’s sci-fi kitsch. That’s the problem with hype; it usually tends to be a disservice, and is so here.

COMMENTS: Automatons is not weird or surreal. That is not to say it does not have merit or is a film without interest. Is it a thought-provoking, intelligent film, worth comparing to some of the better, more compact Outer Limits episodes? No. The post-apocalyptic scenario of a lone survivor is a really, really old one that has been around since Robot Monster (1953) and is repeated in Omega Man, Mad Max and countless movies.

The robots themselves look like they just stepped out of an old “Superman” TV episode, but without the awkwardly quirky personality of those 50s tintypes. Angus Scrimm (Phantasm) is the professor who instructs heroine Christine Spencer through a series of pre-recorded videos. The biggest problem here lies in Spencer’s flat acting, which fails to project the necessary charisma needed in this type of project.

Where Automatons takes an admirable independent risk is in its lethargic pacing, which, despite the plot and acting, creates a hypnotic milieu. Long, static takes, along with the much repeated Scrimm transmissions, are, at first, odd, then oddly compelling. This is the one surprising, indeed endearing quality about Automatons.  It refuses to cater to commercial pacing. Some mistake that for an arthouse quality or made predictable, banal comparisons, such as that to Eraserhead. Automatons does not possess that organic, wistful Lynch quality. It is grounded in the love of its genre. The later battle scenes and the gruesome deaths have a certain grainy style derived from its 8 mm source, but this is an often utilized stylistic ploy in genre indies, and is not what gives Automatons its original flavor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Automatons is what happens when Eraserhead and Tetsuo the Iron Man bong themselves into oblivion and collaborate on a minimalist avant-garde sci-fi cheapie shot in a toolshed… Robot radness acheived!”–Nathan Lee, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

32. PHANTASM (1979)

AKA The Never Dead (Australia)

“…when you’re dealing with a movie with this many oddball ideas, and a director who’s not afraid to ‘go weird’ just because he wants to, your best bet is probably just to keep quiet, enjoy the ride, and then see how you feel once the whole crazy experience is over with.”–Scott Weinberg, Fearnet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Angus Scrimm, , Bill Thornbury,

PLOT:  While secretly observing services for a deceased family friend, recently orphaned 13 year-old Mike witnesses an impossible feat performed by the funeral director known only as The Tall Man.  Later, while following the older brother he adores to a tryst in a cemetery, he spoils the romantic ambiance when he tries to warn his brother of a dwarf-like creature he sees scurrying in the shadows.  The Tall Man begins appearing in Mike’s nightmares, and he journeys alone to the isolated funeral home to gather evidence to support his belief that the mortician is responsible for the strange happenings in his New England town.

Still from Phantasm (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • The kernel of the idea for Phantasm came from a dream writer/director Coscarelli had in his late teens where he was “being pursued through a corridor by some kind of flying steel ball.”
  • Coscarelli, only 23 years old when Phantasm began production, not only wrote and directed the film but also served as cinematographer and editor.
  • The film originally received an “X” rating in the United States (a kiss of death at that time for anyone seeking wide theatrical distribution) due to the blood and violence in the silver sphere scene (and the shot of urine seeping out of the dead man’s pants leg).  The scene is frightening and effective, but relatively tame by twenty-first century standards.  According to a widely repeated anecdote, Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin, who liked the film, intervened with the MPAA to secure an “R” rating for Phantasm. Per co-producer Paul Pepperman, however, it was someone from the distribution company who convinced the ratings board to change their verdict.  Champlin’s role was actually to recommend Universal pick the picture up for distribution.
  • A scene where the Tall Man appears in Mike’s dream was selected as the 25th entry in Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The film cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to make, and eventually earned over $15 million.
  • Phantasm spawned four sequels, all directed by Coscarelli. None were as well received or fondly remembered as the original.  Coscarelli would eventually score an underground hit again with the bizarre horror/comedy Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Without a doubt, the unexplained appearance of the flying sphere zooming through the sublimely creepy marble halls of the mausoleum.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPhantasm appears to be a standard horror film at first blush, but as it heedlessly races along from one fright to another, it becomes increasingly obvious that the plot is not resolving, or at least not resolving in any sensible way.  It is also obvious that this scattershot plotting, which elevates atmosphere and psychological subtext  by frustrating the literal sense, is a deliberate choice to “go weird” and not a result of incompetence.


Original trailer for Phantasm

COMMENTS: Mike wakes up to discover the Tall Man looming over the head of his bed like Continue reading 32. PHANTASM (1979)