Tag Archives: Don Coscarelli

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)

190. BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)

“I’m watching this movie, it’s this picture about, uh… it’s really weird. It’s like the guy who took the acid or something, he smoked a marijuana or something before he wrote this picture…”—“The King,” speaking to an unknown party on his cell phone during the Bubba Ho-Tep DVD commentary

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce

PLOT: Having giving up fame for a simple life and switched places with Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff, Elvis Presley is now an aging old man with a boil on his penis languishing in an East Texas retirement home. One of his fellow retirees is Jack, an African American who insists that he is actually ex-President John Kennedy. The two old men discover that a mummy is haunting the corridors of the rest home, feeding on the souls of the elderly, and together they hatch a plan to defeat the creature.

Still from Bubba Ho-tep (2002)
BACKGROUND:

  • Bubba Ho-Tep is a faithful adaptation of a novella by cult horror writer Joe R. Lansdale first composed for the now out-of-print anthology “The King is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-mortem,” which also contained stories and essays by Roger Ebert, Lou Reed, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.
  • The budget was reported to be between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Although there is a flashback concert scene in the film, the producers could not afford to license any actual Elvis songs, so you only hear generic Vegas-showroom-style intro music. Similarly, the scenes from the “Elvis” movie marathon seen on television are just cleverly-edited stock footage, with no actual Elvis films ever glimpsed.
  • The end credits announce a prequel called Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. Although intended as a joke, fan interest in such a movie ran so high that Coscarelli, Lansdale and Bruce Campbell tried to get it made, although it never came together. Campbell has reportedly lost interest in the project and it is presumably as dead as Elvis.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Aging Elvis, in his trademark rhinestone suit and cloak and a walker, marching off to face off against a mummy.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The only way Bubba Ho-Tep could have failed to be weird is if it lacked faith in its premise of a geriatric Elvis and a black JFK fighting a mummy in a rest home, and instead turned the tale into a self-congratulatory parody. Thankfully, everyone involved takes the story and characters at face value, honoring the oddness and humanity of the inherently absurd situation.

Original trailer for Bubba Ho-Tep

COMMENTS: No matter what we achieve in life, whether it’s Continue reading 190. BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)

150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

“The name grabbed me instantly, but when I read the log line about a street drug called ‘soy sauce’ and a pair of mid-west slackers battling a silent otherworldly invasion, I was hooked. Since my youth I’ve had a rabid interest in the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres.  Many of my previous films have explored the surreal and strange.  What I love about JOHN DIES AT THE END is that in addition to being hide-under-the-bed scary, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”–Don Coscarelli, director’s statement

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , Fabianne Therese, , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A college dropout named David Wong tells a story to a journalist at a Chinese restaurant while under the influence of a drug called “soy sauce.” He reveals that the sauce has given him and his friend John psychic powers that enable them to see inter-dimensional intruders who are bent on conquering our reality. He then relates the story of how, together with his one-handed girlfriend and her dog, he and John traveled to the alternate dimension to thwart the invasion.
Still from John Dies at the End (2012)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Dies at the End was adapted from a comic novel of the same name. The name of the story’s protagonist and the author are both “David Wong,” which is actually a pseudonym for Jason Pargin. “John Dies” began life as a short story posted on Pargin’s blog.
  • Don Coscarelli had been working on a sequel to his previous feature, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), with , but funding fell through. Giamatti supported the idea of adapting John Dies at the End instead, and served as executive producer on the substitute project.
  • Coscarelli credits Amazon’s recommendation algorithm with suggesting the novel “John Dies to the End” to him.
  • The movie’s prologue is a modern zombie-based variation on an ancient philosophical paradox called “the ship of Theseus” (in the book, the prologue refers to an ending that is not explicitly present in the movie).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We can’t actually mention the movie’s most memorable image here, both thanks to the fact that it’s obscene, and that doing so would spoil what may be the movie’s best joke. Those who’ve seen the film already, however, will doubtlessly remember the door that “cannot be opened.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jason Pargin wrote a sprawling comedy novel in part about two party-hearty college dropouts who take a mysterious drug nicknamed “soy sauce” that makes them clairvoyant, enabling them to perceive an invasion by demonic forces from another dimension. Don Coscarelli, the writer/director of Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series, took note of this literary property and decided to adapt it, chopping up the timeline and adding hallucinatory demonic visuals until the result plays out like a bad trip brought on by shooting up way too much of an experimental psychedelic drug.


Original trailer for John Dies at the End

COMMENTS: Here’s an unexpected spoiler for you: John doesn’t die at the end of John Dies at the End. At least, I don’t think he does. But it may Continue reading 150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

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)

LIST CANDIDATE: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

NOTE: John Dies at the End has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the official Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A young paranormal investigator relates his strange and twisted backstory to a skeptical reporter. It involves alien creatures, a drug that gives its users heightened senses and psychic abilities, and a parallel universe whose twisted denizens are edging their way into our own.

John-Dies-at-the-End


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its labyrinthine plot and genre-bending themes make John Dies at the End an interesting experience, with plenty of bizarre characters and twists, but at times the film is just weird for the sake of being weird, forsaking good storytelling in the process.

COMMENTS: Blending the well-worn motifs of alien invasion, inter-dimensional travel, and the over-confidence of youth into a heady concoction of oddities, John Dies at the End isn’t easy to summarize, or even encapsulate. The narrative flits back and forth erratically as Dave (Chase Williamson) attempts to communicate his experiences to a bemused journalist played by Paul Giamatti. It all starts—sort of—with a late-night phone call from Dave’s excitable friend John (Rob Mayes), whose ingestion of an out-of-this-world drug known as “Soy Sauce” sends him down a time-traveling, mind-reading, future-predicting rabbit hole. Dave accidentally takes some Soy Sauce himself, and soon he is escaping from a hardened police detective (Glynn Turman) who suspects him of several gruesome murders, while trying to save John and two other high school friends who’ve been kidnapped by a demonic being from an alternate universe. And then a lot of other stuff happens, but not always in chronological order.

Without prior knowledge of the webserial/novel this is based on, John Dies at the End can only be a surprise. It rapidly transitions between wry humor, gross-out gore, paranormal mystery, hallucinatory freak-outs, and sci-fi adventure, all set amidst general confusion. This is the type of film that was made to be a cult classic, with little hope for or interest in appealing to a wide audience. At times this obvious intention to be weird means that the film’s comedic and mystery elements are sacrificed for nonsense, but if you’re looking for straight-up bizarre then it’s not a huge loss. The low-quality special effects are mostly excused by unique visual ideas and some well-placed animation.

With its nonlinear narrative structure and consuming focus on strange happenings, the film doesn’t spend too much time developing characters, and as the protagonist Dave is a little weak: for the most part Williamson just shows off his “Sarcastic Inner Monologue” expression or various reaction faces. He and Mayes are both very regular-seeming guys, the kind you probably knew in high school or college. They are surrounded by a charismatic supporting cast, including the lovably loudmouth Giamatti, the imposing Clancy Brown, the hardcore Glynn Turman, and the naturally creepy Doug Jones. Shuffled about by an intricate story and ever-uncertain motivations, they seem to relish the script’s absurdities.

John Dies at the End is uneven as a whole, driven to episodic distraction with an abundance of half-realized subplots and unanswered questions, but it has a way of worming itself into the brain that results in a kind of fascination. The twisted creatures, unexpected sight gags, colorful settings, and surreal visions create an idiosyncratic aesthetic that’s as funny as it is fantastic. Frozen meat comes to life, mustaches fly through the air, headless zombies attack, alien bugs take over unsuspecting drunk teenagers… By the time Dave and John leap into an alternate dimension populated by nude figures with eerie masks ruled by a giant hyper-intelligent spider monster, I was convinced of its Weirdness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everybody pretty much gets weird throughout this trippy head-shaker of a movie. It’s hard to be sure if the film adds up logically — seems doubtful — but it’s so bizarre you don’t much care.” –Tom Long, The Detroit News (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)