Events

Kicking the Tweets
Search
Sunday
Feb242013

Lifeforce (1985)

Boobs Versus Boobs

Q: What happens when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's director and Alien's writer team up for a sci-fi/horror project shot by Return of the Jedi's DP, with visual effects by Star Wars' Oscar-winning visual effects artist?

A: Cosmic vampire porn.

Were it not for The Music Box Theatre's 70mm Film Festival, I might have missed Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce--and I would've been poorer, spiritually, for it. The film's obvious selling point is that its star, twenty-year-old nubile knock-out Mathilda May, spends ninety percent of her screen time completely naked. But the real joy is experiencing this ambitious but clumsily realized end-of-days epic with a game and lively crowd. And, no, watching the movie at home with a bunch of drunk buddies doesn't cut it. You need a bona fide auditorium to appreciate Lifeforce's crowning achievement--a time-hopping meta-gag that I'll get to in a minute.

The movie opens with a joint American/British space crew exploring Halley's Comet. They find a craft inside its head containing weird, organic chambers surrounded by the floating corpses of giant, winged creatures. In the main room are what look to be three glass coffins, each containing a perfectly preserved humanoid. The scientists drag their discovery back to the ship and, in what has become one of the genre's grand traditions, we flash forward to a secondary craft arriving to figure out why mission control suddenly lost contact with the first.

The sleepers turn out to be aliens whose ability to entrance humans and suck the lives out of them may have been the inspiration for our vampire lore. As the lead villain (May, credited simply as "Space Girl") leaves a trail of shriveled up bodies around London, a hapless trio of government agents and scientists scrambles to figure out what they're dealing with.

Imagine The Three Stooges starring in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and you'll come close to understanding how weirdly written and miscast Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, and Frank Finlay are as characters we're meant to root for. If nothing else, Lifeforce made me really appreciate sci-fi horror movies with strong female protagonists: as Space Girl handily picks off one horny doofus after another, making undead essence-suckers out of half the population, I wondered how long Ellen Ripley would've put up with Mademoiselle Sugar Tits.*

I don't want to give Hooper and screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby (working from Colin Wilson's novel, "The Space Vampires") credit for parodying 1950s space-invasion movies. Lifeforce just plays as too stupid to have anything else on its mind beyond T&A and gore. But it's hard to watch this thing and not imagine a coked-out Golan-Globus exec watching John Carpenter's update of The Thing and (mistakenly) thinking, "Yeah, we could top that". With outer space production values that call to mind both Alien and Fantastic Voyage, and an Earth-set race-against-the-clock storyline, I don't doubt that the minds behind Lifeforce believed they were creating the era's definitive, paranoid epic. Sadly, the production undone by a baffling ineptitude on the part of everyone involved.

But Lifeforce proves that great comedy can emerge from great tragedy. If you don't giggle at the exploding London miniatures, melting-face dummies, and the military installation whose idea of a secure wing includes several rooms of shatter-prone glass walls, then there's something severely wrong with you (or you're the humorless Toby Hooper).

I'll make you this promise, though: all red-blooded, non-space-vampires will lose their freaking minds at the site of Patrick Stewart being knocked unconscious and thrown into a wheelchair during our heroes' visit to a mental hospital. It's a visual gag that meant nothing in 1985, but which will have X-Men fans roaring with approval. The reaction in the Music Box crowd was that of a special and very powerful joke wave, which gradually hit everyone in the auditorium and made the next several minutes of dialogue nearly unintelligible.

Lifeforce is a terrible movie that could have, I guess, been an alternate-dimension classic. It's an odd choice to have received the 70mm treatment, unless Hooper was so in love with Mathilda May's adorably toned lower-back dimples that he wanted the world to experience them in stunning high definition. Part of the film's charm is the fact that so many talented people spent so much money on such a cheap-looking and narratively incoherent production. This is the ultimate celebration of hubris and failure, a top-priority, front-row phenomenon if there ever was one.

*My guess: five seconds, tops.

Saturday
Feb232013

Vertigo (1958)

The Awkward Spiral

We all know that Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece. It says so right on the poster. But the movie had me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons: its middle hour's lack of sensible forward momentum compelled me to leave. I didn't, of course, 'cause I really dig Hitchcock. But watching Vertigo for the first time in twenty years made me wonder how the hell my teenage self made it through this goofy, over-long thriller in the first place.

Actually, I know exactly how: I watched it as part of a high school film class. Under the wonderful tutelage of one Richard C. Jones, my fellow students and I dissected and discussed some of cinema's greatest and most influential movies: Citizen Kane, Ran, The 400 Blows, The Wild Bunch, and, of course, this one. I even ran across an old notebook last year while rummaging through my basement. Oddly, nowhere did I see "TOO MANY DRIVING SCENES!!!!!!!" scribbled inside--a sure sign that I was so enamored with studying important films at the feet of a man I considered a genius that analyzing color motifs and opening-title design clouded over pesky little issues like pacing.

Back to the love. We meet San Francisco detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) during a rooftop criminal pursuit. He slips and clings to a gutter for dear life as the street below him becomes a nightmare of telescoping concrete. Not helping matters is the poor beat cop who falls to his death while trying to help him up.

Later, nursing some injuries and a wicked case of vertigo, Scottie retires from the force and decides to spend quality time with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), the commercial illustrator to whom he was once engaged. His retirement is short-lived, though, as old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires Scottie to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak)--of whom he suspects not infidelity but...um, possession. 

Scottie takes the job and begins shadowing Madeleine, who travels to an old mission to visit the grave of someone named Carlotta Valdes (Joanne Genthon). She also spends hours at an art gallery, staring at a portrait of Valdes, and Scottie notices that both women have similar wide curls in their hair. On one of these outings, a seemingly overcome Madeleine throws herself into San Francisco Bay; she awakens in Scottie's apartment, having been rescued by a man who now finds himself inexplicably and irresistibly attracted to her.

I've not read D'Entre Les Morts, the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac on which Vertigo was based, but I assume (or at least hope) it contained a stronger arc than Alex Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor's bizarre screenplay. What begins as an exciting story full of rich characters and dramatic potential devolves into a hastily realized love story that I didn't buy for a second. I can understand Scottie's intrigue at Madeleine's stunning beauty and trance-like habits. But we're given no indication at the outset that he's the kind of selfish dupe who would A) claim to love a woman after several days of stalking and a single, vague conversation and B) betray a distressed friend who'd come to him out of desperation.

Those who've seen Vertigo know there's a bit more to the story, but that's exactly the problem: with some minor story tweaks, and about forty minutes of excised footage, Hitchcock would've had a tight, consistently engaging thriller on his hands. Hell, he could have kept the movie at full-length by simply pulling Scottie's head out of his ass. Perhaps it was the times' noir mandate that all troubled, leading-man detectives had to get emotionally wrapped up with femmes fatale--even at the expense of logic or relatability--but I challenge anyone watching Vertigo today not to giggle incredulously at Scotty and Madeleine's first kiss.

Oddly, the last thirty minutes are incredible. I tuned out the story half-way through the movie, focusing instead on Edith Head's perfect costumes, Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy's obsessively detailed set design (Midge's studio should be a museum installation), and Bernard Hermann's fun and uncomfortably conspicuous score. But I snapped back to attention after Scottie emerges from a year-long catatonic state resulting from a really bad dream (don't ask). He becomes less likable by the minute,* but Stewart's increasing mania sells the idea that even idiots can be really dangerous if pushed too far.

The final scene is the movie's real selling point, with Stewart and Novak revisiting the mission for an emotional knock-down, drag-out fight of messed-up secrets and karmic consequences. It's a perfect reversal for Scottie, who began the film as a decent man but ends it as a broken sucker. The climactic tragedy may have cured him of the spins, but I'll pay anything to visit the alternate celluloid universe in which John Ferguson became the most rage-filled, alcoholic prick in the history of Sin City.

Despite my sacrilegious complaining about the movie's narrative issues, I can't recommend Vertigo enough for its production and performances. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening in glorious 70mm, and if you ever get the chance, there will be no better use of your time. Few films pop like this, with countless, meticulous frames that beg to be picked apart like Geoff Darrow illustrations, and supernatural themes that change the audience's perception of the material time and time again. And Stewart and Novak really are terrific in this movie--just not when they're allegedly falling in love.

Perhaps Vertigo's greatest legacy is that it has inspired decades of filmmakers to improve upon it. I'm not surprised at its being hailed as a classic, because there's a lot here that was, I'm sure, ground-breaking in 1958. But Hollywood has become more sophisticated (and more base) over the years, with naturalism replacing showy staginess, and an obsession with narrative realism (or at least truthiness) stealing the spotlight from melodrama. I still think this is a great movie, mostly because I was told so at an early age. Like Catholicism, it's a belief that my brain has outgrown--a formative part of my moviegoing character that I would no longer righteously to defend.

*I wonder how upset the SFPD really were at losing what had to have been the worst detective in their history.

Monday
Feb182013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

The Sacred Institution

I wonder if studio executives actually watch movie trailers before signing off on them. I used to blame those who put previews together, but in the world of corporate creativity, nothing gets out the door without at least a handful of approvals. However that whole crazy system works, someone (or several someones) needs to be shit-canned for thinking that this is an effective advertisement for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Simply put, Stephen Chbosky's film (which he directed and adapted from his own novel) is the best movie about high school that I've seen in a decade. Notice, I didn't say "high school movie". Those are typically aimed at one of two types of teenagers: the fictive kind whom middle-aged screenwriters assume have never seen a movie featuring a pan around campus, where the new kid gets the scoop from his or her socially-off-kilter-but-still-known-by-everyone new best friend ("Over there, you've got your stoners; here, you've got your popular kids..."). There are thousands of these films, and they're all pitched as updated versions of the genre's rare formula-busters (Clueless, The Breakfast Club, etc.), only starring whichever young pop sensation/barely-legal heartthrob has just entered the scene (see Fun Size and Easy A. Better yet, don't).

The other kind of high school movie is any hyper-violent, sexually explicit, or generally vulgar mainstream picture that most kids are too young to attend. On the surface, they're not aimed at this demographic, but teen attendance is always the goal. Because adult audiences often don't have the same disposable income as teens, it's crucial that filmmakers include enough exploding heads, tit shots, and diarrhea jokes to not only get asses in seats but also regularly distract these little monsters from their rampant texting and screwing around. This also keeps theatre managers from having to refund too many audience members who actually belong there.

There's no science in my theory--only experience, speculation, and a ton of hypocrisy. I was never a texter (having come of age in a time when phones were just phones, and bringing one to the movies meant leaving a hole in the kitchen wall). But I was drawn to slasher films and stupid teen fare as a kid, and am most certainly guilty of being obnoxious from time to time. But I would never have insisted that movie studios build a business model around me, even during that silly era. Sadly, we're in such dire straits now that only mutants go outside for entertainment--and so mutant entertainment rules the day.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a movie about high school, meaning it should ring true for anyone who survived those awkward years and were (or are) savvy enough to not think of them as the best time of their lives.* Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, a freshman in 1991 whose best friend committed suicide the year before. The youngest of three kids, Charlie is shy and sensitive, where his older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) is a popular upper-classman, and eldest sibling Chris (Zane Holtz) has parlayed his star-quarterback status into a Penn State scholarship.

The first day is a nightmare of cliques and hazing, and Charlie's only connection is with his cool English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd)--which, he admits, is pretty pathetic. In shop class, he develops a hero's crush on a slumming senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller), whose job it is to annoy grumpy Mr. Callahan (Tom Savini) enough to not hold him back again. Later on, Charlie spies Patrick at a football game and slyly changes seats a few times to get closer to him. The outgoing boy sucks the shy kid into his orbit, which includes alternative-kid parties; long, fast drives down the highway in the middle of the night; and the lovely, mysterious Sam (Emma Watson).

Charlie gains acceptance from this stoned, drunk collective of freaks and geeks. He learns secrets about the popular kids and his newfound friends that help unearth a world of damage that he'd suppressed since early childhood. If you haven't figured this out yet, The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't a comedy; the funny bits you saw in that trailer are the only moments of levity in this heavy, moving drama about the courage of finding one's voice--despite the possibility that there's nothing good to say with it. I won't go spoil any of the revelations, as they're dominoes in a surprisingly smooth left-turn film. In fact, I think there may be one too many big, dark secrets here.

Seriously, ninety percent of the characters have at least one horrifying, traumatic story to share. Fortunately, the cast is so good at being relatable that even the dramatic pile-ons only sting for a few seconds. You may not have been one of these kids, but chances are you knew them--or ignored them--in high school. Some have favorable compared Chbosky's movie to the works of John Hughes, but I place Perks firmly in Cameron Crowe territory. It's tender and funny, sure, but there's a heart-wrenching authenticity to Charlie that makes him more Lloyd Dobler than John Bender.

Lerman, Miller, and Watson are as compelling a leading trio as you'e likely to find anywhere. I felt every moment of their relationship, from first interactions through terrible fights and, finally, the painful transition into adulthood. Patrick and Sam are seniors, and I can't tell you how relieved I was that Charlie didn't instantly find a new group of friends to hang out with after his entire world ran away to college. In real life, people move on. If we're lucky, they come back to visit. If we're very lucky, our strongest relationships evolve in order to survive. Chbosky ends his film on a positive note--but not a definitive one.

It's sad that the movie came and went with so little fanfare. Be it the lack of sex and gore, that unforgivably awful trailer, or some other factor too depressing to consider, I'm afraid that its under-performance may mean less risky and interesting movies about high school in the future. Who knows? Maybe The Perks of Being a Wallflower will find cult status on home video. God help us all if we're stuck wading through high school movies for another ten years.

*There will always be people for whom these really were the golden years, but I'm not here to kick those poor bastards while they're down.

Sunday
Feb172013

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

A Price Above Rubles

It's been a rough weekend for Russia. Not only did a frickin' Transformers-sized meteor crash there, but now the entire moviegoing world will associate it with the death of Die Hard. Were I afflicted with that old-time religion, I might draw a connection between the two.

I wrote several iterations of that opening paragraph during the first twenty minutes of A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth and hopefully last entry in a film franchise that should never have existed. Not that I don't enjoy something about each sequel (including this one), but I've had to endure decades of increasingly dissatisfied fans complaining about how each new movie "isn't Die Hard".

Let's clear something up right now: A Good Day to Die Hard is a Die Hard movie; it just isn't Die Hard. And thank God for that! Twenty-five years of Bruce Willis finding himself trapped in different buildings, communicating with authorities in secret, while picking off bad guys one by one? I'm sorry, but John McClane (Bruce Willis) is not Jason Voorhees, and if I must watch a genre-defining movie get serialized to death, I'll choose variety every time. Back to my original point...

The first twenty minutes earn every cocked, concerned eyebrow and scornful word the film has received. Nearly retired NYPD cop McClane travels to Russia when he hears that his rebellious son, Jack (Jai Courtney) has wound up in custody there. He assumes Jack got caught up in drugs, but it turns out Junior is a CIA operative working to liberate a political prisoner during his public trial. Dad shows up in the middle of a botched assassination attempt, and participates in a three-way car chase between Jack and his charge, and an army of Russian-government-funded goons led by a guy named Alik (Rasha Bukvic).

As you might imagine--because this chase involves an armored super-truck, mid-day traffic, and a grumpy, confused John McClane--chaos ensues. Director John Moore sure knows how to stage an epic freeway brawl, with killer trucks running over cars, busting through overpass barriers, and making U-turns in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The problem is, he doesn't know when to stop. All the time and money it took to set up this practical-stunt-work masterpiece was wasted on an over-long, geographically confusing, and ultimately pointless exercise in excess--hence, copious mental space in which to craft the opening of this review.

The rest of the story involves more ready-to-be-leveled set pieces, lots of the McClane boys sneaking around while trying to out-snark each other, and a handful of thematic references to the previous Die Hard movies. This, I suppose, is inevitable, considering the fact that John McTiernan's breakout film became the template for all such action movies in the last quarter-century. For that reason alone, I can't be made at Moore, screenwriter Skip Woods, or anyone else involved in this thing.

Given the fact that the creative team's previous efforts include Max Payne, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and big-screen A-Team, it's unfair of me or anyone else to expect a new take on an old classic. Had McTiernan returned (which would've been awesome, but logistically impossible) and turned out the same movie, maybe there'd be a reason for all the ranting and raving. But, come on, kids, this is fucking Die Hard 5.

So, for a moment, let's take emotional attachment out of the equation and pretend this is just another dumb Bruce Willis movie. How does A Good Day to Die Hard measure up to every other off-season actioner we've had to suffer through on the way to summer's "legit" brain-dead releases?

It's not bad, once you get past the bloated car chase. Much of the banter between Willis and Courtney falls flat, but the father/son reconciliation stuff isn't terrible. In fact, it casts a harsher light on the franchise as we realize the cost of McClane's superheroics: Jack grew up essentially father-less, and it takes getting into a life-or-death scrape with John for them to air out all their baggage. There's also a nice parallel story involving a billionaire scientist named Komarov (Sebastian Koch) and his daughter, Irina (Yuliya Snigir). I'll leave that hanging, as diving too far into all this film's daddy issues is a one-way ticket to Spoilerville.

Themes aside, I found the movie itself far too goofy not to enjoy. A Good Day to Die Hard plays like something Tommy Wiseau picked up after Michael Bay bailed out. From the fake dramatic tension; to our CGI-ragdoll heroes, whose bodies should have been pulp by the end of act two; to a Cold War-era storyline that carries on the series' latter-day efforts to deal with every kind of terrorism not involving Muslim extremists,* the film waves its ignorance proudly and loudly, offering apologies to no one.

Every character is a cartoon character. Bukvic literally chomps on a carrot, Bugs Bunny-style, while delivering a monologue. Koch has the mad, hang-dog look of Dennis Miller posing as Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World" for Halloween. Courtney, looking every bit like Michael Rosenbaum 2.0, is allowed to display some of the charisma that made him such a treat in Jack Reacher--but not much. And Willis recites his lines as if reading a poorly written script aloud in disbelief.

It's obvious that a lot of people got paid a shit-ton of money to booze it up in Russia while playing nukes-an'-bad-guys with really big, really dangerous toys. The result is a movie I'll never watch again, but don't regret having seen once. The idiocy kept me awake in between explosions, and I was constantly on the lookout for whichever character would reveal him/herself to be a long-lost relative/business associate of Hans Gruber. Sadly, this never happens, but A Good Day to Die Hard is the kind of silly, disposable popcorn commercial in which it very well should have.

*Of course, I'm not suggesting terrorism and the Muslim faith are synonymous; I'm simply pointing out that Die Hard has classically focused on run-ins with international terrorists. And while I have no doubt that cyber-crimes (Live Free or Die Hard) and loose uranium canisters (this movie) are real threats, it's weird to see John McClane still living in a world in which 9/11 apparently never happened.

Wednesday
Feb132013

Phantasm: The Sequels (1988-1998)

Less is Mortuary

I keep telling myself that lumping the three Phantasm sequels into one review isn't an admission of failure; it's a desperate act of necessity. For reasons as compelling as interview prep and as gross as the stomach flu, my critical output for these movies has been positively glacial in the week-and-a-half since I watched them. Besides, the hard reality is there's not enough original content in each film to warrant more than a couple hundred words apiece. So, without further ado, I present Kicking the Seat's first Mega Review!

Nine years after writer/director Don Coscarelli unleashed his original fantasy film on the world, he teamed with Universal Pictures to bring us Phantasm 2. I don't know what was in Hollywood's drinking water circa 1988, but that was a banner year for horror sequels. Franchises great (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th), small (Halloween), and questionable in size (Sleepaway Camp) all received follow-ups, and everyone's favorite death-sphere-flingin' Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) even made the cut.

If resurrecting the late-70s cult hit was meant to cash in on the horror craze, the powers that be--and maybe Coscarelli himself--made a critical error in putting part two together: whereas the brand-name slasher series were built largely on the draw of iconic maniacs creatively butchering a cattle-call of interchangeable victims, Phantasm was a dream-like, imaginative journey into darkness. Sure, the execution was often goofy, but the ideas were heady, and far more complex than most of the genre's elevator-pitch storylines. "Zombie stalks teens at camp" lends itself to repeatability far easier than "Mortician shrinks and re-animates corpses for use as slave labor on interdimensional red planet".

Yet, Phantasm 2 feels uncomfortably like a conventional slasher in that it largely rehashes the first film, while hardly bothering to expand on the mythology. In this way, it's as much a big-budget remake as it is a sequel--probably more so.

We pick up just after the final moments of Phantasm, with Michael (A. Michael Baldwin) facing down The Tall Man, and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) squaring off against a horde of hooded munchkin-creatures. Following an explosion that takes out Michael's house, the evil undertaker presumes his mortal enemies dead. Fast-forward seven years. Michael (now played by pouty powder-keg James LeGros) is released from a mental institution and embarks on a quest to destroy The Tall Man once and for all. He's aided by a reluctant Reggie and a psychic pen-pal named Elizabeth (Paula Irvine).*

Much of the film is comprised of a road trip across a burnt-out Middle America that has been largely destroyed by The Tall Man. Like The Borg, he and his minions sweep through small towns, taking out their populations quietly before moving along. The story switches between Reggie and Mike driving their sleek Hemi Cuda through various wastelands, and Elizabeth realizing that something evil is afoot in her own small town. The big-studio budget makes for delicious eye candy in the form of expansive, gothic cemeteries, fetishistically rendered embalming labs, and grotesque, ear-slicing special effects. But for the already initiated, the film may come across as "Previously, on Phantasm..." (or, worse yet, car porn).

Still, Phantasm 2 narrowly pulls off one of the great reversals in genre-movie history. Some films are slow burns, but the filmmakers don't even light the match on this one until it's practically over. With twenty minutes to go, the story's tone takes a daffy left turn into Sam Raimi territory, infusing comedic action with really disgusting chills.**

The good times come to a screeching halt at the end, though, when Coscarelli repeats the first film's closing scare. Greater than the crime of not actually being scary, the final scene's ultimate sin is reminding us of every other repeated element in Phantasm 2. Instead of learning more about The Tall Man's mysterious homeworld or using the relatively gargantuan production budget to realize weirder, darker dangers, the film devolves into Phantasm for Dummies: a geekgasm for fans who'd waited so long to see their beloved characters on the big-screen again, and a disposable afternoon at the movies for everyone else.

I can't speak for anyone involved, but Phantasm 2 smacks of risk-aversion--which may explain why the second sequel, Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead debuted six years later by slinking onto home video. This movie is notable for three things: a bizarre Home Alone-inspired micro-plot; the return of both A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury; and the realization that, yes, a Phantasm drinking game is not only possible, but possibly crucial.

Much like Jim Gaffigan's bit about all Mexican food being nothing more than differently named combos of beans, meat, and cheese, Phantasm 3 proves to be a simple rearranging of events and themes previously covered in the other films. Luckily, Coscarelli tosses in some truly weird ingredients to make Lord of the Dead feel different, if not authentic. Michael awakens from a coma and teams up with Reggie to hunt down The Tall Man. This time, the spirit of Mike's older brother Jody (Thornbury) shows up to help them out. In a bizarre altercation, The Tall Man appears, turns Jody into a burnt-out flying sphere, and kidnaps Michael. Reggie and the ball hit the road, and run afoul of a group of cartoonish thugs.

Said thugs steal the Hemi Cuda, shoving Reggie and Jody-ball in the trunk. When they stop at a house in an abandoned town, they discover little Tim (Kevin Connors), a loner who'd managed to survive The Tall Man's scourge through stealth and resourcefulness. His five-minute introduction is the highlight of movies two through four, showing a mind-bending gutsiness and imagination not seen since Michael first found out what was between those cosmic tuning forks. Tim gruesomely and hilariously kills off the would-be squatters and frees Reggie--thus becoming the new kid sidekick on the series' nine-thousandth cross-country road trip.

In another deserted town, they encounter Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a jive-talking, nunchaku-wielding bad girl who becomes the requisite third wheel and hopeful sexual conquest for Reggie (in the previous movie, it was a hitchhiker named Alchemy, played by Samanth Phillips). Once Rocky slips into the back of the Cuda, you can either check out for rest of the movie or line up your shot glasses.

Let's assume you're feeling frisky and decide to go with option "B"--keeping in mind that this only works when marathon-ing the series in one sitting. Toss one back every time...

  • A car explodes
  • A car flips over
  • A car flips over, and then explodes
  • Someone jumps out the back of a moving hearse
  • Reggie cons a girl into sharing a bed with him
  • The girl turns out to be evil (in fantasy or in reality--double-shot for both)
  • The Tall Man steps out of the shadows and hisses something about being ready to begin

There's probably a sphere-shaped mixology book's worth of additional material here, but you get the picture. The movie ends in another dank mausoleum with The Tall Man getting the upper hand at the zero hour, and yet another little kid being yanked through a mirror by grubby little munchkin hands before a sharp cut to black. The longer the sequels drag on, the more apparent it becomes that Coscarelli is sketching an epic on film (revising and erasing, revising and erasing) in the hopes that, one of these years, his budget will match his yet-to-be-realized grand vision--or vice versa.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Phantasm 4: Oblivion. Reggie meets a new girl he wants to screw but can't trust, and Michael wanders the desert with Jody's laconic spirit guiding him on a vision quest through the Tall Man's origin story--like Jacob Marley on some killer holly-wreath weed. The genius of the fourth and ostensibly final film is that Coscarelli weaves in the unseen history of Mike, Jody, and Reggie's initial encounters with The Tall Man, by way of cutting-room-floor footage from 1979's Phantasm

It's a fascinating device that, combined with the revelation that the series' Big Bad started out as a frustrated Civil War doctor, promises to cover new territory--a welcome relief from two movies whose original material could have been rolled into either of the bookend entries with zero confusion for the audience. Sadly, the film ends with more questions than answers, such as:

  1. Why, when Michael was a kid, did he cut The Tall Man down from a noose trap?
  2. Why did The Tall Man need to be cut down from a noose trap, when his main weapons are flying spheres with retractable razors and an army of vicious, resourceful dwarves?
  3. How was Jody able to help Michael out, when he was ostensibly part of whatever transdimensional goo that The Tall Man controlled? And if he was, in fact, just tricking Michael into becoming a pawn in The Tall Man's game--why the ruse? Why not just either kill Michael or zap his brain with whatever dark magic seduced the pre-Tall Man Tall Man?

Perhaps Oblivion's biggest blue-balls frustration is the tease that we'd finally learn how The Tall Man came to be. We get some mysterious glimpses of him working on soldiers in the midst of battle, scribbling notes in a cluttered study, and offering Michael lemonade (?). Then he walks through a rudimentary version of the transdimensional portal and re-emerges a few seconds later as an evil bastard. Sorry, gang, that's neither an origin story nor a way to end a series built on mystery; that's the kind of sliced-and-diced narration that requires an origin story and Usual Suspects-style wrap up. I'll give Coscarelli this much credit: he pre-saged Lost by more than a decade.

I come here not to bury Phantasm but to praise it. At its core, Don Coscarelli's vision is full of innovative, cinematic potential. For whatever reason, he's never been able to expand on that promise beyond the first film. The sequels are littered with neat ideas that go nowhere, and lame ideas that get stretched into bland taffy before our weary eyes. It's great that the series has a fanbase, and that this family of actors and crew members have found the celluloid equivalent of a high school reunion. But as a viewer, Phantasm has become less enjoyable than watching an over-the-hill jock wistfully stir punch.

That's why I'll welcome the day when Coscarelli gets the budget, time, and creative freedom he deserves in order to give Phantasm a proper re-launch. Hell, it doesn't even have to lead to a sequel: I'd just love to see a modern-day take on this material with the advances in filmmaking technology and storytelling that have made trippy movies so cool in the last thirty-four years. I realize that day may never come, and that the writer/director may simply move on to different, and more interesting projects. I'm okay with that, too. John Dies at the End has more of the original Phantasm's spirit in its opening fifteen minutes than films two through four have in their entire run-times.

And, yes, I firmly believe that a bigger budget--and perhaps some collaborator or studio influence--is necessary for a Phantasm re-launch to be successful. True, Coscarelli's had some rotten experiences in the big leagues, but the projects he's tackled most successfully since Oblivion have been those he's adapted and/or been hired to do--such as Bubba Ho-Tep and the premiere episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror. With a bit of gentle, informed nudging, he moves fluidly in the right creative direction; without it, he spends years traipsing around the California desert with friends, filming things that smack oddly of lesser Puppet Master entries.

*Yes, '88 was also the year of mental institutions and psychic teenagers in horror (see Hellraiser 2 and Friday the 13th Part 7).

**The cue for this transformation, fittingly, is a sight gag involving a bag of cremated remains marked "Mr. Sam Raimi". And before you accuse me of not paying attention, know that I did catch the opening sight gag with Reggie encountering one hooded munchkin who, through the power of comic editing, became five. But there's a good hour-plus where that kind of humor goes missing until our pony-tailed hero starts mixing sulfuric acid with formaldehyde in a Bugs Bunny-esque plot to dupe The Tall Man. Everything in between is bizarrely self-serious and, consequently, heart-breakingly dull.