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by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008


There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.

Though she longs to be with her sexy school chum Earl Grey, Lady Georgiana Spencer is promised to the dour William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, by her scheming mother. As a marriage of convenience and financial windfall, both households triumph. The Duke gets a Duchess to bear him an heir, while the Spencers align themselves with noble lineage. Almost immediately, Georgiana learns her frustrating fate. The Duke is a desperate lover, a horrible conversationalist, and a wanton womanizer. After befriending the fallen Lady Foster, our heroine soon discovers her taking up with her husband. Pursuing Grey, Georgiana becomes an outrage. But her popularity, founded on a love of gambling, fashion, and politics, keeps her favor with the masses. Even as she enters into an uncomfortable ménage a trios with Foster and her spouse, she finds ways to pursue her more ‘private’ passions.

Maybe it’s the casting of Keira Knightley. It could be the compromise of having TV director Saul Dibb behind the lens (apparently, he wasn’t the first choice). Maybe it’s the mediocre allusion to modern times. Clearly, we are supposed to see this Spencer as a pre-dated carbon copy of a certain Candle in the Wind - aka Princess Di. Whatever the rationale, however, The Duchess can’t help but be a massive bore. While others are keening for Oscar noms all around, audiences can expect another helping of half-baked Harlequin romancing draped in the kind of unbelievable beauty of an era unnaturally ornate. Few films reflecting the period play realistically with the obvious issues of disease and hygiene, and it’s a fair cop to argue that viewers don’t want such authenticity. But by prettying up everything, the production removes whatever teeth the tale had to offer. 

Knightley is also a problem here, putting on the pout she perfected while playing pirate for the last few years. Unlike Atonement which allowed her a much larger emotional range, The Duchess demands she be happy or sad, nothing more. Even in sequences where the dimensional arc should be much broader, Knightley offers little nuance. Things aren’t much better for costar Ralph Fiennes. As the dour, glum Duke of Devonshire, his character is more constipated than anything else. We are supposed to see the sadness behind the manor-born, to understand that he is simply playing by prescribed rules laid down after centuries of wealth and ritual. But Fiennes fails to find any spark. He’s so subtle as to be almost inert.

It is Dibb, however, who draws most of our ire. While the locations chosen have all the necessary pomp and circumstance, the spectacle seems to be missing. Crowd scenes feel claustrophobic, while lush interiors are underlit and frequently misused. You can hear the filmmaker defending himself: “this is a film about people, not places.” But part of the allure with such subject matter is the wish fulfillment fantasy of revisiting the days of the decadent, the dandy, and the unctuous uppercrust. For a film founding its narrative on such a supposedly scandalous lady, The Duchess is cloying and conservative. Even the sex scenes, and there are a couple, keep things direct and decent.

Dibb also demonstrates little insight into human nature. Again, it could be the timeframe being referenced, but dramatic license does allow for a few post-modern moments of clarity. When Georgiana confronts William and Lady Foster over their affair, the scene should sizzle. Instead, it’s rendered routine and matter of fact. However, when the Duke gets to gloat over his knowledge of his wife’s trysts with Grey, it’s handled in a much more bombastic manner. One could argue that Dibb is simply staying within the paternalistic power base of the epoch, giving Fiennes the freedom Knightley would never have. But again, this is fiction, not a fully factual recreation. Give your actors some room to breath, or suffer the stifled, uneven consequences.

Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined. Aside from the lack of a clear contemporary context (the Diana element isn’t even mentioned), one gets the impression that all this plays better on the page, where imagination and inner vision can compensate for the limits of the players onscreen. Someone once said that the further you go back into the past, the more similar to science fiction your effort becomes. That’s because the relationship to the modern world is so alien and arcane. The Duchess wants to draw parallels to the present by suggesting that people in the past were just the same as you or I. And maybe it’s true. After all, the conclusion being delivered here is that, no matter the century, affairs of the heart are often quite boring.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008


Ridley Scott used to make daring, original movies. No matter the subject matter - outer space alien invasion, magical sword and sorcery adventure, revisionist Roman peplum - he’d place his visionary signature on every frame of film. Sure, he dabbled in pseudo realism, taking on the crime genre with Someone to Watch Over Me and a female facsimile of the buddy picture with Thelma and Louise. But when his name was attached to a project, we expected something innovative and outsized. Yet with his latest, Body of Lies, we get nothing more than a journeyman thriller. Even with a big named cast and intercontinental setting, Scott simply shows up and sets things in motion. The results are uninspired, to say the least.

Roger Ferris has been working undercover in the Middle East since the War on Terror took hold. He is usually a very effective agent, that is, when office jockey intelligence director Ed Hoffman isn’t interfering. Playing most missions for maximum political effect, the Washington based overseer manages to mess up many of Ferris’ best laid plans. While working with the government of Jordan, the young gun uncovers an Al-Qaeda safe house. Approaching Hani, the Minister in charge of security, Ferris sets up a deal to take down the terrorist cell from the inside. Naturally, Hoffman steps in and screws things up. This sours his agent with the Jordanians, the local population, and the evildoers he is charged with destroying. Soon, everything - and everyone - is threatened.

Anchored by an amazing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and little else, Body of Lies limps along for over two hours, never amounting to more than a decent, if derivative nailbiter. While it may sound like beating a dead cinematic mare, we expect more from Scott. Clearly, his fixation with Australian antagonist Crowe has been a dull spot in his otherwise bright career. Gladiator was no great shakes (Oscars be damned) and A Good Year and American Gangster prove that tying your fortunes to a single signature actor is not always a guarantee of DeNiro/Scorsese success. Here, Crowe is reduced to a supporting player, a piggish US bureaucrat with his Southern drawling mug so far up his buttocks that he can’t see the reality of how ineffectual his efforts really are. It’s an interesting turn, but nothing more.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, succeeds in drawing us into this material, making his sympathetic spy - especially when it comes to the non-terrorist elements of the region - incredibly inviting. Looking a little rough around the edges, and dropping most of the mannerisms that highlight his still budding youth (he’s only 34), the superstar steals everything in Body of Lies - the performance points, the moral compass, and the entertainment value. While Brit Mark Strong offers an equally smart turn as Hani, the Jordanian heavy, this is Leo’s film from beginning to end. Had Scott simply settled on one of many fresh faces craved from the cathode that pass for big screen talents today, nothing here would work. As it stands, with DiCaprio’s Academy worthy turn, we can tolerate the rest of the redundancy.

Indeed, Body of Lies is nothing more than The Kingdom with more talking, Rendition with less torture - unless you count the convoluted screenplay by William Monahan. Still suffering from the careful clockwork plotting necessary to make The Departed ebb and flow, his adaptation of David Ignatius’ novel seems far more complicated than need be. Because Crowe is out of the locational loop most of the time, the forward motion of the story is shuttered so Hoffman can phone up and get his bungling and barbs in. And since we see how Hani sets up his own brand of insurgent infiltration, we can more or less guess the outcome - especially with Scott foreshadowing the denouement several times within the finale. In fact, Body of Lies suggests both Monahan and the man in the director’s chair got a little lost while bringing this project to life.

Thankfully, DiCaprio keeps us grounded - and interested. One of the movie’s biggest mistakes is assuming that American audiences, deadened as they are to the bumbling Bush policies of the last eight years, still have a rooting interest in seeing Arab bad guys biting the dust. Unlike the aforementioned Peter Berg actioner, which gave us characters and concerns to champion, Body of Lies is more insular. The focus frequently shifts from the big picture and the overall goal to Ferris and Hoffman’s high school style one-upmanship. Scott tries to countermand the contentiousness by cutting to shots of things blowing up. Yet like much of the movie’s context, these sequences play as sidelights to more cellphone conversations between name celebrities. We want action and intrigue. We are stuck watching Crowe spewing epithets during his daughter’s soccer game.

Basically, Body of Lies is one of those “who cares” productions. Aside from DiCaprio (and to a smaller extent, Strong), there is little else here that is compelling. Competent? Sure. Commercial? Who knows? Last year’s spite of Gulf War efforts failed because screenwriters decided that American soldiers should be recast as the bad guys. Scott and Monahan avoid this, yet they toss in the kind of surreal Executive Branch stratagem that also makes citizens want to revolt. Apparently, we need white hat/black hat simplicity when it comes to something as multifaceted as the War on Terror. If anyone could have made such a one-note approach work, it’s Scott. Sadly, whatever imagination and originality he possessed 20 years ago has all but disappeared. Body of Lies represents Ridley Scott Mach 2, and as upgrades go, it’s not successful.

by Bill Gibron

8 Oct 2008


Poor Clint Howard. It must really be a pain in the package having ultra-high-profile Oscar-winning long-time American sitcom favorite goody-two-shoes talent-hog Ron as a brother. While Big Brother’s off making movies with Russell Crowe and collecting big fat residual checks from Happy Days and his various Imagine Entertainment products, you’re stuck playing insane shlubs in B-movie muck like Ice Cream Man and The Dentist II. And that glory-hoarding older sibling has to rub it in, handing out minor roles in his movies like pity dates (probably at the behest of the rest of the Howard clan) to his balding bro.

Though Clint claims to be content with letting his redheaded relative cop all the limelight while he basks in the dank, dreary coolness of the celebrity afterglow, one always senses a secret angst and/or anger whenever he discusses one Opie Cunningham. It’s not the Gentle Ben or tranya questions that seem to push his buttons, nor does he feel ashamed of such onscreen stinkers as Barb Wire, Carnosaur, or Leprechaun II. But mention the fact that “Ron” is making some big-budget epic about the actual discovery of the meaning of life, and Clint’s goofy gap-toothed smile goes just a little crooked. The glint leaves his eye and a deep-seated seething starts. Suddenly, he’s on the defensive and ducking even the obvious softballs lobbed at him. You just know Clint is an angry wannabe auteur just waiting for the world to recognize his own special gifts. Otherwise, why would he be so convincing as the put-upon orphan who’s the butt of all the jokes at his private military academy in Evilspeak? It’s got to be low-self-esteem sense memory!

Thanks to the do-gooders over at the welfare bureau, newly orphaned Stanley Coopersmith gets the privilege of going to school at the snooty West Andover Military Academy, whose motto is “Never Pick on Someone Your Own Size.” From the moment he arrived on campus, Stanley became the school’s resident scapegoat. All the teachers think he’s a slacker. All the students think he’s a wanker. And because he’s a government sponsored poverty case, he’s treated like an indentured servant (go figure).

Anyway, while cleaning out the basement of the chapel, Stanley stumbles across a couple of things. One is Sarge, an alcoholic arsehole who loves to torment the cadets. The other is a secret passage to an underground lair. Stanley discovers that it is the primeval domain of Esteban, a 15th century defrocked priest and certified Satan worshipper. Since our hero hates how everyone on campus treats him, he decides to call up the powers of Darkness to do his own unholy bidding. Besides, he’s really sick and tired of being called ‘Cooperdick’ all the time.

Hooking up the ultimate instrument of evil—an Apple II—and typing in Latin terms from an ancient manuscript, Stanley soon has the man-goat making down pat. Teachers are impaled on spikes, and crusty-curious old Sarge discovers the ultimate neck massage. But when the jock jokes of the school use Stanley’s pet pooch as a pincushion, all Heck really breaks loose. Stanley completes the CPU sacrifice and before you know it, his fallen-angel avenger has arrived to help him get all Evilspeak on their asses.

You have to acknowledge one thing about Clint’s character, Stanley Coopersmith, in this film. Even though he’s really a minor presence in the everyday running of the school, he has somehow managed to be at or near the core of every issue, both administratively and personally, for most of the staff and student body. Though he is no more portly than most boys, he is ragged on and called fat. Though there are dozens of other nogoodniks around, he seems to be stuck doing all the dirty grunt work. And while he does resemble a wild albino chipmunk with hairline issues, that’s really no excuse to treat him like an animal. He’s the reason why the soccer team is losing, why the school’s reputation is sullied, and why the pigsties still stink.

To West Andover Military Academy, Stanley is the dark cloud on Inspection Day, a Democrat in the White House, and freeze-dried peas in the K-rations. And yet, when mysterious deaths and disappearances start happening, and the once-reliable whipping boy goes missing for hours on end, no one seems the least suspicious. As long as he’s around to be picked on, Stanley has free reign to commune with whomever he wants. So, naturally, a date with the Devil is not so far-fetched.

If you were raised on the hackneyed horror of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, then Evilspeak will be like paging through the yearbook of Missed Opportunities High School, Class of ‘81. This movie has so many good things going for it, that when it finally flops over onto its back and bares its soft, static underbelly, you get a tad perturbed. There is Howard’s unhinged performance, an odd reinterpretation of Carrie as a boy who shops in the husky department at Sears. Then we’ve got the homoerotic shirtlessness of Luca Brazzi, a.k.a. Lenny Montana, the only cafeteria chef at an all-boys school who doesn’t wear a shirt under his apron. R.G. Armstrong’s drunken dope Sarge is a miserable menace that doesn’t hear the numerous pranks and demonic spunk going on around him, but wakes up whenever someone drops a book.

And of course, who could forget, the Satanic Pigs of Hate! That’s right, for no real reason except to have killer porkers in the narrative, Evilspeak employs dozens of Hell’s heinous ham factories to feast on the flesh of infidels. They tear out organs and rip off heads. They chase a naked babe into a shower, giving a whole new meaning to “makin’ bacon in the bathtub.” And when Clint finally figures out the formula for resurrecting the excommunicated priest Esteban (no, not the sunglass-wearing, guitar-shilling infomercial king. That’s a whole other kind of evil), he sends the swine assassins to wipe out the entire soccer team. Let’s face it, this movie should have really been about Beelzebub’s badass blood-and-guts boars, and left all of the bullying boyhood trauma to John Hughes. No amount of the red stuff—and there is plenty here—can make up for what happens to this movie during its second act.

Evilspeak is indeed a film backheavy on gore. Coopersmith spends so much time getting picked on and blamed that you sit back and wait for his persecutors to pay. And you wait. And you wait. And you wait. Indeed, as the entire middle section of the movie meanders around from obvious grabs at sentimentality (the entire cook/puppy portions) to attempts to stay in tune with the demographic (a Miss Heavy Artillery Contest, the aforementioned nude bathroom romp) Evilspeak loses its spark. What started as a standard wish fulfillment/revenge scheme mixed with Satanism flounders with a lack of focus.

Not even the novelty of the computer (back then, about as sci-fi as the butt-kicking androids of I, Robot) conjuring up the Black Mass in easy-to-program PASCAL can save the slide. So when all the grue comes blasting at the screen (to ape a certain Texas Drive-In expert: “Heads roll. Intestines roll. Hearts roll.”), it’s a little too late. Actually, it’s a couple dozen gallons-full too late. With some of the deleted sinew restored in this remaster of the movie, the end elements of iniquity are particularly ooey, gooey, nasty, and fright-flick satisfying. But unless you find a way to entertain yourself until the soft tissue starts soaring, you’ll find Evilspeak as dull as a demonic quilting bee.

by Bill Gibron

7 Oct 2008


Throughout the years, there have been certain movies where hype has played a more significant role in its popularity and notoriety than the actual film itself. One such area where this occurs frequently is the horror genre. When it was released in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a major commercial success. But it also developed a reputation as being the goriest, most disgusting exercise in excess ever created. Anyone who has actually seen the film can attest to the fact that it’s rather tame by today’s effects standards and is more unsettling in tone than in its use of blood.

A few years later, a cheapo Italian horror film called Pieces, again about a chainsaw killer, sold itself to the public based on the tagline “it’s exactly what you think it is.” And true to its word, it was a repulsive exercise in human vivisection. Now another title long debated for its content and its context within society makes it to DVD. The subject of a report on 60 Minutes, numerous episodes of talk shows, and bans by British and other foreign markets, The Toolbox Murders boasts a title perfect for terrifying exploitation and a reputation as a grueling exercise in sleazy, demented cinema. But the question is, does this film earn its infamous status? Or is it all just propaganda?

An apartment complex in Southern California is hit by a string of gruesome murders. Each of the women is killed by a man in a ski mask wielding various tools: a hammer, a screwdriver, a drill, and most shockingly, a nail gun. Seemingly unconnected, the police are baffled. However, when a teenage girl is kidnapped, there is an entirely new mystery to solve: why was she taken, and does it have anything to do with the string of killings? The answer brings the apartment owner, his nephew, and the missing girl’s brother together in a showdown over who and most importantly why this all happened.

It is 1977. Producer Tony Didio is reading the Los Angeles Times when he notices that some three years after it first played in town, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 hit is back for a second, seemingly successful run. He contacts the distributor and Mr. Didio discovers that this genre classic is still earning untold sums of money. This fact compels him to try making one of his own. He gets in touch with a writing team he knows, hires out a print of the film, sits them down in a theater, and gives them one simple mandate: create a variation on this idea and movie. Thus The Toolbox Murders is born.

When it is released, it creates a sensation. Angry protests denounce its misogynistic view toward, the victimization, and the exploitation of women. Critics complain of its sleazy and graphic violence. Fans, in these innocent days before Dawn Of The Dead, Friday The 13th, and a bevy of other splatter films, relish the gore and makeup effects. Britain, long notorious for its banning of so called “video nasties,” makes The Toolbox Murders one of its lead offenders.

But then a funny thing happened. Time, that criminal to all “of the moment” material, took the film and shuttled it off into afterthought land. Once Jason and Freddie and their bastard kin took over the movie screens of the 1980s and ‘90s, The Toolbox Murders became a forgotten “classic,” and then merely forgotten. Video releases of the film extended its life for a while, but soon, just like many titles in a local or chain rental outlet, it became another silly, sloppy horror film. Sure, videotape undersold its visual style with lousy prints and cropped images, but just like most exploitation motion picture product, created to fill the market and make a buck, any significance or lasting appeal it had within the culture seemed gone once the final balance sheet was tallied. The film became buried and dismissed under a mound of knockoff maniac murder movies.

In many ways, The Toolbox Murders is a cut above (no pun intended) your average exploitation horror film. The cast here are all television and film veterans. Cameron Mitchell plays the apartment superintendent with a bad habit of murdering his tenants. Wesley Eure (Land of the Lost), Pamelyn Ferdin (too many TV and movie credits to mention), and Nicolas Beavy (The Cowboys) are the hapless teens caught in the middle of the carnage and chaos. They are all outstanding. First time film director Dennis Donnelly, another old pro from television, does a good job of creating mood and setting tone. He does rely a little too often on the made for television medium shot, but there are times when he opens the frame and creates interesting widescreen compositions. Even the special effects, for the mid-‘70s, are fairly good. While not overly bloody, the film does have several upsetting shots of gore, much more than other films from its time (like Chainsaw, or Halloween for that matter). Still, the jury remains out on this film. While it is effective, it is also bisected into almost two completely different stories. And there is a crucial scene that may, or may not, hold them together.

The first tale indeed revolves around the tool murders. We go through a good thirty minutes of stalking and slaying. No explanation, no exposition, just an over the credits set up followed by four gruesome killings. As they stand, they are par for the cryptic course. There is ample nudity (and even some sexual content, although it is only of the “self-loving” variety) and the prerequisite cat and mouse mechanics over where and when the killer will strike next. Donnelly even adds some weird sequences, like the masked maniac taking the victim out into the stairwell to kill her, only to bring the bloody body back into the apartment, to underscore the disturbed nature of what is taking place. But once the police begin their investigation, and Pamelyn Ferdin’s character (Laurie Ballard) is kidnapped, the film takes a more introspective, psychological thriller turn. And as stated before, it all rests on one key scene to hold it together. (Those who do not want to know more about the plot or the surprises may want to stop reading here and pick up the review in a couple of paragraphs).

The scene in question lasts over fourteen minutes and takes place in Cameron Mitchell’s home (his character’s name is Ben Kingsley). Some time before the killings, Ben lost a daughter in a car accident. The loss eats him up inside. So one night he goes on a murderous spree, slaughtering residents in the apartment complex he owns. When he returns the next evening to commit even more atrocities, he sees Laurie Ballard. Instead of harming her, he kidnaps Laurie and ties her up in his house. To Ben, Laurie is his long dead daughter, and he must protect her. He dresses her in frilly clothes and surrounds her with stuffed animals and dolls. After making her lunch one day, Ben sits on the bed and tells Laurie that he is doing to protect his “little girl,” including the murders of those “bad women” in the complex. Bound and gagged, Laurie can only sit in utter shock and silence as Ben pours out his heart, and his insane brain, in long soliloquies of pain and perversity over the loss of innocence and the death of his family.

Acting wise, Cameron Mitchell and Pamelyn Ferdin are excellent in the scene. Mitchell chews the scenery and then hits the film stock for a little more cinematic mastication. He is determined to sell the sequence as being an honest peek into a very disturbed mind. Pamelyn Ferdin, on the other hand, does a brilliant job of portraying silent terror using only her body language. The rigid manner in which she sits, the glazed and alarmed look in her eye, the single tear dripping down her cheek, underplays everything that Mitchell’s method is shooting into the ionosphere. The two competing styles create a consistent tone of realism to the scene, so that we begin to understand and sympathize with the characters. But the real question becomes this: do we buy it? Do we willingly throw away what we came to see—toolbox murders—for this new twisted tale of mental illness and psychological torture?

Unfortunately, the answer is a kinda sorta almost. Indeed, the last half of the film is an exercise in tension and unexpected plot turns, never once cheating or swaying from hinted at character motivation. In essence it’s a narrative bait and switch. You came to see naked women getting hacked up by a madman. Do you now want to stay around and watch the powerful acting and subtle suspense? They even hint at the theme of incest (not with Mitchell, thankfully) to further expand the psychological dimensions.

Indeed, if The Toolbox Murders has one major flaw, it is in the division between the gory slasher and neurotic thriller film. Imagine if, after the first few killings, Dr. Loomis and the rest of the cast actually caught Mike Myers and spent several minutes discussing Mr. Shape’s problems. Or what if, after a couple of campfire crushings, Jason decided to exorcise his internal demons to a group of captured campers, not with a machete, but with a monologue? Do we want our murder getting on our psychological mind games and visa versa? This is the quandary facing Toolbox. The first half is gruesome. The last half is unsettling. But they really are almost two different movies. Once the kidnapping occurs, there is no physical reference back to the initial murders. The last few killings are with fire, knives, and scissors, and even one of those occurs off screen.

It feels like the makers of the film are saying, “Okay, you got your toolbox killings, we roped you in…now sit back because it’s time for the real story.” And it all begins with the scene between Ben and Laurie. It is at this moment where you as an audience member will either stay with the film (this reviewer sheepishly did) or decide you have been had. If you accept it, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying, startling conclusion. If you don’t, the last forty minutes of the film will drone on and on.

by Bill Gibron

6 Oct 2008


It arrived during the final phases of classic ‘70s horror, an era that had seen The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Halloween reestablish the genre’s credibility as a cinematic art form. John Carpenter’s slasher suspense story specifically reinvigorated a flagging industry interest in scary stuff, and the marketplace was preparing for a flood of finely tuned copycats. But standing out there all alone in the macabre wilderness was independent filmmaker Don Coscarelli. Having had some minor success with more family-oriented fare, the young director noticed that an inconsequential moment of fear during one of his more genial movies really gave audiences a start. Wanting to capitalize on such a crowd reaction, he parlayed a dream he once had, along with a collection of ideas and icons he had collected from years as a drive-in B-movie buff, into an experiment in terror. Labeling his final product Phantasm, he sent his monster movie out into the commercial landscape to see what would happen. The results were unexpected.

Something strange is happening over at the Morningside Cemetery and Funeral Home. People have been disappearing and interned bodies have gone missing. The enigmatic director of the parlor, a strange figure only known as The Tall Man, appears to stalk the small suburban California town, and this makes Jody Pearson, his little brother Michael, and their pal Reggie very uneasy. When a mutual friend is found dead in the local graveyard, all eyes shift to Morningside. A late-night visit inside the mausoleum reveals some stunning supernatural surprises. The paranormal follows the Pearson boys as they try to make sense of what’s going on. It’s not long before young Mike is seeing the Tall Man everywhere he goes. With his older sibling firmly in the madman’s demonic sights, Mike knows something sinister is definitely afoot.

Phantasm was the Scream of its era, an ironic nod and wink to the formulas and familiarities of the creature feature deconstructed by a man who really understood the genre he was jeering. Since the slasher film was still a glowing glimmer in Tinseltown’s tainted eye, director Don Coscarelli relied on the previous two decades of drive-in horror, a catalog of films filled with monsters, graveyards, psychotic killers, and even a smattering of science fiction, to foster his vision. They became the bricks for his new form of fear, the building blocks for a surreal narrative that sacrificed sense in order to keep the shivers alive and electrifying. While some didn’t mind that the plot seemed pointless, a creative clothesline upon which various shock set pieces could be fashioned, others saw beneath the scattered surface to recognize what Coscarelli was really after.

Between the tender familial drama, the clever character turns, and one glorious moment of gore, at its core, Phantasm was and remains a movie about the nature of dread. It’s an experiment in what makes us afraid. It uses any and all terror tenets—suspense, bloodletting, the unknown, the unstoppable—as gears in an ever-churning macabre machine. Perhaps the clearest indication of Coscarelli’s success remains the enigmatic villain he created, the iconic Tall Man. It’s rare when a movie can leave behind such a lasting impression. For Phantasm, this lumbering ghoul remains its legitimate legacy.


But there is more here than just Angus Scrimm in a badly fitting suit. For anyone who grew up with old-school horror, Phantasm felt like and continues to play like a primer. Coscarelli obviously knew what fans expected and what the average person believes to be scary or unsettling, and went with a clear kitchen sink creepy approach. From the opening which mixes sex and slaughter to the sequence where a severed finger turns into a ravenous beastie, there are no set rules in the Phantasm universe, no logic to the way terror becomes part of the real world’s temporal plane. Coscarelli has often said that he was influenced by surrealism, recognizing the inherent power in particular imagery juxtaposed together.

Phantasm is full of such moments: Mike’s vision of the Tall Man in an antique photo; the Lady in Lavender’s subtle shape shifts; the fog encased vision of Reggie’s ice cream truck overturned and motionless; the menacing marble mortuary with its floating metallic “caretaker.” Though they seem to have no link to each other (and let’s not get started on the whole Jawa/space slave issue, okay?), and individually would appear more singular than substantive, Coscarelli manages to make them seem wholly organic to the strange circumstances we are stuck in. As a result, their inherent power to unsettle stays with us long after the final false ending has arrived.

The key to making this all work starts with solid performances from a completely complementary cast. Your performers have to play with, not against you, adding to the overall effectiveness of the terror. In this case, Coscarelli found a good friend (the excellent Reggie Bannister), a well-meaning musician (Bill Thornbury), and a precocious kid he had worked with before (A. Michael Baldwin), and forged a unique and totally authentic bond. Some may wonder about the front porch jam, Reggie and Billy banging away on some self-penned blues stomp, but the truth is, nothing establishes communion better than the sharing of something as personal as music. We immediately understand the connection and recognize the attachment both have for each other.

Similarly, Billy and Michael play siblings with a love of cars (in this case, a completely bad-ass Barracuda) and tinkering, and it’s a mutual experience that helps fuse them together as a family. With other standard ‘70s touches like dead parents, issues of abandonment, and the usual adolescent concerns of growing up and taking responsibility, Coscarelli creates a character dynamic we truly believe and support. Since we accept the relationship of the trio, we have a much easier time of falling into the fear.

Still, Phantasm remains a director’s film, a highlight reel that also manages to be an effective fright flick. Coscarelli, who had made a couple of midlevel mainstream movies before diving into dread, obviously knows his way around a camera. His placement throughout this film is fascinating. He uses low angles and obscure framings to keep things uncomfortable, and applies handheld and other POV techniques to keep the audience directly involved in the action. This is particularly true of a late-night car chase between the Pearson boys and the Tall Man’s driverless hearse. As Jody climbs out of the Cuda’s sunroof to level a shotgun at the vile vehicle, Coscarelli’s lens is right there, standing directly between the trigger and the target.

There’s also a sense of Hardy Boys-like adventure here, a concept of personal ingenuity and everyday invention that keeps viewers curious and connected. When Michael is locked in his room and looking for a way out, his MacGyver-like creativity results in one of the movie’s most memorable stunts. Similarly, when faced with having to outsmart the villainous maniac mortician, the boys rely more on their brains than their brawn to find a shorthanded solution. It’s all part of the queer contrasts at play here. Phantasm has a narrative locked in its own perplexing universe, yet its director constantly strives for some manner of realism and authenticity.

There will be some who complain about the special effects (though the movie’s most memorable bit of brain-draining is still as shocking as it was three decades ago) and the often ambiguous explanation for just what is going on at the Morningside Funeral Parlor. Yet Phantasm remains a viable entity some 28 years after its release because it represents something unique in the post-modern world of horror. By mixing up all the hocus pocus possibilities of the genre into a single supernatural stew, Coscarelli both reinvigorated and set the death knell for the next two decades.  But Phantasm remains his best known effort, a four-film (and growing) franchise that has its basis in one fabulously fascinating movie. At the time, it literally shook the scare fanbase. Today, it’s a testament to one man’s amazing ability.

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