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Sunday, Oct 12, 2008

Never pretend to be handicapped. Know what awaits you in Heaven. Use racial tolerance to get what you want. Never swear on television. Stay HIV positive. Never take a joke too far. Never give up on cheating. People will always find a way to ruin your good time. Kids with red hair and freckles have no souls. The world will end in 2012. These are just some of the revelations offered by Eric Theodore Cartman, the nine year old self-proclaimed wunderkind of South Park, Colorado. Along with opinions of Family Guy (“sucks balls”) and the Jews (let’s not go there), the rotund prophet want you to join his cult of comedy gold. And thanks to a new DVD set from Paramount, you too can become a member of his portly People’s Temple.


Yes, this is another of those studio compiled merchandising doorstops, meant to appease the appetite of those longing for more and more South Park box sets. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series (and you really should be by now, dammit), it centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk mountain town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), the aforementioned Cartman and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and prone to dying suddenly).


Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs./Mr. Garrison (the gang’s confused transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.



While clearly aimed at appeasing fans until a Season 12 compilation comes along, The Cult of Cartman: Revelations reminds us of why Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated anarchy stands as a certified comedy classic. Not only does the duo understand the innate charms of over the top toilet humor, but they always manage a little satiric bite along with the scatology. Additionally, South Park is almost exclusively a character driven show - albeit one where the personalities involved are slightly twisted and unusually perverted. By focusing on Cartman, especially later day Eric’s evil shenanigans, we observe how Parker and Stone push the envelope of their invention to maximize laughs while staying well within the confines of creative license.


Disc 1 begins with what has to be one of South Park‘s most amazing episodes - “Scott Tenorman Must Die”. No other animated television series could find a way to make pubic hair, a chili cook-off, peer pressure, the band Radiohead, and cannibalism work in a flawless examination of school days hazing. The last installment on the DVD, “La Petit Tourette”, tries something similar with the noted neurological disorder and Dateline’s ‘To Catch a Predator’. In between, we discover that a certain sedate sea creature writes all of Family Guy‘s abysmal scripts (“Cartoon Wars 1 & 2”), pretending to be a robot won’t help your figure out your friends (“Awesom-O”), and dying can be as big a bitch as being completely ignored by your school chums (“The Death of Eric Cartman”).



There’s even more insights on Disc 2, whether it’s dealing with the notoriously humorless “Ginger Kids”, or discovering that a simple case of “Tonsil Trouble” can lead to a cure for AIDS (the secret? Lots and lots of money). Terrorists will always undermine your “Super Fun Time” at a pioneer recreationist village, while the demands of the public and standard business models means that even having your own amusement park (“Cartmanland”) is nothing but headaches. The other two episodes of South Park included on the second DVD feature Mrs. Garrison desperate to become a man again (“Eek, A Penis!”) while Cartman himself fakes mental retardation to “win” the Special Olympics (“Up the Down Steroid”). It is here where you find the only three episodes not previously included on other digital collections (“Tonsil”, “Eek” and “Super”).


As with any random collection of series installments, fans can question the inclusion or exclusion of certain titles, and there will always be arguments over the necessity for such stopgap sets in the first place. Fox received lots of grief for putting The Simpsons out in such a scattered strategy, but since Paramount regularly releases South Park in full season packages (and relatively quickly after they’ve aired on Comedy Central),  some character specific indulgence can be forgiven. After all, without this specialized one-off ideal, we wouldn’t have gotten the amazing full length feature film version of “Imaginationland” a few months back.



As for the sole bonus feature, the tiny life lessons from Cartman himself (part of new introductory animation) are funny, if rather short. Some last no longer than a few seconds. No one is suggesting that Park provide more. After all, Parker and Stone seem content to allow each season set to arrive sans anything remotely resembling real digital extras. Instead, they offer up their own “commentary-mini” (three to five minutes max) and seem satisfied. So having these risqué one liners and profane prophecies setting up each episode is ample added content - especially when you consider the cool packaging and inclusion of a membership card/sticker recognizing your status in the Eric Theodore Cartman Society.


Together, the entire presentation explains how South Park maintains its coveted commercial and critical status. It argues for the value in all aspects of humor - from the outrageous to the subtle, the offensive spoof and the current culture of irony. While the 12 episodes provided might not be the best in the show’s history (that’s up to true Park geeks and messageboard surfers to decide), they remind us of how easy Trey Parker and Matt Stone make it look. In the past, the boys have explained how some ideas take years to foster, while others arrive during the standard production week pressures. In combination with the current political clime, and whatever spills over the TMZ tabloid transom, the duo has fostered one of the finest farces ever conceived. The Cult of Cartman: Revelations may have specious motives, but as a collection of South Park, it’s well worth the re/pre-visit. 


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Saturday, Oct 11, 2008

Symbolically, what do airplane pillows represent? Comfort at 40,000 feet? A cheap way of providing minimal relaxation to the tired traveler? A miniature facsimile of the real thing? Empty promises and little relief? As with most symbols of a crass consumer culture, the rough little puffs with their diminutive status can signify something different to everyone who comes across them. The same can be said for the latest wonderwork by actor turned complete cinematic genius Giuseppe Andrews. Taking its title from the aforementioned in-flight fluff, what we end up with is another mesmerizing look at how the marginalized manage to maintain their errant dignity while dealing with the dilemmas of an uncaring world. 


Baby Swiss is obsessed with a strange science fiction film. She fantasies about living in its futuristic ideals, and keeps a separate DVD copy in a strongbox under the house just to be on the safe side. Naturally, this drives her unattended husband to the local whorehouse, known as The City on the Moon. There, he meets up with other unhappy men and drowns his sorrows in high priced call girls. In the meantime, Baby Swiss discovers a kind of platonic love with a like minded neighbor. He is so desperate to be part of her life that he will wait outside her window. Their relationship will turn on whether she cleans the glass, or closes the blinds. And all the while, a homeless Greek chorus champions the freedom of living on the streets, unencumbered by the mindless machinations of being part of this so-called “proper society”.



Airplane Pillows is Giuseppe Andrews’ impoverished interpretation of Peyton Place, a lifetime of soap opera intrigue boiled down to 30 attention-grabbing minutes. It’s couples fighting, parents pleading with their distant offspring, lovers looking for the light in the window of their paramour’s soured soul, crime, punishment, Pope pimps, and unhappy men seeking solace in the arms (and thighs) of a paid partner’s embrace. Utilizing many in his creatively rich company, including the magnificent Vietnam Ron, Sir George Bigfoot, Ed, and the always electric Karen Bo Baron, while introducing several new intriguing faces, it’s a return to the days of sense memory surrealism and random narrative drive. You can figure out what’s going on here based on genre requirements. But Andrews always makes his movies much more than simple cinematic stereotypes.


As with any aggressive auteur, the standards of the sudser are indeed perverted by Airplane Pillows to make room for more of the maestro’s fascinating free association. In many ways, this wacky little treasure trove reminds one of David Lynch’s cult crackerjack Twin Peaks. Here, Andrews takes typical plot points like adultery, familial dysfunction, sexual satisfaction, drug abuse, serial murder, and other personal power struggles and filters them through a mindset that manufactures as many complications as conclusions. We aren’t supposed to get lost in these people’s piddling problems. Instead, when Baby Swiss explains her love of a fictional sci-fi effort, we are required to see our own idiosyncratic needs, and realize that our unusual fetishes are probably just as freaky.



Perhaps the most compelling sequences however come when two spellbinding street people discuss how happy they are to be homeless. Faces haggard and yet very human, voices straining from years living within the cosmopolitan cancer of urban smog and soot, they literally laugh at individuals who take existence as a mixture of frustration and futility. Here they are, without a care (or collection of coins) in the world, and yet their sunny optimism - combined with a little carnal trickery - mocks everything the other characters kvetch over. Every over the top narrative needs a good counterbalance and Airplane Pillows’ hobo harbingers are a perfect artistic offset.


Unlike past films, where gross out gags about bodily functions and fornication seemed to make up most of the wit, Andrews once again switches gears. Sure, we still get some scatology, but most of the humor is character driven, drawn out from interactions and ideas. Dialogue, always an important element in his films, is fleshed out in a way that challenges convention while embracing its universal needs. There are small snippets of backstory, moments when we learn about Baby Swiss’s son, a hooker’s medical scare, and other random bits of individual dimension. Yet because Andrews always has bigger picture fish to fry, the sum standing as something much greater than the often as intriguing parts.



In fact, even at 30 minutes, Airplane Pillows feels dense and compelling complex. It makes us think while playing fully on our emotional impulses. It instantly draws us in while simultaneously pushing us back, never being too obvious or too obtuse. Like the amazing artist he is, Andrews continues to show how adept he can be within the artform. Even a minor motion picture riff like this stands right alongside his more epic examinations. At one time, Giuseppe Andrews was the Godard of the Trailer Park, a celluloid revisionist working in camcorders and crazies. Today, he’s the leading light in the outsider digital revolution. Airplane Pillows proves this over and over again.


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Wednesday, Oct 8, 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.


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Tuesday, Oct 7, 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.


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Monday, Oct 6, 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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