Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Classic Filmage in The Latest Issue!

While I do have quite a bit of knowledge pertaining to cinema in general, most of what I know comes from recent films, and when traveling back in time, my information becomes much more scant the further back you go. To those who know me, it's probably not too surprising if I haven't heard of a "classic" film from more than twenty or thirty years ago, and even if I had heard of it, I most probably haven't seen it unless it was a major release. For every Alien or Star Wars, that I've actually seen there are dozens, if not hundreds of less recognized films that I haven't gotten around to yet. So when I was given the cult 70's horror film Phantasm for Christmas, it was a chance to see for the first time a title that has long been considered one of the best "B" movies in existence. The gift came from my old friend 313, who runs his own blog Full Half Glass...No Wait... here on Blogspot. Though it's been a few weeks since Christmas, I hadn't had the chance until a combination of lack of interesting movies and ample time on my hands made itself available. Thank goodness for vacations to make such things possible, and so last night I popped my gift in the DVD player and leaned back to see what the hubbub was about.

Even in the film's beginning, you can tell Scrimm is the bad guy
The first thing you notice - besides the popping bustier - is that even for a film made in the 1970's Phantasm looks OLD. As a low-budget horror film, it was practically created single-handedly by Don Coscarelli. a director and filmmaker known for his inexpensive horror titles. In fact, one of his latest films, 2003's Bubba Ho-Tep, features one of my favorite Bruce Campbell performances. But looking back at the film quality of Phantasm, It's more difficult to take the film seriously when you're used to much more sophistication in acting, special effects and score. Despite this, Phantasm does try as hard as it can to scare you, and certainly has a unique story to try and draw the audience in.

I think The Tall Man wants to kill Reggie for his ponytail
In a small unnamed town, Jody (Bill Thornbury), Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and Jody's young brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) are the only hope the people in the town have against a force known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). The Tall Man has been taking the bodies of the deceased and using them for his own devices, operating out of a creepy mausoleum for seemingly forever. The three face off against paranormal forces unlike anything they or we the audience have seen before, including psychotic dwarfs and the infamous silver spheres of doom.

...And it's in your eye. What have we learned today class?
The acting is downright silly, with barely half of the lines being delivered in anything approaching a believable manner. This alone in a small horror film is no surprise, but what's more insane about the poorly-written and performed dialogue is that this somehow went on for three sequels. After the downright mediocre performances by the three leads, I'm surprised they ever worked in film at all. Only Angus Scrimm was really memorable, and as he doesn't have many spoken lines his appearance here can really better be described as a force than a portrayal. His Tall Man is as memorable as any horror villain should be, and holds up as well over time as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. A. Michael Baldwin goes from annoying snot-nosed punk to, well, a slightly less annoying snot-nosed punk over the course of the film. Any scene he was in was guaranteed to make me clamp my hands over his ears, and the only reason I don't think he was the worst part of the film is because as a kid he had an excuse for his over-acting. Bill Thornbury and Reggie Bannister share much of the film's burden, but as neither puts forth a good job in the believability department. Thornbury is almost a classic hero type, with long flowing hair and a reluctance about the film's plot that changes to match the story's needs. And Bannister is an odd choice for hero, with his bad hair and sloth-like demeanor surely intending to represent an everyman, but since he's an everyman from the 70's it's not really something someone from today can identify with.

It's about this point that the film simply makes NO sense
But the acting isn't even what's worst about Phantasm. The story is frankly silly, and getting past that (I mean hey, it's a horror film) the incoherence of the film's final act defies logic.Even the most prolific horror fans should probably have been insulted by the cheap attempt at a slick ending, and while The Tall Man and the silver spheres have become scary movie legends, this film is hardly the mecca of horror it would make you believe. Were people just afraid of more back then? Phantasm's tag line would say that if t he film doesn't scare you, that means you're already dead. Sorry, filmmakers, but just because my pulse is so slow after seeing your work that you can't detect it doesn't mean I've left the land of the living. Coscarelli does a good job with darkness but that's true of most horror filmmakers of the era, and I really can't recommend this one to anybody. I know I'll have my detractors on this, but Phantasm simply isn't a good movie, and if I want to see a low-budget horror film from the same era, I'll see Evil Dead instead. At least that one has Bruce Campbell.


brian said...

apparently this movie is not for you. I'm angry.

brian said...

Oh, and Reggie Bannister is worth three Bruce Campbells. Arrrgghhhhhh....

Gianni said...

Yes, this is EXACTLY the response I was expecting from Brian.

I'm sorry, I can't root for a guy with a ponytail.

Anonymous said...

But you're one scrunchie away from a ponytail...

Regardless, you are clearly unaware that this was one of the best Christmas presents you received this year. You mention yourself that this is an extremely low budget B movie from the 70s, so how much "sophistication" were you really looking for in the acting, special effects and score?

I've watched a TON of 70's genre movies and most are forgettable but I can't say the same about Phantasm. Sure, it may not be scary to modern audiences, but it plays with some interesting ideas and has a strange energy to it that can't be denied.

I don't think you should write this one off so quickly. Give it another try down the road or at least check out Phantasm II. That one is even better.


313 said...

Phantasm does have a certain energy about it. Its really not meant to analytically dissected to that degree. Versus today's standards what could possibly be considered scary or intense? "You gotta be shitting me man! That muther's strong!"

briankirker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
briankirker said...

I most take issue with your comment that "Phantasm looks OLD". By what standard? I think the look is one of the strengths of the picture. Are you talking colors, hair styles, film stock, cars? Need clarity!

Phantasm is ahead of it's time and still holds up today. Well, as long as your idea of horror isn't Saw I through VI or Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes, it holds up. The movie is endlessly creepy and bizarre. It's moody, it's scary (c'mon, the image of the Tall Man standing over the head of your bed doesn't at least send little shivers down your spine?), and it's got jawas driving a hearse. What else? Oh yeah, I think you're overstating the "badness" of the acting. And the special effects, while not CGI (wink, wink), are great!

I was gonna close by saying you should see the sequels (II and III, in particular, are great and probably don't look as "OLD" as this one) but I really don't think you should. Wait for the remake.

Wow, I thought a good night's sleep would have calmed me down. Nope!

brian said...

Ok, I'm over it. Watch Part II!

The rewatch this one in a year or two.

Gianni said...

In my defense, I was enjoying the film to some extent before the final mausoleum battle when stuff (SPOILER: Like Reggie coming back out of nowhere) just started happening with no explanation or justification. Then the final (SPOILER!) "it was a dream no wait maybe not" ending seemed like more like a big "fuck you" than a twist, at least in my eyes. Dan may be right and II and III are better, but that last act dropped this first film a lot in my opinion.

Oh, and when I say it looked old I meant in reference to the film and audio quality, which were not top notch for the time and haven't aged well since, that's all.

brian said...

I don't think II and III are better, just different...and great in their own way. Part I is the definity masterpiece of the quartet. I'm not sure how you can criticize a movie for film (which was fine) and audio quality, especially when it's a low budget movie. It looked and sounded great to me, but then again, I've seen 1000s that have looked/sounded worse.

Oh, and the movie employs dream logic throughout (before Nightmare on Elm Street used it). Who critizes Phantasm for it's Logic (or lack thereof)!?

Yep, calling you out. I'll defend this movie until I die.

elmo said...

I love the music and the white room at the end- vanishing between two posts is innovative in any age!!

THE Real Estate Analyst!!! said...

"Classic film" in the 70's?? I KNOW I took you to see the re-mastered "Gone with the Wind". And I saw then look of awe in your face when we watched the original (and the only one that mattered) "Manchurian Candidate" (Not only could Frank Sinatra sing but he was a damn good actor). And I could have sworn that "The Bank Dick" made you a WC Fields fan. And didn't you see "Casablanca" with the usual suspects?? Classics in the 70's ... hah!