Tag Archives: horror

Get Out – Review

13 Mar

When Key & Peele first aired on Comedy Central, I didn’t think the show was going to go anywhere, but then I watched it and realized that the two stars had an incredible talent when it came to comedy and satire. I loved their movie, Keanu, and when I saw Jordan Peele was writing and directing a horror film based on racism I was immediately on board. I knew that it would be a blend of horror and sharp satire, and at times probably even be funny, and that’s exactly what I got. Get Out is a really smart, eerie, and subversive film that has many different ideas and perspectives while also telling a creepy, and sometimes even gleefully campy, horror story.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are at the point in their relationship where it’s time for Chris to finally meet her parents. Normally, this would be a passably awkward experience, but Rose’s parents have no idea that Chris is black. Despite Rose telling Chris that her parents, while being typically eccentric, are nothing to really worry about. Upon their arrival to their suburban home, Chris is whole heartedly greeted by Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage. Over time, Chris starts to notice strange remarks concerning both him and the Armitage’s black housekeepers. Things only get stranger when Missy hypnotizes Chris during a late night conversation, a session which ignites a furious paranoia in Chris that causes him to investigate what is really going on in that house and the real horrors that lie beneath the surface.

There’s so much to say about Get Out that I don’t really know where to begin. When this movie was first previewed, there was a lot of backlash for it showing this overt racism directed at one particular race to another. The thing is that this movie is not as clean cut as that. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface that trailers can’t convey, and I’d be pretty upset if they did because the way this movie unfolds is riveting. While Peele does explore the overt racism towards African Americans, it doesn’t really stop there. The story also delves into the realm of paranoia and preconceived notions of both races that arise because of these problems. It also goes in a pretty cool direction where certain actions from people, while they claim they may be trying to help, are only making certain situations worse or changing nothing at all and coming off as condescending. While not giving anything away, the last third of the movie goes absolutely haywire and only makes things more complicated with certain unexpected twists that come out of nowhere… Twists that just so happen to be awesome.

While this is definitely a horror movie through and through, there’s a couple really cool things that kind of help Get Out step outside of the box and escape genre conventions. For one thing, this film can be super funny. Like gut busting funny, and a lot of that comes from the hilarious performance by Lil Rey Howery, who plays Chris’ best friend. We all knew that Jordan Peele was a really funny guy, but it’s impressive that he can so seamlessly weave his off the wall sense of humor into a genuinely unnerving horror tale. I mentioned that the third act just introduces a whole new layer in terms of thematic material, but it also really shakes things up when it comes to style and genre conventions. I’m not going to say anything about what happens, but any B-movie fan will appreciate the story taking a sudden turn into that kind of territory.

What would have been a major problem for this movie was if it was too obvious. If Peele whacked you over the head with the messages and points he was really driving at, the movie would feel too preachy. While there are a few moments that do feel a tad bit heavy handed, they are completely out shined by the subversive nature of the rest of the film. This is mostly due to Jordan Peele’s fantastic screenplay and direction, but credit also has to go to the actors. I had no idea who Daniel Kaluuya was before seeing this movie, but he was outstanding. He gives a very natural and level headed performance that can be both shocking and funny. The other stand outs are Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as the older Armitages, who just seem to radiate the kind of eerieness this movie needs. I already mentioned Lil Rey Howery, but I just have to reiterate how funny this guy is and how essential he is to the entire movie.

I’ve been saying recently that we are living in a renaissance of horror, and Get Out only proves that point even more. This is a brilliant and wonderfully subversive film that gets under your skin while also succeeding at making you laugh. It has some really great thematic depth to it that will make any audience member with half a brain think about the characters and motivations, which is a great first step to making a great film. Add on some memorable scenes and a lead character that you can’t help but love and you have a winner on your hands. Get Out is a superb film that will challenge your mind as much as entertain you.

Final Grade: A-

Willow Creek – Review

4 Mar

In 1967, the Patterson-Gimlin Film was released, which appears to show a giant creature walking along a riverbed somewhere in the forests of California. This footage has been a favorite amongst the cryptozoological community and has been said this is the proof of the existence of Bigfoot, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When I heard that Bobcat Goldthwait was going to be making a found footage horror film that explores the lore of Bigfoot, I was at the same time confused and intrigued. It’s been over three years since the film’s release, but I’ve just gotten around to seeing it, and I have to say that I’m more than a little surprised. Willow Creek is a suspenseful and often frightening film that is full of sharp dialogue, two rich lead characters, and a third act that provided me with some chilling moments.

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Jim (Bryce Johnson) is a Bigfoot enthusiast who decides to head to the area of Willow Creek and Bluff Creek to make his own documentary on the Patterson-Gimlin footage and his own attempts to find the area and possibly run into Bigfoot. Along for the ride is his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), who is an adamant denier of the creature, but also wants to support Jim in his efforts to shoot his film. The two finally arrive in Willow Creek and spend some time interviewing locals who have has some sort of encounter with Sasquatch, but some also warn them not to go into the woods. Despite the warnings, Jim and Kelly enter the woods where it is believed Bigfoot resides, and it doesn’t take long for them to realize that they are no longer hunting for Bigfoot, but it’s Bigfoot that’s hunting them.

So let’s get what I wasn’t a huge fan of out of the way first. For one thing, this is a pretty standard found footage movie when it comes to certain beats and the structure of the narrative. I knew pretty much exactly how the movie was going to play out and, for the most part, I was right. It even has the horror cliché of locals telling the main characters not to go somewhere, and then, of course, they go anyway. Shocker. I also just wanted a little bit more from this movie. This can also be seen as something of a compliment because I was really enjoying the movie and I wanted more of it. If another 10 or 15 minutes were added to it, I would have been thankful for it. I’m all for leaving things kind of ambiguous, and that shouldn’t change, nor do I want any more that what is shown, but a couple more scenes to build up some extra tension would have been much appreciated.

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There’s a lot more to like in Willow Creek than I would’ve ever thought. For one thing, the two main characters are very well thought out and feel genuine. They have a past and a future and it’s briefly explored through dialogue to give them more weight. They aren’t just living in the now of the movie. This makes what happens to them later on in the movie even more intense because they’ve been developed so much that we want them to escape the terrors of the woods. Goldthwait also made the smart choice to make this a slow burn of a horror film. The first 40 minutes or so may seem boring on the surface, but I didn’t find them so at all. It took its time building up the characters, the town and its inhabitants, and the lore of Bigfoot. It’s a sharply written film that is just as sharp in its execution.

So, let’s talk a little bit about the last third of this movie. Holy hell, is it something else. Put yourself in these characters’ positions. Stuck in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night with your only protection being the tent that you’re sleeping in. There’s a 20 minute long take of the couple sitting in the tent and listening to the bone chilling sounds happening outside, like footsteps and howls getting closer and closer to the tent. As this is all happening, their efforts to talk themselves down become futile. The suspense is almost too much and when Willow Creek finally explodes, it will leave you tired. It perfectly utilizes the idea that less is more and what the imagination creates, especially in this atmosphere, can be even more horrifying than anything that exists.

When this movie came out just a few years ago, found footage movies were still over saturating the market, so the only way to do the genre right is to create something special. I think Willow Creek is a special kind of horror movie. It has a tight script with witty dialogue and fully realized characters, but also a really courageous move to make a scene of suspense happen inside a tent during a 20 minute long shot. This is a very impressive film that would have been made even better if some more was added to the story or if some of the derivative moments were removed. Even with these small problems, Willow Creek stands, to me, as an under appreciated gem of modern horror.

Final Grade: B+

Kill List – Review

23 Feb

I’m always up to the task of watching a movie that challenges the idea of genre and narrative form. It’s an excellent mode of expression to take preconceived notions of storytelling and flipping them on their head to create something new. For this to be a success, however, it has to be done right. Movies are archetypically based, so changing the formula can be a tough thing to do. This is exactly what Ben Wheatley attempted to do with his 2011 film Kill List. This was a very strange movie to watch, and I’m still kind of processing it, but it’s really a very interesting film to say the least, even if some of it doesn’t really work.

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Jay (Neil Maskell) is a hitman who has been out of work for months after a particularly traumatizing assignment in Kiev. Shel (MyAnna Buring), Jay’s wife, talks their friend, Gal (Michael Smiley), and convinces him to recruit Jay to help in an assignment with a large payout. After some arguing, Jay agrees and the two hitmen meet their employer (Struan Rodger), who gives them a list of three people and all the information they need to execute the hits. As the two hitmen start their mission and begin working their way down the list, things seem a little bit out of the ordinary, and a dark secret connects the three targets on the list; secrets that contain brutality and sadism on such a level that it horrifies the contract killers and sends them spiraling into a mystery that they may not come out of alive.

I think it’s kind of a compliment to say that a movie keeps rattling in your brain and forcing you to think about it, even when you don’t particularly want to. That’s the relationship I’m having with Kill List. This film blends two genres together to create a mash of oddness. I can’t think of another movie that takes a crime thriller and puts it together with sadistic horror to create something that is as chilling and unforgettable as Kill List. I don’t think this movie is a masterpiece or anything like that, but I do have this feeling that Kill List will forever be somewhere on the back burner. I also have to give Wheatley credit in how he handles a lot of the subject matter. There are scenes that will make the squeamish leave the room post haste, but never does it go over the top into an exploitive affair. This movie effectively crawls under your skin without it being too much or overdone. It’s very well thought out film making and storytelling.

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At the core of this movie, though, is a really intriguing mystery. This is where I got really hooked. The film starts off easy enough with a story of a hit man forced back into the business, but it was enough to keep me watching. When things started getting strange for no reason is when I really started to pay attention. It was great trying to figure out just what in the hell was going on, and for the most part, there really aren’t any clues. You’re left to sit and watch and wonder. I was really dying to know what happened, but this is very ambiguous movie that is left for you to interpret. This might be where the movie falters for me just a little bit. I really wanted to know everything and have concrete answers, but Kill List has none of these to offer. That being said, this is an incredibly frustrating film that succeeds in leaving the audience baffled and freaked out.

When I say freaked out, I really mean freaked out. I’m a real sucker for well made and effective horror movies, so I do expect horror movies to go the extra mile. Technically speaking, I don’t know if I’d call Kill List a horror film. I really don’t know how I’d define it. Still, the last third of this movie is frightening, and I’m not ashamed to say it royally messed with me. I would love to get deeper into what happens, but the most fun you’ll have with this movie is the tension and suspense of it building to what is actually going on. Saying anything more would spoil some of that, so just know that I thought it was one of the creepier displays I’ve seen in a while.

To me, Kill List is a lot of things. It’s frustrating, stunning, difficult, but also extremely memorable. Despite all of the confusion I felt watching it and all of the questions left unanswered, I’m really thrilled that this movie didn’t remain under my radar forever. It’s one that I’m going to want to show to people just so I can see their reaction to it because there really isn’t another movie quite like this one.

Final Grade: B

Near Dark – Review

3 Feb

Kathryn Bigelow has had a very interesting career in Hollywood, and she has a fair share of really good movies supporting her filmography. Her most recent feature, Zero Dark Thirty, garnered plenty of controversy, but I can’t say that it wasn’t a very well made and designed film. I also recently reviewed Point Break, which was one of her earlier efforts but still packed enough over the top entertainment to keep me interested. Today, I’m going back even further to her 1987 film Near Dark. This is a extremely interesting and well thought out take on modern vampires, and this is easily one of the best vampire movies ever made.

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Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is a young farmhand that helps his father on their farm in a small south western town. One night, he meets the beautiful, yet mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright), who seems in a rush to get home and in her panic bites Colton on the side of the neck. Colton is then taken off the road by Mae’s travel companions. The leader of the group is Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and his girlfriend Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein). Along with them is the sadistically violent Severen (Bill Paxton) and Homer (Joshua Miller), a kid who is much older than he looks. It also turns out that these travelers are vampires who roam the countryside looking for easy prey. Colton now is being forced by these vampires to accept his new life and kill in order to survive. This leads Colton on a wild ride of murder and utter chaos.

If you look close enough, you might notice that the cast to this movie is pretty close to the cast of James Cameron’s Aliens. As many people know, Bigelow and Cameron were married for a while in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cameron recommended these actors to Bigelow, and it worked out great. Henriksen is one of the most recognizable character actors working in film and television with good reason. He’s constantly bringing his best to every project he’s in and Near Dark is no exception. The same can be said about Bill Paxton, who really brings it in this movie. Because of Paxton’s excellent performance, mixed with Bigelow’s creative writing and direction, the character of Severen can easily be remembered as one of the great cinematic vampires. The rest of the supporting cast, along with Pasdar in the lead role are all very believable and do their jobs well, I just have to point out Henriksen and Paxton especially do great work.

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While the story of Near Dark is a pretty standard vampire tale, there are so many elements and scenes that put it a leg above the rest. For one thing, the vampires in this movie look like they could just be any person on the street. They aren’t pale or have fangs or anything like that, but they are just as vicious as any other traditional vampiric predator. There’s also a big focus on the affect that sunlight has on them. In fact, it’s one of the main components of the story. They don’t rest in coffins during the day, but they do have to take whatever precautions necessary not have a beam of light touch them. If it does, their skin burns and smoke starts rising off them. It’s really super cool. There’s also a now famous scene that takes place in a bar that really puts this movie up with other class-A horror films.

There have been so many vampire films made over the years that it’s hard to make the idea seem fresh and exciting. What Bigelow did here was take the vampire horror genre and mix it with the western genre to create a very unique feeling and looking film. There’s so much excellent imagery in this movie from the RV with the tin foil wrapped around the windows, to the vampires with blood dripping from their mouths in the bar scene, to an excellent shootout which results in lots of exposure to sunlight. These images are so well constructed and make this movie feel like such an original take on the lore of vampires. That’s really what I want to praise this movie for. Above all else, it is an original take on a tale that everyone knows so much about, but the newness and originality of this movie makes it feel so fresh.

Near Dark is a wonderfully original vampire film that grabbed me from the start and wouldn’t let up until the credits began rolling. It acts as a horror film, a western, and an action adventure movie all in one. I really tried my best to find something negative to say about this movie, but I had such a fun time with it that I don’t think it’s possible. This is one of those one of a kind movies that I could watch again and again without getting bored.

Final Grade: A

Split – Review

1 Feb

Recent years have not been very kind to M. Night Shyamalan, a film maker that was once a titan in the world of suspense thrillers. Since his 2008 bomb, The Happening, things just seemed to be getting worse as time went on. Last year, Shyamalan made a film called The Visit, which I have yet to see but I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard some positive things about it. Now, I can really say without a doubt that Shyamalan is back on course with his newest film, Split. I was hesitant when I first saw the trailer. It looked cool, but trailers can be deceiving. When I left the theater, I was overjoyed that Split was everything I wanted it to be, but it also exceeded those expectations.

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After a small birthday celebration, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends are kidnapped by a seemingly random man named Dennis (James McAvoy). They wake up in a room in an undisclosed location and soon learn that Dennis is not what he first appeared to be. Dennis is also a woman named Patricia who is also a kid named Hedwig who is also over 20 other people. Having suffered with such an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder for so long, he’s gotten quite close with his doctor, Karen (Betty Buckley), who also has theories that these many personalities can give people with this disorder an evolutionary leg up over other people. Back at the girl’s make shift prison, Casey starts to work at better understanding all of this guy’s personalities, but when Hedwig mentions that the Beast is coming for all of them, she begins to formulate new ideas to escape before this terror makes itself known.

I really had such high hopes for this movie. I wanted Shyamalan to show that he still has it in him to make a really kick ass thriller movie, and that’s exactly what I got with Split. I knew I was in for a treat when the credit sequence started. The black background and twisted lettering were great, but what really hooked me was the ominous music that sent a chill down my spine the same way the Signs theme did the first time I saw that movie. The music by West Dylan Thordson is in no way overbearing and it seems to relish in its subtlety. It creeps in whenever the occasion really calls for it which is the mark of a great score. This combined with the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis makes for a great combination. Gioulakis previously worked as cinematographer on It Follows, which was a fantastic looking film, and that same kind of wispy camera movement and confident head on framing makes the same kind of impact in Split.

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The real star of the show here, though, is James McAvoy. McAvoy gives the best performance of his entire career and possibly one of the best performances I’ve seen in a very long time. You know you’re watching a great performance when you no longer see the actor playing the role, but become so convinced that the actor is no longer there and just the character. McAvoy succeeds in doing that in this movie, but what makes it even more impressive is that he makes me believe that a whole lot of characters are real and not being played for a camera. He completely transforms himself into these roles, and each personality has a different stance or walk or way of speaking that makes them feel completely separate from the others. One scene in particular has McAvoy switching between people, and that to me is one of the most impressive parts of the movie. I also have to give credit to Anya Taylor-Joy, who showed that her performance in The Witch wasn’t a fluke and that she is able to maintain a sincere performance despite insanity happening all around her.

While this is truly an incredible movie, there is something I have to get out of the way in terms of negativity. Shyamalan is no stranger to drawn out scenes of exposition, and Split is a major offender. Betty Buckley does a good job playing Dr. Karen, but a lot of her scenes do just exist to explain to the audience what’s going on with one of the personalities or her strange theory that links the whole movie together. To be fair, this is a strange story and exposition is necessary, but there’s so much of it in this movie that it can get kind of distracting. I can definitely forgive this however, because most of the movie is spot on. On the opposite side of the long exposition scenes, there are scenes of visual dread and fear that will be seared into my mind for a long time. There’s one particular moment during a chase towards the end of the movie that is one of the freakiest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Split is a really strong outing by M. Night Shyamalan, and I’m hoping this marks a grand return for someone who has always succeeded in freaking me out and guessing all the way to the end of his movies. This is a really strange film filled with ideas and clues to dig away at to find meaning. It’s also a film that showcases the talents of its actors and behind the camera artists, with James McAvoy really stealing the show with his one of a kind performance. This is a truly suspenseful thrill ride with an ending that will knock your socks off. I highly recommend it.

Final Grade: A

Phantasm Series – Review: Part 2

1 Feb

What my final consensus was on the first three Phantasm movies is that they do represent a spark of originality in a time of slasher movies, but they still weren’t free from their own set of flaws. Most of these flaws come from the pacing and the focus of the narrative, but there were also some problems with the development of characters and the acting. Surprisingly enough, the first direct to video entry, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead was my favorite of the bunch. Now let’s take a look at the last two and see how the world Don Coscarelli built holds up.

The fourth entry in the series, Phantasm IV: Oblivion, was released in 1998 and also sent direct to video.

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Taking place right where Phantasm III left off, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) is on the run from the wrath of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Meanwhile, Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is hot on his tail after being warned by the undead Jody (Bill Thornbury) that Mike will need all the help he can get. After the Tall Man leads Mike to Death Valley, the secrets of the Tall Man begin coming to light. Mike soon stumbles across a plethora of the Tall Man’s gateways, and he begins to travel through time to see just when the Tall Man came to be. What he finds is the story of a mortician living at the turn of the century who becomes madly obsessed with inter-dimensional and time travel. As Mike learns more of these origins, Reggie finally catches up with his friend and once again engage in a battle with the Tall Man and his horde of lurkers and spheres.

Is it possible that Coscarelli could strike gold again with the second direct to video release in this series? Well, no, I wouldn’t say gold. Perhaps bronze or silver. This is another relatively entertaining addition to the Phantasm universe and it does try to be something different from its predecessors which I really respect. For one thing, we actually see a larger picture of the the power the Tall Man has over time and space. This is way more of a science fiction film than it is a horror film at this point, even though the horror elements are never too far behind. Phantasm IV pushes the limit of the entire series in terms of storytelling and exposition, which is something that really had to happen at this point. It’s great to see what the Tall Man was versus what he turned into, and there are even some interesting twists along the way that feature all of the regulars of the series. This might be the entry with the most interesting story, if anything.

What this movie does that reminded me more of the first two films is that it sometimes gets a little muddled in showing too much or slowing things down. There’s a chunk that’s not too far into the movie that I can only describe as a lot of walking. When Mike first arrives to Death Valley and begins exploring the different gateways, it does show a lot of really interesting stuff in terms of world building and long awaited character development. It just seems that Coscarelli was determined to show of footstep that Mike takes on his journey. It was just a little bit too drawn out, but honestly, that didn’t bother me all too much. It’s also great to see Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm again, but of course we do get some cringe worthy acting from A. Michael Baldwin and especially Bill Thornbury.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion, along with its predecessors, are reminders of what makes this series so cool. They take the best parts of the first film and build on them to create a believable and cool sci-fi/horror world. There’s a lot of much needed exposition on who the Tall Man is and what his endgame is, and there’s also a deviation from the repetitive nature that the third movie suffered from. This is a worthy entry into the series, but it probably won’t convert anyone if you’ve haven’t had any interest in the series up to this point..

Final Grade: B

It would be 18 years before another Phantasm movie would be released, but after much anticipation, teasing, and idea changing the world finally got the final film in the series. This is Phantasm: Ravager.

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For decades, Reggie has been battling the fury of the Tall Man and the evils he has wrought upon the earth. After Reggie’s most recent encounter with the Tall Man, he finds himself waking up in the care of a nursing home where Mike tells him that he’s suffering from an onset of dementia. The confusion only gets more severe as Reggie begins finding himself both in the care of the nursing home, but also in a future where the world was completely overtaken by the Tall Man and his army of lurkers and sentinels. As Reggie continues to battle the Tall Man and his own mind, the lines of reality begin to blur. Not even this will stop Reggie and Mike from joining forces through time and putting an end to this evil once and for all.

I really hate to say this, but Phantasm: Ravager is the bottom of the barrel in this series. It’s hardly even in the barrel at this point. What’s disappointing is that this movie has a promising start by throwing Reggie right into the action with a really fun scene on a desert highway. After that, the movie just sinks further and further into the mud, and not even the Tall Man’s usual shenanigans can pull it out. This movie tries really hard to be a puzzle movie and mess with the viewer’s mind instead of trying to coherently tell any kind of story. The only problem is that the puzzles they are presenting don’t seem to make any kind of sense and nothing is ever explained enough for me to even begin putting together what the hell is actually going on. What ends up happening is a series of scenes where Reggie and his companions are just running around in different times and places only to have the scene cut away right when things start to get remotely interesting.

It’s clear that this movie doesn’t have too much of a high budget, but this has been proven to not be a detractions from horror movies given the right circumstances. The first Phantasm was put together very well for such a shoe string budget. Ravager, on the other hand, is a complete eye sore that just gets worse as it goes on. There are scenes in the future where the world is taken over by the Tall Man and even on the Tall Man’s red planet that is scene throughout the series. These mark the low points for the series in general The CGI is so bad I actually had to look away for some of the movie rather than subject myself to the computer generated vomit that was filling up my screen. It’s important to work with what you have when you’re making a movie, and these film makers (this entry is no directed by Coscarelli) are obviously in way over their heads.

Phantasm: Ravager is by far the worst entry in the series, which is sad because there is some fun to be had seeing these actors return to these characters so many years later. Unfortunately, the story makes no kind of sense and the movie is damn near unwatchable due to some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen mixed with camera work that is bland and unexciting. This film is a let down for fans of the series, and I really wanted to see some sort of closure to the series, but this is what it’s left with.

Final Grade: D-

Looking back on it, Phantasm IV: Oblivion gets better as I think about it. That one’s really the last good entry in the series before it all just goes down the drain with Phantasm: Ravager. All in all, this series is pretty interesting and definitely unique. While it may not provide the best horror experience, these films do offer a breath of fresh air and has become something of a small icon of the horror genre. If you’re a horror fan, this series is worth checking out.

Phantasm Series – Review: Part 1

25 Jan

Horror movies have a fair share of memorable boogeymen. In the 1970s and 1980s there was Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees to name a few, but there are also some that have gained more of a cult reputation. One of these boogeymen is the Tall Man from the Phantasm series. I didn’t know much about these movies, but he was a character who always piqued my interest, and I also find it odd that I haven’t given these movies a chance yet, especially considering their cult status and following. I’m always ready to see some new horror movies, so I’m going to watch all 5 in the series and have a two part review on all of them. Let’s see how they are.

In 1979, writer and director Don Coscarelli released the first film in the series.

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Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Michael Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) are two brothers whose parents died a few years prior in a car accident. Michael is practically attached to Jody’s hip at times, which isn’t always convenient when Jody has things he needs to do. After the death of one of Jody’s friends, Michael becomes suspicious of the town’s mortician (Angus Scrimm) and the activities he’s engaging in in the mortuary. Michael begins his investigation and stumbles across very strange things in the mortuary like hooded dwarves that attack him and a flying silver sphere that will attach to your head and drill through your skull. Soon Jody and his friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), join in on the investigation and are quickly sucked into a web of undead minions, hidden planets, and the wrath of the mortician known as the Tall Man.

Say what you will about Phantasm, because either way this is one hell of an original movie. This film came out in 1979, which was an era of slasher films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were both released and a year later in 1980 we’d be introduced to Friday the 13th. What Phantasm did was focus more on the supernatural and not so much a high body count. The whole thing feels like it could be a tale told around a campfire with the Tall Man being the boogeyman that would keep everyone up that night. Angus Scrimm plays the Tall Man to perfection, and there’s no reason not to see how he became a cult icon in the horror world. There’s also plenty of imagination in terms of the story and the design. This film was made on a super low budget, so the fact that writer/director Don Coscarelli pulled it off is amazing. One scene in particular where the silver sphere is attacking Michael in the mortuary is especially memorable and very well made.

So while Phantasm is a horror film that’s held up very well over the years in terms of its ambition and originality, there is a lot holding this movie back. My first complaint is something you’ll see in a lot of low budget horror movies, and that’s the acting. Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm both do great work, but A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury kind of do that weird overemphasizing thing you see in movies like this. It’s awkward to watch and must have been awkward to perform. Another big issue is the way the film is paced and structured. For a good portion of the movie, it seems like nothing is happening. There is admittedly some good suspense in this build up, but it just takes way too long, and this is a pretty short movie so there really isn’t any time to spare. Finally, there are scenes that are simply uninteresting even though it seems like Coscarelli was definitely trying to make something of them. The one I can think of is a small car chase on a deserted road. It’s a car chase that was boring and I couldn’t get into. That’s a rare thing for me.

All in all, Phantasm should be required viewing for anyone interested in horror films, but it’s not something that is necessary for everyone. There’s plenty of originality and I admire Don Coscarelli and his crew for making the movie they wanted no matter what the cost. There’s some great scenes that will stick with me for quite a long time and Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the great cinematic boogeymen. There’s just some serious pacing issues that drag this movie down from being one of the titans of the genre. It’s still a really cool movie, but can’t be compared to something like the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

Final Grade: B-

Almost a decade later, in 1988, Coscarelli followed up his original movie with the higher budgeted Phantasm II.

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After spending years in a psychiatric hospital, Mike (James LeGros) begins having visions of this girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) who is being tormented by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm reprises his role). He talks his way out of the hospital and meets up with his old friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister also returns), who at first doesn’t believe his story of the Tall Man, but quickly comes to realize Mike isn’t so crazy. The two get geared up and hit the road, following a trail of desolate towns wiped out by the Tall Man. Soon, the two meet up with Liz and it becomes clear that the Tall Man needs Mike and Liz together because of their strong telepathic bond that becomes apparent in their dreams. Now the trio must once again face the Tall Man, his army of dwarf minions, and his arsenal of deadly flying spheres.

I didn’t have too high of expectations going into Phantasm II since I just felt like the first film was pretty good. Still, I went in with a fresh mind and wanted to see that maybe a bigger budget would give Coscarelli some more room to go bigger and build on the lore. This just goes to show that a bigger budget does not make a better movie. For a horror sequel, this isn’t a bad film, but it still falls into the same pits that the first film does. The beginning of the movie starts out really strong by picking up right where the first film ended, but as time goes on everything starts to lose its luster. The characters all, once again, fail to really grab me or make me care. The only two that succeed in being interesting characters are the Tall Man, of course, and Reggie. Mike and Liz are both bland and altogether uninteresting, which makes some of the more intense scenes feel like they’re missing something. There’s also some weird pacing issues, yet again, where the movie slows down to a grinding halt at times and we are left with characters engaging in dialogue that often feels hollow.

I’m still having a little bit of a dilemma. I have a hard time not hyping this movie up because there is still a lot of really cool stuff. The special effects in this movie are a huge step up, and some of the scenes involving them are genuinely shocking. There are a couple of new spheres that offer some of the most memorable scenes in the movie and one particular puppet that was really creepy. There’s also a new sense of action in this movie that reminds me a little bit of Evil Dead II. This film has those moments of characters gearing up and customizing their weapons, which serve really well to get the audience hyped up. There are also some attempts at funny tough talk which usually just fails completely. Still, I will say the bigger budget does allow for some great show downs with the Tall Man that was sort of missing from the first film.

Phantasm II is a mixed bag for me. It’s missing the wonder, mystery, and suspense of the first film, but it does amp up the action, intensity, and special effects. For me, a horror movie is more about the mystery and suspense while the special effects and intensity come second. This is still a really imaginative movie that builds on the lore of the original, but it doesn’t have enough characterization going for it to bolster the content still. Phantasm II isn’t bad, but I can’t help but feel it’s missing something.

Final Grade: C+

In 1994, something unfortunate happened to this series. Universal stated that if Don Coscarelli and his crew were attached to the next Phantasm film, they wouldn’t distribute it. Coscarelli said that was fine and went on to make Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, which was released direct to video.

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Picking up right where Phantasm II left off, The Tall Man and his minions are in pursuit of Reggie and Mike (once again played by A. Michael Baldwin). After being seriously injured, Mike is left in a coma and taken by the Tall Man soon after he awakes. Now, Reggie is forced to go head to head with the Tall Man, yet again, but this time he has more help than he’s ever had. His first new partner is a young boy named Tim (Kevin Connors), who has survived in a town desolated by the Tall Man. Reggie and Tim also meet Rocky (Gloria Lynn Henry), a tough as nails biker who lost her best friend to the Tall Man. Finally, Mike’s brother Jody has returned as one of the Tall Man’s spheres that has the ability to take human form for a short period of time. This newly formed gang of heroes each have their reasons to stop the Tall Man once and for all, but will they be strong enough defeat him and his ever growing army of undead minions?

With this being the first direct to video entry in this series, I had very little hope that it was going to do anything for me. Surprisingly, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead is the one that has entertained me the most so far. Some of the pitfalls that the other two movies fall in are avoided in this third entry. For one thing, Mike isn’t in the movie too much, which is a good thing because I wasn’t a fan of A. Michael Baldwin’s acting in the first film, and it’s pretty much the same in this movie. Another huge plus is that the characters of Tim and Rocky both work great with Reggie and provide a lot of cool scenes and comedic relief that works a lot better than it did in Phantasm II. Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister also do good work here, as they have continued to do throughout the series leading up to this point.

Much like Phantasm II, this movie is heavy on action. Reggies quad-barreled shotgun makes a return while Tim and Rocky bring a lot of over the top action as well. For a movie that was made for direct to video releasing, this is a pretty good looking movie with some impressive stunts and action sequences. Not only do we get cool action, but there’s also a good amount of world building in that we learn more of who the Tall Man is and what he’s doing with the bodies he steals and the towns he destroys. To point out one negative, I will say that the last third of the movie falls into an area that can only be described as redundant. It’s the big showdown inside a mortuary with a twist at the very end. This is Phantasm 101 and it wouldn’t hurt to deviate a little from what’s been done in every movie so far.

In the end, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead doesn’t shake up the formula too much but it does offer a lot of good entertainment and fun additions to the cast of these movies. The characters are memorable and the action is fun. It just would be nice to see these movies go in a different direction in some ways.

Final Grade: B

The first three movies in the Phantasm series can be described as fine. The first and the third have stand out moments that make them memorable, but the second movie just dragged on a bit too much for me. There’s still two more movies to go so keep an eye out for part 2.