04 June 2011

SUMMER OF BLOOD: AFTER THE TALL MAN

On the IMDb trivia page for Phantasm II - and I am well aware that a smart person does not rely on the IMDb to be completely faultless on such matters, but the factoid was too delicious to keep to myself - there are two items that appear right next to each other, and the contrast between them tells us all we need to know about this series, the Hollywood studio system, and possibly life itself:
-The film's $3 million budget was 10 times larger than that of Phantasm and the biggest one in the entire series.

-This was the lowest-budgeted film Universal produced in the eighties.
The first of these seems relatively straightforward, the second a bit less so, and combined they reveal something that we mostly already knew: studios like to make horror pictures because at their glossiest, they are cheap as hell and almost always make a great return on investment. But there's another lesson we can take from this, and that's the one that, I think, says much more about Phantasm II, what it is and even moreso, what it isn't.

Phantasm II is the movie you get when you take Phantasm and throw money at it. It is much cleaner-looking; the special effects are infinitely better; it is far, far broader in ambition, with shots and concepts that would have been much beyond the means of writer-director Don Coscarelli and his crew in 1979 (the camera moves a lot more, or at least it seems to; there's a certain Sam Raimi air to the film's visual energy, in fact, a suspicion confirmed by a rather on-the-nose tribute to that indie-horror great late in the film). It at times falls into the sin of doing things because they can be done, rather than because they should be done, suggesting that Coscarelli is at his best when he is faced with some limitation; but this is true of so many filmmakers, from earnest indie strivers all the way up to Alfred Hitchcock (I am thinking, by the way, primarily of this film's depiction of the Hell Planet, which for an odd reason has been smeared in post-production with a digital-blurry video effect that makes it look like a cutaway shot in a hair metal video). It is also the move you get when you take Phantasm and throw a studio at it. There's the obvious fact that Universal forbade Coscarelli from casting Michael Baldwin as the lead character again, owing to Baldwin's status as, essentially, a non-actor (in the nine years separating the two movies, he has one screen credit, and that for a TV show), instead insisting on James LeGros, about whom I shall say more anon. There are other, subtler ways that Phantasm II has been altered for its proximity to studio politicking - one of these is not, happily, that it has been normalled-up, the strange dream-visions of Phantasm tamed down and replaced with a script that makes sense and flags the difference between "real" and "hallucination" clearly. No indeed! and this is maybe the bright side to being the lowest-budget film released by a major studio over the course of a decade, that the studio doesn't see you as a big enough liability to fuss over.

What is most significantly changed in the transition from Phantasm to Phantasm II, I deem, is the feel of it, an ineffable quality that I can't really defend with any real evidence from the films themselves, but it's there in the watching, sure as anything. The difference between the two is the difference between a film made by a 23-year-old director for pennies with a cast and crew made up almost entirely of people that he enjoys hanging out with,* and a film made by a 34-year-old director with what was to him a massive pile of money, and a desire to be very serious and responsible about making a proper motion picture (or so I assume; maybe Coscarelli was an out-of-control hellion on set, but you could never tell). Phantasm has a loose, shambling quality, and not solely because its plot is so dementedly incoherent. It's tossed-off in a very appealing way; it reminds me, as I should have said and did not when I reviewed it, is of the stories my friends and I would make up when we were about the age of the protagonist, a sleepover yarn in which the point is the accretion of as many creepy details as possible. Phantasm II is, in some indefinite but very present way, not that. It could be as simple as the change from an adolescent protagonist to a 20something (in dialogue he claims to be 19, but it doesn't sit well with the first film for that to be the case, and LeGros doesn't look it - not that this is any kind of argument at all in the world of horror), but that's not all, I don't think. Phantasm II is the more grown-up film, in more ways than one, and it's not entirely to its credit.

The movie starts with a feint: a young blonde woman, Elizabeth (Paula Irvine) wakes up after a terrible dream. She runs into the kitchen and checks to make sure the stove burners are off, and we're about find out why: her dream involved a house blowing up from just such a gas leak.

In fact, her dream is of the finale of the first movie: back at the moment when Stock Footage Mike (Michael Baldwin) has just waken up from a nightmare that may or may not have incorporated the entirety of the first film, to learn from Reggie (Reggie Bannister) that there is no "Tall Man" (Angus Scrimm), that it's all just a fantasy Mike invented to take the pain out of loosing his brother. Mike sort of believes this, right up until the second that the Tall Man appears in his bedroom and orders his trollish minions to grab Mike and- eat him, you'd suppose from the first movie, but since that would make for a short and massively unsatisfying sequel, he's just being dragged off to somewhere.

Spontaneously, Reggie has grown much, much older, trying to hide this fact by unconvincingly hide this fact through hair die, and for some reason he has moved to a visibly different house with much better lighting; and yet somehow he hears the scuffling over in the other movie and heads upstairs. Managing to hide from the Tall Man, he takes down the creature dragging Mike to safety, turning on the gas in the kitchen, and tearing ass out of there just before the house explodes.

Back with Elizabeth, we find that she has a psychic bond to Mike, drawing several sketches of him in the present (the film isn't 100% clear on how long it takes place afterward, though I somehow managed to get the impression it was 8 years), including the text "♡ Mike", because apparently, being plagued by dreams of a cadaverous body-snatcher with an army of trolls makes girls go all Tiger Beat inside.

Whenever it is, we now end up with the older, LeGrosier Mike, who manages to fib his way out of a psychiatric institution - for he knows of Elizabeth's fears and wishes to help her. His first night out, he goes checking in the local cemetery to find that the Tall Man has managed to spirit away every single corpse in town, and is caught in the act by Reggie, who just wants his young friend to get over this nonsense about the evil man from another world building his slave army with dead humans.

This is the one choice in Phantasm II that strikes me as just wrong, wrong, wrong. There is not a single reason for Reggie to doubt that Mike is telling the truth - it will take all of one, very short scene, to prove to him that Mike is in fact experiencing prophetic visions and that his Tall Man story is true, so it's not to add some tension to the Mike/Reggie relationship for more than 90 seconds, while it kicks the movie off with such a wholeheartedly aggressive piece of discontinuity that I don't quite know what to do with it. So the opening scene of this movie, and hence the closing scene of the last, didn't happen (and if the closing scene of the last movie didn't happen, each and every scene also really, seriously didn't happen, and we're back to square one), and Elizabeth isn't dreaming of past events but of metaphorical past events?

It's possible that this is merely Coscarelli's commitment to dream-logic at its most intense, for that kind of arbitrary fact that matters for about half a minute is, indeed, a hallmark of dreams; but there's dream narrative and there's dream narrative, and this isn't the interesting kind. This is the kind that the person who dreamed it is very eager to share, except the dream goes like "I was in the candy aisle and I picked up a Kit Kat bar, but when I got to the checkout it was a Butterfinger, and then I started arguing with the cashier that $30 was too much for a Butterfinger, and Emma Thompson was in line behind me and started yelling that it was taking too much time", and makes everybody else wonder why they keep hanging around with this person.

I want to reiterate: this whole bizarre continuity-fuck is in service of one scene. Reggie is back on Team Mike so quickly, that in my notes the set-up and the clearing away are both mentioned on the same line of ruled notebook paper.

Alright, so once Reggie is on board, he and Mike prepare to hunt the Tall Man wherever he may hide: first things first, they break into a tool/gun shop (eh? the '80s, I guess), and rig up all kinds of cool DIY monster-hunting paraphernalia, including a pint-size flamethrower and an awesome diamond-shaped four-barrel sawed-off shotgun. And then toss a couple of $100s into the register. Don't steal, kids.

First they come to a little town that the Tall Man has already devasted: in one of those "shots... much beyond the means of writer-director Don Coscarelli and his crew in 1979" that I had in mind, Mike and Reggie carefully pick their way around a cemetery with dozens of exhumed graves peppering the landscape, like a honeycomb. Inside the morturary, they find nothing but a ghastly body-horror perversion in the shape of Elizabeth, there solely to taunt Mike; he also has a vision of a naked corpse with autopsy scars; at the risk of being a lookist jackass, my hat is off to the filmmakers for finding a woman who looks as genderless as Samantha Phillips; I do not know if that was the point at all, but the actress's almost non-existent breasts and boyish face make that naked body rather unsettling indeed.

Onward & upward: in Perigord, Oregon, Elizabeth's grandfather dies, and she's just certain the Tall Man will steal him; the local priest, Father Meyers (Kenneth Tigar) does his part, stabbing the dead body with a ceremonial dagger, but it doesn't really help anything, and pretty soon Father Meyers is being assaulted by a pissed-off dead grandpa, while Elizabeth received a telepathic message from the Tall Man. Meanwhile, Mike and Reggie pick up a hitchhiker with a fairly precise relationship to that corpse in Mike's vision; she calls herself "Alchemy", which is probably not meant to be such a huge tell as it is, though in the end it's not at all clear what Coscarelli had in mind as to Alchemy's (or Chemy, as she irritatingly likes to be called) precise nature.

Ultimately, Reggie and Mike and Alchemy and Elizabeth all join up and the last 30 minutes of Phantasm II are a fair re-do of the last 30 minutes of Phantasm: skulking around a mortuary, fighting off the trolls - and in this case, human beings of some sort, or perhaps zombies, who are even more cunning and dangerous than their squatty counterparts - and the metal spheres full of all kinds of lovely ways to kill you; this film introduces the much larger gold sphere, with exploding lasers and a spinning blade whose effect on the human body is displayed with gusto in one scene, using latex effects that probably cost more than the entirety of Phantasm.

I am certain that it sounds like I liked Phantasm II less than is the case. In fact, I found it to be a wholly effective elaboration of the ideas in the original film - we still have no sense of the Tall Man's essential nature, or why he needs a mutant corpse army, but it's just as well to leave unexplained a villain whose effect is based largely in how freakish and uncanny he is. Coscarelli does make the excellent choice to give the character more time and more to do, which lets us appreciate Angus Scrimm's wonderfully off-kilter performance, almost hammy in his snarling excess, and yet there is, truly little that is creepier than the look on his face when he just stands there, obviously thinking of ways to kill you painfully. This despite the fact that Coscarelli emphasises, in several places, that the Tall Man is not some kind of all-seeing slasher movie killer: there are a number of points where the characters demonstrate that you flat-out outsmart the villain, even by hiding in a not-terribly-hidden corner. Is it perhaps because the Tall Man apparently cannot be stopped? Aye, maybe, but there's a real sense in this film of him being a man, if not altogether a human man, that adds considerable to his presence and menace.

Coscarelli's handing of characters is, in general, quite good, though as I said he bungles Alchemy somewhat: but the way that Reggie is allowed to be a badass and a bumbling comic relief figure is rather impressive, for example, and Mike is written in a way that shows how the events of the first movie affected him, without it being shrilly plot-driven as is often the case in these horror sequels. LeGros, I must say, is a terribly disappointing actor: why it was okay to cast him and not Baldwin is a mystery (his own career prior to 1988 was hardly jam-packed; his most prominent role appears to have been in the legendarily dire Solarbabies). By all accounts, he had fun chilling with Coscarelli and company, but there's not half the easygoing quality to his performance that there was to Baldwin's, nor to Bannister's in this same movie. He's not bad, in any particular way, but he's just flat enough, and just whitebread enough, to rob Phantasm II of a certain personality; he represents the intrusion of a mainstream '80s sensibility into Coscarelli's fever dream, and the delicate balance that made the first film so marvelously idiosyncratic is upset.

Nor is it just LeGros: the cinematography by Daryn Okada is less smudgy and hand-hewn than Coscarelli's was in the first film; Fred Myrow and Christopher L. Stone's score is a resolutely blander take on similar cues to those that Myrow wrote with Malcolm Seagrave in the first. Again, none of this is to say that Phantasm II finds the franchise "going Hollywood", or that I feel like Coscarelli had to sacrifice his vision to get the job done. It's still a work with quite a personality (something Coscarelli has been successful at throughout: his 1982 fantasy The Beastmaster, though far less interesting than either Phantasm, still managed to have a point-of-view that wasn't the typical studio genre pablum), and its commitment to mood and imagery accompanied by a cagey violation of story logic remains beautifully refreshing, especially compared to the cesspool of slasher movies separating it from its predecessor, films in which story logic was ignored randomly in favor of no mood and boring imagery. Honestly, if it weren't for the fact of Phantasm proving how much better this material could be, I think I'd love Phantasm II a great deal more than I do.

Body Count: It could be one of many numbers, depending on who you want to call a body. Between the bona-fide people and the people-esque servants of the Tall Man, there are 6; there are 4 others who die offscreen without our ever seeing them alive. 7 of the creatures are killed, and a shitload more are in a house that explodes. And there is the matter of the Tall Man, who gets by far the most gruesome death of the picture, except he is, being the series' villain, plainly not dead. Also a rat and a cat.

Reviews in this series
Phantasm (Coscarelli, 1979)
Phantasm II (Coscarelli, 1988)
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Coscarelli, 1994)
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Coscarelli, 1998)

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