12 June 2011

SUMMER OF BLOOD: A HORROR COMEDY WITHOUT SCARES OR LAUGHS... WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

When it was released, Phantasm II hit a sweet spot where it was not so successful that Universal Pictures was eager to pay for a second sequel; on the other hand, it had managed to scrape up enough business that Universal was interested in distributing such a film, were it to be produced on somebody else's dime. This proved a good situation for Don Coscarelli: he could make a third Phantasm movie exactly the way he wanted, without notes and suggestions and outright demands from on high. That meant he got to bring back non-actor Michael Baldwin to play the series' protagonist, Mike; he could jettison the tacked-on love story; and on and on. In the end, the deal wasn't quite as sweet as one might have preferred - the film was complete almost a year before it got a blink-and-you'll-miss-it theatrical release en route to VHS - but theoretically, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead was exactly as Coscarelli wanted it to be.

Woe betide the auteur unleashed.

It's not that Lord of the Dead is bad, exactly. Okay, so that's precisely untrue - it is exactly that Lord of the Dead is bad. But it's not bad in any of the customary ways. It attempts to stretch the narrative scope of the franchise without invalidating anything we've already learned; it is true to the characters as they've been established; it makes references to the original Phantasm that feel like they were placed there thoughtfully and because they service the greater narrative. These things are, none of them, true of sequels generally, and especially not in the savagely mercenary world of horror sequels, where most producer's ideas of "expanding the scope" means increasing the pile of dead bodies. So we might even say that Lord of the Dead occupies the rare position of being, in broad terms, a better sequel than it is a movie qua movies. I am perhaps overstating this a little bit: even as a sequel, there are things that could clearly be improved. But the worst failures are far greater than little continuity hiccups and things of that nature.

On to the film, yes? It kicks off with a really snazzy shot of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), otherworldly creepy villain extraordinaire, sitting in a throne in some kind of room whose exact shape and contents are hard to pin down; it's sort of all golden and reflective and very disconcerting. He looks at his face reflected in one of the franchise's signature touches, the shiny murder balls, and it's all so foreboding and evil, I don't know how to tell you. A fine and moody opening image, in short, though it immediately gets fucked up: for the next thing that happens is that young Mike begins a-narrating. Which isn't, of itself, a bad thing, but the montage it accompanies is: a messily, if enthusiastically compiled series of quick clips from the first two Phantasms that attempts to catch us up on everything that's happened so far. It's kind of touching that Coscarelli apparently believed that there was room to expand the audience for an indie horror franchise that witnessed three entries in 16 years (it occurs to me only now that the 16-year span might also be a fairly good explanation for why there's this sudden, overweening "Previously on..." segment), but there is an artful and an artless way to go about doing it, and this is only a step above your average Friday the 13th picture. On the other hand, there are a couple new shots worked into the montage that actually do deepen the story a little bit: now we see exactly how it is that the Tall Man can avoid dying so often: he doesn't. Rather, a new Tall Man just steps right out of the dimensional rift that we've seen before, to take his place.

Further new footage manages to sneak Baldwin into the scenes that used to be occupied by James LeGros, while leaving Paula Irivine's Liz (who will not be joining us in the current chapter) untouched. It's done rather successfully, in fact, given the passage of years and the decrease in budget. So anyway, the film gets started for real when poor dead Reggie (Reggie Bannister) turns out to in fact be quite alive, just banged up, and he starts after the Tall Man's speeding hearse carrying Mike and Liz just in time to see it blow up. It occurs to me that anybody reading these plot synopses without knowledge of the preceding films in the series must be impossibly confused. But there you go: the joy of making serialised movies separated by a half-decade or more.

By the time Reggie catches up, Liz is dead, but he manages to save Mike from a small clutch of those troll-like critters (this movie gives them a proper name: Lurkers; it also calls the spheres of death "Sentinels"), who are up in a tree dancing about like monkeys, and who fall to the ground like coconuts when Reggie blasts them with his quadruple-barrel shotgun. By threatening to blow Mike and himself to pieces with a grenade, Reggie manages to scare the Tall Man off - it would appear he has plans for an intact Mike - and then we skip ahead a bit to find Mike in a coma, some time later, and Reggie arriving at the hospital just in time to save him from a zombiefied nurse, who proves to have one of those chrome spheres in her head, in what I'd cite as being the new film's most queasily delightful gore effect.

The plot gets a bit squidgy from here on, so let me be brief: Mike's brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury) has been turned into a sphere, but enough of his personality remains that he has broken free of the Tall Man's influence and can sometimes project himself as a ghost; but neither he nor Reggie can stop Mike from being abducted one night. Thus do Reggie and the now-inert Jodyball travel across the Northwest, stopping in Holtsville and Boulton, ID, two towns that have been rigorously savaged by the Tall Man and his beasts. In the first of these, Reggie manages to fall on the wrong side of a group I took to think of as the Southern Redneck Looter Trio (Cindy Ambuehl, John Chandler, and Brooks Garnder), who are quickly dispatched by an alarmingly bloodthirsty kid named Tim (Kevin Connors); in the local Big Spooky Mausoleum, Reggie and Tim also stumble across a pair of rough African-American women, Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry) and Tanesha (Sarah Davis), who are, how to put it, a moderately unsophisticated depiction of black lesbians. Involving military gear and crew-cuts. Nunchucks are involved, because, ninja fad in the early '90s. Tanesha suffers a run-in with one of the spheres, and later on, Reggie can't fathom why Rocky keeps rejecting his advances; though with the old-man ponytail, I don't think we need to refer to sapphism to explain this particular plot strand.

The Southern Redneck Looter Trio returns as zombies, getting killed, like, five times; Jody comes out of the Jodyball and brings Mike in a less than entirely coherent jumble of metaphysics; everybody chases or is chased through an even Bigger, Spookier Mausoleum, and to be honest the last 15 or 20 minutes seemed to be happening so randomly that I can't honestly say why or what was going on, though there are some very nice "gotcha!" reveals, and more than a few images that jump out at you for just how disconcertingly off-kilter they are. It was, if I may say so, too little, too late: for compared the first two movies, the first half of Lord of the Dead has none of the surrealistic excess that made the first movie such a genuine delight, and managed to save the second one from itself, more often than not. Odd, given that this was theoretically the film where Coscarelli was able to do what he wanted with a free hand.

At any rate, the first 50 minutes or so - everything up till Jody's unexplained saving of Mike - is entirely straightforward and explicable, which makes the lurch into the deliberately unformed and inexplicable close to the end seem less like an exercise in otherworldly horror, and more like bad screenwriting. Then again, part of the problem is that "otherworldly horror" requires, at a minimum, horror, and this is not in great abundance in Lord of the Dead either. It amps up the action, and considerably amps up the antics - the comedy, you might say, though I have reasons for wishing not to.

On paper, of course, that's just what has happened: the increased comic relief of the second film has gone into overdrive here (it is often suggested that Coscarelli was influenced by the full-on plunge into comedy Sam Raimi made with Army of Darkness, but this is almost impossible to square with the production dates involved). Yet despite so much of slapstick wackiness endured by Reggie, nothing about Lord of the Dead particularly seems to be deliberately funny. Of course, there's always the possibility of it simply being a totally unsuccessful comedy, but those usually have a different tone: more mugging for the camera, more moments that feel like they should be followed by a rimshot. Lord of the Dead plays in a way that I can't quite nail down like an experiment in presenting zaniness that is anti-humorous: structurally, it almost totally lacks gags and punchlines, just an increasing state of mania. Perhaps Coscarelli is just really goddamn bad at comedy (except he isn't, says the evidence of the later Bubba Ho-Tep).

The result in any case is that Lord of the Dead has some really awful tonal dissonance, and by the time it ends up in the weird and disorienting phase that made its predecessors so unique, it has more than spent all of its goodwill. That, and the third act spends much too much time focusing on this character or that fighting one of the redneck zombies, willfully absurd material that plays terribly as comedy, horror, or anything else in-between. Both Phantasm and Phantasm II had their fair share of problems as horror movies, but at least they both had atmosphere; something this third entry only has in pieces.

Admittedly, those pieces are absolutely marvelous: the scene with the zombie nurse, a sequence in Tim's house, tricked out with disembodied doll heads (it broke my heart that this portion of the movie was over so soon: 20 minutes of that kind of flat-out inexplicable production design, and I'd have been a quivering mass of gelatinous flesh), and some of the shots during the go-for-broke third act. Coscarelli managed to thread an excessively fine needle, in that the more we learn about the Tall Man - and it's not much, but this film certainly makes aspects of him more concrete and manageable - the more uncanny the things we still don't know become, and there are individual images of him and his workings that are as genuinely creepy as anything in either of the first two movies (and of course, Angus Scrimm is simply an eerie man).

But stacking that up against the inconsistency between warped comedy and surrealist horror, and Lord of the Dead has an uphill battle to fight, one made worse by some of its incidental problems: the acting seems, on the whole, worse than in the others (Baldwin was signficantly better when he was a teenager, and barely manages to out-act the supremely bland James LeGros; Bannister is too given too playing for the camera rather than his co-stars; Henry is simply not very convincing and Connors - admitting that he has the excuse of being a child - is godawfully annoying, a bratty kid in the '80s sitcom vein more than the '90s indie horror vein, but ghastly either way); the music is virtually nothing but a remix and retread of the vanilla synths used in Phantasm II; the cinematography (by Chris Chomyn) consistently errs on the side of being too bright - a better tell that this isn't really much of a horror movie, I can't think of.

It's not really that any of this is truly awful: let us pause for a moment to think of where the horror film was in the first half of the 1990s. By the standards of Jason Goes to Hell, this is a small masterpiece. But it's simply not very memorable in any way, and plagued by a plot that covers more material than any previous Phantasm while "doing" virtually nothing at all. I get that Coscarelli liked hanging out with these people, and the simple joy at reuniting Baldwin, Bannister, and Thornbury was probably more exciting than any particular of the narrative. But that doesn't translate into a Lord of the Dead that has any particular energy or impact; there is a trace of the nightmare energy of the first films, but just a trace, and almost solely because of Scrimm's performance. It's just a movie, nothing more, and that's a crushingly disappointing step down for this franchise.

Body Count: As has become customary with the series, given the fluidity of "dying" and the fact that most of the villains seem to be dead already, I'm going to unsteadily land on 10 people or people-like beings, and 4 of the Lurkers.

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

3 comments:

jjjonatron said...

Never seen the Phantasm series but this retrospective is gettin' me wantin' to. They're all on Netflix, wonderfully.

Mike said...

The nun chucks are SO ridiculous. Was that something that audiences at the time would have responded to? Were people really walking around with nun chucks back then?

Once again, this is a movie I would have made when I was 12 and thought nun chucks were awesome. There would have also been a ninja star vs. murder sphere scene.

Tim said...

Mike, don't say that too loudly. They still might end up making a fifth.