20 June 2011

SUMMER OF BLOOD: IT TAKES A LOT OF BALLS

Two things brought about the existence of Phantasm IV: Oblivion, released in 1998 (before I get into either of them, I need to get something off of my chest: the posters and the onscreen title treatment make me want to type it out as Phantasm: OblIVion, which is at once cooler and much stupider. Recall that this was in the heady days when Se7en was still new enough that people were still intoxicated by the joys of cramming numbers into places they didn't belong - anybody remember Thir13en Ghosts?). The first, and much simpler of the things is that the footage removed when the original Phantasm was cut in half from its original three hours back in 1978 was rediscovered and found to be in fairly good condition. This enabled writer-director Don Coscarelli to build his new script around scenes of his three main actors, 20 years younger, and thereby give the new film a much more involved and illuminating flashback structure than would have been possible using only the footage found in the final cut of its predecessor.

The other situation is that a Phantasm fanboy* wrote a script titled Phantasm 1999 A.D. which was an epic yarn criss-crossing an America that had been ruined by the evil paranormal body snatcher known only as the Tall Man. Customarily, fanboy scripts are not much valued by studios or filmmakers best known for nurturing a single cult franchise through so many years of poverty, but the fanboy in question was Roger Avary, who was at that point riding high on the success of some scripts he'd co-written with his buddy Quentin Tarantino, scripts titled True Romance and Pulp Fiction. It is thus less surprising that Coscarelli took notice of Phantasm 1999 A.D. - which would be retitled Phantasm's End before its development ground to a halt - and found it completely marvelous. The two men set to work on making this ultimate Phantasm a reality, but eventually the scope of it proved too great: the film simply could not be made on any budget that it could recover.

It was, however, thanks to the Phantasm's End days that Oblivion took off: initially conceived as a bridge between the original run and the spectacular new finale, it proved instead to be a replacement - though plans for a fifth Phantasm were still alive as recently as the middle of the '00s, it's difficult not to see Oblivion as a summing-up, ending on a more definitive point than any of its predecessors, and doing more to answer questions - well, "answer", anyway - than the other three combined. I imagine that there came a point where Coscarelli resigned himself to the knowledge that this, and not its huge and sprawling big brother, would be the last note in the song of the Tall Man.

He at times described the project as, essentially, a cash-grab; but there are cash-grabs and there are cash-grabs, and the fourth entry in a series of tiny cult horror pictures that got produced at Kubrickian intervals is not at all in the same spirit as the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, for example. I for one find Oblivion to be an entirely honest and satisfying conclusion to the Phantasm saga as anything we were likely to get: in fact, breaking with the general consensus, I'd probably call it the second best picture of the series, erasing as it does the wackiness that had crept into Phantasm II and Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, while bringing back the surrealistic creepiness of the original film, and then some.

In fact, the whole thing is so damn loose that I'm almost tempted to go without a plot synopsis at all, but just so we're all on the same page: Oblivion starts off where Lord of the Dead ended, with Reggie (Reggie Bannister), middle-aged ex-ice cream salesman, pinned to a wall by a mass of the evil death-orbs controlled by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Reggie's young friend Mike (Michael Baldwin) has just learned that his skull contains a golden sphere like the Tall Man has, instead of a brain, and he has taken off to figure out what the hell is going on. The excruciating young kid Tim has died without anyone saying a word about him.

As we pick up, the Tall Man lets Reggie go for little discernible reason, and thus our hero, getting visibly worn out by all his running back and forth in the last two movies (it's actually quite a benefit that Bannister has aged 10 years since Phantasm II took place, not more than a few months back), pitches in for one last attempt to find his young friend, encountering along the way yet another Hot Chick with Secrets: Jennifer (Heidi Marnhout). Mike, for his part, is haunted by images and by the ghost of his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), and discovers in short order that he's able to manipulate time and space just like the Tall Man can, creating dimensional portals that take him, among other places, to the Civil War (where he has a vision of himself as a soldier and the Tall Man as an evil surgeon), and to some place in the 19th Century, where the same Tall Man is a genteel elderly man named Jebediah Morningside (the name of the cemetery in Phantasm, don't forget!), who uses steampunk technology to open dimensional gates himself, a scheme which, let us say, backfires.

Buried in the film's 90 minutes - my little précis carries us past the 1-hour mark - are many, many scenes of people having visions that may or may not cast light on the whos, whats, and whys of the Tall Man. I will not go into these, for if you have not seen the movie, it would all just sound incomprehensible, and if you have, you don't need me to tell you that it's incomprehensible. The "revelations" are of the sort that raise many more questions than they resolve, to wit: if we accept Oblivion's suggestion that the Tall Man is a corrupted version of Jebediah Morningside, how does that fit with the implication in the original Phantasm that he's an extra-dimensional alien? Did Morningside simply form the "model" for the alien Tall Man, and his tampering is what led the aliens in the red world (which we glimpse only for a split second, but it's more than in Lord of the Dead) to learn of us humans, ripe to be enslaved? That's a guess, nor a bad one, but it has holes, and so does every "not a bad guess" I can make at every single more-or-less symbolic moment that happens in the film's many, many dreams and visions.

There is a widespread theory that Oblivion demonstrates that the entire Phantasm series takes place in Mike's imagination, the yearning attempt of a boy who has in short order lost all of his family members to accidents to attach some kind of greater meaning to their deaths. It's a sound reading, that accounts for the continuity gulfs, and well-supported by some of the specific dialogue in the last third of Oblivion; I don't much like it, but that's mostly because "It was all a dream" is my all-time least favorite narrative twist ever. Matters of taste aside, it also doesn't strike me as tremendously important that we can "solve" the Phantasm narrative arc. It is unquestionably the case that you can take something fine and good and break it by poking at it too enthusiastically, and I would not for anything do that to Phantasm, which may have a completely defensible and internally coherent meaning, and may be much deepened and enriched by ferreting that meaning out; but it is a gorgeously discombobulating experiment in surrealist horror, and why risk fucking that up by figuring out how to explain it all away?

Surrealism is, after all, one of the chief hallmarks of the series, particularly surrealism that recalls the arbitrary narrative jumpiness of a dream. Phantasm delighted in this surrealism, Phantasm II indulged in it to a rare degree for a studio film, Lord of the Dead largely eschewed it. Oblivion is a hard turn back to basics: it positively wallows in it, enough to make the original Phantasm seem relatively straightforward. Not for nothing is one of the most jaw-dropping twists in the movie - Jennifer's last scene, and I'll say nothing else - an adaptation of what was written as a for-real dream sequence in Phantasm's End. And that's not even as wildly inexplicable as, for example, the sequence in which Reggie dreams about rescuing Mike and then finds he has done it in reality, or something to that effect. Or the scene where Mike idly starts throwing rocks around the desert with his mind.

It's as though Coscarelli had finally hit the point where he was just interested in creating the most memorable concepts and images he could, and used only as much script as he thought he needed to string them together. Certainly, the plot doesn't move forward in any particularly rational way: there are scenes inserted without rhyme or reason, crosscutting between Reggie and Mike's separate stories almost arbitrarily (honestly, Reggie's story is itself largely arbitrary). Oblivion can get away with this on account of having some incredibly wonderful imagery, though it goes deeper than that: for the first time since Phantasm itself, the series is reinvested in finding out just how disoriented it can make us, and creating thereby a sense... not of terror, but of considerable uneasiness.

What makes the film unique is that this uneasiness is not existential - the Tall Man has never seemed less immediately threatening than he does here, and there are few moments when it seems like the characters are in actual danger of dying (no screaming death spheres flying down corridors here!) - but intellectual. Of all the Phantasm films, this one spends the most time dealing with the thoughts and perceptions of its characters, starting right at the beginning, with an opening montage narrated by Reggie: culled from the previous three movies that does virtually nothing to bring the viewer up to speed, but instead creates, through whiplash editing and Bannister's glazed-over narration, a particular state of mind, an idea of having flat-out given up in the face of non-stop hectic nastiness.

Mostly, though, the film is about Mike (a nice switch from Lord of the Dead, helped by the significant increase in the quality of Baldwin's acting), and the instability within his mind, fearing death and fearing living as something other than himself. The footage shot in 1977 is incorporated into the new movie in a most fascinating way, turning what were presumably straightforward moments into symbolically laden, sometimes overly so, impressions of adult-Mike's present anxieties worked out through child-Mike's actions. It is sometimes clumsy, largely by being too explicit in places (for there is rarely the obvious feeling that footage has been awkwardly re-purposed), but it is one of the most haunting ideas in the Phantasm mythos, that the man can try to regress into childhood to find comfort from the modern world, only to learn that he has brought the modern world back with him. Oblivion is a film wherein the slightest idea of comfort is something of a joke: even Jody's final attempt to leave his brother with a small morsel of truth has only the effect of making Mike feel worse and more despondent.

That plus a fine atmosphere of doom - Fred Myrow's score here is my favorite of his four trips into the series, oppressive and dark; Chris Chomyn's cinematography boasts some excellent night shots, and even his daytime footage stresses how worn and weary the landscape is, rather than its brightness - and comic relief that actually works rather than knocks the film off its axis, and even some great action sequences - Reggie's fight with a zombie cop is wonderful from start to end - all combine to leave Oblivion as, minimally, one of the most striking horror pictures of its era (the late-'90s, when striking horror pictures were rare as hen's teeth). I suppose that it's very weirdness that makes it so distinctive and hypnotic becomes suffocating after awhile; parts of it are so arbitrary that they cross the line from surreality to pointlessness. Still, it's a one-of-a-kind thing, a feverish gust of the warped and uncanny that works on a part of your brain older and more susceptible than the bits that deal with logic and reason.

Body Count: Not fewer than 4, and potentially as many as 11, depending on whether or not certain people die at certain points, and whether we count the undead Lurkers or not. Fucking dream-logic pictures.

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

1 comment:

Mike said...

I'll take your word for it that the film is 90 minutes long, but it seemed like hours to me:

I suppose that it's very weirdness that makes it so distinctive and hypnotic becomes suffocating after awhile

Exactly. Maybe I did it a disservice by not watching it in one sitting but I got so bored with the lack of plot.

It could have also been Phantasm burnout from watching the whole series within about a week.