Tag: don coscarelli


Phantasm (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those who wish to insert square peg logic in a round hole are certain to be perplexed by “Phantasm,” a surreal, dream-like horror picture by writer-director Don Coscarelli. It is confident in what it is supposed to be so it does not bother to slow down and explain anything; it expects the audience to be able to keep up because not only are we intelligent, we possess similar fears that its characters have: loss of loved ones, abandonment, facing uncertainty and the unknown. It presents paranormal phenomena as they are: sometimes inexplicable, sometimes scary, sometimes curious, sometimes commentaries or physical manifestations of what’s unfolding in our own psyches. It is a film rich of ideas.

It begins with a thirteen-year-old named Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) who witnesses a mortician (Angus Scrimm) carry a coffin on his own without effort. Instead of proceeding with its burial, The Tall Man puts it back into the hearse. What is to be done with the body? Proceeding sequences follow this formula: a boy observes a seemingly strange event and he—and we—interpret what might be going on. At times there are overt answers—like what happens to the corpses The Tall Man collects—but there are other instances when there are none—like why the Tall Man takes a specific form of a woman (“Lady in Lavender” played by Kathy Lester) to lure men into Morningside Cemetery. The unpredictability of what will or won’t be explained adds to the mystique and joy of the experience. Cue the creepy but terrific soundtrack.

Remove the supernatural aspect of the story completely and therein lies an interesting relationship between two brothers, Mike and Jody (Bill Thornbury). Their parents have died recently, and Mike has developed an irrational fear—or is it?—that it is Jody’s turn to go away next. His solution is to follow his big brother everywhere he goes. Literally everywhere: at home, at a bar, in the cemetery—his eyes must be on his brother all the time. The work is a horror picture on the surface but deep down it is a story of loss and trauma.

Amongst the insanity that unfolds, the writer-director ensures that we have an appreciation of how the brothers are like around one another. We are shown Jody’s kindness and patience, his courage, how he is a role model for Mike. And so we understand why Jody is important to Mike outside of the fact that Jody is the only family left for the lonely teenager. Naturally, the two must team up against an antagonist that is beyond anything they’ve ever faced. But even then the villain itself… does not truly fit the mold of a typical antagonist.

The figure we come to know as The Tall Man minds his own business. When one really thinks about it, it is Mike and Jody who consistently get in the way of The Tall Man’s daily and nightly activities. At least initially, the mysterious mortician does not wish to go after them or their friends. Most of the time he is on the defensive: to protect whatever it is he does—which I will not reveal. When ignoring the problem seems to worsen it, attempting to silence the pesky brothers—always breaking into mausoleum, making mess, causing trouble for the dwarves (yes, there are dwarves)—is the last resort. This is an amusing, unexpected, and creative perspective. It is not just about delivering violence and gore.

“Phantasm” may not boast the best acting. The skill of editing is even questionable at times. Blood looks like cranberry juice. But it goes to show how inspired ideas and passion can take a work quite far. There is always something curious, nightmarish waiting at the end of a typical setup like when one goes down the basement, opens the front door, opens a casket, peers into a strange apparatus, flicks a lighter in the dark… Coupled with an increasing sense of dread, its images might be inexplicable on occasion but they stick in the mind and stay there.

John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

David Wong (Chase Williamson), not Chinese despite his last name, is in a Chinese restaurant and confesses to us that he is under the influence of a drug called the Soy Sauce which enables him to count the number of grains of rice on a plate held by waitress passing by. Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a reporter, arrives and he is told that David wants to get the truth out about the world that we think we know. Initially, Arnie scoffs at himself for being foolish enough to have driven so many miles just to meet the slacker in front of him, but after David tells Arnie the amount, types, and years of the coins in his pocket, the curious reporter is more willing to entertain the idea.

Although it may sound like a most hyperbolic claim, “John Dies at the End,” based on the screenplay and directed by Don Coscarelli, summons the wild and imaginative natures of John Carpenter’s “They Live” and David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch.” Drain the former of its social commentary about consumerism and the latter of its deep philosophical questions about the essence of reality, it becomes more apparent that this film is their hybrid, deformed baby that leaves enough room for silly, fast-talking dialogue, questions that may or may not have defined answers, and genuinely creepy situations like a character having a conversation with a friend, suddenly getting a call, and the voice on the other line happening to be that same person less than two feet away.

To critique the picture for being so random that it feels more like a bunch of sketches thrown together holds some weight. But I think it is meant to be that way. A theme that courses through the veins and arteries of the scenes is the effects–and side effects–of the black drug that characters willingly–and unwillingly–take. In a lot of movies that aim to have fun with hallucinogens, it feels too literal: bright lights, someone who is high reaching for or running away from something that is not there, the works. In here, there is a story and it is driven by ideas. The drug is used as a trampoline for the characters to explore multiple universes, times, and consciousness.

It helps that the actors who play Dave and John (Rob Mayes), the best friend, are charming. They embody a certain wide-eyed, childlike quality that is infectious. So when they are thrusted into truly bizarre situations and they are in utter amazement or disbelief of what is happening, they are relatable on some level. We are as surprised or disgusted or worried as they are. Also, even though the duo have different personalities, they share enough similarities to have a convincing friendship. I wished that one or both had been in danger more often so the strength of their bond can be felt more strongly. But that would have been an avenue for a more typical work.

I loved the cheesy special and visual effects. From a mysterious young lady suddenly turning into a pile of snakes to a giant eye that is somehow able to communicate verbally, I was tickled by a lot of them. There were times when I laughed out loud–which (I am told) does not even happen with many comedies and horror-comedies that I end up liking. It is so unpredictable that I felt like a kid on a walkthrough haunted mansion with some sections fused with a deranged amusement park.

Based on the novel by David Wong, it is a great compliment when the film inspires us to read the original work. “John Dies at the End” dares to dream. With so many movies that are tired right from the very first scene, clearly designed to steal the audience’s money and time, this one offers an alternative. It begins with a riddle. Do we get an answer eventually? I say that we do… somewhat. It is a lot of things: confusing, fun, messy, contradictory, overloaded, odd, creepy, et al. But let’s not forget: it is also an original.