A review of “Phantasm” (1979)

I don’t enjoy panning films that others revere.  There’s no percentage in it.  I’m not the guy who tries to be edgy or cool by telling you he dislikes something that everyone else loves.

But I do need to tell you that I think that “Phantasm” (1979) is a bad movie.  I’d rate it a 3 out of 10, based on some interesting ingredients, but I suspect that even that is a bit generous.  I finally managed to make it through its entire running time tonight, and it feels amateurish on every level.

It’s poorly scripted, directed and edited, with performances that are nearly all quite bad.  The first exception here is A. Michael Baldwin, who was a decent child actor when this movie was made, and who was quite likable as the story’s adolescent protagonist.  The second exception, I suppose, is “The Tall Man” himself, Angus Scrimm, the deep-voiced and admittedly unsettling big-bad.

There’s really only one other positive thing I can say about the movie — it has a damned good set design for its mausoleum.  (Somewhat confusingly, the film suggests this is located … inside the funeral home itself?  Is that a thing in some places?  I honestly don’t know.)  The set is simultaneously beautiful and frightening, with symmetrical hallways of contrasting white and red — the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Stanley Kubrick film.  I can’t escape the suspicion that it was somehow pilfered from a far better film.

And I do understand the unconscious appeal of “Phantasm’s” story.  We see an adolescent boy who has lost his parents team up with his likable older brother to fight mysterious monsters at their local funeral home.  They enlist the aid of the brother’s guitar-playing, everyman best friend, they use everyday weapons like guns and knives, and they bond over the shared experience.  It’s a tailor-made, understandable power fantasy for any adolescent boy first grasping adult concepts of death and mortality.

But … those things aren’t enough to redeem the film.  In my opinion, it’s bad enough to be a candidate for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment.

Hey — what do I know?  Your mileage may vary.  “Phantasm” has a cult following in the horror community, and spawned no fewer than four sequels.  (The latest, “Phantasm: Ravager,” was released just three years ago.)  You might enjoy it, or you might need to watch it out of curiosity, as I did.

 

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10 classic movies that I will never fully understand the appeal of:

Because I can’t sleep, and you’ve been dying to know.  Here they are, in no particular order:

1) “Memento” (2000)
2) “Fight Club” (1999)
3) “American Psycho” (2000)
4) “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
5) “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
6) “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)
7) “Natural Born Killers” (1994)
8) Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi” (alternately titled “Zombi 2,” 1979)
9) “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982)
10) “The Big Chill” (1983)

And … worst of all … I’m kinda on the fence about the first two “The Evil Dead” films (1981, 1987), Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) and John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” (1978).   I am hanging my head in shame here over those last two.  I know Kubrick’s film is considered a masterpiece.  I saw it twice when I was a college student (once in a psychology class!), soooo … maybe I just wasn’t mature enough to grasp it?  Mea culpa, people.

I left “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “Ben Hur” (1959) off the list, because I haven’t seen them in their entirety.  I was nonplussed enough to turn those off after 40 minutes or so, but I’m weird about never saying I dislike a movie unless I watch the whole thing.  You can add 1979’s “Phantasm” to this category too.

I know, I know … there’s nothing wrong with any of these films (except “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” of course, which is terrible).  There are just basic ingredients in them that I somehow fail to appreciate.

Now one of you needs to e-mail me a cure for insomnia.

 

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Throwback Thursday: the “Galaxy 1” children’s science fiction books

Harriette Sheffer Abels’ “Galaxy 1” books appear to be fully consigned to obscurity — I don’t have a single friend who remembers them.  They were published by Crestwood House in 1979; I certainly loved the ones I found in my elementary school library in the 1980’s.  And that says a lot, because I was a kid who loved the fantasy genre far more than science fiction.  (I had an older brother who played “Dungeons & Dragons,” and Ralph Bakshi’s animated take on “The Lord of the Rings” had captured a lot of kids’ imaginations since 1978.)  I remember how pleased I was to discover anthology-style books that featured the same cast of characters on different space-based adventures.

I’m pretty sure that “Mystery on Mars,” “Medical Emergency,” and “Silent Invaders” were among those that I read.  My favorite, however, was “Green Invasion,” which featured alien vines that grew uncontrollably and crushed anything they could ensnare and tangle.  Lord knows that was a scenario I re-created with my G.I. Joes at home.

 

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I introduced a pal last night to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982).

And she was predictably impressed.  Here are a few observations that came up for me, about the categorically rewatchable sci-fi/horror movie that keeps on giving.  (Yeah, I know I sound overly preoccupied with this movie, and that’s weird, but I’m just really into movies.  And John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is the same kind of classic for monster movie fans as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story” is for people who like Christmas movies.)  [THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS.]

1) It was fun watching “The Thing” with someone who was seeing it for the first time.  Not only did I have to stifle a chuckle at her cry of “That poor dog!” during the opening credits, but I also watched while she guessed (incorrectly, as most of us did) at which characters had been assimilated by the shape-shifting monster as the story progressed.  (I noticed something ironic last night that I couldn’t mention.  When MacReady delivers his short “I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me” speech, all of the men he’s addressing are also still human … Unless I’m mistaken, Norris and Palmer are elsewhere.

Which brings me to what at first occurred to me as a … remotely possible plot hole in this otherwise perfect masterpiece.  If The Thing truly wants to escape Antarctica and prey upon the rest of the world, it doesn’t need to assimilate (or “Thingify,” as I like to think) everyone in the camp.  It only needs to overtake a single human.  (This would be the silhouetted figure that the dog first approaches; my money’s on Norris.)  Think about it … nobody stationed at Outpost 31 remains at the research station indefinitely.  They’d cycle out at the end of a shift of … six months?  Eight months?  Longer?  (And what about vacations and holidays?)  Sooner or later, they’d fly home.  And, having perfectly replicated a human’s anatomy, The Thing need only sustain itself until that departure by eating the same food the other humans were eating.  Then, as soon as it arrived at any other, warmer location on earth, it could attack life in its abundance.

But this morning I realized that my analysis here is faulty.  First, the humans were already getting wise to The Thing and its means of procreation — thanks to a pre-diabeetus Wilford Brimley wisely intoning, “That ain’t dog.”  Maybe The Thing was smart enough to realize the humans could effectively quarantine it.  Second, I am assuming in my criticism that “The Thing” is acting as a single entity.  Yet it shouldn’t act that way at all; this is the entire point of MacReady’s “blood test.”  While one incarnation of The Thing is safely munching on canned goods disguised as a human, a separate incarnation was sitting in storage, exposed — presumably only until the humans finally realized it needed to be destroyed somehow.  That iteration of The Thing needed to attack and duplicate Redding if it wanted to save itself.

2)  The Thing actually shouldn’t need to reach civilization in order to begin attacking all life on earth; it only needs to reach the Antarctic coast. If it enters the water and begins assimilating sea life (and why shouldn’t it be able to?), then it’s game over.  I said last night that “a fish can travel wherever it wants,” which my friend found pretty funny, but it’s true.  A Thingified fish (or its fish-Thing progeny) could arrive at any continental coastline.

3)  If The Thing replicates a human perfectly on a cellular level, then … might it be reluctant to kill anyone else, because it would basically be a human?  (Obviously, the film’s plot-driving antagonist has no such reluctance, but … still, think about it.)  If it perfectly replicates a human brain, right down to its cellular structures and chemistry, then wouldn’t it have a conscience and experience empathy?  My friend pointed out the reductionist nature of my question, though — it assumes that conscience and empathy can have only physical origins.

4)  The movie’s characters (and most viewers) assume that The Thing is “a lifeform” or an organism.  Is it, or is it simply “live” tissue?  Somebody on the Internet Movie Database message board pointed out long ago that it’s “just cells,” and that’s … literally true; the film even shows this via crude 80’s-era computer graphic.  Is it an “organism” if it is simply tissue that replicates?  Or is it no more a “lifeform” than a cancer, or tissue grown in a lab?

5) I honestly opine that the film is perfect, or very nearly so.  It is the paragon of sci-fi/horror movies.  And I’d put it on par with other films that I hold virtually perfect, like “To Have and Have Not” (1944), “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Aliens” (1986), “The Accidental Tourist” (1988), “Alien 3” (1992) and “Vanilla Sky” (2001).

6)  My friend reaaaally likes Kurt Russell’s hair in this film.

Okay, enough.  I’m sorry about this.  Hey, at least I’m not obsessing over comics tonight.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” (1977-1979)!

“The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” (1977-1979) is another show that I remember fondly, if very vaguely, from my very early childhood.  It ran on ABC for a scant three seasons (over a two-year period), and that sounds positively odd to me, because my memory has morphed it into something that seems like a much bigger part of the 1970’s.

I also remember it being two different shows, but that maybe makes sense — the first season of the program had a weird format in that you saw a standalone adventure of the Hardy Boys one week, and then a Nancy Drew outing the following week.  (The characters, of course, were based on the young adult books written respectively by Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene.)  They eventually went on to have adventures together,  Wikipedia tells me, although Nancy Drew had a reduced role, and was eventually dropped altogether in the third and final season.

Wikipedia also tells me that the show’s third season portrayed the Hardy Boys as … adults?  And that they were agents of the Justice Department?  And that the Season 3 premiere saw the younger brother’s fiancee killed by a hit-and-run driver?  I definitely don’t remember that — and it seems a little darker from what I remember of 1970’s primetime television shows.

I loved the show, even if I was too young to follow its relatively simple stories well.  (I would have been in either kindergarten or the first grade.)  But it was a program intended for “big kids” (my older siblings had the books), and that made it wonderfully cool to me.

I moved onto the books myself, by the early 1980’s.  I loved those too.  The two that I remember are “The Secret of Wildcat Swamp” (with the Hardy Boys) and “The Secret of the Old Clock” (with Nancy Drew).  It was the Wildcat Swamp adventure that inducted me into the club — you see that snarling mountain lion on the cover?  That was utterly enticing to me when I found the book in the bottom of the closet I shared with my brother, when I was … maybe in the third grade, I guess.  (It looked a lot like the “saber tooth tiger” baddie in that Aurora model kit that I loved so much.)  I kept pondering that scene and wondering what the outcome was.  (Did they even have guns?!  Would the dad or whoever that was protect them?!)  One day, I finally accepted the challenge of reading what seemed like a very long book to me at the time, and I wasn’t disappointed.  That’s the power of a good book cover, I guess.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “Donny & Marie” (1976-1979)!

You think that 80’s kids are old?  Well, I also have memories of the 1970’s; after all, they fully occupied the first seven years of my life.

And I remember “Donny and Marie” (1976-1979), which ran on ABC.  It was a sanity-challenging, Kafkaesque combination of disco, country music, family entertainment, themed-comedy skits, sequined outfits and … ice-skating.  Which made it either the height of 70’s cheese or the very nadir of Western civilization — you decide.

I’m embarrassed to admit here that I loved it, even if I was a tot at the time.  (Hey, if you’re five or six years old, then the sight of Donny being a non-threatening goofball on stage was the very height of hilarity.)  You can see what I mean in the second clip below, if you can stomach all four minutes of it.

What’s interesting about this show is that it was kind of a dinosaur in its time … variety shows had been on the decline for a while in the late 1970’s, and were already being supplanted by the situation comedies that would become the trademark of the 1980’s.  Bizarrely, NBC tried to launch Marie in her own solo variety show during the 1980-81 television season, but it just didn’t catch on.  It was cancelled after seven episodes.

What’s truly crazy is that Donny and Marie are still performing in Las Vegas.  I kid you not.  Google it.  You can even see them tonight at The Flamingo.  There’s at least a chance that they’re immortal vampires.

Postscript: I at first typed “Donny and Maurie” in that blog post headline, and I feel certain there’s a terrible joke hiding there somewhere about Donny hearing the results of paternity test on “Maury Povich.”  That would make a great “Saturday Night Live” sketch.