Phantasm (1979)

Because we’re living in an absurdly spoiled golden age of physical media production & cult horror reappraisal, there’s a new, crisp digital 4K restoration the 1970s regional cheapie Phantasm currently making the rounds. It wasn’t until I saw that restoration listed in the BYOB Midnight Movie slot at the Prytania this summer that I realized I had never actually seen it before. I’m familiar with the film’s Tall Man villain (played by the recently deceased Angus Scrimm) and his armory of flying, bloodletting orbs from catching a sequel or two out of sequence over the years, but the original film has always eluded me. In retrospect, it’s incredible that it ever registered on my radar at all. Crowdfunded by director Don Coscarelli’s Long Beach, CA community (including major financial & production contributions from his own parents) and crewed mostly by locals, Phantasm likely should be relegated to the cult curio popularity level of other regional cheapies like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, The Gate, and The Pit. Instead, it’s somehow earned horror-legend status for its Tall Man villain among the likes of Freddy, Jason, and Chucky, as well as four better-budgeted sequels in the decades since, most recently Phantasm: Ravager in 2016. After dragging my old-man bones to the Prytania’s midnight screening of this regional-cheapie-turned-cult-classic, the reason for that success became abundantly clear: Phantasm fuckin’ rules.

Like The Gate & The Pit, the film is framed through the POV of a young boy whose anxiety over his shifting family dynamic & his own coming of age discomforts is reflected in the increasingly nightmarish world around him. The protagonist here is slightly older than our usual nervous-child-with-bad-dreams tykes from this genre template, so his tween interest in the adult activities just beyond his reach get a little squicky in their prurience — especially when he trails his older brother to a graveyard to watch him have sex with a stranger. Mostly, though, it’s a familiar story in which the boy has trouble handling a recent death in the family, so that no one believes him when he reports that the evil ghouls he’s been spotting around town aren’t just an extension of his grief-stricken nightmares. Phantasm puts most of its emotional heft into exploring the feeling of abandonment & helplessness when family members die or move away while you’re still at a formative age. In that respect, its most distinct early scenes involve the teen boy’s fascination with the funeral business, both compelled and scarred by watching a member of his family going through process of being prepared for burial then hidden away forever. Angus Scrimm’s performance as The Tall Man starts off as a part of that morbid funeral business fascination, standing in as a Lurch-like funeral home mortician (and by extension, Death) in his earliest scenes before his role becomes something much, much stranger.

Of course, it’s not the Horror 101 themes of familial grief & childhood anxiety that make Phantasm stand out as a gem in its genre. The film is most remarkable for its constantly shifting, disorienting nightmare logic. It plays like a bad drug trip or a half-lucid dream, wherein its unprepared teenage victims struggle to establish their footing in a world that’s rules are completely governed by the moment-to-moment whims of a lanky ghoul. The Tall Man is a scary enough figure just in his enormous stature & funeral parlor costuming, but what really fucks with your head is his ever-evolving arsenal of creepy crawlies & sci-fi gadgets that he unloads on his victims. He commands an army of Druid-costumed dwarves from an alien planet; he disguises himself as a smokin’ hot Blonde Babe to lure men in with his feminine wiles; he appears in your actual dreams to expend his powers to a Freddy Krueger level command on the metaphysical world around him. And then there’s the Tall Man’s signature weapon: a flying metallic orb that latches onto victims’ skulls with a retractable blade to drain the blood from their bodies in a geyser of gore. This grab bag of surrealistic horrors all arrive to the same repetitive prog organ theme music, making the film play like a low-budget D.I.Y. version of an American giallo. It’s a beautiful, confusing, creepy, deliberately goofy film that surprises at every turn because it follows the cyclical, non-linear rhythms of a nightmare instead of the typical slasher template it teases in its first act.

This “Let’s put on a show!” communal enthusiasm & D.I.Y. approximation of nightmare-logic surrealism is the exact kind of thing I’m always looking for in low-budget genre films. Phantasm’s trajectory of starting with familiar regional slasher locations like suburban cul-de-sacs, dive bars, and graveyards before launching into a fully immersive nightmare realm of its own design is a perfect encapsulation of how it somehow turned low-budget scraps into cult classic gold in the real world as well. By the time the sparsely decorated mausoleum set starts to resemble a de Chirico painting (or a precursor to The Black Lodge) that opens a gateway to an alien planet, the film is bewilderingly impressive as an act of low-budget alchemy. And it only gets more surprising & impressive from there. I now get why Phantasm has earned so many sequels over the decades; I’m dying to see them myself, even if I doubt this is the kind of low-budget movie magic that could ever be duplicated. Any chance to continue poking around in the makeshift dreamworld Coscarelli created could only be a gift.

-Brandon Ledet

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989)

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is my favorite kind of unnecessary horror sequel. Since the first film in Katt Shea’s unashamed sleaze franchise is a self-contained murder mystery mostly comprised of 15(!!!) strip routines and a few gruesome murders, no one was exactly salivating for a follow-up – at least not for narrative reasons. The only reason the sequel was made in the first place (besides the surprise financial success of its predecessor) is that Roger Corman had a strip club set leftover from an unrelated production for a few days before it was going to be dismantled. Having wrapped filming her previous picture Dance of the Damned on a Saturday and rushed unprepared into filming this movie on the leftover set with no script the following Monday, Shea found herself working in the Corman machine at its most budget-efficient but most creatively restrained. She used the few days of strip club access to film as many dance routines as she could, then retroactively churned out a screenplay to tie them together in the following weeks. The result is total madness, a disjointed sense of reality that transforms the original serial-killer-of-strippers formula of Stripped to Kill into something much more surreal & directly from the id. It’s the same madhouse horror sequel approach as films like Slumber Party Massacre 2, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2, and Poltergeist III: avoiding rote repetition of its predecessor by completely letting go of reality and indulging in an over-the-top free-for-all of nightmare logic. The fact that it was written in a rush after it already started filming only adds to its surrealist pleasures, like how the best SNL skits are the nonsensical ones written in a 3 a.m. state of delirium.

Live Girls opens with its best scene. A frightened stripper in 80s hairspray & lingerie dances in frightened flight as a room full of mysterious nightmare figures reach out to handle & harm her. Ominous winds roar on the soundtrack as if we had accidentally stumbled into David Lynch’s wet dreams. The dance routine itself is less akin to the straightforward LA strip club acts of the previous film than it is to the interpretive dance madness of The Red Shoes or any Kate Bush music video you can conjure (especially the one where Bush pays homage to The Red Shoes). As early as that opening, it’s clear that Live Girls has abandoned the gritty real-world crime drama of Stripped to Kill for a logically looser MTV aesthetic, caring little for how plausible its strip routines & murder spree play onscreen as long as they’re “cool.” The dance numbers are less frequent here (they were rushed to accommodate a soon-to-disappear set, after all), but they’re also more memorably bizarre. A tag-team lion tamer act, a fire-breathing routine with a flaming stripper pole, and an oddly juvenile ballerina number feel just as detached from reality as the frequent dream-sequence murders that are expressed in full-on interpretive dance. Although the MTV nightmare logic of the opening sequence does persist throughout, though, the film never quite matches the Kate Bush striptease madness of its opening, which concludes with a masked killer taking out their first stripper victim with a razor blade kiss. The howling winds of this opening nightmare do return in subsequent stripper-killing dreams, but none are quite as delirious or deranged as the first. Still, I was too immediately enamored for my mood to drop too significantly as the movie calmed down to stage a proper murder mystery.

Besides adding some heightened surrealism to its never-ending parade of strip routines, the dream logic conceit of Live Girls also improves on the Stripped to Kill formula by obscuring the misogyny of its stripper-killing violence. In this sequel, the kills are staged in the context of a stripper’s half-remembered dreams as she mentally unravels. Amidst the dream sequences of interpretive dance, a masked killer with a razor blade secured in their mouth slices stripper victims on the face & neck with a deadly kiss and our frazzled protagonist wakes with a mouth full of blood & no recollection of the hours since she blacked out. The ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity is unfortunately just as politically #problematic here as it was at the conclusion of the previous film. The difference is that the kills leading up to it aren’t nearly as brutally misogynistic. I respect the unembarrassed sleaze of Stripped to Kill in concept, but the way that film alternates between gawking at women’s bodies as sexual objects and then gawking at those same bodies being mangled and torn apart left me a little queasy at times. Here, both the sex and the violence are less reminiscent of real-world misogyny and play more like a horny teenager’s nightmare than a proper thriller. Disembodied hands reach through a series of glory holes on a shiny zebra-striped wall to grab a stripper as she’s tormented by the howling wind. Occultist strippers with face-obscuring masks & robes dance erratic circles around a victim before they’re kissed to death at the business end of a fog machine. Both Stripped to Kill films end on a morally offensive queerphobic twist, but only the first is truly morally grotesque long before it gets there. This follow up is loopy & goofy in all the places where its predecessor is grimy & gruesome, endearingly so. The neon lights & hairspray-fried mops of curls didn’t change between the two films, but the worlds they decorate feel like they belong to entirely separate realms – the real & the unreal, the grotesque & the delirious.

In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions. Even if the final twist spoils the fun, you do have to admire the distinct delirium of the picture, which it shares with other rushed-through-production Corman classics like Blood Bath, Bucket of Blood, and Little Shop of Horrors. This addition to that haphazard canon of barely coherent projects that somehow lucked into cult status is a little more adherent to the bare flesh & neon lighting of MTV-era sleaze than its cohorts, but it fits right in among the best of ‘em all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

It Comes at Night (2017)

In his debut feature, Krisha, young director Trey Edward Shults crafted an incredible level of tension & terror by staging a dramatic Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house. The wait to see what Shults could do with a bigger budget and a more straightforward horror tone has been blissfully short. His follow-up feature, It Comes at Night, has been pushed into wide release by modern indie distribution giants A24 and boasts recognizable actors like Joel Edgerton & Riley Keough (unlike Krisha‘s cast, which was mostly filled out by Shults & his family). First weekend horror audiences have been loudly disappointed by the film, saddling it with a “D” CinemaScore for not living up to their genre expectations, the same way a mass of people vocally derided The Witch, (our favorite film of 2016) upon its initial release. Do not be fooled by the grumbles & whines. Shults’s command of tension & terror is just as impressive here as it is in Krisha, even continuing that debut’s focus on familial discord & grief. The exciting thing is seeing that terror blown up to a slick, multi-million dollar film budget instead of a self-propelled scrappy indie production. 

Two young families struggle to survive a post-apocalyptic American landscape devastated by a deadly virus, a plague. This isn’t the outbreak horror of the more narrative-focused The Girl With All the Gifts, however. There are no zombies, no monsters, no transformations. The infected merely die, rot, and spread disease. The two families we get to know in this bleak scenario attempt to find peace & optimism in domestic cohabitation. They keep telling themselves everything will be fine, but there’s no indication that anything can or will ever improve. Edgerton’s paterfamilias often commands the room, setting firm rules on how to keep infected strangers & animals locked out of their peaceful, isolated cabin in the woods. It’s his teenage son who acts as the film’s de facto protagonist, though. Late at night, once the comfort of domestic routines and keeping busy fades away, the teen boy’s mind begins to wander into darkness. Anxieties over survival, sexuality, and sorrow for those already lost haunt him in hallucinatory dreams and late night walks through the house’s eerie hallways. What comes at night is not any kind of physically manifested evil, but rather an extreme grief for what’s already been lost and a dread for the violent, depressing end that’s fated to come in the near future.

Dream logic and nightmare imagery are a cinematic pleasure I never tire of and Shults does a fantastic job of building tension in these moments of subconscious dread. If It Comes at Night can be understood as the horror film A24 marketed it to be, those genre beats are wholly contained in the teen protagonist’s stress-induced nightmares. Nightmare imagery is not exactly unique territory for horror, though. Its presence in the genre stretches at least as far back as the German Expressionism movement of the silent era. What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Shults inexplicably stirs up that same level of anxious terror in Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford in his debut: beauty. The nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

Not everything in It Comes at Night is disjointed dream logic & slow burn focus on atmospheric tone. There’s plenty of tense dialogue, creepy treks through the woods, gunfire, and desperate scavenging for food & clean water. Often, the film’s late night eeriness is used to quietly lull the audience into a false sense of safety before a loud, disruptive threat explodes onscreen. It can even be a visually ugly film when the moment calls for it, often lighting trees & hallways like a crime scene via rifle-mounted flashlights. I’m not surprised that first weekend audiences were frustrated by their expectations of a straightforward genre film, though. Edgerton is an amazing screen presence who once again wholly disappears into his role, somewhat anchoring the film in dramatic moments of disagreement with his wife & son. There’s no explicit explanation of his demeanor or plans, however, just like how there’s no expositional explanation of the history of the plague that has trapped his family in that cabin in the woods. The highlights of the film are more image-focused & ethereal: a triangle-shaped shadow, complex tree roots & branches, sweeping pan shots & drone-aided arials, an intense fixation on a red door that separates the family from the plague lurking outside.

The subtlety of It Comes at Night‘s overwhelming potency is never more apparent than it is at its violent climax. That’s when its aspect ratio gradually, almost unnoticeably constricts its action into an increasingly cramped frame that gets more constrictive by the second until there’s no room to breathe. It’s in that climax that you get the sense that Shults may just be a master in the making. Let’s just hope that the memory of that “D” CinemaScore fades away quickly enough for more production money to flow the director’s way. If he can craft such memorably terrifying, personally revelatory works on budgets this minuscule, I’d love to see what he could do with total financial freedom, general audiences be damned.

-Brandon Ledet

Ink (2009)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Online piracy is usually the scourge of the film industry, since many ticket & home video sales are lost to content that’s easily downloaded illegally. Occasionally, though, a small budget film will actually benefit from digital word of mouth & peer-to-peer sharing. The sci-fi fantasy epic Ink is a decent example of the way online piracy can boost a film’s notoriety. After a couple premieres at low-profile film festivals, Ink never scored a major theatrical or home distribution deal & initially suffered a limited, self-distributed DVD release with little to no fanfare. It wasn’t until the film saw major traffic on peer-to-peer torrenting sites that it earned any significant attention & it eventually scored VOD distribution that landed it on major streaming services like Hulu & Amazon Prime. Ink might be one of the few concrete examples of a film being saved instead of savaged by online piracy.

It’s not at all difficult to see how a film like Ink could attract a loyal cult fanbase. The specificity & intricately detailed structure of its dreamworld full of “pathfinders”, “storytellers”, “codes”, “access to the Assembly”, and magical bongos that open interdimensional doorways is perfect for fantasy nerds who eat up that kind of immersive worldbuilding. The film follows a group of mysterious dreamfolk who visit us while we sleep to protect our REM imagery from bad vibes. Aching to interrupt the fantasy are the nightmare assassins of bad vibes personified, a The Dark Side of dream warriors who range in style from plague doctors dressed in rags & chains to some kind of cyberpunk cross between Hellraiser‘s Pinhead & Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys. These fairy-like whimsies & cyberpunk nightmare baddies stage a literal battle between good & evil (complete with martial arts) while the “real” world tries to sleep through the night in peace. The fate of one little girl’s slumber & her workaholic father’s weakness for addiction give the story an in-the-moment sense of purpose & specificity, but for the most part the film is a work of fantasy genre worldbuilding more than it is a well-sketched out narrative.

The bummer about Ink is that it never feels like its means or its talent match the massive scale of its ambition. The film aims for the go-for-broke loopiness of a Terry Gilliam epic, but, unfortunately, also carries Gilliam’s languid sense of pacing without every nearing the same level of visual talent that the Monty Python vet commands with ease. At best the film feels like a lesser version of titles I hold in much higher regard. Its bedtime spookiness & made-for-TV visual cheese recall the sleep paralysis “documentary” The Nightmare. Its storybook push & pull between the dream world & waking life feels like a direct descendant of the far superior Dave McKean epic MirrorMask (right down to the annoying street performer/tour guide). Honestly, most of Ink feels inconsequential until a climactic narrative twist that lands with enough of a significant impact that you feel compelled to give the movie a second watch . . . or at least a hearty recommendation to a fantasy-minded friend (who’s already watched MirrorMask 1,000 too many times).

Still, I was ultimately surprised & charmed by what Ink delivered, if not only because of its limited budget visual cheapness & lack of a vocal fanbase. The film has an endearing pedigree as an underdog story of mishandled distribution & subsequent reappraisal. I found myself rooting for it to succeed & there was enough payoff in its last minute narrative twist & overall attention to worldbuilding that made the effort feel worthwhile.

-Brandon Ledet