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Throwback Thursday Movie: Phantasm (1979)

A teenage boy named Mike recently lost his parents and is afraid his older brother, Jody, will leave him. Mike gains the habit of following Jody around to make sure he doesn’t get left behind. While following him to a funeral, Mike witnesses the strange Tall Man lift a coffin with a body inside like it was light as air. This shocking sight leads Mike to investigate what is really going on. What he finds is more bizarre than he could have ever expected.

This is a classic horror film that every fan of the genre should see at some point. That being said, I saw this film once when I was about 10 years old and only vaguely remembered it. Now that the remastered version is out, it seemed like the right time to watch the film again. While I remembered the infamous Tall Man and his deadly spheres, apparently that was about all I remembered. The aspects of the plot that included the brothers and their ice-cream man friend investigating the strange happenings and a portal to another planet seemed entirely new to me.

If nothing else, I can say that this film had a very unique plot. The Tall Man worked at a mortuary and used the bodies of the recently deceased to create his own army of minions. Due to the gravity of his home planet, the minions ended up half their normal size. This was all fine and interesting, but there were definitely more questions than there were answers while watching this film. It was implied that the Tall Man has been doing this since the days of horse drawn carriages. If that was the case, what was his ultimate goal? It seemed like he already had quite a few minions created, but there was no real purpose for them other than to lurk in the shadows of the graveyard and make creepy noises. I also wondered how the Tall Man had been doing this for so long in the same town, yet no one had noticed the strange disappearances or that the mortuary had been run by the same guy for the past hundred years. This seemed like the kind of franchise that would (hopefully) make more sense as you go through the following four films.

Since this was a low budget horror scifi flick made in the seventies, the acting was nothing to write home about. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was definitely a bit over the top. Angus Scrimm (Awakening, I Sell the Dead) was the only actor of note as The Tall Man. He only spoke a handful of lines throughout the film, but he had quite a presence on screen. He was tall, creepy, and had a stare that chilled the bones. Scrimm was perfectly cast for this role because he somehow managed to be a fearsome being, but there was also something humorous about the way he delivered his few lines. It was the perfect blend to fit in with this low budget classic.

It is time to address the elephant in the room that was the effects and creature design of this film. I’ll start small and work my way up. There was little need for any kind of gory practical effects in this film. The only scene that really had any was when the ominous sphere got lodged into a man’s head and then proceeded to drill a hole between his eyes. The effects are mediocre, but it was the thought that counts in this case. I love the idea of the flying killer sphere that drills into skulls enough to overlook the cheesy seventies effects. One thing I can’t overlook is the creature design for the army of minions. They look like freaking Jawas from Star Wars (which came out two years before Phantasm). I couldn’t help but wonder if this was intentional or just an oversight. The planet we saw the minions working on even looked like Tatooine. It may have been a poor decision on the filmmaker’s part, but I definitely got a good laugh out of it.

Phantasm was a cheesy, somewhat nonsensical, seventies horror scifi film that became a cult classic despite all its shortcomings. While I couldn’t help but be annoyed at all the questions I was left with after watching the film, it’s also easy to see why this is such a beloved film among horror fans. The Tall Man alone was enough of a creepy and compelling character to make me want to continue watching the rest of the franchise. One thing I would recommend to people who have not seen it before: go in thinking it is more of a comedy than a horror film. I think you will end up enjoying it much more that way.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Throwback Thursday Movie: The House on Sorority Row (1983)

It’s graduation time for a group of senior girls in a college sorority. After their house mother squashes their plans to throw a graduation party at the sorority house, the girls decide to play a prank on her. The prank goes too far and ends in murder. Now the girls are being killed one by one. They must try to survive while also attempting to hide the evidence of their dark deed.

Even though this film is 33 years old, I had not seen it yet. Since I am undertaking the 31 Days of Horror challenge, it only felt right to watch this classic slasher flick. The plot is simple enough. Most people who went to high school or college are familiar with senior pranks. When the girls in this sorority try to prank their shrewd house mother, it accidentally ends in her death. The girls have their whole lives ahead of them, so instead of calling the police, they decide to dispose of the body before people arrive for the graduation party. As with any good slasher, nothing goes quite to plan, and the girls are killed off one by one. The twist in this film was actually fairly good. For most of the film I thought the ending was going to go one way, but it did a complete 180 on me at the climax of the film.

While the story is fun, what makes this film so great is how you can see the influence it left behind. Many films and TV shows have come out since this film was made that clearly drew inspiration from it. Many slashers I have seen over the years have certain aspects that appear to have come from this film. The most obvious connection to The House on Sorority Row can be seen in the first season of Scream Queens. The entire premise of the first season clearly was inspired by The House on Sorority Row, just in a more satirical form. It’s amazing to think that this film paved the way for so many other great slasher flicks.

The acting in this film was surprisingly good considering both the content and when it was made. Kate McNeil (Monkey Shines, As The World Turns) was great as the lead, Katherine. She was innocent, sweet, and everything you expect from a final girl in a slasher film. I was also a big fan of Eileen Davidson (The Young and the Restless) as Vicki. She was the perfect antithesis to Katherine. She was a slutty bitch who doesn’t take shit from anyone (especially not their house mother). She also managed to portray her character without feeling over the top in her performance.

Since this is an early eighties slasher film, the practical effects are generally kept to a minimum. It is really only the occasional smear of blood when someone is stabbed or shot. The only true practical effect involved a severed head in a toilet. I loved this effect because it was both gory and hilarious all at the same time. They appeared to have achieved this by having the actress under the toilet with her head sticking up through the hole (although I could be mistaken). Either way it was definitely a stand out moment in the film.

The House on Sorority Row is a film that every horror fan should see at some point. It’s influence can be felt in many later films and TV shows. This is the kind of cult classic that has a story most will be familiar with, but it is still a fun watch. It may not be as big as some of the other slashers such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, but it deserves a certain level of respect and appreciation. If you haven’t seen this film yet I would definitely recommend giving it a try. If you have seen it, still watch it again to enjoy the slasher genre in its purest form.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Throwback Thursday Movie: In The Mouth of Madness (1995)

John Trent is an insurance fraud investigator. After the disappearance of a famed horror author Trent is assigned the case to discover the truth behind what happened. Along with the help of the author’s editor, Linda Styles, Trent descends into a dark world. The more he learns about the author and his work, the more the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur. It seems like there is more to this story than meets the eye.

To be completely honest, I had never heard of this movie until June of this year. I was at John Carpenter’s Live Retrospective. Carpenter started playing a theme I had never heard before and was showing scenes from a film I had never seen. As soon as I got home I looked the film up and discovered In the Mouth of Madness. After watching it for the first time 21 years after it was released I can say that this film is truly another masterpiece by the great John Carpenter. This is a very different kind of film for Carpenter. It is the kind of film where you have to pay close attention or else you might miss some vital little details. It is also different from other films that Carpenter directed in that it deals with Lovecraftian themes and it makes you question what is real.

The basic premise of the plot focuses on John Trent. When horror author Sutter Cane goes missing Trent is hired to see if Cane’s publishers faked his disappearance in order to get the insurance money. Through this investigation we as the audience are taken on a journey that does not have a linear timeline. This adds to the feeling that reality is bending as the story continues. We also learn that Cane’s books not only seem to have a psychological effect on the readers, but that they may be part of a plan to unleash monstrous creatures from another world. This plot really drew me in because it was unexpected, and it made you pay attention. If you didn’t pay attention you were likely to miss some of the best parts.

This was a brilliant performance by Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Event Horizon) as John Trent. Neill has been in many major motion pictures, and he never disappoints. His portrayal of Trent stood out as another great performance because of the transformation his character goes through. Again, this isn’t something you see in a linear timeline. The audience is introduced to Trent towards the end of his transformation; then they get to see what lead to his downward spiral into madness. His journey as the ever practical and skeptical investigator that eventually becomes a man whose world has been turned upside down is breathtaking.

Carpenter is known for having gorgeous practical effects in his films. This one is no different. For the most part we see simple makeup effects on the people who have been infected by Cane’s writing. There were only a few of the practical effects that truly stand out. One amazing effect was of the editor, Linda Styles, as her body contorts and twists into a grotesque thing. Another practical effect from the film was brilliant because of it’s subtlety. The sweet little old inn keeper, Mrs. Pickman, becomes a horrific tentacle covered monster. What is clever about the practical effect is that you never see the monster full on. There are small close ups of a tentacle here and there, but for the most part it is a simple silhouette. The final stand out scene is when the evil beings from the other side break into our world. There are many giant, slimy, tentacle covered beasts ready to wreak havoc in our world. The effects, much like Trent’s grip on reality, become more and more fantastical as the story progresses.

The only negative I can say about this film is that I wish I had seen it sooner. In the Mouth of Madness is another marvelous work of art by John Carpenter, albeit a lesser known work. This is the kind of film that you will come back to again and again, each time finding new details that you had never noticed before. It will also stick in your mind for days after viewing, making you ponder reality, fantasy, insanity, and where the lines are drawn. All those who are in need of a horror film that will give you a mental workout, this is your film.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10