Sunday, January 30, 2011

Phantasm (1979) I Love Your Free-Wheelin' 70's Ways

Right around the summer of 1980, I remember my cousin Scott excitedly telling me about this weird movie he somehow saw late at night. We were 13, and it's not like we were allowed to watch anything we wanted yet, so this rebellious tale intrigued me. He told me of a movie unlike anything he'd ever seen: Phantasm. It had, according to my cousin, "this tall, weird guy who's strong...and his finger gets cut off, but it's still alive...oh, and there's this ball with knives in it and it kills a guy...and people crushed down to midget size...and then the weird guy comes through the mirror!"

I thought he was making it up.

As I would discover in my journeys growing up, it turns out he didn't make it up. It is a real film, indeed. Made in 1977 and released in 1979, it is writer/director Don Coscarelli's first great tribute to cult films. He would make splashes throughout his career with cult classics like Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, as well as contributing a strong entry to the Masters of Horror series with Incident On and Off A Mountain Road. There's a free-wheeling creative energy to Coscarelli's films, and Phantasm is where I believe the ball started rolling.

To properly summarize Phantasm isn't a straightforward task. Its plot doesn't meander so much as it runs laughing, sometimes hitting walls, then proceeding to scamper in another direction, giggling with glee. This is a complaint by many, an endearing trait to others. As for my opinion, I found it fun because sometimes in life, it's OK to run flailing and laughing into walls.

Basically, it goes a little like this: Jody and Michael's brother Tommy is murdered by a mysterious person in the graveyard of the local mortuary. Jody wants to leave, but finds himself forced to care for his teenage brother. Michael, still hurting from the loss of their parents, is terrified of Jody leaving. When he spies the incredibly imposing Tall Man (the legendary Angus Scrimm) removing Tommy's coffin from the fresh grave, he pleads with Jody to investigate. Turns out people have been disappearing from the town for years, and the Tall Man and his house are at the center of it. Things get stranger and stranger, with hooded dwarves making periodic attacks on the two. Aided by their friend, groovy ice cream vendor Reggie (who becomes a bit of a randy, accidentally-indestructible action hero in his own right through the series), Jody and Michael enter the house to stop The Tall Man once and for all in a brouhaha that includes killer dwarf slaves, the Tall Man's gender-switching shapeshifter abilities, and gateways to other worlds.

If you cherish cult films as much as I do, you really should see Phantasm. It's not made on a huge budget and the acting is often unintentionally hilarious, but one can't fault a film that not only tries, but is perfectly comfortable in its own celluloid skin. Long-time readers know I like a film that has energy and a bit of a swagger (see my review of Equinox). Phantasm has that, and still resonates to this day. This film put Angus Scrimm on the map, and he is now undeniably a horror film icon - rightfully so, as his scenes are genuinely creepy and performed with confident presence. The musical score stands out, very John Carpenter-esque in its minimalistic approach, which lends to branding certain scenes with a certain mood.

Phantasm is pure, popcorn fun, taking me back to my youth, an early-80's kid just getting his feet wet in the horror genre, listening with a rapid heartbeat hammering in my ears to anyone who would tell me the synopsis of the latest "forbidden fruit," be it Phantasm or some years later, the classic Evil Dead. No Internet back then - word of mouth, trial and error at the local video store (miss you sometimes, VHS) and eventually Fangoria were the only ways I could get my horror movie interest stoked.

Enjoy, and remember to duck:

Friday, January 21, 2011

I Love T-Shirts: A Product Review

I love t-shirts. I really do. They're comfortable and if they're of the graphic variety - like 99% of mine are - they're an expression of tastes, advertisements for your interests for everyone to see. I've got all kinds: one for each college I went to, several Philadelphia Phillies selections, a couple with Jack Kirby comic book art. Many describe my personal experiences, such as staff shirts from comic book conventions I worked to many from the wrestling promotions I whose shows I either attended or helped in some way.

The kind folks at Crazy Dog T-Shirts and Nacho Mama Tees passed along a couple shirts from their catalog, and they're very welcome additions to the t-shirt family. From Crazy Dog T-shirts, I received a white shirt with not only the WGON logo from Dawn of the Dead emblazoned on it, but a spelled-out warning "do not remain in your home..." with a list of the shelters that you glimpse at the beginning of the 1978 film. I like that attention to detail. Looks great. From Nacho Mama Tees, there came an olive green shirt with the logo of the pub from Shaun of the Dead, The Winchester Tavern.

Hey, the shirts are comfortable, I got them very quickly, and I have a feeling that if there was a problem, it would be resolved quickly and professionally. I plan on ordering from them again. Check out their sites, and browse around - lots of good choices. Here's a little bit more about each site, direct from the source:

About Crazy Dog T-shirts

"Crazy Dog T-shirts ( is the number one source online for funny t-shirts and vintage shirts that help you stand out and get noticed. Founded in 2004, the t-shirt empire offers custom shirts in Rochester, NY. They provide customers with a variety of cool t-shirts and crazy shirts featuring both creative original concepts and popular licensed designs. Looking for a funny t-shirt? They have hundreds of funny shirts which you won't want to miss!"


"Nacho Mama Tees ( has some of the best offensive t-shirts around. Founded in 2004, the t-shirt giant offers funny shirts which include Chuck Norris shirts, The Hangover t-shirts, and zombie t-shirts. They provide a variety of funny t-shirts and crazy shirts. With new men's vintage tees and great movie t-shirts, you are sure to find one you will fall in love with!"

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Last Exorcism (2010) Sleight Of Hand, Magnified

You know when movies leave you with just enough to form your own interpretation, thereby making you mull over it for a while after you've shut off the TV, imagining hypothetical pathways down which the movie might have intended to go?

I like that.

I know there is a general "either you like it or you hate it" feeling about director Daniel Stamm and producer Eli Roth's The Last Exorcist out there - I've got friends who are steadfast in their opinion either way. That's fine. Everyone seemed to see something different. Even among those who liked it, there are varying viewpoints on what happened, what the movie meant, what the central theme may or may not have been. All I know is this: The Last Exorcist made me ponder what I had just seen long after I was done watching it, and for that, it earns points.

To give a full, blow-by-blow account as I often do would be to give away far too much. I do, however, want to offer my opinion on what I saw. To be honest, it's only one of my interpretations...but we'll get to that in a bit. First, allow me to give you some of the basics.

Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is an ultra-charismatic preacher who's been groomed for the pulpit since he was a child. When he talks, people listen and testify, no matter what he says - proven in a hilarious little bit regarding a "banana bread sermon." He has a loving wife, an energetic deaf son, and a high standing in the community as a preacher and exorcist. There's a problem, though: Marcus has lost his faith. He's on a new crusade after discovering an exorcism's role in the death of a child, and he wants to expose exorcism as a "sham." The documentary crew is there to film him as he engages in his "last exorcism," so he can show step by step the ways in which he himself has scammed believers out of thousands of dollars.

He randomly chooses a handwritten cry for help out of a pile and takes the case of young Nell (Ashley Bell) in a backwoods Louisiana town. Marcus is met with instant hostility from Nell's brother Caleb, and fire-and-brimstone rhetoric and belief from Nell's father Louis (Louis Herthem). Marcus is slick, though. He gets the father to agree to film the exorcism and sets about earning Nell's trust. Through some sleight of hand, he causes the water Nell has her feet in to "boil," indicating a demon is indeed inside her and needs to come out.

Marcus performs the exorcism, and we are treated to parallel shots of how he will set the whole thing up to look authentic. You have to chuckle at the audacity, the creativity, the slickness, and the brass balls of the whole operation. After an emotional performance, Marcus proclaims Nell free, counts his money, and leaves for his motel.

From here, the movie takes one of its 90-degree turns.

Nell shows up at the motel, acting strangely. After a hospital visit, Marcus shows up again to find that Nell has sliced her brother in the face. The father, Louis, takes his other child to the hospital while Marcus and the film crew keep an eye on Nell.

You think Nell acting strangely before...

Nell gets downright scary here: staring, speaking in two voices, "drowning" a doll, even killing a cat with the camera as the crew sleeps. She remembers none of it, though. Marcus feels he's in over his head and believes she should have psychiatric treatment. Louis will have none of it, and after discovering that Nell is...shall we say...carrying more than a possible demon inside, demands - shotgun and all - that Marcus perform another exorcism.

Now, here is where I will tread carefully. I really don't want to give away anything to those who haven't seen the film. If you have seen it, bear with me. If you have NOT seen The Last Exorcism, I'm going to be VERY clear where the spoilers start and VERY clear when they end. OK? OK.


Alright, are we clear? Good...let's continue.

You've seen the movie, you know how it ends as we see it: second exorcism seems to reveal that Nell wasn't possessed, but suffering from extreme shame from becoming pregnant despite the teachings of her zealous father. Everything seems like it will (eventually) be fine. The pastor from Nell's former church arrives to reconnect with the family. Marcus and the crew leave, meet the supposed father of Nell's baby, discover conflicting evidence, and return to find Nell and the others gone and Satanic symbols painted all over the house. Later, they stumble upon a dark ceremony where Nell is forced to give birth to a demon baby, which is thrown on a fire and "reborn." Marcus finds sudden resolve and faces down the demon while the film crew runs and is killed just as one of Nell's drawings foretold.

One interpretation is that we have seen exactly what we were intended to see. The story played out, no frills. That's the end, much like an old 70's demon versus man midnight movie. Check out the recent The House of the Devil for a more direct homage to that subgenre. Definitely a down note, but a common trait of that style.

Another interpretation is along the same lines, only with the added bonus that Nell was in on it the whole time, and everything leading Marcus to that end point was pre-ordained, whether through supernatural or clever man-made means. A footnote to that outlook is that maybe Marcus was meant to go there, guided not by demons but by God in order to win back his faith. "In order to believe in one, you have to believe in the other," Marcus says early in the film (and I'm probably paraphrasing - I don't have it on right now).

Now for an interpretation that I seem to gravitate to, and it's one of many that seem plausible. I thought it out, but that doesn't mean I'm the first person to get the idea. I'm sure someone had the idea before me. Here goes: I offer that not only was Nell in on it, but that Marcus orchestrated the entire thing from start to finish. Early in the movie, Marcus' wife tells us that he is heavily involved with community theater: writing plays, performing special effects, and other areas of it. We know Marcus is charismatic. People believe him. We also can see he likes magic tricks, as he uses them in his sermons and playing with his son. His whole exorcism act is based on magic tricks and sleight of hand. At every turn, Marcus is the central character, no matter what. Things are happening, but we are focused on him. That's sleight of hand carried out to a larger scale: focus on one thing, and something else is happening just out of your sight. What if everything was already meant to play out that way? What if Marcus wrote the community theater production of a lifetime, complete with the special effects he loved? While it can be argued as something supernatural guiding the path, from the random choosing of the assignment to Nell's prophetic drawings, it can also be argued that it was all written by Marcus himself to be that way.

I don't know. That's just my take on it. Take it or leave it as you will. And that's why I like the movie. It made me use my brain and, dare I say, my imagination.


A few final thoughts about the movie: the direction by Daniel Stamm was excellent, building tension, making us familiar with the characters, maybe even engaging us in sleight of hand. The acting was great, but the performances by Patrick Fabian as Marcus, Ashley Bell as Nell, and Louis Herthum as Louis really stood out to me. They were believable, realistic characters. You feel and understand Marcus' inner turmoil, smile as Nell giggles, and have pity on Louis and his struggle to deal with family issues. And while the ending is a talking point, there were some parts of it that seemed overwrought, but that's really a small nitpick compared to how the rest of the film held up.

A movie about possession? The power of faith and belief, both good and bad? A preacher and his own inner demons? Perhaps something more? Maybe it's all those things, or another animal entirely.

Depends on what you believe.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

House on Haunted Hill (1959) Great Way To Be Snowed In

A solid eighteen inches of snow fell here during the night. I knew work would be canceled. I knew that after some shoveling, I would be sealed in for the day. There was no doubt in my mind I was going to sit and watch House on Haunted Hill. I was in the mood for something classic, something with Vincent Price, and something I knew I'd love. So as the sun set and I prepared to get back to the grind the next day, I propped up some pillows and kept the lights off.

House on Haunted Hill came along during a time when gimmicks were called "gimmicks," and not "viral advertising." I admit that a lot of today's viral tricks and such can be quite creative: fake websites (Cloverfield), vinyl albums by a fake band (Fringe), and countless others. But back in the 50's, you couldn't just jump on the Internet. Computers were the size of rooms anyway. Legendary producer-director William Castle took what can be classified as a simple locked-room murder mystery, added some supernatural touches, created a classic gimmick for the film, and made it on a shoestring budget. Castle's been called a king of B-movies, but he made quality films full of meat and substance.

It's the story of a wealthy couple, Frederick and Annabelle Loren (Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart), who throw an expensive party for a group of strangers in a reputedly haunted house. Frederick and Annabelle aren't the picture of married bliss, however. They repeatedly trade barbs that seem jaunty and bored on the outside, but mask a true hatred for one another. The strangers come from all walks of life: a handsome test pilot, Lance (Richard Long); a pretty but easily rattled secretary, Nora (Carolyn Craig); a no-nonsense psychiatrist, Dr. Trent (Alan Marshal); a gambling gossip columnist, Ruth (Julie Mitchum); and an alcoholic, fearful man, Watson (Elisha Cook), who once spent a horrible night in the house. They apparently don't know each other, or the Lorens, but there they are, ready to spend eight hours in a deadly house for $10,000 apiece. Why they are there is anybody's guess.

It doesn't take long for the party to kick it up to levels rivaling my college days. We had ghosts and mysterious dripping blood on the ceilings, too.

The movie has one of those plots where to summarize it all would be to include spoilers, whether I want to or not. There are a few twists and turns, a little murder among strangers, some weird occurrences that add to the atmosphere of the movie. It was remade in 1999 with heightened effects and some added backstory - a decent effort, but created a mini-franchise that hasn't cast the best light on the original. Two glaring differences: the remake didn't have the "gimmick" and it didn't have Vincent Price.

The "gimmick" was a skeleton that would sail through the theater at just the right moment in the movie, and when you see it, you'll know about when that happens. To today's jaded audiences, it might be hokey, unless you count yourself as a real film fan, in which case it might be quaint or an honest-to-goodness tribute. It's been over 50 years since the original. The reaction it might have elicited then cannot be duplicated now, despite our love for it. Still, I would love to see it in action.

What can I say about Vincent Price that hasn't already been said by countless others? That voice, that delivery, that presence...he is easily one of my favorite actors of all time, and his name will pop up again and again in future installments of this blog. In this, he is one cool cat, equally friendly and treacherous, voicing concern for one character, then coldly insulting his wife the next. His performance, as well as Elisha Cook's, is worth the price of admission. Everything else is just a bonus.

The snow stopped falling, finally. It's going to be a pain to drive in tomorrow. But, I'm thankful it gave me the chance to get reacquainted with an old friend who used to haunt me on various creature features as a kid.

Plus, the snow keeps the zombies away, but that's neither here nor there.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Roots of Personal Horror: The Sheik, Wrestling's Original Madman

The year: I'm going to go with 1976. That's the best I can remember. The place: outside Cadillac, Michigan. My brother and I sit glued to the black and white TV, one of three channels. That's right, young'uns. Three channels is ALL we had: the local ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates. FOX wasn't even a sparkle in an executive's eye back then. My brother and I, we're glued to our favorite weekend entertainment (after the dearly-missed less PC cartoons): Big Time Wrestling.

Big Time Wrestling was a staple not only in the Detroit wrestling scene, but the national one as well. Anyone who was anyone back then came through the Detroit territory, and this is before Vince McMahon turned his little corner of the wrestling territory into the juggernaut it is today. Dick the Bruiser, Abdullah the Butcher, Andre the Giant...they all passed through the Detroit area.

And they all, in their own way, met up with The Sheik.

The Sheik - or Ed Farhat - ran the territory for decades, their heyday coming in the 70's with a wide-ranging TV deal and regular stars that captured the hearts and imaginations of impressionable youth such as my brother and I. The Sheik was a madman who slinked into the ring, often prayed on his sacred rug to the chagrin of his opponent, the proceeded to maul, bite, and carve up his hapless opponent with a sharp foreign object before clamping him in the dreaded Camel Clutch, his signature submission hold (as seen above as he applies it to Terry Funk).

My brother and I were scared out of our wits by this guy. He made ugly faces as he jabbed whatever object he could into the face of his foe. He fish-hooked the guy's mouth. He stuck his fingers in his eye. Our hearts beat wildly with equal parts fear and awe. We'd go into a frustrated frenzy at his could he get away with it? Fortunately, there was a hero: Bobo Brazil. Bobo was one of the pioneers of diversity in the business, a black man wildly cheered by predominately white audiences. Bobo, the commentators always reminded us, was the only person who could scare off The Sheik. Sure enough, the roar of the studio crowd prefaced an eleventh-hour rescue by Bobo Brazil, who would almost get his hands on The Sheik. Arrgh! So frustrating! Again, the villain gets away. But matches were signed: Bobo would face The Sheik at the legendary Cobo Arena in Detroit, and there would finally be a reckoning. My brother could only imagine, as we lived nearly five hours north in Cadillac, Michigan.

Flash forward to January, 2003. I was still fresh to my new position as wrestling commentator in independent wrestling and was attending my broadcast colleague and dear friend Jim Hall's debut show for his Marquee Wrestling. At the after-party, I received the sad news: Ed Farhat, the fearsome Sheik, had passed away at the age of 76. There was silence followed by hushed tributes from the wrestlers and staff who had either known him personally or, like me, had been affected by the man's work in our younger lives.

In something of a "come around full circle" thing, we flash forward once again, this time to December of 2004. Jim and I were asked to be commentators for a benefit show for Sabu - The Sheik's nephew - organized jointly by Scott D'Amore's Border City Wrestling out of Windsor, Ontario, and BCW's Detroit affiliate Prime Time Wrestling. Now the young kid who sat in front of his old TV, mesmerized and completely afraid of The Sheik in the mid-70's, was a small part of a show that paid tribute and respect to not only Sabu, but The Sheik. This was in Detroit. This was the heart of Sheik country, and a real heart of professional wrestling as history. Getting to say his name as a lasting part of DVD commentary cemented my own personal "horror" history with The Sheik.

Through my travels in that time, I met other connections to The Sheik, such as his son, Ed Farhat Jr., who runs the direct descendant of Big Time Wrestling, the All-World Wrestling League (AWWL). I also met a man I'm still proud to consider a friend, Mark Boone, a longtime musician, current wrestling manager, and lifelong Detroit wrestling historian. If there is anything to be known about wrestling in Detroit, he's the go-to guy. He even contributed to the soundtrack of the film about The Sheik, I Like To Hurt People. There's never a doubt in his voice when he says that The Sheik was the "Daddy of what became known as 'hardcore wrestling.'" The following pictures were taken by Mark himself during the 70's, at the same Cobo Arena that my brother and I longed to go to, and are only a drop in the bucket of his personal collection:

Previous two photos courtesy of Mark Boone

Simply great stuff. Thanks, Mark!

The Sheik was the monster under my bed. His was the name my brother and I evoked to scare each other. Back in a time when I was too scared to watch anything close to horror, a bloodthirsty, foreign-object-wielding, biting, scratching madman was enough monster for both of us.

And we wouldn't have it any other way.

(Like scary wrestlers? Then check out this post by my friend B-Sol of The Vault of Horror - trust me, this man also knows his wrestling. After you check out that post, check out more of his posts - you won't be sorry.)