Cult Culture Archive: It’s Just A Dream!

I won tickets to Bubba Ho-Tep, after entering the Washington City Paper weekly giveaway. Everybody wins the giveaway, and it’s usually a Xerox of a movie pass to the low rent premiere night of some DC-only release. An old gag – 200 tickets for 100 seats.

After quickly organizing my uncle to be my date, as long as he agreed to head down to E Street well before the show and stake a claim, I babbled away incoherently to anyone who would listen about a few of the shining stars of modern cinema – Bruce Campbell, Reggie Bannister and Don Coscarelli.

Bruce has become a household name these days, and I can only say that my heart leaps with joy to know that. I’m the guy who went to Video 99, rented Crimewave (directed by Sam Raimi and written by the Coen brothers) and went through great pains to link up two VCR’s and make a copy. VCR’s weighed 67 pounds each in the late 80’s, you know. Crimewave is, of course, another shining star of modern American cinema. “Hey baby, why don’t ya come on over to my pad. We’ll have a scotch and sofa.”

I’m the guy who went back to Video 99 the following day and picked up the first two Evil Dead movies, clutching them close to my chest and with wide, wet eyes. See, I got the two VCR’s working so my dubbing mania had begun. By that point, though, I had rented the Evil Dead’s so many times that Ho Chin (Video 99’s cult leader) just waved me past the counter. I’d pay him back in compulsive sour bears purchases later in the week, anyway.

Well, in those days, Bruce Campbell was the quiet hero for the defenseless nerd. Now I can babble senselessly to the old black lady I work with and she sucks her teeth, nods, and says, “That’s right… Who’s laughing now? Who’s laughing now!?”

Sam Raimi, and Bruce, went on to the top tier of cultdom. The stratosphere. Still cult, but mainstream enough to be kooky. Kook-culture. But, down here with the people who get in fistfights over whether or not 28 Days Later was a zombie movie, cult-culture continues to spin with the same rhythmic beauty one could find in the thousands of tiny suncatchers hanging from the ceiling of Video 99. Which was in a poorly lit, windowless basement. But those suncatchers had a power, man. A thousand beams of pure alien light shining on the “Cult” section. Hundreds of videocassettes, all of them as familiar to me as the curves and valleys of a dead, decaying, out for revenge zombie, vampire girlfriend.

I went to Video 99 every day after school. On Fridays, I picked up an armful of tapes and walked home along the oh-so-dangerous abandoned rail tracks, wobbling slightly, to watch the best and the worst of cult-culture until, at some point on Saturday afternoon, mom would have a meltdown and physically throw me out the front door with a string of obscenities.

Halloween night. In those days, kids could eat apples. But I rarely went out to play. Captain 20 hosted our local UHF station, and he always showed two films starting at 8pm. Every year. Same two flicks. Curiously, during his host segments, he would offer completely different tidbits of trivia. It wasn’t just canned stuff. He showed the same movies, but filmed new host segments. One year, Reggie Bannister even came (“Hi kids!”) and did the host segments with Captain 20. “All I remember from this scene is that I got to sleep with that girl in the green room!”

Gargoyles was up first. It’s a Bernie Casey nightmare flick and, during my travels in New Mexico, I stayed at the hotel that was torn apart by the monsters. The desk clerk, a bored looking middle-aged woman, had no knowledge of the 1972 made for TV movie. I told her it was a Bernie Casey classic. Not to mention a major vehicle for Jennifer Salt, who went on to head up the TV series Soap, star in the frightening and gory Sisters, write the teleplays for A&E’s Nero Wolf mysteries and, ultimately, go insane and insist that sex, drugs and rock and roll “saved Hollywood” and everyone who thought such things were a bad influence should “loosen up.” That was just recently.

Well, I got in bed with a bottle of Bacardi and waited for gargoyles to rip the hotel apart. Alas, the movie lied. Or maybe the gargoyles had moved on.

The second feature was always Phantasm.

Don Coscarelli. There’s a name you should know if you fancy yourself a horror buff.

Picture, if you will, 1979. $300,000 is pretty hefty for a drive-in movie budget, but that’s what it cost for Coscarelli and buddies Reggie Bannister and A. Michael Baldwin (nope, not those Baldwins) to put together Phantasm. Mike Baldwin and Bill Thornbury play orphans sticking it out in a rough world. Their middle aged, oversexed, balding ice cream vender friend (the high-larious Reggie Bannister) joins them on a splatter-gore Scooby Doo adventure. There’s something afoot in their small town. Of course, we know because we see it in the first five minutes. Back in the late 80’s, UHF could show titties on TV. Well, they couldn’t, but they did anyway. Phantasm opens up with a sex scene in a graveyard that turns pretty scary pretty fast.

Angus Scrimm. You’ve seen him around. He played Agent McCullough in TV’s Alias. Here, he’s the Tall Man. The superhuman mortician from some alternate dimension (an idea and image stolen, incidentally, by the miserable Highlander II). Now, there’s just something…wrong about the Tall Man. Young Mike Baldwin knows it in his heart.

Phantasm in 2004 is a yawn. I’ll warn you right now. But it’s the foundation for brilliance. It’s a comedy, a horror, a sci-fi flick, a buddy film, a coming of age story. It’s just about every cinema genre thrown together and patched up with blood, brains and slime. It’s fucking weird.

Turns out that the Tall Man is a time-traveling, dimension-sliding madman who is using his corpses as slave labor to…uh…something something. Now a young boy, his elder brother and a balding, middle-aged ice cream vender must seal the dimension rift, stop the Tall Man and…uh…something something. The Tall man is armed with the famous killer machines – flying razor blade spheres – and he’s not about to sit tight while a bunch of misfits shut down his operation. Out come the killer spheres, engage in mortal combat and end on a high note. Perfect. If you’re several vodkas in, it’s mesmerizing. If you’re a student of these films, you’ll realize with a sinking feeling that nothing since 1979 is original.

Coscarelli, after that, had some weight. He’s responsible for the Beastmaster franchise.

So flash forward to 1988, a sequel/homage/reboot comes into play. Phantasm II. Michael Baldwin, now in his mid-20’s and the well-armed ice cream vender Reggie Bannister, now balder, fatter and older, begin the story in classic Mad Max fashion. We blast out of the gate hot on the trail of the Tall Man, who is enslaving small towns across America and leaving weird wastelands behind. Only Mike and Reggie can stop him, and what ensues is a barely coherent, deeply insane road-trip comedy that tips the hat more than once to Sam Raimi. In fact, Raimi even gets cremated. Heavily armed, Reggie and Mike soon find that there’s more to the game than the Tall Man and his scary gnomes. In what we’ll go ahead and call anti-climatic, the Tall Man slips past our heroes. There’s nothing for it, let’s go to:

Phantasm III. It’s 1994 now, in real time. Despite the eight year gap, we pick up at the moment the second film ended. Turning a classic horror movie ending into an unintentional cliffhanger. Our duo survives the freak-out finale and, armed with a new resolve, sets out to finish the Tall Man once and for all. But they’re in way over their heads. We discover that poor, tortured Mike is more than just victim and hunter, he is the key to everything that’s happening. Returning from the original Phantasm, Mike’s older brother visits him as a sort of American Werewolf in London ghost, providing plenty of spirit-guide action (and comedy, thanks to Reggie Bannister). Meanwhile, our favorite mortician is making more spheres of death and re-animating the dead. Ho, ho! It’s a deadly game, now, and a different type of film. It goes out of its way to fill in all the plot holes. We learn a bit about the Tall Man, and plenty about what was going on in the first film. Coscarelli, in a moment of pure genius, splices cut scenes from the first film into flashback sequences. Now that’s a thrill! But he dances to the side and fails to deliver the Ultimate Answers.

That’s fine, though. He has full license to proceed with Phantasm IV. It’s 1998 for us, but part four picks up where the third one left off in what I think is one of the top five goofy grindhouse cliffhangers. At least, since Bruce Campbell landed in 1300AD.

Phantasm IV is a weird head trip that ties together the first act of the series, tells us everything we need to know about Mike, Reggie, ghost brother Jody, the Tall Man, the gnomes and anything else that was nagging you. Then Coscarelli does a mean thing. He makes up a whole new set of questions and ends the movie vaguely.

Phantasm IV is a personal favorite because the storylines fork. Mike and his brother are off battling the Tall Man while Reggie and foxy Heidi Marnhout (you’ll see her, along with Reggie, in Bubba Ho-Tep), battle the killer spheres in a continuation of the insane wasteland roadtrip along America’s blue highways. Small towns were never this unfriendly! But, by now, Reggie’s learned how to handle himself. That crazy ice cream vendor gets to blow the shit out of everything and even earns himself a kiss. Rock on, Reggie Bannister!

We end this 20 year experiment, where the same actors and crew pioneered a new and inimitable sub-genre in horror, with a vague loose end. Phantasm’s End, the fifth installment, became trapped in production limbo. Will Coscarelli ever get it made? Mike, Reggie and Mike’s dead, decaying brother live in a strange half life, waiting for the final battle with the Tall Man. In the final installment, the Tall Man will control half of a diseased America, ruling over the dead. After what we learned in the fourth installment, there’s no doubt that this will be a serious fight.

Am I worried about the production? No, there’s an average of four years between Phantasm films. A decade between the first and second. I trust my crew of misfits to hold on.

And what are they doing in the meantime? Bubba Ho-Tep. Coscarelli delights fans as he resurfaces with this Bruce Campbell indie. Moving up in the world, eh? Tickets in hand, I await the showing with the same wide, wet eyes that Ho Chin at Video 99 had to bear on those nights when I was short 12 cents. Bruce heads up the cast as a senile old man cum Elvis Presley along with washed-up powerhouse Ossie Davis as Jack Kennedy (the Jack Kennedy, right?). Reggie Bannister and Heidi Marnhout circulate and, dear 2004, welcome a promising interpretation of author Joe Lansdale’s (High Cotton, Sunset & Sawdust, etc, etc…) little short story about his mummy. Coscarelli, being a giggling fan of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, should deliver a little taste of total cult-culture that can fuel an evening.

So, now you know who Don Coscarelli is. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, is to go out and collect all four Phantasm films. Then go see Bubba Ho-Tep. Every ticket is a step closer to Phantasm’s End kids. Support your local gunfighter: