Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review: PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016)

As a lifelong "Phan" of the Phantasm series, my heart lept with joy at the announcement of a new, and final, installment in the franchise, with the involvement of the entire cast from the 1979 original. After several delays, Phantasm: Ravager (2016) was released in theaters and VOD, and I got a chance to watch it.

My disappointment was staggering. Produced almost thirty years after Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998), I expected a tight, polished, poignant final chapter that would finally answer at least some of the many questions posed during forty years of filmmaking. What I got was an amateurish looking, incoherent movie, with surprisingly unpolished performances, and one which lacks much of the surreal, hypnotic atmosphere and style that made the series so special in the first place.

A huge part of the blame has to rest on co-writer/director David Hartman's shoulders, whose direction is adequate at best, and sloppy at worst. The special effects also leave a lot to be desired, which is shocking, considering what creator/writer/director Don Conscarelli managed to pull off decades ago with next-to-none resources, delivering four films that had plenty of style, and effects that always captured the imagination.

The lack of closure is also very disappointing for a die-hard Phantasm fan. Being the final chapter, there's little that seems "final" about this film, with its open-ending and unresolved storylines dating back to the very first film in the series. Yes, Reggie Banister's character gets a moving and bittersweet send-off, but that's about it. The Tall Man's tale seems far from finished, and the rest of the characters don't have much to do throughout the story.

One has to wonder why Coscarelli, who co-wrote Ravager, didn't just direct this final chapter, as the final product sorely lacks his touch and his mastery of low-budget filmmaking.

It is fun and heartwarming to see the gang back together again, and there are a couple of moments when the film manages to capture some of the magic of the original, but, as is, Phantasm: Ravager is heavily flawed and underwhelming, and a failure as a finale to one of the most popular and stylish horror franchises in history. To me, the true final chapter remains Phantasm: Oblivion (1998), in which Coscarelli gave us an open-ending that was mystifying yet satisfying on many levels, and one which was truly haunting.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review: SEAGALOGY by Vern

According to author Vern, if you are a huge fan of Steven Seagal and his strange and awesome movies, then you are, by default, a Seagalogist, a term the author coined to describe the die-hard fans, the real Seagal freaks, who follow his output religiously and truly enjoy his films for what they are. I am such a person; a huge Seagal fan since my teens, and someone whose appreciation and dedication to the Seagal ouvre only deepened with age. Yes, Seagal can be a polarizing, even bemusing figure. Yes, some of his DTV movies are heavily flawed and suffer from less than stellar production values. But there is no one else on this planet like Steven Seagal, the actor-producer-writer-bluesman-environmentalist-animal-rights activist-police officer, who also happens to be an Aikido sensei trained in Japan!

Seagalogy by Vern is marketed as a love letter to the man and his work, reviewing and analyzing all of Seagal's films and TV shows up to 2011. Vern's style is irreverent but, for the most part, not mean-spirited, and his passion for Seagal shines through. But those expecting a straightforward, serious look at Seagal's work have to look elsewhere. Vern's style is sometimes too humorous for its own good, with the irreverence occasionally becoming annoying and distracting. Strangely, for someone who has spent a lot of time and effort writing a book about a celebrity who suffers from overtly hostile coverage by the mainstream media, Vern falls into the same trap as the ones he criticizes in his book: those who viciously make fun of Seagal's shortcomings, real or imagined, because of his eccentric persona and beliefs, and his decision to leave Hollywood. Vern seems to think, as pointed up repeatedly in his book, that Seagal's "Golden Age" was his WB days (1988-1991), and that almost everything past that era is below par. I disagree.

Although I realize the ridiculousness of some Seagal's work and obsessions, I believe that, as an actor-filmmaker, Seagal has managed to make some truly interesting b-movies in a time where ageing action stars from the 80's and 90s are content to rest on their laurels, or become mascots banking on their household names, with shameless ads and/or inferior sequels to their biggest hits. Not Seagal. He has managed to make almost 40 DTV movies in the past twenty years, almost all of them reflecting his motifs, interests, and obsessions (Asian philosophy, a code of honor, CIA corruption, mafias, Chinese herbology, animals, Japanese swords...), and many of these movies are co-written by the man himself.

Vern acknowledges this to some extent, but his reviews of the later era Seagal are for the most part sarcastic and lacking in depth and proper research. That doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy the book. I enjoyed the hell out of it. But I was expecting something meatier, more fleshed out than light reading. Especially since, as of this moment, this is the only book ever written about Seagal.

So for Seagal fans, this is a must. It has some fascinating info and trivia, and some of Vern's reviews, especially of Seagal's earlier films, make you want to go back and rewatch the movies. But lower your expectations before picking up a copy.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)

The first adaptation of Susan Hill's classic ghost story is an atmospheric, nuanced horror film that lingers in the memory long after you finish watching it.

From the performances, to the confident direction by Herbert Wise, to the terrific screenplay by none other than Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Experiment), this is a near-perfect ghost story, which draws its power from its ability to suggest (with sound design and good cinematography) rather than show, and its terrific use of location shooting. Some of the technical aspects have aged a little bit, but considering that this is a modestly budgeted production made for British TV in the late 80s, this is an impressive, stylish, and surprisingly elegant film.

Reportedly disowned by Susan Hill because of the changes Kneale made to the original novel (including the shocking ending), this is arguably the best adaptation of the story (superior to both the popular stage version and the extravagantly produced 2012 feature starring Daniel Radcliffe). A must see for fans of ghost stories, British cinema, and the original novel.

Text © Ahmed Khalifa. 2017