The man from Morningside takes it on the road and antique store artifacts that turn Jesus into a vampire :: Saturday Horror Movies

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Saturday Night Horror Movies :: Phantasm II (1988) and Cronos (1993)

Back to the Horror Saturday Double Features, we gathered together to watch a sequel to one of the films we watched last time around, and an early film from a favorite filmmaker of mine that has some interesting ties to his new television series, The Strain. My husband is on a quest to take us through the Phantasm-franchise building up to the release of the fifth and final feature, so we started the night with number two of said movie-quest. I went with an early Guillermo Del Toro film after listening to his return to The Nerdist Podcast interview this past week, where he talked a lot about his vampiric research and some of the challenges of working as a filmmaker when you are faced with having to lose some of your “dream scenes”. It was interesting to see some of Del Toro’s cinematic roots and comparing and contrasting them with some of his more recent films (many that have been written about here at Lyriquediscorde).

We went with Charles’ choice first, catching up where we left off on our last Horror night, a sequel that came nine years later and feature both a bigger budget, and a studio mandated replaced actor. This was a movie that I actually saw at the drive-in soon after its release, and it is the one I recall scenes from the most. Written and directed by Don Coscarelli, everyone returned (at least those who lived through the first film), including the writer/director, except for lead character Mike. I guess six years in an asylum makes you physically mutate? At least that’s what the studio must have though their audience would assume.

My selection was a Mexican vampire horror film, written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. This was my first time with this film, and a second view for my husband who saw it back when it was released. As with many of Del Toro’s other films, Ron Perlman plays a central character, and the dark look and feel, and filtering, that seem to be signature to his films are there, as well. Though there was a significant absence of strange creatures that I’ve come to expect from Del Toro. I have always been a lover of vampire lore, and this was definitely an interesting take. The movie feels more gothic vampire tale than horror scare storytelling, but if you like FX’s new series The Strain I urge you to give this one a watch.

So, here we go, another night of terror times two to share with you. We will be doing these reviews every other week, trading off with our year-by-year drive-in feature, so stay tuned for more and please send us your horror movie suggestions. You can give us some titles in the comment section, or email me directly at lyrique.discorde@gmail.com. Please note, no choice is too cheesy or possibly bad, we accept the challenge to watch them all, the good, the bad, the awful, the hilarious, and everything in-between.

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Phantasm II (1988)
Written and Directed by Don Coscarelli

Phantasm II starts literally right where we left off at the end of the start of the franchise, with a strange twist of fate ending where Jody’s death turns from supernatural to an explain away car crash, with Mike and Reggie thrown together, Reggie falling into the “big brother” role, trying to assure Mike that all is normal. The ending felt confusing at the end of the original movie, so I was glad to see it start the next film, hoping that this would help explain the circumstances and flush out the story more.

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Well, confusion persisted as we were immediately greeted by a replacement Mike, cast by a studio mandate with relative newcomer James Le Gros, who honestly looks nothing like the original actor he was replacing.

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(I know, Reggie, we don’t recognize Mike either)

I wondered aloud if this was a change that continued through the rest of the franchise, and here is where it gets weirder – no, they revert back to the original actor, A. Michael Baldwin. So, I questioned further – was A. Michael not available? No. Was he not interested in continuing the series? No (obviously not, as he’s in 3 and 4, and slated for 5). Turns out the studio told Coscarelli that he could only use one of the two actors again (Reggie Bannister as Reggie and A Michael Baldwin as Mike), but not both. The studio suggested Brad Pitt, who they did not go with, and then James Le Gros.

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In my opinion, Le Gros was a poor choice. He may have been “easier on the eyes“, but he was harder on the emotional believability. As Mike, he showed no complexity of emotion, no overarching grief for his brother, no palatable fear from what had happened, his experiences in the asylum, nor the dreams that continue to unfold and come true. His performance is flat, from start to finish, and this stands out even more because the previous actor was the complete opposite, bordering sometimes on over-emoting.

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The rest of the movie? Well, for a film that had the biggest budget of the entire franchise, it suffered from spending more attentions on the special effects and less on the actual plot. There were so many holes in what was happening that at times it was difficult to just “accept” and go on. First off, why is The Tall Man suddenly taking his show on the road after all his years and years and years at Morningside? Why now? And, if he’s really going town-by-town and decimating the entire population, then robbing their graves of their bodies, leaving the cemeteries nothing but headstones and holes in the ground, how is this not on the news? How is the FBI not involved? How is it that only Reggie and Mike, and Mike’s “dream girl” Liz, know about this?

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Also, if there has been nine years past, and if Mike has been in the asylum for seven years, then how is he only nineteen years old? He was fourteen nine years ago? Can the Tall Man control time and throw fogs of invisibility over entire towns?

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Don’t get me wrong, there were good parts here. I enjoyed the evolution of the orbs, and found the Tall Man’s mortuary helpers interesting. I also enjoyed Liz, who did bring some emotional complexity to her role, a character I hope continues on, as well. I also enjoyed revisiting some “horror” scenes I have remembered since first seeing the film, including the “Tall Man” spinal appearance, and the line: “You think that when you die, you go to Heaven. You come to us!

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Also, I love Reggie’s DIY gun!

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Thoughts from my husband:

As I mentioned in the last horror night post, this is one of my favorite horror franchises, however this is my least favorite of the films, mainly due to the fact that it was the only studio mandated film of the franchise. As is the case with most (not all mind you, Evil Dead franchise being an exception) indie taken over by a major studio, they really screwed up the director’s vision towards the film with Phantasm 2.

Much of the appeal of the franchise is that dreamy/what the fuck feeling you get from the story line in 1, 3 and 4, which seems to be missing in this one. To the director’s credit, he did do the best with what Universal mandated (for instance, the actor they used as Mike was bad enough, I cannot imagine a young Brad Pitt in his place).

It did, however, pave the way with the continuation of the franchise the way the director wanted to in the next two films.

A few fun facts:

One of the undertakers can be seen filling a plastic bag labeled “Mr. Sam Raimi” with ashes. “Ash” is the name of the character played by Bruce Campbell in the The Evil Dead series, directed by Sam Raimi.

One of the headstones in the film bears the name “Alex Murphy”, a reference to RoboCop.

Writer and Director, Don Coscarelli, has admitted to following direct influences by Universal during the making of the movie:

> The illusory style of the first movie was discouraged and a more linear plot line with voice over narrations of various characters was required.

> No dreams by characters were allowed in the final cut.

> A female lead had to be added as a love interest for Mike.

Don Coscarelli has revealed that some elements of this movie were influenced by Stephen King, specially a few aspects of his novel Salem’s Lot. A small part of it at the end, when the characters go out on the road chasing down vampires, gave him the “road movie” idea of Mike and Reggie chasing The Tall Man.

The casting of James Le Gros has had a conflicted effect on the cast members. LeGros reportedly enjoyed his time on the production and got along very well with the cast and crew. Nowadays, Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm, and Reggie Bannister all speak glowingly of their experience with him. A. Michael Baldwin, however, appears to remain bitter about the incident: in the audio commentary for Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, he twice referred to Phantasm II as “the film which shan’t be named” and has stated in a podcast interview that he considers it a terrible movie.

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We missed you Mike, and we agree with you.

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Cronos (1993)
Written and Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

I recently listened to an interview with Guillermo Del Toro on one of The Nerdist Podcasts (a respite from my horrible work commute) and my curiosity was peeked when he spoke about the experience he had writing and filming Cronos. I am a huge Del Toro fan, as previous posts here will attest to, and felt I was missing something by not ever seeing the film he spoke of, so when we were putting together our two movie choices for our double horror feature night I decided to choose Cronos.

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At the start of the film we are introduced to the Cronos’ history, or at least a brief glimpse into it. The look and feel of this part of the film reminded me some of Coppola’s Dracula film, and I found myself immediately drawn in. I do wish the film had spent a little more time in the origin story, as I was curious at the actual origin of the Cronos device and would love to have learned more about the insect living inside.

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The film does not dwell long on this part, though, and instead we are brought forward in time and are introduced to Jesus Gris, an aging husband and grandfather to the young Mercedes who reminded me a lot of the lead character in Del Toro’s film Pan’s Labryinth, who is also named Mercedes. This makes me wonder if this is meant to be the same character, or just an archetype that Del Toro has painted to play his young girls who face familial and/or childhood terror of one kind, or another.

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Jesus is an antique shop owner and comes to be in possession of the Saint statue that holds the Cronos device. He seems to be aware of its value, or is curious of its unusual nature, enough so that he removes it from the Saint statue and sells the statue, sans Cronos, to Angel (Ron Perlman) who pays a great deal of money for it.

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Angel is an interesting character. An American Ex-Pat who seems to be in Mexico not of his own accord. He is living with his dying Uncle who treats him horribly, often abusing him both verbally and physically, and sending him out on constant hunts to find the Cronos device that he believes will cure him of his fatal ailings.

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Jesus and his Granddaughter, Mercedes, examine the Cronos device after hours, and one such examination activates the device and activates Jesus, as well. His wife notices that he looks younger, and as his midnight thirst eludes, he keeps drinking tons and tons of water and stares longingly at a bloody pile of raw meat in the refrigerator, he is starting to change. Vampirism is not immediately apparent, but something is happening here.

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The transformation of Jesus, and his relationship with his wife and Granddaughter, are what I really loved in this film. The drama with Angel and his aging Uncle De la Guardia, I found less interesting, though I understand that this was the crux of the plot’s movement to have Jesus have to ultimately face death. I guess, for me, I would have rather him have had to come to terms with his life and the idea of eternity differently, maybe in response to his wife’s aging.

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That said, his rift with Del la Guardia, and Angel eventually attempting to kill him, does lead to an interesting interlude between Mercedes and Jesus that share some of the dynamics of Leon and Mathilda, in Leon: The Professional. Mercedes is tough and clever, and not the least bit afraid of using violence to defend her family. She is a tough character, full of emotional complexities and inner strength that is refreshing to see in a young female role.

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There are a few questions I had about the story, like why did Jesus continue to refuse the Cronos device to De la Guardia? He had no real knowledge that De la Guardia was a bad person, nor do we get a sense that Jesus is wanting to protect the world from the device (though the latter would have made sense to his character). Is it an act of spite because Angel trashed his antique store looking for it? Or, is it a selfish need of Jesus to possess the device? Does the device act somewhat like the ring in the 8 series, obsessing its owner to the point of madness? Maybe we are meant to interpret on our own, if so, I like the idea that Jesus is protecting the world.

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As a fan of the new FX show, The Strain, I enjoyed the movie even more, as I recognized both character archetypes and similar vampiric conduits in this film, and in the show. I will not go into too much detail as I’d like to encourage anyone reading to go and check out The Strain, I will just say bugs and aging owners of antiques seem to be a constant in Del Toro’s tales of vampires.

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I am very glad I got the chance to watch this film, and hope to also check out another of Del Toro’s earlier films, The Devil’s Backbone, sometime soon.

Thoughts from my husband: 

Its always nice to see a director’s early work, and see how much it influences their later creations. Its easy to see parts of Pan’s Labyrinth, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and the new series, The Strain, in this movie. While not much of a “horror” film, but more a suspenseful retooling of the typical redemption story line, it is still an enjoyable film, nonetheless.

A few fun facts:

Guillermo del Toro met with Universal in late ’93, where they told him they wanted to buy the rights to this film so they could remake it. del Toro’s response was “Who wants to see Jack Lemmon lick blood off a bathroom floor?”.

The alchemist at the beginning of the movie is named Fulcanelli, which was the pseudonym of a famous french alchemist of the late 19th/early 20th century, who mysteriously disappeared in the 1940s and whose real name and identity has never been known.

All of the original Cronos devices created for this film were stolen when production was completed. They were never recovered, so the Cronos devices that Del Toro owns are replicas.

The two De La Guardia characters were deliberately intended to be somewhat unreal, like comic book characters. Del Toro explains in his commentary that he did this as a sort of revenge against Hollywood films that having Mexican characters that are rather stereotypical.

The names used are: Jesus Gris and Angel de la Guardia, which translates to “Grey Jesus” and “Guardian Angel“. Angel, guards his uncle, and Jesus has gray hair and, eventually, grey skin.

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How was this EVER a poster for the movie? There is no character like this woman, and this gives a completely WRONG feel to what the movie really is.

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