Monday, January 28, 2013
(R, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1989, theatrical release date: November 10, 1989)
Considering the surreal, supernatural majesty of the Phantasm saga, the Marc Singer-mounted cheese factor of The Beastmaster and his recent appraisal of cult authors Joe R. Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep) and David Wong (John Dies at the End), Don Coscarelli doesn't have the most prolific of resumes. Having made his first movie at 19, Coscarelli is one master of horror with a restless creative spirit that was made for the bizarre fancy of his 1979 breakthrough feature about extra-dimensional grave robbers and the sentient silver spheres which serve them. Instinct drives Coscarelli more than prolificacy, which kept him from realizing Phantasm II had to be made until close to a decade after the original's sleeper success. Interestingly, much of the creative personnel behind his ill-fated summer sequel studio picture from 1988 were busy with another project during at the time, the adventure-drama Survival Quest. It's been a while since Anchor Bay dropped Coscarelli's black sheep into video stores alongside the original and third Phantasm ventures, but in the wake of John Dies at the End, I figured I'd try for a second opinion about Survival Quest.
A down-to-earth, in-the-rough fable freed from Coscarelli's fancifully homebrewed eccentricity, Survival Quest puts two opposing factions of self-perseverance schools on the same flight to the Rocky Mountains. The first outfit are collectively known as the Blue Legion, an Outward Bound subdivision of the Cobra Kai dojo from The Karate Kid led by militarist Jake Connor (Mark Rolston). The second are the titular Survival Quest students being taught by Hank Chambers (Lance Henriksen), a more reformed and refined father figure whose philosophy is more of solidarity and coexistence with both nature and man. The former group consists of your typical young gallery of grunts and dogfaces, with the clear leader-in-training being the spiteful Raider (Steve Antin). The latter is more inclusive and opens its ranks to unemployed seniors (Ben Hammer as Hal), sullen divorcees (Catherine Keener as Cheryl), boyish jokesters (Paul Provenza as Joey), and chain-smoking convicts on probation (Dermot Mulroney as Gray).
Hank's charges eventually learn to rely on and value each other's strengths despite their disparate backgrounds. Their first group problem-solving activity underestimates the strength of the women (expect a broken nail jibe at the expense of Traci Lind's bride-to-be Olivia) and places loner Gray further in a box ("He's probably good at climbing walls"), but both Cheryl and Gray come to demonstrate leadership and empathy thanks mostly to the sage guidance of Hank. But if Hank is meant to be Sgt. Elias in this film's friendlier platoon, then Jake is clearly a surrogate for Barnes.
"The penalty for failure is death" is the fascist bully Jake's creed ("When you walk in these woods, you are the predator...a predator trusts no one") even if the Blue Legion's campfire rituals come across more like fraternity hazing than the more disciplined, rigorous regime of even a bandana-clad hippie like Hank. The overeager sociopath Raider functions solely as Jake's whipping boy until the script demands that victim become aggressor, at which point the Survival Quest team have to work together against a legitimate threat boasting live ammunition and a Hitler Youth hive mindset.
Don Coscarelli may have not had the gods of high grosses on his side when Phantasm II came out, and indeed that film's deliberately gonzo tone is a clear heir to the madcap likes of Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and Stuart Gordon. But there was a cracking energy, offbeat charm and courage of conviction that made it so beloved over time. Coming off that minor letdown, Survival Quest is an even greater loss in regards to Coscarelli's talents. On a thematic level, it doesn't betray the ingenuity and derring-do of characters like Mike, Reggie or The Beastmaster; when it comes to execution, though, something went wrong on this journey.
The film is a jumble of elements from wilderness thrillers (Deliverance, Rituals), war movies and every variation of The Most Dangerous Game and The Lord of the Flies committed to celluloid. But there's no subversion or spirit built into this film's conventional DNA, just an indifferent sense of pacing, staging and plotting. The film goes over the halfway point in allowing us to gauge Hank's students' stamina and learning, so much so that the Blue Legion threat arrives far too late and with even more perfunctory purpose. Furthermore, the film needed to be tighter in regards to both sides' training activities, especially to skim out unnecessarily silly scenes like when Jake forces his grunts to play Hide and Seek and to just avoid the formulaic monotony of this back-and-forth between the two teams. It takes an entire hour for Hank's team to begin their fateful trip 80 miles towards safety, but the stakes are very low and the set pieces utterly devoid of genuine urgency or horror, unless one poorly-conceived waterfall escape and the usual dumb encounter with a mother grizzly are enough to stop your breath.
With the exception of another steely, dignified turn from the truly great Lance Henriksen, riding high on a late-1980s wave which peaked gloriously with both Aliens and Near Dark, the script barely serves its stars with their one-note characterizations. His Aliens co-star Mark Rolston does a serviceable enough job as opposite number Jake, especially when he finally reveals his self-defeating humanity, but is nonetheless trapped in a snarling throwaway role. It's disappointing enough to know Steve Antin (The Last American Virgin, The Goonies) is playing another insufferably underwritten dickweed, but his more conditioned creepiness as Raider is less Vincent D'Onofrio and bears a more startling resemblance to Eric Freeman's campy, hyper-masculine psycho from Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2. The same Catherine Keener who would prove herself a brilliant performer in midlife is squandered, and even the lovely genre stalwart Traci Lind (Fright Night Part 2, Class of 1999, even My Boyfriend's Back) is not given much charm or color to her character. There's no chemistry between her and Dermot Mulroney in the film's poor attempt at romance, instead throwing all its heart into the exchanges between Gray and Hank, whom Henriksen instills with a rugged but admriable warmth.
Phantasm II cinematographer Daryn Okada does capture the gorgeously authentic scenery with the assistance of a couple of smooth, sweeping camera movies. The mountains, plateaus, rivers, and snow-covered hills along the Sierra can't help but look invigorating. But the overly lightweight score by Fred Myrow and Christopher Stone hardly registers on the same hypnotic, pulse-pounding level as their compositions from Coscarelli's earlier fare.
The DVD version of Survival Quest was sourced from vault elements provided courtesy of Don Coscarelli himself and supposedly re-edited from its original theatrical cut. However, he opted out of including a supplementary commentary or interview, which is another shame coming from such a natural moviemaker. There is instead an eight-minute reel of behind-the-scenes footage and a triptych of trailers, one of which reminds you that MGM did distribute this theatrically before dumping it on VHS from CBS/Fox in a double feature with something called Damned River.
Not even a welcome Reggie Bannister cameo can distract me from the feeling that this movie needed some silver balls of a different type.