Five years ago, a fiery car wreck wipes out a family and orphans young Abel Evans. Then, like Billy Eye Harper before him, Abel’s dead brother is back from the dead and taking his revenge. Of course, as the copy on the box gives it away . . . Abel’s brother isn’t a zombie: he’s a ghost. And, if the tagline of “It kin (can) happen to you” doesn’t give it away: this is a horror comedy (although some will debate on the “comedy”). But “Cain” on the cover looks like a hardcore Halloween-inspired slasher.
Starting out as Blood Brother, the film shot in Mamaroneck, New York, at a house that was owned by director Jeffrey Delman; the home also appears in his film, Deadtime Stories (1986). Another location that appeared in another film was the “hillybilly house,” aka the grandparent’s home of Gabriel Bronsztein, a film crew member; it was used in Frank Henenlotter’s beloved home video renter, Frankenhooker (1989).
Phantom Brother is one of those movies we love for the fact that the individuals who worked on the film drop their two-cents worth on social media (sometimes You Tube; in this case, the IMDb) about their experience. Right off the bat, Gabriel Bronsztein, who was the film’s camera assistant, key grip, and gaffer (holding multiple jobs on-set is par for the SOV course), lets it be known that the film “was not his fault” — which only succeeds in us wanting to watch Phantom Brother, even more. Bronsztein also appears as the director of “Vampires on Valium on Valentines Day” within the film. Phantom Brother was his first job fresh out of film school; he worked for director William Szarka as an assistant editor at a film distribution company.
Bronsztein speaks about how most [backyard] filmmakers [like Don Dohler] would opt to shoot on 16mm. Of course, as we have discussed all this week (and we still have a couple of more days of reviews and SOV analysis on deck), the ’80s home video revolution hit and the likes of Boardinghouse* and Blood Cult revolutionized the low-budget film industry. Because of video tape, filmmakers could eschew expensive film stocks, fiddling with “short ends,” and bypass regional drive-ins and go straight for national home video distribution — either via brick-and-mortar outlets or via mail order. (Blood Cult, while not the first SOV, it was the first SOV to eschew drive-in premieres or festivals and go straight to the stores while “four-walling” pulpy, genre movie mags.) In the case of Phantom Brother, they broke out the camcorder: a Betacam. Gabriel’s brother, David, who was the DP (Director of Photography) and owner of the camera, chipped in funding. Another actor who wanted to be in the movie, Patrick Malloy, who played Dr. Van Dam, also funded the production. Others involved with the film also held dual jobs: Art Director and set designer Nora Maher, appeared as the pasty-face “Killer Girl Scout.”
So, if you haven’t been in these woods before . . .
We have a two “Totally ’80s” couples who run afoul of a crazy family at a secluded county house, complete with a masked brother and his perpetually, Girl Scout uniform-clad sister and their fat mother — of course, they’re all dead from the car crash, remember? Now, why did the couple end up at this house of horrors? Well, to work on that movie shooting there that we mentioned earlier. So we get a little meta here — and a shiny implement here and there — with a horror movie concerned with murders while real murders are being committed. And Able tends to, aka hides, the real murder committed by his family, got that?
Ack, no we don’t.
The four MTV-rocker dopes ventured into the woods to find the head of Abel’s dad and cash-in on the “buried treasure” urban legend. Oh, and get a little of the rock ‘n’ roll hoochy-coo. You know the teen-type: Pentgrams and “666” on the walls, and the little creepy doll (that resembles our killer) are of little concern when you’re a horny, 30-year-old high school teenager. To that end: Yes, we do get breast shots. And undie bottoms. And bad ’80s synth-ballad augmentation. And Able’s not telling everything.
Okay, so the plot is settled.
Hey, this is an SOV, so that means the special effects are so special, but what SOV throat slash n’ dismembered body part fest of the Karo Syrup variety is, right? We give these Tiger Bloodin’ Charlie Sheen’ers credit for tryin’ at “winning,” as they give us a decent body count, just like a good SOV should (but this should have gone full-on Fatal Exposure in the gore department; we’ve also reviewed that fellow SOV’er, this week).
And this is good. Okay, decent-to-fair (so spare us the smart-fuckery in the comments below that “we’re hipster douche bags” and this is the worst movie you’ve seen in 25 years). The parody aspect actually works here, with the hammy scenery-chews of Dr. Van Dam, in particular. Yeah, the film itself is grainy (leave the Ed Wood and “Citizen Kane of bad movies” comments at the B&S About Movies’ smoke post/ash can out back) — as it was shot on a camcorder, after all — but the shots are well-framed. I could, however, done without the voice over narration (the lazy deathknell of screenwriting). But the sub-plots are all over the place, so there’s a bit o’ skill here in the thought-process department, and there’s a decent twist that improves on the we-seen-it-coming twist in Rocktober Blood. Well, a double twist: once the “brother” angle is exposed.
I always thought screenwriter Joseph Santi and director William Szarka (who got his start cutting “coming attractions” promos for a distribution company) did alright with this late ’80s addition to the SOV canons, as each displayed sparks of potential. While Phantom Brother (which sounds like an ’80s “Brat Pack” mystery-thriller starring James Spader) is not as horror-comedy effective as the black laughter (a county-hicks connection in both) of Charles Kaufman’s Mother Day (and what horror-comedy is), this masked slasher romp is not as much of an epic fail as the comedic-horror boondogglin’ tomfoolery of Hard Rock Zombies (dopey teens and a remote house of crazies) — and that was shot on film by a “more experienced” filmmaker in Krishna Shah. Phantom Brother is not incompetent on the behind-the-lens end, but is a wee-bit clumsy in the comedy and even more so, as well as awkward, in the thespin’ departments.
And, with that, Santi and Szarka punched out after Phantom Brother. But Szarka made two prior films: South Bronx Heroes (1985) and Plutonium Baby (1987). I never came across his debut on VHS (it was shot on film). Plutonium Baby is another story. I have seen that on the shelf under a different title: The Mutant Kid. For whatever reasons, even after seeing it a couple of times on different shelves, I never rented it. Phantom Brother was the pure camcorder-shot film that I wanted and rented. It’s also Szarka’s best-known film — and one of the better SOV’ers of the era.
* That review on Boardinghouse is coming. You know it! So search for it.