Before he did PHANTASM, a 22 year old Don Coscarelli wasn’t even looking to be a horror director. He got together the people he knew and filmed in his neighborhood and made this sweet coming-of-age type comedy about growing up in the California suburbs of the ’70s. Kenny (Dan McCann) is a kid about 12 or 13, his company is Doug (PHANTASM star A. Michael Baldwin) and Sherman (Jeff Roth), a goofy younger kid from across the street who they pick on but start becoming real friends with when they see him getting beat up by Johnny Hoffman (Willy Masterson), the same neighborhood bully they live in terror of.
Kenny is a unique character because he’s so in-the-middle. He’s not some awesome Ferris Bueller, and he’s not a miserable nerd or outcast. He is on the football team, but it’s a huge deal when, at the beginning, he makes a good play. And that’s only after he starts running in the wrong direction and Doug grabs him by the jersey and spins him around. He has a crush on a girl he won’t talk to (Terri Kalbus). His coach is kind of a dick to him. He cries when his dog Bob is put to sleep. He doesn’t fight with his parents or his teacher (other PHANTASM star Reggie Bannister), in fact they’re all really nice and give him good advice. Doug’s dad is pretty crazy, a Secret Service agent who plays jokes with his handcuffs and lets little kids hold his gun. But he also goes out of his way to do nice things for Kenny when he notices that he’s down.
This movie looks fantastic on a modern TV, a nice mix of graininess and sun, and it’s such a detailed time capsule of that place and time. They’ve got their bowl haircuts, surf t-shirts, little skateboards. More than that it’s a timless portrait of shit that kids do: build, crash and discard a racer, write their name on a bench, sneak into a scary house, leave a dummy in the street, play with a mouse trap, order a suicide (all the flavors of slushy mixed together), teach an ESL student to say “asshole.” It’s from the BAD NEWS BEARS era when kids movies didn’t have to be squeaky clean, and admitted that kids new how to swear and steal Playboys. It actually worried me a little bit seeing those kids tearing down streets on bikes, skateboards and go-carts, or standing up in the back of a moving pickup. You know they don’t have stuntmen, or even the ability to close the streets off to traffic, so that coulda gone wrong.
I really think Coscarelli could only do this movie because he was so young, he wasn’t that far removed from being a kid like this. And yet it’s an incredibly impressive piece of filmatism from such a young second timer (he’d made one called JIM, THE WORLD’S GREATEST when he was 17, but that one’s not on video). He does everything that’s supposed to be hard: he gets really good, funny performances out of little kids, he has lots of animals in the movie, he has a good use of music, good balance of serious and funny, and a ridiculous amount of cool shots with the camera moving smoothly in front of them as they ride bikes, skateboards, etc. Judging from the featurette on the DVD they must’ve done all those with the old cameraman-pushed-around-in-a-wheelchair trick.
I gotta give special credit to this kid Sherman, he’s hilarious. Much more innocent than the other two, and he sounds like Linus. His finest moment is when Kenny sees him pinned down by tow big bullies and reluctantly decides that he has to try to help, because it’s the right thing to do. Once Sherman gets loose he hits the biggest kid once on the back and then immediately heads for the hills. You see him tearing off in the background of a shot of the two kids now enjoying beating the shit out of Kenny.
It’s almost as priceless as the earlier scene where dad tells Kenny that if he hits Johnny in the mouth next time he’ll surely run home crying because all bullies are cowards. “Really?” Kenny asks incredulously. It doesn’t sound accurate, but he takes dad’s word for it. (Okay, I guess not all the advice from the adults is good.)
Although not a horror movie, this is a Halloween movie. It takes place in the days before Halloween, with the boys preparing for some holiday mischief. At one point there’s a jump scare when the boys visit a neighbor’s house that has been made into a haunted house. Seeing the crowd react to that is what inspired Coscarelli to try a horror movie next.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.