The Empty Man, Dementia 13, Phantasm IV: Oblivion, and Dead Ringers
Horror Bulletin Weekly Episode 142
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The Empty Man, Dementia 13, Phantasm IV: Oblivion, and Dead Ringers
This week, we’ll be watching four more horror films, including “The Empty Man” from 2020, “Dementia 13” from 1963, “Phantasm IV: Oblivion,” from 1998, and “Dead Ringers” from 1988. Plus, we’ll revisit an awesome older horror-themed music video.
Dementia 13 (1963)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill
Stars William Campbell, Luana Anders, Bart Patton
Run Time: 1 Hour, 15 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgement Zone
A tale of death, inheritance, murder, conspiracy, insanity, and maybe a ghost. It’s short, creepy, and quite good.
A man and woman walk out onto the dock. They get into a small rowboat and take their little radio with them. Louise wants John to talk to his mother about changing her will. His mother wants to leave the fortune to some charity. She thinks John is rowing too hard for his bad heart. He laughs “If I die before mother, you’re a stranger. If I die, there’s nothing in it for you.” Then he keels over, dead.
Seeing her meal ticket dead, she gets rid of the body by rolling him overboard. She throws the annoying radio in after him as well. Credits roll.
Louise gets in the car. She writes a letter to John’s mother, where “he” explains his need to return to New York. Then she forges his signature. She packs his clothes and other things he would have taken. She thinks she can get his mother to change her ridiculous will. She throws the suitcase and typewriter in the lake.
Billy explains about his sister Kathleen, who died long ago. She drowned in the small pond, and supposedly, she still haunts the house. They go to Castle Haloran, where she meets Richard, the artist brother.
Old lady Haloran wonders how long Louise will be staying with them. Until John returns, she explains. Richard is annoyed with his mother’s obsession with Kathleen; he wants to marry Kane. His mother doesn’t like Kane. He doesn’t much care for Louise.
Billy explains to Kane about how Kathleen was missing all night before they found her body. They recreate the funeral ceremony every year out of tradition. They run into Simon the poacher, who runs off.
Richard, Billy, and Mother do the funeral routine as they do every year. Mother faints at the same time every year, on schedule. Louise helps her out to get on her good side. Louise tells Mother that she hears things at night; maybe it’s Kathleen.
That night, Louise steals some toys and things out of Kathleen’s room, which hasn’t been touched in seven years. Someone sees her come out. She then ties the toys together with cord, coats the cord in something, and takes them to the bottom of the pond. She swims way down in the pond and she sees a grave down there and freaks out. As she tries to climb out of the pond, someone kills her with an axe.
Mother’s doctor, Caleb, thinks repeating the funeral every year is nonsensical, and her fainting has to be purely psychological. Mother calls for Louise, but the maid says she didn’t sleep in her bed last night.
They all have luncheon on the terrace, but Louise doesn’t show up, which annoys Mother. They all see bubbles in the pond, and then the toys float to the surface. Billy has a flashback about playing with Kathleen.
Simon the poacher is out hunting that night, and finds Louise’s body. He then gets beheaded.
Arthur the groundskeeper starts to drain the pond, but it’ll take some time. Mother is cracking up, and she goes out to put her diamond tiara in Kathleen’s old playhouse. While she’s in there, someone with an ax tries to cut through the wall. She runs away but passes out in the courtyard.
Billy tells Kane about his recurring dream of Richard climbing up the wall to his room.
Arthur finishes draining the pond, and he finds something. They all go out to see what, and it’s a headstone that reads “Forgive me Kathleen.” Richard used to work in stone; Caleb blames him. Caleb thinks Louise has been trying to steal things, and maybe she’s hiding in town.
The next night, Kane follows Richard down into the castle dungeon, where he used to work on his sculptures. He explains that he came down here to find out who made that monument.
Caleb confronts Billy and says he knows that Billy pushed Kathleen into the pond. He asks Billy what happened to Louise, and Billy answers with a nursery rhyme.
Richard and Kane are married. Caleb tells Kane that he’s going to get to the bottom of the whole affair with this messed-up family. He says Kane may be in danger. She thinks he’s crazy.
Richard and Kane go out for a literal roll in the hay, and Caleb goes out for a smoke. He realizes where Louise’s body is and finds it. He also finds the Kathleen doll that the killer has been moving around. He puts the doll on the fountain and everyone comes out.
Kane reaches for the doll, and Billy charges her with his ax. We get the full flashback of Billy throwing Kathleen into the pond. He was the killer all along. Someone shoots Billy, and he dies.
Billy’s flashbacks make it pretty obvious that he pushed Kathleen into the pond, so it’s clear that he’s unbalanced from early on. Since the film doesn’t focus on that, it seemed likely to me that he was the killer. They try to imply that it was Richard, but it doesn’t seem likely.
Louise and Kane were very similar-looking, and the first few scenes with Kane were a little confusing because of it. Louise was clearly the main character until her surprising death, then Kane took over. It was just a little weird.
Dead Ringers (1988)
· Directed by David Cronenberg
· Written by David Cronenberg, Norman Snider, Bari Wood
· Stars Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi von Palleske
· Run Time: 1 Hour, 56 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgement Zone
It’s not horror in the least except for maybe one scene, but it is a fascinating psychological thriller that walks the line between drug addiction and just plain insanity.
Back in 1954, a pair of twins talk about what sex would be like if humans were fish. They ask a neighbor kid to have sex with them in the bathtub. She reacts poorly. Then they go home and operate on a toy body.
In 1967, the twins, Elliot and Beverly, are in medical school. The professor gets annoyed when they use a customized medical instrument. He says it’s fine for cadavers, but won’t work on living patients. Not long after, the school is praising them for inventing the new instrument, which has brought glory to the school.
In 1988, one of the twins examines Claire and finds that she has a couple of parts that aren’t supposed to be there. She’s a trifurcate; she has three cervixes. She’s a famous actress in town for a miniseries. The two brothers switch on and off between seeing patients and doing social engagements; no one can tell the difference between them. Tonight, one of the brothers, Elliot, goes home with Claire.
Bev, the other brother, goes to Claire’s house in the morning. He tells her that she can’t ever bear children. She’s not surprised.
Elliot is a playboy, while Bev is more bookish. Bev goes to see Claire again, and this time, they play doctor together. Later, Bev doesn’t want to share with Elliot. Elliot starts to rib Bev over their relationship. Claire offers Beverly amphetamines, but he says he never takes drugs. Elliot thinks she’s just hustling for drugs, or so he tells Bev. Claire thinks Bev has gotten suddenly schizophrenic, and she can’t tell why. Sometimes she really likes him and sometimes he’s just a good lay. He distracts her with pills.
Friend Laura asks Claire about what she’s been doing with those Mantle twins, which is news to Claire. Claire didn't know they were twins; that explains a lot, doesn’t it? She’s very understandably creeped out. Bev’s evasive when she wants to meet his brother, but he finally agrees for a meeting between the three of them, although it seems likely that she knows exactly what’s been going on.
They all meet, and yeah, she knows. It goes badly for all of them. Bev cries, but Elliot laughs. They obviously have different feelings for Claire.
The two doctors cause a bit of a stir during an award ceremony that evening. Elliot is fine, but Beverly is very, very drunk and says way too much on stage. It’s becoming clear that Bev is jealous of Elliot’s success, while he does all the real work.
Bev runs into Claire later on, and they do manage to make up. He has a dream that he and Elliot are conjoined, and she literally tears them apart with her teeth.
Elliot hires twin escorts to play with; he doesn’t quite seem all there any more either. Bev starts getting the shakes during surgery, and he doesn’t want to get up in the mornings. Drugs are starting to affect him. He’s very clingy with Claire but she has her own career.
Claire has a talk with Elliot, and she tells him about Bev’s problems. Elliot calls her a “confusing element in the Mantle brothers’ saga.” He tries to come onto her, but she doesn’t want to go there. Claire then goes away for ten weeks for a new film shoot.
Bev calls Claire’s suite. Her secretary answers and, thinking Claire is cheating on him, he graphically explains to the guy that she has a mutant vagina. Elliot says, “What did you expect? She’s a showbiz lady.” Before long, Elliot, Bev, and Elliot’s girlfriend, Cary, have a three-way dance, but Bev collapses and ends up in the hospital.
Elliot knows it’s the drugs, but Bev doubts that he’s addicted. Bev has to go back to the office and do procedures, but it becomes apparent that he’s lost his touch. Elliot starts to wonder just how messed up Bev really is.
Bev goes to see Mr. Wollack, an artist in metal. Bev has drawings of new surgical instruments. He’s designed gynecological equipment for mutant women. He wants Wollack to build them for him. Bev’s office receptionist catches him shooting up in the office and quits.
In surgery one day, Bev whips out the special instruments, and the assisting nurses are horrified. He freaks out and starts huffing the anesthetic— during the surgery. That goes badly. Elliot tries to do damage control, but they lose their surgical privileges at the hospital. Elliot didn’t know about the special surgical equipment. Bev is cracking up saying that none of the women are right inside any more - he had to try something extreme.
Elliot starts popping the pills because of the stress. Cary warns Elliot that he should get someone else to help with Bev, as he’s too close to the situation. Elliot acts like he’s conjoined with Bev.
Claire returns. Bev goes to see her, but he can barely walk. He sees copies of his surgical designs in an art gallery - the metal crafter presents them as his own creation - and Bev steals several of them. He tells Claire that the tools are for separating Siamese twins. A week passes at Claire’s house, and Elliot doesn’t call or come looking for Bev, which is confusing. Bev seems to have sobered up a bit and goes looking for Elliot.
Bev returns, and their office is a disaster. Yes, Elliot’s addicted now, too. They get high as a kite and promise each other they’re going to get sober… on Monday. The two of them decide that it’s a good idea to separate the “Siamese twins”, using the special tools. Bev sedates Elliot and then starts cutting. They start referring to each other as Chang and Eng, the most famous of Siamese twins as Elliot bleeds to death.
Bev wakes up and mentions he’s had the most horrible dream, but it wasn’t a dream. Bev cleans himself up and dies too.
It’s really hard to tell where the insanity ends and the drug addiction begins. Those red operating gowns really stand out. If real surgeons wore those, having an operation would be a lot more fun.
Jeremy Irons plays both brothers, and the effect is done really well. This was an age before CGI, so it’s all created with camera tricks, body doubles, and multiple takes. After a while, though, you can tell, by body language and persona, which brother is on the screen at any point. Irons did a masterful acting job.
It’s long, and it’s not particularly horror, except for a couple of brief body-horror scenes. Still, it’s very entertaining watching Bev spiral down further and further and how that all resolves. I like it, but would have to say it’s more of a psychological thriller than any kind of horror.
Directed by John Landis
Written by John Landis, Michael Jackson
Stars Michael Jackson, Ola Ray, Forrest J. Ackerman
Run Time: 13 Minutes
A young man and his girlfriend are driving along, dressed in 1950s fashions, when they run out of gas. They start walking home through the woods when he sees the full moon, changes into a werewolf, and chases the girl.
Nope— It’s just a movie, a “Thriller,” being watched by Michael Jackson and his girlfriend. She’s terrified by the film and wants to leave early. They walk home past the graveyard, where they are surrounded by zombies. As the zombies rise out of their graves, from under manholes, and other places, we hear the unmistakable voice of Vincent Price reading his lines.
These zombies don’t want to eat their brains. They just want to dance; zombie-Michael obliges them with a song. In the end, we hear the distinctive “Vincent Price laugh.” It’s a longstanding rumor, although not confirmed that the old man zombie at the very end of the closing credits is Price himself.
I hadn’t seen this in years, and all I remembered was the dancing. There was actually a lot of good horror material here. The werewolf chase in the “thriller” was really well done. The zombie makeup on both Jackson and the dancers is top-notch and really holds up well, even 38 years later (now I’m feeling really old). Of course, the song and the dance number have become legendary hits.
Note that on the walls of the theater in the first segment are posters from Price films: House of Wax and also Masque of the Red Death can be seen. We see on the marquee that the film they have been watching is called “Thriller,” starring Vincent Price.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli
Stars A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury
Run Time: 1 Hour, 30 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgement Zone
It feels like they had a lot of filler running in this one. They found a cache of unused footage from when they filmed the original, and they must have used it all here. We do get an origin story for the Tall Man, which is nice, but the low budget shows.
Mike from the previous films drives a hearse and has flashbacks to previous films. Reggie gives a voice over explaining how the Tall Main spreads like a plague, destroying whole towns in his path. He’s not just an undertaker, he sends bodies to a place worse than hell. Mike is in the process of transforming into something like the Tall Man, but he ran off. The Tall Man unleashes hundreds of spheres outside, “The final game now begins.” Credits roll.
Mike has passed dozens of destroyed and abandoned towns. The Tall Man has wiped them clean of the living and the dead. We get several clips of unused footage from the first film. Mike sees an old woman appear in the passenger seat and then disappear.
Jody, in his human form, comes to see Reggie. Jody wants Reg to follow Mike to wherever he’s going. Mike, on the other hand, is not driving the car; it’s taking him somewhere. The car enters Death Valley.
On the road behind him, Reggie encounters some kind of undead cop. Of course, there’s a battle where Reg gets beat up and puked on. He’s got the worst luck of any heroic character I can think of.
Mike wakes up in the desert; the car is dead. He spots Dwarves and Lurkers in the hills. He dreams of the Tall Man and has more flashbacks. He sees the Civil War, many dead bodies, and the Tall Man. He wakes up and sees a portal in the desert. Then he hangs himself, but the Tall Man is waiting for him.
A younger version of himself cuts Mike down from the tree.— no, it’s not Mike, it’s the Tall Man up there. “I’ll go away and I won’t ever come back,” he promises. “Just cut me down.” Mike falls for it. Back in the real world, in the desert, the Tall Man says, “Come, boy. We have things to do.” Mike almost gives in, but changes his mind and goes through the portal instead.
Mike appears in the past. He sees a bunch of clockwork machinery powering the much more primitive version of the portal. He’s back at the Morningside Funeral Home from the first film. He spots the Tall Man sitting on the porch. No, it’s not the Tall Man, it’s Jebediah Morningside, a nice old man who looks like the Tall Man. “Did you make passage through the dimension door? I’ve been waiting for someone to come through!”
Mike goes back through the portal to the desert, which now has many portals. Mike finds that he has now developed telekinesis, which he uses to squash scorpions and evil dwarves. Jody appears to him and explains how he wound up as a not-so-evil murderball. Mike starts ripping parts out of his car and building something with the bits.
Reggie rescues a girl from an exploding car on the road, so now he has a companion, Jennifer. Reggie tells all to Jennifer, but she’s skeptical to say the least. He then wakes up in a cemetery, and he’s attacked by the Tall… Mike? He wakes up again next to Jennifer and her boobs are getting wiggly. What? They turn into spheres and attack him. He kills one with a sledgehammer and the other with a tuning fork. Jennifer gets the sledgehammer as well.
Mike wants to go back to the past and stop Jebediah Morningside from completing his transition into the Tall Man. He gets a vision of downtown Los Angeles, completely empty and devoid of any life other than himself and the Tall Man.
Reggie arrives at Mike’s car and he dresses up in his ice-cream finery, loads his four-barreled shotgun, and goes looking for action. Mike’s gone through the portals again. He’s soon attacked by dwarves.
Mike and Jody reappear, and Mike tells Reg not to trust Jody. Reg gives Mike the tuning fork, and then Mike and Jody go back in time. Jebediah figured out how to create dimensional portals and built a machine. Jebediah switches it on and goes through. The Tall Man comes back out, apparently taking his form as a sort of avatar.
Mike stabs Jody. Another Jody takes Mike to the Tall Man, who starts to operate on Mike. Mike rings the tuning fork, which freezes the old man— for a moment.
The Tall Man follows Mike back to the desert, where Mike’s own killer ball attacks the Tall Man. Then the engine explodes, killing him. At least until another appears through the portal; he always has a replacement. The Tall Man reaches into Mike’s head and pulls out his own silver sphere. He takes it and goes back through the portal. Reg promises Mike that he’ll be right back and goes into the portal after the Tall Man.
There is a lot of old footage of Mike and the guys filmed back when the first movie came out. There’s no other way they could have young Mike in so many scenes.
This one is really low-budget, but the time travel aspect is new and fairly interesting. We see the Tall Man’s origins, mostly. More importantly, we learn his ultimate plan: to take all life on Earth back to his dimension as slaves.
They don’t even pretend to really kill the Tall Man at the end this time, which makes one more sequel entirely possible.
The Empty Man (2020)
Directed by David Prior
Written by David Prior, Cullen Bunn
Stars James Badge Dale, Martin Ireland, Sasha Frolova
Run Time: 2 Hours, 17 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgement Zone
It doesn’t really get boring, but it is way too long. This could have been broken up into three one hour episodes and it would have been fine. All in one chunk was exhausting. But it is very engaging, and there’s a lot going on here to think about. It’s good up until the end, which is a totally nonsensical disaster that ruined everything that came before. (So says Brian. Kevin thought the ending was fascinating.)
Bhutan 1995. A group of hikers walk up the side of a mountain and see a bunch of monks on a truck leaving the monastery. They cross a rickety chain bridge that crosses an immense chasm. After crossing safely, Paul falls into a crevasse. Greg climbs down into the cave after him, and the two find a weird skeleton with too many fingers and arms. “If you touch me, you’ll die,” whispers Paul. Paul is unharmed from the fall, but he’s acting strangely.
They continue on their journey, carrying Paul, to a house. A storm rolls in, and they can’t figure out what’s wrong with him; it doesn’t seem to be physical. Greg thinks it may be psychological, and he’ll be fine in the morning. They find a strange whistle in Paul’s sleeve; did he pick it up down in that cave?
The next day, Ruthie looks outside and sees a strange robed figure out there. She runs out to ask for help, but he doesn’t look like the helpful type. She barely gets back inside and locks the door. That night, Paul takes his jacket and walks off into the night while everyone else is asleep.
On the third day, they all go out and follow Paul’s footprints to find him in front of a temple blowing his whistle. Ruthie then pulls out a knife and kills Greg and the other girl. She then jumps off a cliff, leaving Paul all by himself to blow his whistle. Credits roll (22 minutes in).
We jump ahead to Missouri, 2018. James Lasombra is a sad man who runs a security company. He goes home and has a conversation with Amanda, who tries to cheer him up with positive thinking. Apparently, he used to be a cop, lost his son, and he blames himself.
Nora, one of James’ friends and Amanda’s mother, goes into Amanda’s room and finds something bad. She calls James. It appears that Amanda has run away. “The Emptyman made me do it” is scrawled in blood on her bathroom mirror. The police aren’t much help, since Amanda is over 18.
James goes to see Davara, one of Amanda’s school friends, and he asks her about the Empty Man. “It’s just some stupid thing. If you go to a bridge after dark and blow into an empty bottle, something will happen.”
We flash back to a few nights ago, when Davara, Amanda, Lisa, Duncan, Meyer, Brendon, and Julianne were all out on a bridge. Amanda tells them about the bottle thing and dares them to try it. “On the first night, you hear him, then on the second night, you see him following you, then on the third night, he finds you.” They blow a bottle, then hear something coming after them and run away.
Davara, while explaining all this, keeps looking around, as she’s seen the Empty Man a few times now. As James tries to track down the other kids, they are all are missing.
He goes to the same bridge and finds a bottle in the road. Of course, he blows into it. He finds five of the missing kids under the bridge, hanged. No Amanda. “The empty man made me do it.” Is written there.
Meanwhile, Davara is at the spa and goes into the steam room. A hooded figure stabs her repeatedly with scissors. James gets a severe nosebleed while he talks to the police detective.
There have been a couple of leads that point to the Pontifex Institute, so James researches them online. They are a doomsday cult with many incidences of mass suicide and weirdness.
Nora comes over for a crying session, and obviously these two have a history. She asks to stay the night but ends up leaving unhappy. That night, James hears something outside his room. When he looks for the intruder, no one is there.
He goes to the Institute; there’s a weird questionnaire they want him to fill out. He follows the group of newbies right past a painting of the strange house from the pre-credit sequence. He sits and listens to a talk from Arthur Parsons. He talks about the nothingness of everything, and says this knowledge is brought to you by the Empty Man. He explains himself to James afterwards, but it’s a very strange encounter.
James goes into the basement of the institute and finds tunnels. He finds a group of people chanting and blowing into bottles; then he gets thrown out. One of the cultists says he’s seen Amanda in a different facility called “Camp Elsewhere.”
James goes to the camp and finds Amanda’s file there. He also finds an empty file on himself. He watches a strange videotape about a man with too many fingers. Then he sees dozens of people chanting around a bonfire. They all chase after him until he escapes in his car.
He goes to warn Nora and get her out of her house for safety. That night, he sees the Empty Man, but it vanishes before anything happens.
The next day he follows some of the cultists to a hospital room where they all bow before some man in a hospital bed. He then pepper sprays a cultist and interrogates him. The man in the hospital transmits thoughts, some from people, some from ancients, sometimes… something else.
James breaks into the cult’s record room and finds his own file, full of things that are impossible for them to know. He asks the nurse at the hospital about the strange patient; it’s all very mysterious. He goes into the patient’s room, and Amanda is in there. The patient is Paul, the only survivor from the pre-credit sequence.
James calls Nora, but she doesn’t know who he is. Amanda explains Paul isn’t going to live long, as a human host can’t last very long. They decided to make a new carrier. Yes, James is the carrier. They made him as a group; he is the Empty Man, only in existence for three days. She explains this as metaphysical jibber-jabber involving their force of will to manifest him. Yeah, alright. James himself was never real. He only thinks he is.
He goes into the hospital and shoots Paul in the head. As he comes out of the room, the doctors and nurses get on their knees and worship him.
Who goes on a hike of that length without checking the weather forecast beforehand? That severe of a snowstorm would not have just suddenly appeared. Anyway, that was a neat-but-crazy-long pre-credit sequence, almost as if it were filmed as a short and inserted there.
It’s long, and there’s a lot going on here. It’s one weird thing after another, and it’s all pretty interesting. From the trailer, I was expecting a sort of enhanced Slenderman kind of thing, or even something like “The Ring” but there’s a lot more going on here.
It all starts off sensible enough, but the ending is just weird. It was all really good until Amanda explained everything, then it just went off the rails for me as it devolved into nonsense. I was having a great time for the first two hours, but the end made me feel I had wasted a week on it. Kevin on the other hand dug the ending and thought it was pretty great.
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