Weird Westerns: Phantom Town (1999)
An enjoyably weird low-budget tale of a Brigadoon-like Western town that is actually a predatory fungus.
by Max Sparber
I'm going to start this review by naming the creative team behind "Phantom Town," because, between the two of them, they are responsible for an awesome amount of direct-to-video horror schlock in the manner of drive-in filmmakers from the 1960s. I am a fan of this sort of filmmaker, and glad they still exist.
So, firstly, the film was scripted by Neal Marshall Stevens, who wrote and was a creative consultant for the marvelous syndicated horror television anthology series "Monsters," and worked for Charles Band's various direct-to-video projects under the pen name Benjamin Carr, producing an awesome amount of material. Some sample titles: "Deformed Monsters," "Kraa! The Sea Monsters," and "Murdercycle."
The film was directed by Jeff Burr, a director who was raised on schlock horror and first made his name with an anthology horror film called "From a Whisper to a Scream," which featured Vincent Price.
According to the story, Butt had somehow gotten Price's home address and showed up with a bottle of wine and the script in hand, and Price had invited the young man in, listened to his pitch, and eventually agreed to do the film, which has an Ed Wood sort of fabulousness about it — especially as the film was extremely low-budget, received mixed notices, and Price reportedly expressed regret about making it.
Burr has done a large amount of low-budget directing, including helming one of the early sequels to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" abd a number of Charles Band's Puppetmaster films. As I have mentioned earlier, Band built a studio for his projects in Romania, including an extensive Western set, and so every so often one of Band's companies would pump out something with a Western theme.
This film is typically Band, in that it is low-budget and weird, and I don't mind the low-budget limitations and appreciate the weirdness. The story tells of children searching for their parents, who disappeared on a lonely stretch of road. The kids eventually find the parents, who wound up in a Western Brigadoon, a town with the name Long Hand.
This seems well-trod ground, but it isn't. As much as it seems like a town that has become unmoored in time, the truth is far odder. There is no town. Instead, there is an ancient fungus, and it grows buildings, horses, and even gunmen as a way of trapping outsiders, who it consumes.
Apparently it hasn't been around for a 100 years, which is why everyone dresses like a cowboy. Presumably, if it returns in 100 years, everyone will be dressed in whatever we wore in the 90s. Overalls with the straps down? Bike shorts? I guess we'll have to wait to see.
The film has the feel of the ghoulish juvenile literature that was popular then, and, who knows, maybe still is — I'm a little out-of-touch with what teenager read nowadays. "Phantom Town" has juvenile leads and is adverse to showing onscreen gore, although it is perfectly comfortable with images that are surprisingly grotesque.
There are bug-eyed, lizard-like gunslingers in this film, and one at the climax who seems to have had his jaw partially pulled off. When they are injured, they copiously bleed green ooze, and their limbs tend to pop off with just the slightest encouragement, like an insect's.
The film shares something else with other Charles Band productions: surprisingly professional and inventive lighting. The sets generally seem to glow like a Thomas Kinkade painting, which is often unexpectedly beautiful and sometimes genuinely alien.
Lighting isn't often mentioned in film reviews, but I wanted to give it a nod here. It's usually a pretty invisible art, because films are often naturalistic, but in a fantasy like this the lighting designer can really go to town.
When you have a film about a fungus who looks like a haunted Western town, you really do want to light it well.