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Melodramatic violent western containing more holes than a screen door and unspoken aspirations, but with occasional flashes of competence
This must have sounded pretty good on paper. The basic idea was "Let's make a western featuring two opposing supernatural characters. To give them some depth, we'll make at least one morally ambiguous, and we'll make them manifestations of some ancient forces that periodically appear on the earth to battle each other." The high-concept pitch could have been "High Plains Drifter (1973) meets the 'ancient slayer' segments of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (1997)". To sweeten the deal, the producers, including director and co-writer Alex Erkiletian, would have noted that they could acquire genre icons such as Angus Scrimm (best known for the film series beginning with Phantasm, 1979), Denise Crosby (best known for "Star Trek: The Next Generation", 1987, and Pet Sematary, 1989), and Robert McRay (best known for "Conan", 1998), who was also co-writing the film. For the cherry on top, they even managed to get Stefan Gierasch, who was actually in High Plains Drifter.
Sounds good, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the finished product barely resembles the recipe. Yes, the genre icons are present, but the crux of the plot was almost completely removed, as the script ended up being a complete mess, with horrible dialogue and holes so big that it seems more like a slab of Swiss cheese that's been used for skeet shooting. And Erkiletian directs the cast to be so pretentiously melodramatic that it would make Crosby's stint on "Days of Our Lives" (1965) seem like David Cronenberg's Spider (2002) in comparison.
The bulk of Legend of the Phantom Rider is just a standard issue western. Sure, it's a violent western, but there's nothing supernatural about it. It could be enjoyable as a western if it didn't have the gaping plot holes and melodrama. Crosby is Sarah Jenkins. She's traveling with her husband, her son and her daughter to "stake their claim" in the western United States. The year is 1865--the end of the Civil War. During an opening dialogue-free scene that is painfully slow, a few cowboys come out of nowhere and begin harassing the Jenkins family. Dad gets beat up. Mom is raped. Eventually, after a strange bald guy shows up (we later learn that this is Blade, played by McRay), dad and the boy are killed. We have no idea why any of this is happening. Sarah manages to shoot one of the marauders, but then, just as inexplicably, she and her daughter are left alive, on their own. Their wagon and all of their belongings are gone.
She eventually makes it on foot to a small outpost named Saugus. The townsfolk are reluctant to help her and we quickly learn why--Blade and his men had just taken over the town a couple days previously. The new sheriff doesn't last long. Blade inducts himself as the law. Erkiletian and McRay, as writer, hem and haw to kill some time, leaving a small source of victims in town for Blade and his men to play with, until finally a mysterious man named "Pelgidium" (also played by McRay), presumably the "phantom rider", shows up and starts taking control for his own ends.
Let's talk about some of the specific problems with the script. As presented on our television screens, there are a great many inexplicable aspects and developments. Why doesn't anyone take action against Blade? He leaves himself open to it more times than we can count on both hands. Where do all of Blade's men come from? Eventually he has a small army. We never learn how they got there or who they are. Why do the townspeople stick around? You'd think that at least while Blade is running roughshod, they'd leave and try to get some help or something. Why does Blade keep referring to Sarah as something special? Further, there are countless scenes that are non-sequiturs. New sets of characters show up to new locations for various "posing" confrontations with no justification, no motivation, etc. We often don't see how they get out of their previous predicaments, either.
For some of these problems, if you do a bit of background research into the film, including the box description and the actor bios on the DVD (which by the way, feature far more character development in a short paragraph than the entire script does), you can figure out some answers. That stuff needs to be shown on screen. A good film doesn't necessitate prerequisite research. True, we could say that some of it is hinted at in the overblown, convoluted text opening (at this point in time, disturbingly reminiscent of Alone in the Dark, 2005) and the brief, retroactively pointless scene that follows it, but there needs to be more than an extremely vague allusion to grander ideas. If there's something supernatural about Blade we need to be shown or told that, at least implicitly. Stupid character actions surrounding Blade aren't sufficient. That just makes it seem like we need to go back to Scriptwriting 101. The same goes for Pelgidium, even though that character at least seems cool, if only because he's kind of a cross between Eastwood's "Stranger" and a 1980s hair band guitarist.
The melodramatic performances are a bit bizarre, to say the least. Both Crosby and McRay speak in weird, affected accents/dialects and utter phrases that seem out of place for the period setting. McRay as Blade is supposed to seem a bit omnipotent and evil, but he tends to come across as annoying and maybe flakey instead. The music also sounds a bit generic and tends to get monotonous.
Still the film isn't a complete failure. Crosby is enjoyable even if she's out of place, and it's always a pleasure seeing Scrimm. There is some decent cinematography. The sets/locations are good. Bits of competence as a western keep emerging, and the violence/mayhem level is satisfactory. But proceed to this film only with extreme caution.
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