ollywood doesn't make a lot of Western nowadays, probably
because unless they have a big star attached, no one will go see it. Or at
least, not enough people will go see it to justify the big expense of "a
Hollywood movie." That pretty much leaves it to Independent filmmakers to
keep the Western genre alive. And one way to do that is to merge the Western
genre with another genre in an attempt to nab two niche audiences and recoup the
costs of production.
The cumbersomely titled "Legend of the Phantom
Rider" (aka "Trigon: the Legend of Pelgidium") is parts Western
and parts Fantasy. The film is probably too low key for its own good, with the
exception of co-writer/lead actor Robert McRay, who comes from School of Chewing
the Scenery that many actors, novices or veterans, fall into when playing the
lead villain. McRay is Blade, some sort of ex-Confederate gunman in 1865 who,
along with an army of gunmen, takes over a small Western town. Besides the bad
habit of killing people after delivering a flowery speech (see that School of
Chewing the Scenery comment above), Blade is waiting for the arrival of a
mysterious, shadowy figure named Pelgidium (also McRay in a dual role).
The arrival of Pelgidium coincides with the misfortunes of
frontierswoman Sarah (Denise Crosby), who arrives in town after her husband and
son are murdered in the prairie by Blade and his men. Sarah discovers a town in
the grips of terror, but strangely no one bothers to do the sensible thing and
pack up and leave. Pelgidium, it turns out, is a slick gunman with a pizza for a
face and what seems like a hunch for a back, and as a result he's always hunched
over with long hair draped over his face.
"Phantom Rider" is actually a pretty good
Western. It has all the clichés and all the criteria of a Western, including
men whose skills with a gun is determined by how fast they can draw it; the
Cowardly Townspeople in need of saving, which seems to exist in every Clint
Eastwood Western; and the Feisty Frontierswoman who somehow remains feminine
despite being able to kick men in the balls. And then there's the Final Showdown
at the end, with the good guy and bad guy faced off in the dusty street for a
gun drawing contest. For those who likes Westerns and could care less about the
presence of the Same-o Same-o, then "Phantom Rider" is a good
But of course the screenplay has it in its head that it
wants to be something more than just a Western, so we have a clumsy narrative
involving "the legend of the Trigon", about how an evil spirit comes
to Earth every few hundred years to take the form of man, and must defeat the
strongest human "chief" and take his power. And these beings have
apparently re-manifested themselves in the form of Blade and Pelgidium, although
the movie doesn't clarify who is who, and perhaps that's the whole point. I
guess McRay and Erkiletian wanted to turn the whole notion of Good Guys in White
Hat and Bad Guys in Black Hat on its head. All I can say is, Who cares?
Denise Crosby, last seen as a ball-busting lesbian police
detective on "NYPD Blue", gets top billing, most likely based on name
recognition only. She really doesn't have much to do, and her character is too
erratic. On more than one occasion she has the drop on Blade, but never shoots
him. (Remember that he has murdered her husband and son, and one of his
men raped her.) That lack of common sense goes for the rest of the
characters. It seems like everyone, at one point or another, has the drop on
Blade, only to shoot off at the mouth and end up dead, usually shot by Blade.
The whole thing reeks of writer Robert McRay indulging in his actor self.
Angus Scrimm (of "Phantasm"
fame) shows up as a boozing preacher who, as all Western preachers are want to
do, quotes from the good book every other sentence. Like the rest of the
townspeople, his death is unimportant. The rest of the cast are made of
unknowns, including lead Robert McRay, who really should feel a slight
embarrassment at his turn as the bald headed Blade. It should come as no
surprise that McRay's best performance is as Pelgidium. Why? Because Pelgidium
only speaks once in the entire movie!
Director Alex Erkiletian has crafted a nice Western. The
whole Fantasy angle is rubbish and should have been excised completely.
Cinematography by John Roy Morgan is oftentimes inspired, and the Western
landscape has never looked more desolate and lonely. But "Phantom
Rider" also proves one axiom: actors with vanity issues should never be
allowed to write, or direct, their own roles.