Hollywood 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 cliché 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 addition.
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.
Alex Erkiletian (director) / Robert McRay (screenplay)
CAST: Denise Crosby …. Sarah
Robert McRay …. Blade/Pelgidium
Zen Gesner …. Suicide
Angus Scrimm …. Preacher
Stefan Gierasch …. Nathan