Welcome to Cult Corner where we dive through the bargain bins to determine if a movie is trash or treasure. Today’s pick… Terry Ingram’s Phantom Racer.
Phantom Racer is a movie with the title of a Scooby Doo villain, a cover that makes it look like a Ghost Rider spinoff, and a plot similar to Christine. Years after a bad car crash that resulted in a death by fire, the surviving racer, JJ comes back to his hometown coincidentally on the same day that the destroyed car has been completely renovated. When he accidentally cuts his hand, his blood gets onto the car in a scene reminiscent of the beginning of Hellraiser, and the car then becomes possessed.
As you may have gathered from my clever allusion in the previous paragraph, this is a movie that cannot decide what it wants to be. On the one hand we have a pretty melodramatic thriller in the vein of a Lifetime Channel Original Movie. JJ blames himself for the crash despite the early revelation that his car had been tampered with. There’s a teenage girl that’s going through a bit of a rebellious phase including random graffiti and a general dislike of being told what to do. There’s inter-personal family drama and a lot of moping and arguing. On top of that there’s the authorities that obviously don’t believe that the car is possessed, despite JJ’s insistence that he definitely didn’t kill anybody. It’s all handled in a rather ham fisted way, but then occasionally we have some of the absolute goriest death scenes possible.
The deaths are the best thing about the movie, but they feel completely out of place and I was definitely not expecting them. The initial car crash during the opening scene is tame and contains some terrible CGI and bad makeup effects to show burned skin. When the car comes to life later on it begins its rampage by using its trunk to eat someone. I don’t even understand how that works, but it’s glorious. This dude gets bitten in half and is left on the pavement with his guts out all over the place. There are a few more over the top deaths like this and they’re all excessively gory. The effects in these sequences improve dramatically, too. I don’t know if they hired a different effects guy, but it’s seriously like night and day. If they had went farther in this direction and really made this an over the top grindhouse style car themed splatter film it could have been something great, but these moments are way too few and far between.
The acting in the movie isn’t bad, but all of the characters are handled in a far too dramatic way. There’s also a bit of confusion in that the returning JJ is played by a completely different actor than the younger version and they don’t even look similar. I compared this to a Lifetime Channel Original earlier and I meant it. The characters are written to have personality and they certainly each have a backstory and reason to be in the plot aside from being cannon fodder, but a lot of this stuff just falls flat. They take this movie about a killer race car way too seriously, and because of that I just can’t connect with it. How are we supposed to take dialogue like “the car may be haunted, but it’s still a car” seriously?
I almost wanted to recommend this movie just because of how good the death scenes are and how hilariously out of place they appear, but there just aren’t enough of them. The movie can’t decide if it wants to be a fun grindhouse splatter film or a serious dramatic thriller, but it definitely leans way harder on the thriller side. There’s only three really good death scenes and the rest of the run time is filled with uninteresting characters talking about their personal drama while driving down the road. The ending is somewhat enjoyable when they come face to bumper with the killer car, but it’s just too little too late by that time. This is one to skip.
Here at Cult Corner we cover the weird and obscure. Given the low budget that these movies often have we feel the need to recognize that entertainment value and quality aren’t always synonymous. That’s why we have opted for the “trash or treasure” approach in lieu of a typical rating system. After all, Troll 2 is incredibly entertaining but it’s no 8 out of 10.