Monday, May 8, 2023

"He's More Than Dead. He's Ancient." - Last Chance (1995) aka Ghost Gunfighter aka High Tomb

Last Chance (1995) is a relatively obscure Western-themed supernatural slasher film perhaps best known for starring Jeff Burr, famed director specializing in sequels such as Stepfather II (1989), Pumpkinhead II (1993), and Leatherface (1990).

Unlike most films reviewed at Senseless Cinema, Last Chance is generally unknown to your universe's critics. Therefore, I will not gift you with clueless reviews of this modern classic. Instead, please read on for my appreciation of the frightening Western slasher film Last Chance...

The film opens in the most nightmarish way possible: A man’s hand bursts from the dirt, and the man drags himself out of a shallow grave.

Later, two men dig holes in the desert. “Fossils, my ass,” says one of the men. “All we’ve found is this damn coyote bone.”

“Look, what do you want?” his friend asks. “That weird guy from the gas station said we’d find some neat stuff here.”

They see a mysterious figure on a hillside—the same man who emerged from his own grave—who fades away, then reappears behind them. He knocks both young men unconscious, drags them to a shack, and then tortures and kills them.

The film proper begins as a bespectacled young man (played by Jeff Burr, who had already directed Stepfather II, Pumpkinhead II, and Leatherface) drives up to a house, stumbles on a step as he watches an attractive woman walk away, and then enters the house, which holds about two dozen twenty-something men and women playing cards and practicing guitar. Mr. Burr informs his friends that they will be going to Mexico by unfolding a poster that says México.

After some introductory shenanigans that involve a sunbathing man falling asleep and a house’s exterior covered with toilet paper, six of the young people climb into a car named “The Pink Mama” to head for Mexico.

As they drive, Mr. Burr notices the car is running out of gas, so of course he taps the E indicator before pulling into a gas station. The local attendant tells them about a shortcut that will save them a lot of time if they take the first dirt road off the highway. They agree to take the shortcut and drive off. Ominously, after they are gone, the attendant (whom one of the young people called “old man” seconds earlier) bends down and sees a puddle of oil on the ground.

Interestingly, the group interrupts their drive to stop on a bridge, set up a tripod and camera, and take photos to commemorate their vacation.

After taking a left at an unexpected fork in the road (note: not a literal fork), the atmosphere grows more mysterious. The car breaks down, having lost oil, and everyone is trapped in the desert. 

Shane, perhaps unwisely, walks by himself to the top of a small hill. He yells down to his friends that he has spotted a town. The group ventures to the “town,” which they describe as a ghost town but appears to be more ghost than town.

The friends split up, with Shane and Heather investigating the hotel. They are shocked to find the town’s caretaker in the lobby. When they ask if he has a phone (there is an old-fashioned crank telephone on the wall, but nobody mentions it) or a car, he replies ominously, “I’m the caretaker. My job is to stay right here. Forever.”

He suggests they spend the night in town and convinces them to sign the guest book. He also tells them that they have to be out of town by twelve noon tomorrow.

Oddly, there is only one room available in the hotel, so the caretaker leads the three women to the room.

“It’s so beautiful.”

“It’s so charming.”

“It’s so small.”

Ominously, they see a picture hanging on the wall that looks just like Heather. Then the filmmakers cut to suppertime and the caretaker ringing the traditional triangle. He spoons out bowls of what appears to be chili, which the caretaker eventually identifies as made with coyote meet, forcing the young people to comically spit out their food.

Later, all six young people sit outside by a roaring campfire, eating potato chips and drinking beer. Instead of having the chance to tell ghost stories, however, the group is interrupted by the caretaker, who tells them to get to sleep before laughs maniacally and wanders into the darkness.

We follow the caretaker as he sits in the hotel office looking at old pictures that also include the woman who looks like Heather. Surprisingly, the caretaker is murdered with one strike of a walking stick by the ghostly cowboy.

Upstairs, the women change into their somewhat frumpy nightgowns and go to sleep in the abandoned hotel, except for Heather, who brushes her hair with an ancient hairbrush before noticing someone outside the window. Heather then dreams she sees a dead body, but wakes up immediately.

In the morning, after a comedic interlude in which Mr. Burr and Shane wake up to find themselves embracing one another, resulting in a piercing scream, the group looks for breakfast but finds no food in the kitchen. Then Marcy wanders away from everyone and finds a decayed corpse.

Her screams bring everyone running. They identify the corpse as the caretaker by its clothes. “He’s more than dead,” Mr. Burr says. “He’s ancient.”

Debbie says, “That can’t be the caretaker.”

But of course it is the caretaker, who has been dead for decades.

The group gathers up their suitcases and walks back to The Pink Mama, but the car is full of dirt, vandalized and disabled. Also, on the passdenger door is written DEATH TO ALL in what appears to be blood.

The six young people start walking, but thirty seconds later they come upon the car again. Then the film’s most shocking scene occurs: the ghostly cowboy rides up to them and slashes Debbie’s throat with a machete.

Instead of confronting the cowboy, who seems to disappear, the group carries Debbie back to the ghost town. They lay her still-breathing body on the bed in the hotel bedroom. When they leave her alone in the room, unfortunately, the cowboy returns to finish the job, stabbing her with a knife.

As one of the men ventures back toward the highway, estimating it will only take him one hour to reach civilization by foot, the other men search the town but find nothing until Heather discovers the most shocking development (other than people being murdered by a ghost cowboy): “Nothing in this town is real. This is an old movie set.”

They are surprised to see the ghost cowboy outside receiving a gun loaded with blanks from a man who appears to be from the Old West. Mr. Burr, Shane, and Heather follow the cowboy to the ruined saloon, where they watch him replace the blanks with live shells. As the modern-day friends watch, a whole film crew fades into being in the center of town—they are watching a shadow play of what happened decades earlier when the ghost town was a movie set. They watch as the ghost cowboy—then known as Mr. Dillon—stalks the lead actress of the Western—the woman who looks just like Heather. The actress was having an affair with a white-clad cowboy, much to the consternation of the black-clad Mr. Dillon. In the middle of filming a shootout between the two men, Mr. Dillon shoots his rival with a real bullet, and then starts shooting the others on the set who witnessed the murder. Most shockingly, he cuts the lead actress’s throat with a knife before the movie set fades away.

Meanwhile, Marci discovers Debbie has been killed. She slips in the blood on the floor and knocks herself out, only to reawaken with the ghost cowboy throwing black rose petals on top of her. “Dead flowers for the dead,” he intones with his gravelly voice.

The ghost kills Marcy with his knife seconds before Mr. Burr discovers the two women’s bodies. He, Shane, and Heather bury the two women at Boot Hill. “Shouldn’t we say something?” asks Mr. Burr.

Heather responds, “Debbie and Marcy, wherever you are, rest in peace.”

The cowboy rides his black horse into town, and the actress appears as well, but she says nothing and fades away. She does, however, lead the protagonists to a metal box that contains a gold-leafed diary. Marcy reads the entries from the actor in which she confesses her participation in the love triangle between the evil soon-to-be-murderer Dillon and her virtuous co-star, the love of her life.

Meanwhile, the survivor who went for help earlier finds himself dragged behind the ghost’s horse through the brush.

The next morning, Mr. Burr is attacked by the ghost cowboy, but he manages, cleverly, to kick the ghost in the crotch and push him over a balcony. Unfortunately for Mr. Burr, however, the cowboy is able to throw a (ghostly?) knife at Mr. Burr, and Mr. Burr falls off the same balcony to the ground, tragically dying seconds later.

Marcy and Shane are the only survivors. Marcy realizes that the ghost reenacts the murder every day at noon. They reason that they can interrupt the reenactment, so both of them dress in random cowboy gear lying around the hotel and Shane finds blanks that he can switch for the ghost’s real (ghostly) bullets. They put their plan into motion, watching the ghosts relive the fateful day on the (ghostly) movie set.

Marcy distracts the evil Dillon, prompting him to shoot at her with the switched blanks because he believes her to be dead. Then, in the action-packed climax, Shane jumps off a roof in slow-motion, brandishing a knife. The ghostly reenactment vanishes and Dillon is replaced with the disfigured ghost he has become. After a brutal fight, Dillon nearly kills Shane, growling, “Time to do!”

Shane retrieves his knife and stabs Dillon, yelling, “You!” (Perhaps he meant to say “you first”?)

Then Dillon explodes.

Suddenly, the townsfolk/movie people appear. The actress thanks Marcy by giving her a gold pocket watch. Then everyone except Marcy and Shane vanishes. They kiss.

In a surprise ending, after Marcy places the pocket watch on the actress’s diary, Marcy and Shane emerge from the hotel to find that their formerly dead friends have driven the now-working car into town to pick them up. Also, Marcy has the pocket watch, despite having given it back to the actress. The six friends drive away, excited and happy about their trip to Mexico.

The End

Something of an update to Byron Quisenberry's Scream (1981) with a pink Cadillac replacing river rafts, director Scott Gulbrandsen's Last Chance boasts an effective location and a charming group of likable friends being stalked and killed (not permanently) by a terrifying cowboy slasher. Perhaps the film's best twist is the fact that the seemingly 1880s ghost town is really a movie set from the 1930s, and the ghost story is not a Western revenge plot but a Hollywood love triangle.

Like all the best films, Last Chance refuses to answer at least as many questions as it answers. For example, why does the ghost cowboy pull himself out of a shallow grave at the beginning of the film? Was Dillon, the jealous cowboy actor, really buried in the Boot Hill section of a movie set? Also, why did the gas station attendant direct the young holidaygoers to a dirt road and not tell them which way to go at the fork? Was he somehow aware of the ghost story and attempting to supply victims for the bloodthirsty ghost cowboy? If so, was he surprised when the protagonists returned unharmed? And why was the film called Last Chance, a title that does not hint at any of the narrative and is noticeably worse than the alternate title Ghost Gunfighter, though perhaps less awkward than the other alternative title High Tomb (perhaps a play on High Noon, though difficult to explain because there are no tombs in the film). Of course, these questions will never be answered, which allows us to bask in the shot-on-video glory of Last Chance over and over, until the end of time.