Phantasm is both one of the most enduring and one of the oddest horror franchises. Or is it sci-fi? Fantasy, maybe? The first film was released 38 years ago and the fifth – and reportedly last in the sporadically produced series- released late in 2016. Last month, the entire saga was released as a deluxe Blu-Ray Box Set [Amazon] making it a great time to revisit this often overlooked gem.
The films are the passion project of writer/director Don Coscarelli [IMDB], who also gave us the cult classic “The Beastmaster” [IMDB] and the wonderfully mind-bending “John Dies at the End” [My Review]. He once described Phantasm as “barely linear”, a characterization that some might call generous. The films are a loose mixture of original ideas, interesting imagery and budget-induced compromise.
Much of the success must be owed to its antagonist, the “Tall Man”, played by the late Angus Scrimm [IMDB]. His imposing size and sinister presence ensured that even if you didn’t like the movies, you’d remember them. Those less intimidated by height also had an army of killer, zombie dwarves and a fleet of murderous metallic spheres, which would become the series’ trademark, to contend with.
[There will be spoilers ahead.]
Horror, 98 Minutes, 1979
The first film is paradoxically the strongest and the weakest of the series. Nearly crippled by its budget and the inexperience of those involved, the movie was left to rely on the strength of its raw imagery and concepts. Famously, the script was written (and rewritten) as the filming took place and post-production was a marathon of multiple reedits.
The production is amateur in every way imaginable. It’s also disarmingly sincere. The people involved didn’t know what they were doing, but they really liked doing it and gave it everything they had. It’s bad, but charmingly bad and that makes a huge difference.
Riddled with (often nested) dream sequences it’s difficult to know what, exactly, the story is. Ostensibly it’s about a strange alien, the “Tall Man”, who’s converting our beloved deceased into dwarven, zombie slaves fit for the harsh climate of his planet. It might also be about a boy, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin [IMDB]), who can’t deal with the death of his brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury [IMDB]) and invents a nightmare to explain his absence. It could also be about Reggie (Reggie Bannister [IMDB]) the ice-cream man. Good old Reggie.
Often it’s about small, chrome-metal spheres that fly around, stab people in the face and drill into their skulls to make the blood go “whooosh!” Like a fountain. A blood fountain.
Weirdly, the scattershot, non-linear delivery often helps. At times, its a horror sketch show; the same performers in a collection of loosely related skits. That said, it also hurts. Repeatedly asking “is it real?” detracts and ultimately cripples the much more interesting world-building.
Is it a delusional rant, a precursor to alien invasion or something in between? We’d have to wait nine years to find out.
Horror, 97 Minutes, 1988
The long-awaited second entry began exactly where the first left off and decided to continue muddying the reality waters. It begins with Reggie battling the shrunken soldiers of the Tall Man to save an unconscious Mike. This transitions to seven years later, with Mike (now played by James Le Gros [IMDB]) being released from a mental hospital and seeing Reggie, who has no memory of the first scene. It was all in Mike’s head!
This changes within minutes when Reggie’s house explodes and he decides that the Tall Man is real because of reasons. There’s a gearing-up montage in which Mike builds a flamethrower and Reggie builds a quad-barreled shotgun in the shape of a crossbow, because, fuck yeah! Then they hit the road in search of the Tall Man and a strange girl that Mike sees in his dreams.
The Tall Man is moving through the backwoods of America, turning entire small towns into zombie dwarves. Eventually the boys find Mike’s dream girl, Liz (Paula Irvine [IMDB]) and an open-minded hitchhiker, Alchemy (Samantha Philips [IMDB]). Together, the four confront the Tall Man and his minions in his latest stronghold.
Many of the themes (and several of the scenes) from the first movie are revisited, but the overall tone is vastly different. It clearly took cues from the first two “Evil Dead” films by Sam Raimi [My Review] (a cute homage to Raimi in the crematoria scene confirms this). The movie is lighter, sillier and more dependent on physical gags than the first. The story may not be any clearer, but this entry is definitely more fun.
The movie ends on a similar note to the first: a jump scare that calls the reality of the entire thing into question. Reggie’s dead. The Tall Man isn’t. Mike and Liz are his prisoners… or none of that at all. Luckily, this time we’d only have to wait six years to find out.
Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead
Horror, 91 Minutes, 1994
This starts out much like the second: by rewriting the end of the previous entry. The Tall Man’s hearse, speeding away with Mike and Liz, inexplicably explodes. Mike is thrown clear without a scratch, but Liz is disposed of summarily. This could be a good thing since the original Mike, A. Michael Baldwin, is back. She probably wouldn’t have recognized him.
Oh, Reggie’s alive despite being killed several times over the first two films! Good old Reggie. The Tall Man is also back, of course, although it’s unclear if he’s even an individual or a collection of clones at this point.
This entry downplays the “is it a dream?” shtick, but replaces it with metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Jody’s back because, it’s revealed, the Tall Man doesn’t only turn the dead into zombie dwarves, but he also removes their brains to create the murder spheres. Spheres he plans to use to dominate “other dimensions”.
Jody is now a murder sphere, but one able to break away long enough to assist our heroes. He can assume human form, open inter-dimensional portals, project himself into dreams and murder people with blade drills. For his part, the The Tall Man has also learned some new tricks.
This entry continues to roam on the fun, absurd side of things with the introduction of – wait for it – a little kid! This particular Cousin Oliver is Tim (Kevin Connors [IMDB]), the sole survivor of a town invaded by the Tall Man. He’s a mixture of Kevin from “Home Alone” and Newt from “Aliens“. He’s a crack shot with his six-shooter and his sarcasm and has been fighting the forces of the Tall Man via makeshift traps and weapons alone for months.
Tim tags along with Reggie to provide a stabilizing influence. They eventually hook up with Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry [IMDB]), a bad-ass, no-nonsense Army vet. She’s looking for revenge against whomever destroyed her town. Together, the group assaults yet another mortuary, fights more spheres, kills yet another Tall Man, and saves the world.
Until, just as in the previous films, Reggie dies, the Tall Man reappears and the last people standing are pulled through a window by dwarves. On the positive side, we’d only have four years to wait for the next installment!
Phantasm 4: Oblivion
Horror, 90 Minutes, 1998
Picking up as usual, Reggie’s not dead and Mike has gone walkabout trying to deal with the fact that he might be an alien… demon… whatchamacallit. This entry focuses on the origins, history and motivations of The Tall Man… with periodic side trips to watch Reggie smack down some zombies.
Reportedly Coscarelli’s initial edit of the first film was much too long. After the final edit, much of the original material was left on the cutting room floor. He clearly saved it, because much of this is flashbacks to the original created from the previously unseen footage.
Meshing the old footage with the new required narrative gymnastics that ultimately fit well with the series’ general rejection of linear storytelling. Much of that footage deals with character and mood building making this the slowest, most deliberate in the series. It fits well, thematically, with the first film, but contrasts wildly with the action-comedy tone of the second and third.
Fans will enjoy, but likely be frustrated by the origins of The Tall Man. We learn who he was and when he was around, but not a damn thing about the what, the why or the where. Sadly, there’s absolutely nothing about his motivations, the origins or ultimate purposes of the spheres or the dwarves or anything about the alien world/dimension/dream.
Imagine if “Robocop” cut out all those pesky bits about an injured police man, combining robots and cops and the ethical conundrums that result. It could work, but it’d be a hell of lot less interesting. Those thinking that the next movie might explain things would have to wait a full 18 years.
Phantasm 5: Ravager
Horror, 85 Minutes, 2016
The fifth and, we’re told, last film in the series is reportedly a combination of footage from a failed Reggie-focused web series made eight years earlier and new footage with the rest of the main cast.
It’s the shortest entry in the series and the only one not directed by Coscarelli. Instead, David Hartman [IMDB], a veteran animation director, takes the reigns. Sadly, it’s also one of the last films of series icon, Angus Scrimm. Although he reportedly saw a early cut of the film, it wasn’t officially released until nearly a year after his death.
The story is even less cohesive than the previous films, but benefits from a focus on Reggie. Questions about reality and delusion fell upon Mike, previously. As he became less human, it became more difficult to identify with him. Reggie has always been the more obvious choice for an audience proxy and he’s finally embraced as such.
We follow him through several possible realities and alternative timelines. In one, he’s been fighting the Tall Man for years as we’ve seen. In another, he’s a wheelchair-ridden invalid fighting dementia in a nursing home. Most of the action takes place in a third, an apocalyptic future where the Tall Man and his minions have engulfed much of the Earth and Reggie has been imprisoned.
These last scenes are the most interesting, overall, but sadly hampered by layers of poor CGI. One of the charms of the series has always been the understated, practical effects. While it’s true that the CGI allowed for grander visuals, they’re less meaningful. For all of its world-defining concepts, Phantasm has always been a close, intimate experience with very few filters between itself and the audience.
As a culmination to the series it… isn’t. Nothing is resolved and nothing is clarified. It’s fun to see the gang back together, but if you’re looking for closure, you’ll not find it here.
The series has endured despite its many (many) flaws through its charm and sheer force of will. Some fans (or, “phans”, as they’ve come to be known) play the “so bad, it’s good” card and it’s difficult to argue with them. Others simply enjoy the wild, unpredictable, sheer insanity, while some find meaning and a deep sincerity within the apparent madness.
For myself, and I think many others, the series is like your crazy old friend. You may not miss them when they’re gone, but if given the chance, hell yeah you’ll spend an evening out and have a damn good time. Maybe your other friends don’t get it, but they don’t have to.
Whether you accept, dismiss or ignore the series, it’s impossible not to respect the dedication that’s kept it alive for nearly four decades. In honor of this, if nothing else, I suggest that on the phourth Phriday of Phebruary, Phantasm phans phlog their phavorite philm to phriends and phamily. Or not.