When a film franchise gets big enough, it’s pretty common for care of the film to become purely a corporate product with a regular shuffling of directors, writers, etc. trying to add onto someone else’s work. I think this is why a lot of such franchises become a mess. Most notably, Friday the 13th, further compounded by the fact at least one of the movies was an original screenplay reworked into being a sequel. However, the Phantasm series has been the baby of Don Coscarelli up until the last one which he didn’t direct, but was still very involved in. Talking about it without ruining too many of the twists and turns is a challenge, but a worthwhile one.
The first and best one of the bunch. A family friend passes away under strange circumstances and a young boy named Mike finds that unusual things are going on in the funeral home. Strangest of all is the Tall Man in charge of it. His older brother and another friend of the family don’t take him seriously at first, but things come to a head where there’s no denying the strange truth.
A big part of why the movie works is that the movie gives the viewer enough to figure out what’s going on in the broad strokes, but leaves enough mystery for the audience to speculate. For example, Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man gives a performance in which the character is very deliberate. He rarely speaks, which could be construed as an austere disposition which shuns wasted words or it could be that he’s trying to hide his unfamiliarity with human languages.
Given the limitations the filmmakers had to work with, I think it was effective in offering a bizarre, dream-like experience for the audience. Would have been best as a one-off, but that’s not how things work with horror movies. Unnecessary sequels are an old practice, look up Curse of the Cat People sometime.
Towards the end of the first movie, there was a little ambiguity if what happened was a literal sequence of events or if it was Mike’s flight of fancy as a coping mechanism for dealing with loss. By virtue of there being sequels, it’s implied that the machinations of the Tall Man are real as well as his otherworldly power. The sequel starts right were the first left off, followed by a time skip.
Turns out there’s another person in the Tall Man’s crosshairs and so a race ensues between survivors of the first movie and the Tall Man to find this mysterious person first. Bigger budget allows for more effects, but feels like a natural extension of the previous film. The movie has some good scenes and a couple images which stay with the viewer well after watching, so despite not being needed Phantasm II has enough going for it to justify its existence.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead
Here’s where the series takes a turn for the worse. First and foremost it undermines the second movie, which is bad enough in itself, made worse by the fact choosing to do so cuts the filmmakers off from a path which could have credibly made a happy ending possible. This also marks a major perspective shift from Mike to Reggie the ice cream man… played by Reggie Bannister. Could be a wild coincidence that the actor and the character share a first name, but it’s funnier to imagine that he made this blusterous demand, “You want the Reggie, then I play the Reggie!”
When a movie makes the characters and by extension the audience feel lost, unsure where to go, that’s acceptable. When the people making the movie appear to have no clue where the hell they want to go with their story, that’s a problem. Being surreal and nightmarish is ingrained into the series, but what we have is a case of wanting to make a sequel without a proper endgame in mind. Great example would be the introduction of nunchacku wielding discount Grace Jones, followed by Reggie’s pathetic attempts to nail her.
First movie was full of the writer-director’s weird ideas he had rattling around in his head for a while, but there was something semi-coherent about them in the original Phantasm. By contrast, this installment feels like a bunch of deliberately silly ideas slapped together without a unifying principle. By its own merits, the movie is tolerable enough to be mindless entertainment, though hobbled by certain creative decisions in the beginning of the flick.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion
Apparently, Phantasm III was received about as well as a wet fart in an elevator. This is why the fourth installment had a minuscule budget compared to the previous two, and a lot of stuff used was made by fans. Also explains the extensive filming in the desert with very few interior shots because it’s cheaper that way. Further, footage that was left on the cutting room floor from previous movies (primarily the first one) was used extensively.
In a certain respect, the project was an admirable effort trying to go so far with so little. There’s something resembling a plot and the cut footage from the first movie being used creates an effective illusion that the sequence of events were leading up to something, like causality or the heavy hand of destiny was at work. So in that light it’s hard to really hate the movie in spite of its serious flaws. Something about the ending just felt right. Wasn’t a happy ending, but the character’s sense of peace with his warm memory came across as the right note to end the series on. Of course, they had to undermine that by making another one.
Phantasm V: Ravager
This is billed as the final movie, and it’s not the final movie because they thought of a way to close the book on the Tall Man and his sinister plans. Nope, Angus Scrimm died of cancer and anybody they got to play the Tall Man would be playing Angus Scrimm playing the Tall Man. Up to this point, the longest gap between movies was the nine years between the first and second one. Ravager was made about 18 years after Oblivion, so one would thing that in such a span a clear outline of how to end the movies would have been worked out. One would be wrong, but such an error makes sense.
Originally, the plan was to make a video series on the internet set in the Phantasm world. At some point the project turned into a feature length film. Gonna take a stab that a certain lengthy scene was intended for that internet series and was used to pad the film. That in itself was bad enough, but there’s no frickin’ dignity for Scrimm as he stands around with a bunch of godawful CG effects all around him.
On the other hand, there’s one scene where Reggie is having a presumed delusion of being in an old folks’ home and the fellow in the bed next to him looks just like the Tall Man. In retrospect, there’s something poignant in the soft spoken man’s contemplation of mortality and death. The result is a scene which was better than the movie deserved. Pretty sure the movie ended with a rap song, which is the perfect cherry on top of the shit sundae.
All told, the Phantasm franchise had a pretty good run that started sputtering after half-way in. I suspect that even people who hadn’t seen the movies are familiar with the Sentinels, not those Sentinels the floating murder ball. That a series of horror films had a recurring cast of central characters aside from the antagonist is a unique feature. Even in its weakest installments, that connection with the core contingent of characters could keep one invested. If for nothing else than wanting to see the characters reach some kind of satisfactory conclusion in their struggles against a foe seeming as indomitable as death itself.