Ben Robins with a beginner’s guide to Phantasm…
One of cult fandom’s most dearly loved horror franchises has finally been given the blu-ray upgrade it deserves this year, off the back of not just a brand new sequel, but also a J.J. Abrams-backed 4K restoration of the original. Spanning five movies, countless casting back and forths, and nearly 40 years of production woes and seriously devoted fan conventions, the Phantasm series has finally, at long last, pulled to a close.
And whilst it might not be quite as expansive (or as widely known) as a lot of the genre’s other heavy-hitters like Friday the 13th, Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies hold a special place in horror lore, as not just one of the only long-running franchises to be consistently owned and controlled by the same person, but also as one of the most devoted to its own bonkers storylines.
So without much further ado, here’s a who’s-who of the exceptionally twisted Phantasm-verse, film-by-film, to keep any and all beginners in the loop as to what’s essential, what’s watchable and ultimately, what the hell is actually going on.
The whole thing started in the late 1970s with an ultra low-budget horror (somewhere in the region of $300,000) based on a script Coscarelli had scrounged together from a mixture of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes and a bizarre dream Coscarelli himself had about a giant, flying silver ball that killed people. The result is a seriously mixed-up, though genuinely unsettling nightmarish horror about two brothers, Mike and Jody, and their friend/local ice cream man Reggie, investigating a series of mysterious deaths in sleepy middle-American suburbia, that remains even to this day, frighteningly original.
Angus Scrimm’s now iconic Tall Man is still very much an imposing presence throughout, a grave robbing undertaker with obnoxiously large hands and eyes as dark as sin, and Coscarelli’s off-the-wall, and often mind-bending editing choices (most likely a symptom of the lacklustre budget) really set Phantasm aside from any horror film of its generation. It’s pulled together with the same sort of fire and cheap/nasty work ethic that made the likes of The Evil Dead and its other low-rent, DIY cohorts such huge genre hits around the same time, so fans of Raimi and co. should definitely give it a look.
The plotting’s all over the place, there’s three too-many twists and the now legendary trio of A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury and Reggie Bannister were no-more talented in their younger years as they are today (as you’ll soon see, Bannister aside, they weren’t by any means born to act), but Phantasm is nevertheless a landmark of cheap genre cinema. If you only watch one of these, it almost goes without saying but, make it this original.
Phantasm II (1988)
Almost ten years later, compelled by pressure from fans and a generous budget of $3 million from Universal Studios of all places, Coscarelli set about making a very, very different sequel. With mainstream studio backing came several new conditions, including an all-out ban on dream sequences and on Baldwin’s return, and so the resulting Phantasm II is about as accessible to a mainstream audience as the series gets.
Much more of an action picture than the original moody horror, Coscarelli’s 80s sequel is essentially just a fun buddy movie with some incredibly neat weapon upgrades (and featuring special effects courtesy of practical effects wizards Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman no less). Reggie joins forces with the now much older (and recast) Mike to hunt down the Tall Man all over again, donning everything from quad-barrelled shotguns to homemade flamethrowers to dispatch an even wider array of ball-shaped weaponry (one even has lasers) and, as it goes, learn a whole lot more about the Tall Man’s background.
Even if you found Phantasm’s initial dreaminess a little hard to bear, this first sequel is actually still worth a spin, taking all of the most tangible and creative aspects of the original, and turning them well and truly up to eleven. There are a few mainstream-y additions crowbarred in, like a fairly limp romance element and the occasional overly serious exposition dump, but on the whole Phantasm II is a vastly different, but seriously fun follow-up that should, at the very least, wildly entertain (chainsaw fight, anyone?).
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)
And it’s around here that things take a little turn for the cult. Despite still coughing up a half decent, multi-million dollar budget, Lord of the Dead feels noticeably cheaper, and its straight-to-video fate could only really be expected. There are a number of worthwhile series retcons, like the return of original leads Bill Thornbury and A. Michael Baldwin (yes, Mike gets recast again), and the rather hilariously handled abolishment of the second movie’s love story, but on the whole it’s around this point in the series that non-genre devotees and horror tourists are recommended to sit the rest out.
For everyone else, there’s just about enough here to keep things interesting though. Dodgy digital effects aside, there’s some decent new characters, Scrimm is still very much the height of creepy, and Coscarelli finds a neat way to marry the dreamy tones of the original with the action-heavy plot of the first sequel which makes Lord of the Dead feel a lot more connected to the overall Phantasm canon. It’s nowhere near the same league as the earlier efforts, but this threequel is entertaining enough.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
Coscarelli’s fourth dip in the series is about as TV Movie as they come, bouncing off of the third’s rather clever ending by attempting to replace a lot of that expensive entertaining action, with just a whole bunch of world-building instead. Back down to a shoestring budget, a lot of Oblivion’s main plot line is padded out with unused archive footage shot for the first movie (which originally clocked in at nearly 3 hours thanks to some additional subplots that were later cut), and whilst it’s a fairly resourceful way to widen the series’ backstory, it also makes the returning trio, now twenty years on from their first performances, look really quite old and dated in comparison.
A few of the more overzealous flashbacks can be distracting (they go as far back as the Civil War at one, totally baffling stage), and Oblivion really doesn’t have much of a plot of its own, beyond expanding on the original, which can make the whole thing feel a bit empty. But it does just so happen to feature one of the most darkly funny deaths of the whole franchise too, meaning for fans of what came before it, it’s a watchable 90 minutes, even if watchable is just about all it is.
Phantasm: Ravager (2016)
The fifth and apparently/hopefully final entry of the whole series was oddly enough wrapped up just last year, though it must be said that it’s above-and-beyond the weakest of the set. Pulled together from the leftovers of what was once a web series, and only co-written by Coscarelli himself (the main directing duties were handled by franchise fan and kids animation helmer David Hartman), Ravager suffers a lot from YouTube-level cinematography and some seriously dicey digital effects.
Everything from the blood, to the landscapes, to the menacing silver balls that stretch all the way back to the original, are all entirely CGI; the three leads struggle even more so and the finale-style, world-ending plot-line ends up as a real mishmash of broken realities, as Coscarelli and Hartman attempt to solve the mysteries of the Tall Man’s world-hopping once and for all, with little success.
Overall, Ravager just feels like a very ambitious fan film, and sadly due to his eventual death in January 2016, at the ripe old age of 89, Tall Man legend Angus Scrimm is barely a presence at all. If you made it this far, it’s probably worth rounding things out and giving it a watch, but it’s a real far cry from the original’s spookiness, or even any of the ultimate badassery that followed.
Final call: Phantasm is a definitive must-see and Phantasm II almost equally so, but Lord of the Dead and Oblivion are really just for die-hard series fans, and Ravager is barely even that.