The Phantastic World of Phantasm
One of my earliest movie memories was seeing Phantasm and being completely in awe of such a strange and inventive horror movie.
It’s still one of the strangest and more inventive horror movies of its time, I love the sci-fi aspects with the alternate dimension, flying killer orbs, and the general unknown the movie revels in. Some of this feels accidental, like there was a distinct vision for this movie, but because of its micro-budget, and amateur film making it has a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants flow, as if no one was really sure what direction the film was headed in. Because of this it’s a little rough around the edges and doesn’t always make sense, but there is a crazy charm that is undeniable, complete with a nifty musical number.
Phantasm 2 (1988)
I think this is my favorite Phantasm movie. It does a fun pivot from the moody atmosphere of the first film for a wilder, post-apocalyptic road movie, however, it still maintains the DIY charm of the first.
There is also something so indescribably satisfying about Reggie Bannister in these movies. He’s just an average dude with a skullet, prime horror movie blood fodder, but he not only survives, one can argue he thrives in this situation. He is a hero for shlubby bald dudes everywhere. Bannister is helped by his co-star, James Le Gros, playing Mike, they actually have decent chemistry to carry this sequel through some of its rougher patches. By the way, I took a peek at the next couple of sequels where they bring back the actor who played Mike in the first film, and I already miss James Le Gros.
Although this is my favorite of the series so far, I don’t think it’s necessarily better than the first. It does some interesting world building off of what was established in the first film, but it mostly feels like it’s there to support an awkward love story. Not that I’m against a little post-apocalyptic road movie romance.
Phantasm 3: Lord of The Dead
Guys, I don’t think I like this ride anymore and I want to get off.
That’s not to say part three is entirely bad, but it feels like I just gazed into a crystal ball and saw nothing but suffering ahead of me.
Part three, or ‘Lord of The Dead’ still has a spirited approach, there are a lot of fun gags, and thankfully, a lighter touch with increasingly more convoluted material. The big problem is all the gags and lazy world building is more of a means to an end rather than in service of a coherent anything. And how much more of this Mike guy do I have to endure? I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but he’s a black hole of entertainment.
I’m still enjoying Reggie’s antics, even if the movie is letting him down, I also like the commitment to the post-apocalyptic road movie, even though the whole movie feels like it takes place in one neighborhood.
Someone hold me.
Phantasm 4: Oblivion
Well, it happened, after three up and down films, chock full of weird and wonderful goofiness, I have arrived at the first boring Phantasm film.
One thing I can say that I really appreciate about these films is that Don Coscarelli, the creative force behind the franchise, doesn’t just mail it in with these sequels, there is a real creative force and love for the material and characters that goes into them. So, it’s hard to not admire them on some level.
The problems, and there are many, is that despite the care given to the world of Phantasm, very little is paid to anything even resembling a coherent story. Characters meander from one place to another without reason or stated purpose, which makes for an incredibly frustrating experience.
I feel like a broken record when I say this, but the world building would be great if it was in service of anything. For instance, there is a great idea of characters battling it out through time and space, that’s my kind of Phantasm movie, however, it’s squandered almost as immediately as the idea is presented.
There also seems to be a general incoherence in the rules of this world. Guys, has civilization collapsed or not? Sometimes it seems that way, other times we see the normalcy of everyday life. Like so many other things in this movie, it changes out of convenience and laziness.
Phantasm 5: Ravager (please let this be the last one)
We’re finally at the end, and despite my gentle ripping on this franchise I still admire it a great deal. Writer-director Don Coscarelli has been heavily involved in all these films and it shows that he cares about this universe and what direction it goes in. With that Phantasm has avoided a lot of the pratfalls of other franchises of its ilk where terrible movies start getting shuffled out just for a studio to retain rights (see Hellraiser). That someone can keep making low budget films on their terms for over 30 years is a rarity, and I give major props to the people who are still committed to making these movies.
However, Phantasm Ravager is awful. It does have a clearer objective than part 4 though. In Ravager we are exclusively with Reggie for the first time in 5 films. In this one, he is an elderly man trying to make sense of his past as his demented mind keeps slipping in and out of memory and reality. It’s actually pretty similar to the new season of True Detective.
Like the premise of other films in the series, this is a potentially great idea. To watch our hero Reggie do battle with the Tall Man through time and space, and reality itself, well I’m sold. But, like the rest of the films in this series, the great idea is there, but very little is done with it. It gets bogged down with Phantasm tropes and callbacks that add very little to the story, and this is the first time the lack of a budget really hinders the franchise. Everything in the post-apocalyptic future is terrible, from the cheap CG to the horrible acting and script, it’s nearly unwatchable. There are moments when watching this where you can almost hear the writers involved saying out loud “wouldn’t it be cool if…”
As bad as this movie is though, at least it has a theme and goal in mind. Rather than just have characters wander from one place to another waiting for something to happen to them, Reggie takes an active role in trying to make sense of and come to terms with his past. We haven’t really seen a thoughtful narrative like that since the first film, and I think Ravager provides a decent ending for Phantasm and the Reggie character as we know him. I wish the movie was better, but there is at least a little more to chew on here.