Each “Phantasm” film finds Mike facing off against a mysterious grave robber known only as the Tall Man and his lethal arsenal of terrible weapons.
In the history of horror film sequels, there has never been a phenomenon quite like Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” series. Three years before Sam Raimi put Bruce Campbell through the C-movie grinder in game-changing “The Evil Dead,” the 25-year-old Coscarelli concocted a similarly wild hybrid of exploitation, artistic flourishes (that established both directors as auteurs) and pure dementia: severed wriggling fingers spurting yellow aquarelle, dwarves, parallel dimensions, an enigmatic central antagonist simply known as The Tall Man (played by the recently departed Angus Scrimm with delectable gusto in all five of the films) – oh, and let’s not forget those flying Spheres that drill into people’s foreheads. Even more so than Raimi’s creature feature, it played for both horror and laughs and was utterly surreal in its dream-like narrative, foregoing plot and logic in favor of an atmosphere of dread and otherworldliness. Yet it also had something more going for it: before Spielberg explored sci-fi through the prism of childlike wonder in “E.T.,” Coscarelli valiantly strived for a similar perspective: all the events in “Phantasm” unfurl through the eyes of a young teenage boy, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin, a series mainstay), making this horrific, hallucinatory phantasmagoria of gore and acidic flashbacks relatable to young, impressionable boys (such as myself). So, yes, it can be argued that Coscarelli was way ahead of both Raimi (with whom he’s allegedly good friends) and Spielberg. The fact that he proceeded to write and produce four increasingly out-there sequels, three of which he directed, makes “Phantasm” a true oddity in the cinematic universe – and one that deserves revisiting.
Made on next-to-no money over a several-year period, the original “Phantasm” (1979) feels like the work of a highly ambitious artist finding his footing (and budget), which accounts for the fragmented structure and, one could argue, plays in its favor. Mike’s super-groovy, womanizing brother Jody (Bill Thornbury – another reappearing character in the ongoing “Phantasm” canon) comes to take care of the motorbike-riding kid after their parents’ death. Mike spots The Tall Man outside the mortuary, single-handedly picking up a coffin and stuffing it into the back of a hearse. This just adds to Mike’s continuous worries that Jody will leave him all alone. The Tall Man starts to haunt poor Mike, both in dreams and reality. A midpoint confrontation with a vicious Sphere, a ballistic Dwarf behind the wheel of a car and the Man himself leaves the brothers no choice but to face off against Evil. This leads them, along with ice-cream-vendor-turned-road-warrior Reggie (Reggie Bannister, yet another member of the “Phantasm” family), into the depths of the mortuary, where they discover a futuristic portal… Well, I’ll let you chew on the rest.
“It was little, brown and low to the ground,” Mike explains exasperatedly to his brother after his first glimpse of a Dwarf. “It was probably just a gopher in heat,” Jody responds with a straight face. Whether intentional or not, “Phantasm” tickles the funny bone as much as the nerves. For every goofy, amateurish or even offensive moment (“I just don’t get off on funerals, they give me the creeps” or “You sure it wasn’t that retarded kid Timmy up the street?” are just two of the film’s dialogue samples) there is a scene that tugs on a nerve. Dealing with themes of adolescent fears, loneliness, and curiosity, “Phantasm” is most memorable for its sustained sense of surreality, of things gone terribly awry deep in the recesses of the subconscious, where demons lurk and darkness prevails. The fact that Coscarelli directed, wrote, shot and edited the entire picture, renders it that much more impressive. Fred Myron’ and Malcolm Seagrave’s soundtrack twinkles menacingly like an amalgamation of “The Wicker Man” and “Halloween,” with a dash of a phantasmagoric organ-led beat here and there. The marble interior of the mortuary is a memorable piece of set design. And yes, there are 1970s staples: shaggy haircuts, multiple close-ups of female breasts… and a sequence of Jody and Reggie jamming out with their funky guitars. But if you don’t find all of this freakin’ endearing, as Roger Ebert used to say, “there’s no talking to you.”
Despite “Phantasm” making a healthy return at the box-office, it wasn’t until almost a decade later that Coscarelli mustered up the courage to venture back into the universe he created, backed by Universal. Armed with a much higher budget and a cast revamp, “Phantasm II” (1988) sees James Le Gros step into the shoes of the older Mike, with Jody nowhere to be seen, while Reggie and Angus reprised their roles as, well, Reggie and The Tall Man, respectively. Incidentally, Ebert despised “Phantasm”’s sequel. “No character development, logic or subtlety is necessary,” the critic wrote in his scathing review, “just a sensation every now and then to provide the impression that something is happening on the screen.” That pretty much summarizes the criticism aimed at the film upon its release. Watching it again three decades later, it doesn’t quite hold up as much as the first one, despite its higher budget and younger age, but doesn’t deserve such scathing backlash either. Funny, because I actually remember liking part two more as a kid.
“Phantasm II” picks up where the original left off: Reggie (looking bafflingly ageless throughout most of the series) battling an army of Dwarves – whose horrific faces we now get to see – in a kitchen. “Burn, you bitches,” he says, before storming out of the exploding house, little Mike in tow. They watch The Tall Man drive off in his hearse. Cut to: years later, a grown-up Mike is understandably in therapy. When he and Reggie find out that an entire graveyard is filled with empty coffins, they embark on a Quest to find and defeat The Tall Man and – well, whatever his Evil Quest is. Like in the first film, that’s all beside the point. Reggie himself says early on, referring to earlier events, “Mike, that wasn’t real.” The line between reality and fantasy continues to blur here: the two “road warriors” loot a convenience store filled with guns, encounter small towns devastated by The Tall Man and pick up a spunky hitchhiker called Alchemy (Samantha Phillips). Mike’s girlfriend Liz (Paula Irvine) gets kidnapped towards the end, so our heroes go inside the mortuary to save her (Reggie: “Let’s go and kick some ass”). The Tall Man ends up – spoiler alert! – meeting his gruesome, neon-yellow blood-soaked death…. or does he?
Gone is the childlike perspective – both the protagonists and the director have aged, after all – replaced by a more assured sense of pacing and a more knowing humor, at the expense of joyful bewilderment and an underpinning intoxication with unadulterated insanity. Basked in autumnal colors and different shades of darkness, it does convey the atmosphere more assuredly, and the acting is certainly better. While the highlight of the film is Sphere 2.0 – which has three drills and lasers! – the film isn’t short for memorable bits. We get a more thorough glimpse into the “other dimension” and there’s a nasty suction machine straight out of “Hostel.” I love that moment when Liz recognizes her grandma in one of the Dwarves. The funniest sex scene this side of “Bride of Chucky” is followed by a witty Sam Raimi gag – and there’s the batshit crazy sequence that puts the recent “spine burst” of “Alien: Covenant” to shame. Unfortunately, despite making its budget back, part two failed to ignite a fire as widespread as its predecessor’s, sending the consequent chapters into the murkier depths of straight-to-video fare.
Six years later came “Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” (1994). Sporting ludicrous key art that doesn’t do the film justice, part three reunites series regulars, A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury, albeit – and thankfully – briefly. A back-from-the-dead Jody shows up nonchalantly, the brothers get kidnapped by The Tall Man and don’t reappear again until the grisly finale. In the meantime, Reggie takes off with Tim (Kevin Connors), the most violent kid this side of Damien (whom we meet in an uproarious “Home Alone” send-up) to save them. The fastest-moving and most inventive of the bunch, Coscarelli, inspired by the previous entry’s box-office failure, “Lord of the Dead” delves head-first into maniacally preposterous territory. Spheres 3.0 are now sentient, with brains and eyeballs and a nasty tendency to emerge out of demons’ skulls. At one point, a zombie’s head spins so wildly it literally pops off, which I think was the effect the filmmaker wanted his film to have on audiences. The zinger-filled third part may lack the first one’s enigmatic, rugged appeal or the sequel’s assured pacing and high aspirations, but “Lord of the Dead” makes up for it in plain outrageousness and obvious glee of its creators. Reggie summarizes the entire “Phantasm” universe perfectly when, after Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a black female ex-Army ninja warrior with nunchucks (!) demands, “What the fuck was that?” His nonchalant response is, “That’s… kinda hard to explain.”
This brings me to “Phantasm IV: Oblivion” (1998), which sees Coscarelli return to his ultra-low-budget roots, stretching out the running time with clumsily-interwoven flashbacks to previous entries and unused footage from the original film. This time, Reggie embarks on a Mission to rescue Mike, who himself is on a Mission to destroy The Tall Man (you may have noticed that Quests and Missions form the backbone of “Phantasm”). Attempting to tap into fans’ love for the series, Coscarelli puts the frankly lackluster A. Michael Baldwin front and center, his Mike spending the entire first third of the film tripping out while driving a hearse to Death Valley, and the rest of it hopping through time and space in said valley. There are random Civil War flashbacks. Spheres 4.0 now come in hordes – though much more rarely – and emerge out of female breasts. The womanizing, ponytail-sporting, wisecracking Reggie proves yet again that he’s the most compelling actor of the bunch, but he’s given little to do. I counted exactly two standout moments: one involves a face-off between Reggie and a zombie cop, and the other sees Mike randomly go back in time to encounter The Tall Man…before he became The Tall Man. Otherwise, the “Phantasm” Sphere is running on empty… which didn’t stop David Hartman to take over the directing reigns from Coscarelli on “Phantasm: Ravager” (2016) (though Don remained on board as a co-writer and producer).
Known for his work on the animated “Transformers” and “Tigger & Pooh” series (his filmography is rather eclectic), Hartman boldly took cues from his mentor and shot/produced/wrote/directed/edited “Ravager” – all on his abacus, by the looks of it. Reggie escapes from a bunch of Spheres in his car, before embarking on another vague quest through at least two timelines. As old Reggie wrestles with dementia and confides in Mike at a mental institution, a younger Reggie (the actor has aged remarkably well in four decades) encounters a very old Tall Man, before teaming up with a sardonic little person called Chunk (Stephen Jutras) to kick some ass. The film attempts to take the whole myth to an epic, apocalyptic level. The effects are pitiful: Spheres 5.0 somehow manage to look worse than all the ones preceding them, this time attacking horses and blowing up to gargantuan, city-demolishing sizes. The dialogue that was once knowingly stupid is now just plain redundant: Mike: “Everything is different. Nothing is the same.” Hartman’s “odyssey” amounts to little more than non-stop, confusing exposition. Were it not for the touching ending, it would be a next to worthless addition to the “Phantasm” saga.
Part of “Phantasm”’s appeal is its rugged charm and naiveté as if it were unaware of its own flaws. Another is its “fever dream”-like ambiance; through the hazy fog of almost Dali-esque absurdity, themes of childhood paranoia, family (it’s as much about the importance of family as “The Fast & The Furious” saga wants to be) and rumination on quantum physics emerge. But let’s face it, at the end of the day, it’s just a fun ride, a glimpse inside the schizoid mind of a borderline-brilliant auteur. Coscarelli’s opus may not have the mass cult status of horror series like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th,” but the man, along with his devoted cast and crew, carved out a niche of his own, with a small but rabid fanbase. Despite the diminishing returns, there’s a continuous, contagious sense of joy and love for its characters. Coscarelli has done other work: the trippy 1982 oddity “The Beastmaster,” the “Elvis-meets-Mummy” horror comedy “Bubba Ho-Tep,” and the spaced-out nightmare “John Dies at the End” – but his legacy will forever remain as the Tall Man behind the “Phantasm” series.
- Phantasm – 3.5 stars
- Phantasm II – 3.5 stars
- Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead – 3.5 stars
- Phantasm IV: Oblivion – 2.5 stars
- Phantasm: Ravager – 2 stars
- Overall Collection Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Available on DVD Tuesday, September 12th from Well Go USA Entertainment