31 Days of Horror – FINAL – PHANTASM

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Here we are. The final day of horror – Halloween. I hope yours was great. Mine was OK. I had a midterm and found an ancient mouse corpse under my stove. But other than that it was fine.

So, I’m sure all you long-time readers remember year 1 had a franchise retrospective. But for all of my new readers, this is the time where I reveal I have secretly watched an entire horror franchise that I have no experience with behind your backs and then write about every entry, and do my best to rank them at the end. Year 1, I did the Child’s Play franchise, which I now love. Last year, I had started the [REC] series, but never got a chance to watch the 4th one or the sequel to the American version, so I didn’t. In case you’re curious, here’s a rough ranking of those:

1. [REC]
2. [REC] 2
3. Quarantine
4. [REC] 3

Boom. There you go. I’ll watch the other two eventually.

Anyway, this year’s retrospective is on Don Coscarelli’s cult classic Phantasm series. I’ve been hearing about it for years, I’ve seen some of Coscarelli’s other films, so I decided that this would be the perfect time to check out Phantasm and its sequels, especially since the newest (and most likely final) one just came out this month.

One thing I want to say before I get started on the movies themselves is that I really like all 5 of them. Some are definitely better than others, sure, but they all thoroughly entertained and intrigued me. That’s unprecedented for a horror franchise. I’m 99% sure the reason that all five of the movies were written by Don Coscarelli himself, and the first 4 were directed by him. So anyway, let’s get started.

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Phantasm (1979)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli

The one that started it all. The cult classic. It follows Jody (Bill Thornbury) and his younger brother Mike (A.Michael Baldwin), who have just lost their parents. They discover the mortician, a strange Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), has taken their parents bodies and many other bodies of people in the town and is turning them into little dwarf slaves that he’s sending to another dimension. They team up with Jody’s friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), an Ice Cream Truck driver and family man, to take on the Tall Man and his arsenal of flying silver murder balls.

Phantasm, on first viewing, seems like a weird, difficult to understand midnight drive-in B-movie. And I have no problem with those movies at all. I love them. But this is not one of those movies. Sure it has weird sci-fi stuff and little evil dwarves and a bunch of gore. But this is a movie about death. It’s about how younger kids deal with death, how young adults deal with death, and about how our society views death. We have Mike, who is a 13-year-old who lost his parents. He sees this strange man dressed head-to-toe in black taking his parents away to a large building where he is performing experiments on them. This is basically just a mortician embalming corpses, but to a 13-year-old, it seems like a strange ritual where this horrible Tall Man is performing strange experiments on the bodies of his parents. It’s how he rationalizes the post-death rituals that we as a society perform. Except it’s real. This is a movie that brings the fears and fantasies of imaginative children to life. And that’s why I think this is one of the few horror movies that’s actually scarier the second or third time you watch it, once those themes set in.

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Phantasm II (1988)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli

Phantasm II is like Phantasm, but way more “80s.” It resembles Coscarelli’s fun, fast later movies like Bubba Ho-Tep (though not as inherently comic). Phantasm II picks up where the last left off, but with a different actor playing Mike (James LeGros), and then there is a two-year flash-forward. We meet him 2 years later in a mental hospital, just getting out. Meanwhile, a girl with a psychic connection to him is trying to find him. Eventually, Mike, Reggie, and the girl meet up to take on the Tall Man in the mortuary yet again.

Phantasm II is much more of a studio film than the first. They weren’t given a huge budget, but it was definitely higher than the first. That’s one of the reasons the actor playing Mike is replaced. The studio made Coscarelli choose between Mike or Reggie, and they wanted one or the other played by a higher-profile actor. And I think that’s a dick move, but I guess they figured since it takes place later, and that A. Michael Baldwin was only 13 in the first, he would logically have changed more in two years than a grown man. Now, the fact that it’s more mainstream doesn’t keep it from being totally unique. I mean the 80s were mostly slashers and toned-down PG-13 horror movies. This is neither of those (although it’s pretty gory).

This is also much more of an action movie than the first. There are expensive stunts, and a much faster pace. It also has a much more coherent story. And a love story. Of course. OF COURSE. A movie about two guys fighting an inter-dimensional alien really NEEDS that romance factor. I’m all for more women in these films (really not many, and none of them are very deep) but they don’t just need to be romantic interests. All that being said, it’s still a very fun movie.

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Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead once again picks up right where the previous movie left off. A. Michael Baldwin is back as Mike now, though. Which is good, he’s better. Anyway so after Reggie gets Mike to a hospital following the violent conclusion of the previous film, two years pass (again) and we meet them all in the hospital. Jody is back by the way, as a weird apparition thing, but he has visibly aged because he’s once again played by Bill Thornbury. Then the Tall Man takes Mike. Reggie, trying to find him with the help of spirit-Jody who is now one of the silver spheres (but charred and black), meets up with Tim, a young homicidal little boy and Rocky, a very angry, militant woman with nunchucks. They eventually find themselves back at the mortuary (again) and it’s time to fight ‘ol Tall Man (again).

The great thing about the Phantasm series is that every movie is different. The first is a more surreal, abstract sci-fi horror movie that feels really indie and down to Earth (besides, you know, yellow blood and the dimension stuff). And it really has some cool, real meaning. The second one has the sci-fi horror, but it’s fast-paced, linear, kind of more coherent, and there’s a love story. It feels more mainstream (but still VERY weird). A more typical 80s genre film. Now, Phantasm III shows more shades of Coscarelli’s future efforts (Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End, specifically) than the previous Phantasm. It’s a little more into the realm of goofy horror comedy. There’s some Evil Dead vibes to it (the franchises are practically cousins, they have a lot in common), there’s more fun gore, Reggie has a lot more one-liners, etc. It’s probably the most overall fun entry in the series (but the most fun scene is the chainsaw fight in II).

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Phantasm IV: Oblivion
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli

The fourth Phantasm once again begins where the previous one ended. Reggie and Mike are separated. Mike seems to be starting to turn into The Tall Man. Reggie now has to try to track down the Tall Man yet again. There’s a very good scene involving the spheres and some more… organic… spheres. You’ll see.

Phantasm IV is very different from Phantasm II and III. This is the closest to the tone of the first film as the entire series has gotten. Part of that is probably because it was pretty much written around a lot of the unused (thought to be lost) scenes and subplots from the first film. As such, we get really cool flashbacks and dream sequences featuring the actors at their ages from the original movie. This creates a slightly more abstract, surrealist narrative, just like in the first film. However, it’s a continuation of the events from the previous movie, so what we get is a great sequel that really does a great job capturing the spirit of the original.

ravager
Phantasm: RaVager
Directed by David Hartman
Written by David Hartman and Don Coscarelli

This film is a lot of things. The first one not directed by Don Coscarelli. The first one not solely written by Don Coscarelli. The first one to incorporate a lot of CGI. The last one (probably).

Some of those things are successful. Some are not.

The movie picks up probably about 18 years after the last one ends. At first, it seems like it’s happening moments after the end of IV. Then, we’re with Reggie and Mike in a retirement home and Reggie has been diagnosed with dementia. Mike is there (and totally normal) to support him, but doesn’t believe his wild stories about “The Tall Man.” THEN, later in the movie, we’re introduced to a post-apocalyptic future where the Tall Man has taken over the world and Mike and Reggie are part of the resistance. The franchise always did love alternate dimensions and timelines, but this is the first movie in the series that presents alternate versions of the characters themselves, and Reggie seemingly shares his consciousness with his alternate selves. It’s not as confusing if you’ve seen the first 4.

This movie, like the first, has a message at its core. This is a movie about aging. We see Reggie in one dimension getting dementia. In another, we see him alone in the desert until he meets people who eventually die. In the third, he’s trying to get his friends together, but he’s having trouble getting everyone in one place. This is one of the few genre franchises that really deals with real issues. And with aging comes death. Which is why it is such a great ending to the series. The series starts and ends with death, one features death through the eyes of a child, the other through the eyes of an old man. It’s such a great story.

A lot of people are very critical of this entry. Some people say the camerawork is bad (it’s not great), some people say the CGI is terrible (it’s really not great), and some people say the ending is insulting and awful, which is TERRIBLE because the ending is excellent, and totally makes sense within the context of the entire series and the messages present. Here’s the thing: the CGI is bad. The camerawork sucks sometimes. But the story makes up for that lack of polish in those areas. And this series isn’t exactly a bunch of fucking cinematographic showcases. Their lack of polish in some areas are what makes them so fun. Would I have preferred less CGI and more practical effects like in the first four movies? 100% absolutely. Does that make this movie the worst of the five? Not by a long-shot. It’s still an excellent movie, and a great ending to the series.

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That’s it guys! That’s my brief thoughts on the Phantasm franchise. I love them all. I don’t believe any of them dip below an 8/10. And here, for the sake of giving you an idea of how they fare against one-another, is my ranking of them.

1. Phantasm
The best isn’t always the first, but in this series it is. The themes and the dream-like surreality make this the most meaningful and thought-provoking of the series, and one of the most meaningful and thought-provoking horror movies of the 1970s.

2. Phantasm IV: Oblivion
Phantasm IV comes the closest to capturing the spirit of the original, and one of my favorite aspects of the series is the (some would say convoluted) dimension theory aspects. I love that genre of science fiction (I’m a Marvel Comics fan, if that means anything to you).

3. Phantasm: RaVager
RaVager is a fitting end to the series, tying off some loose ends and untying others, just like every other movie in the series. If you want all of your questions answered, find a different movie series.

4. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead
The funniest Phantasm and the most fun, the scenes involving the looters and the scenes featuring Rocky fighting the spheres with a set of nunchucks is definitely a high point of the series.

5. Phantasm II
Just because I think it’s the weakest doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. It’s a great movie. James LeGros definitely is not as good as A. Michael Baldwin, but let’s be honest, none of the acting in this series is Oscar-worthy. Mike and Reggie team-up to take on the Tall Man with a chainsaw and a flamethrower. Plus, this is the movie that gave us Reggie’s Quad-barrel shotgun. QUAD-BARREL SHOTGUN. FUCK YEAH.

These are great, great movies. I enjoyed each one thoroughly. And they’re all so different, that it’s easy to keep coming back.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

SEE YOU NEXT YEAR

(unless I actually start posting regularly, which I WANT to do)

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