SYNOPSIS: Following the death of their parents and apparent suicide of their brother, older brother Jody is looking after younger brother Michael. Mike's concerned that Jody is looking to split, so he consults a fortune teller who reassures him that Jody won't go without taking Mike with him. Additionally, the brothers and their ice cream salesman friend Reg discover that the creepy tall mortician from up on the hill is actually the Tall Man, a mysterious being from another dimension, who is absconding with corpses for nefarious reasons (not necrophilia, it's not THAT kind of movie). PS killer flying spheres, too!
The PHANTASMAGORIA doc included with the Sphere Set makes a big deal out of the definition of "phantasm". It's appropriate, though, because no horror film spins more gold out of straws of dream and surrealism than PHANTASM. This is a textbook example of how a horror movie that asks, then doesn't answer, questions can succeed. The whole thing comports itself like a dream, with seemingly throwaway elements recurring later (the tuning fork is an obvious one, but how about those MINE signs?). Little sense is made in the usual way, as the film doesn't sit you down and explain life to you. Any additional info that it provides comes with extra questions attached. Plus, it's done in such a "duh, of course" way! Of course there are zombies in the quicksand in the middle of the cemetery! Of course there are spheres with bonesaws flying around the old mortuary!
The cast (mostly)! Angus Scrimm is legendary as the Tall Man. I can't think of any actor who would have brought more presence and intimidation to the role. But let's not forget Bill Thornbury as Jody and A. Michael Baldwin as Mike! The relationship between the brothers and anxiety about loss is crucial to PHANTASM and both actors deliver the goods! I'm shocked, given my loathing for acting children, that I enjoy Baldwin so much here! Plus Reggie Bannister and the supporting players are all (mostly) enjoyable here.
Don Coscarelli's script and direction deserve high praise. I love the way that this is shot, with these expansive and spectral interiors, lots of fabu usage of light and shadow. The composition is especially noteworthy, like in the scene below between Mike and The Tall Man. It's played almost like a showdown in an old Western, but with the very creepy surroundings of the marble morgue. It also obviously recalls the scene just above, with Mike tailing a departing Jody.
PHANTASM was originally intended to be a three-hour epic that would only be recognizable as a horror film when the Tall Man showed up at the halfway mark. Traces of the original vision are still here and are one of the elements that set this apart from other horror entries are the non-horror scenes. My arch-enemies, comedic scenes, show up and actually add to the film rather than dragging it down to hell in a hackneyed, look-at-me way!
Plus there are musical numbers which a) provide a nice break from the relentless assault of terror and b) shore up the relationship between Jody and Reggie. Those interactions (and the dialogue between Jody and his pal Toby) bring some depth to the characters and get the viewer involved when dwarves and spheres start terrorizing. Plus, look at that cool hat!
The music in general is a joy. The main theme is a classic, of course, but it shows up in so many forms in the film (much like the Tall Man, ne?), even a disco version! The soundtrack is very diverse, shifting easily from creepy piano to Argento-esque electronic squawking to almost-darkwave ambient. So incred!
The car, and more generally the machines. There's no denying that the 'Cuda is a cult classic, much like PHANTASM itself. Everyone has heard of Corvettes and Thunderbirds, but the 'Cuda is super-underground and looks super-cool. It's also enjoyable as an emblem of the relationship between the brothers—they work on it together, ride around together—and plays well as a foil for the Tall Man's top gear: the hearse, the dwarf-containing canisters, and the spheres.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
The actors are almost uniformly good, but there are a few little exceptions and she's a child actor. I'm sure that the little girl who played the fortune teller's daughter is a nice person and kind to animals and all, but that line delivery! Like a sleepwalker. It kinda drags down what's otherwise a great scene, with the creepy fortune teller and the hand-trap foreshadowed by the sign outside.
This thankfully isn't super-reliant on FX and some of what's here is a little rough. You could chalk it up to PHANTASM's dreamy atmosphere, but particularly the box fly looks like boxed hell. It's a minor thing, though!
Seriously, you guys, stop being bullies and give PHANTASM its due. It's less polished and less conventional than canon classics like HALLOWEEN, but it's just as good in its own way.
PHANTASM II (1988)
SYNOPSIS: We pick up right at the end of PHANTASM, with Mike seemingly in the Tall Man's clutches. Reg saves him, though, and blows up the house in the bargain. Flash forward years and years later and Mike is emerging from a stay at a mental hospital. Reg disbelieves the whole blow-up-his-own-house thing and takes Mike home to meet his new family, but, before they get there, Reg's HOUSE BLOWS UP. The pair take off on the road trip that was mentioned at the end of the first film, only this trip is more about killing the Tall Man instead of having fun. Along the way, they meet a beautiful hitchhiker named Alchemy and some girl about whom Mike's been dreaming (Elizabeth). Dwarves! Balls! Morticians with mullets!
The new elements in the script were pretty ace. I love the idea of the Tall Man going from small town to small town and sucking them dry like a vampire. I'm glad that they avoided large cities, since it makes more sense and is more in line with the PHANTASM ethos to keep it small-scale. The desolated small town landscapes look pretty great, although I was really hankering for that old marble morgue of the first film (the one here's a little too modern-looking). The new sphere is undeniably cool.
Reggie Bannister, MVP of PHANTASM by this point. The Reg character has the same kind of everyman appeal that Ash exudes in the EVIL DEAD series, and, like Ash, he evolves into a warrior while simultaneously maintaining his comic pedigree. The chainsaw duel is probably the key scene in this film and Reg's facial expressions are the key to the scene. Plus he has all the great lines, including the puntastic, "It gets hard on the road!" What a great, fun actor and solid dude Reggie Bannister is!
WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
This PHANTASM has a much bigger budget and it shows (way more explodey), but that budget came with a lot of corporate-studio interference. I'm not sure how restrained things were by the studio, although I know that they forced Coscarelli to use James LeGros in the Mike role rather than letting Michael Baldwin return. LeGros is fine, but the film sorely lacks the relationship between Mike and Jody that the first one had. Reg and Mike on the road is pretty fun, but it doesn't have the depth of feeling that two brother characters necessarily bring to the table.
II also lacks the disparate elements that the first one (accidentally) had. There are no music scenes, less comedy, less character stuff. It's a more unified thing, but that also means that it's less distinct from other horror stuff. This is pretty clearly a straight horror film and it even misses out on the surrealist/dreamy stuff that made PHANTASM such a delight. It's fine and fun to take another trip with these characters, but don't expect the same sort of ambition. The budget escalated on one end of the see-saw and the aspirations dropped on the other.
A fun road sequel, just nothing mandatory like its gold-plated progenitor. In some ways, it feels like a bit of a retread, but whatevah. Good, but only just.
PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD (1994)
SYNOPSIS: We open again at the very end of the previous entry, as the Tall Man reappears. Reggie and Mike survive the attack at the end of 'TASM II, but Mike ends up hospitalized. He's eventually captured by the Tall Man and Reggie sets out in search. Along the way, he meets a kid whose parents were taken by the Tall Man and a karate lady named Rocky. Also, Jody, who you might recall dying, returns in a very oddball way.
For people who loved PHANTASM, III has some sweet surprises to offer, especially the return of Bill Thornbury as Jody and Michael Baldwin in the Mike role! They're sort of put on the back burner for much of the film, but their scenes together are so great. You get caring brotherly relationship stuff for people who like that (me) and, later on, eerie ambiguity with philosophical mush about seeing and understanding for people who like that (also me). Nothing against II's James LeGros, but it just feels right to have Baldwin in this role. III also reaches back to some of the themes of PHANTASM past, like abandonment (Reggie's attempted ditching of a kid in this case) and small-town decimation. And windows get broken like crazy, which, combined with how awful the economies of these small towns are, makes me think PHANTASM is some kind of metaphor on the horrors of opportunity costs.
This is going to make some people hopping mad, but III feels more like the first film than II to me. It's got a grab-bag of genres happening (action, in this case, and comedy, LOTS of it) and doesn't stick to straightforward horror. It also presents a lot of the surreal touches and mysterious questions that made the first one a classic. To be honest, the film could've used more of that kind of thing, but no one can deny that the last 15 or so minutes are pure PHANTASM—psychedelic plotting, questions posed and never answered—and the feel of PHANTASM creeps into unexpected places (the Tall Man constantly referencing Mike "returning" to him, wtf? idk!).
This isn't an immense deal, but I like that the series brings back the talent of old. Baldwin and Thornbury are obviously here, but look who else shows up, oh so fleetingly!
WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
You guys know how I feel about comedy in my horror, but, listen, some of the funny stuff here is just fine. I loled at Reggie shotgunning dwarfs out of the trees, I'll admit. But there's just SO MUCH OF IT! The movie basically quirkys you to death for much of its running time. I didn't really dig the Rocky character—she didn't have much of a character beyond being a super-badass and being an object of Reggie's lust ("Ever try vanilla?", urgh). Same with the three marauders. I can't critique the yoga pants blonde lady, but guy who wears a suit to go loot houses? Roid monkey with the Ayn Rand pendant? Please.
I go back and forth on this every time I watch it. It's brutally flawed, but the parts that are good are so good and promising! I am rating this on a curve this time, since the finale got me excited for OBLIVION, which I've never seen. I am hoping for an OBLIVION full of Mike-Jody moments (and for a fall trip full of Jenny P moments...msg me if u r rly reading this!). So much to look forward to.
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION (1998)
SYNOPSIS: Again, we pick up immediately after the previous entry. Reggie's attacked by spheres, but they're inexplicably called off by the Tall Man. Meanwhile, Mike travels America in an attempt to escape the transformations began in PHANTASM III. Jody, Mike's "spherical brother" (as Wikipedia hilariously calls him), convinces Reggie to follow. Along the way, he picks up a chick and has his usual luck. Time travel! Interdimensional portals! Lemonade! All these things happen.
You guys are dicks for convincing me that this was a disasterpiece. I avoided watching it for years because I heard so much negative carping and bitching about it. I could see the complaints if this was the first PHANTASM that someone watched, but OBLIVION obviously utilizes themes and motifs established in the other films. I'm going to be a dick now and say that it's the second-best film in the series! This is why: it's the most similar to the first film in terms of being dreamlike and arcane. Surreality bursts from every opening here—the Tall Man disappears/reappears/DIVES INTO OPEN CASKETS, Mike turns a car engine into a panoply of weapons, including a sphere. It even weaves used and unused footage from the first film, so there's a whole displaced-time feeling working through it. I think people hated that it didn't really give any answers or at least any answers that people wanted to accept. It's hard to take the Tall Man in his earlier, porch-lemonade days, I guess, but now I am going to write an essay about it...
OBLIVION, more than any of the other films, portrays the Tall Man as someone out of time. It's done subtly sometimes, like when he calls a hearse "this coach", and obviously at other times, like the aforementioned time-travel to his younger, better days. I love the idea that this guy has seen his own culture fall by the wayside (who calls things "coaches" anymore? who even drinks lemonade on a porch anymore?) and naturally has very little concern for the modern small towns that he's destroying. I love that you don't get to see what turned him into the Tall Man. One minute he's this genial undertaker and, seconds later, he's stepping into the frame clutching a sphere. You don't even get any insight into what he really wants, although he gets it in the end, but what does that even mean? So many questions!
Possible literary/religious symbolism. The twin hangings recall Odin on Yggdrasil ("he once sacrificed himself to himself by hanging on a tree") and maybe also Judas Iscariot. Mike's extended stay in the desert could be a nod to Christ's time in the Judean Desert. But, whatever the case there, DEFINITE nods to PHANTASMs of the past. Mike's ability to move rocks to crush scorpions and dwarfs recalls the rocks tumbling over the Tall Man's mine imprisonment in the first film. Dialogue recurs, too, "We have things to do" and "It's just the wind".
Yet another returning character! In a role that absolutely provokes all kinds of confusion and suspicion. That's PHANTASM!
WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
I know that this was created under heavy budgetary constraints and sometimes it shows. Thankfully, most of the effects look good, with one big exception being a mannequin standing by an explosion and looking like a mannequin.
Also, I'm not sure if the exceedingly small cast was an artistic or a budgetary thing. This is one of the most desolate movies you will ever see in terms of the number of people on display. This is sort of addressed in the dialogue as a product of the Tall Man. It still sometimes feels weird in a decidedly not-enjoyable way.
But there's still room for one extraneous character and she's Reggie's latest love interest! I'm hesitant about saying "didn't work" when it comes to the Jennifer character since she does what she's supposed to do and Heidi Marnhout does a good job in the role, but it just feels like something incidental to the main plot.
It's great and groovy to see the old footage sewn into this, but sometimes it does get to be a little overmuch. Thankfully, this mostly happens in the very beginning, with tons and tons of rapid editing and slashing images, and then OBLIVION settles down and taps its history with more restraint and taste.
OBLIVION undeniably has its issues, but I think it's gotten a raw deal from hatemongers. It's far better and more ambitious/ambiguous than II and III and, given that it's working against the most odds of any film since the first, I think its successes deserve to be celebrated in a fair way. Cult of PHANTASM IV!