There are horror franchises, there are horror franchises with a cult following, and then there’s Phantasm. One of the few properties of its kind to remain in the hands of the same creator right up to the present day (even if the most recent film was the work of another director), Don Coscarelli’s humble 1979 oddity somehow birthed a series which has endured for the better part of four decades. As an example of independent genre filmmaking done right, it might easily be mentioned in the same breath as such other titles of its era as The Evil Dead and Friday the 13th, and yet Phantasm clearly stands apart inasmuch as it has arguably proved to be a genuine, inimitable one-off. Well, a one-off that’s spawned four sequels, but hopefully you see my point. Combining elements of simple drive-in horror movie thrills, mind-bending Argento-esque surrealism, apocalyptic science fiction, and all-American, gun-toting, muscle car machismo, there’s no mistaking a Phantasm movie, and there really isn’t anything else quite like it.
I’ve already had a Phantasm DVD boxset in my possession for several years, and long imagined that the four films within that set would be the entirety of the series as we knew it – that is, until the first trailer for Phantasm: Ravager appeared in spring 2014, taking everyone by surprise (not least myself, given I’d interviewed Coscarelli only two months earlier, asked him outright if there’d be a fifth Phantasm, and the sly bastard didn’t let on at all!) So for a while it seemed Phantasm wasn’t necessarily over after all… but then, with the death of series figurehead Angus Scrimm in January 2016, it looked ever more likely that the series had indeed reached a non-negotiable conclusion. I hadn’t seen Ravager until my review discs for this set arrived, and having enjoyed the existing films I can’t deny I was a little apprehensive. Could this new, digitally shot microbudget movie directed by someone other than Don Coscarelli really give the series closure? Indeed, was real closure ever even a possibility with a series which hinges on mystery and unanswered questions as heavily as Phantasm does?
Well, I’ll get to that later. First off, let’s consider the films in order, just to keep things that bit more linear (and, for the benefit of the uninitiated, as spoiler-free as I can keep it).
As is so often the case, even viewers who don’t wind up devotees of the franchise as a whole can still appreciate the power of the first movie. The original Phantasm still works beautifully as a standalone movie, and as I think we’ve established it really does stand apart from the low-budget American horror of the time. It centres on orphaned brothers Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), and their pal Reggie (Reggie Bannister), all of whom are almost uncomfortably familiar with death following the loss of Mike and Jody’s parents, and then the loss of Jody and Reggie’s old friend Tommy in the opening scenes. The official story is that Tommy killed himself, but Mike comes to suspect otherwise when he witnesses the local undertaker – a strange-looking Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) – behaving suspiciously and displaying unnatural strength. Investigating further, Mike soon finds himself caught up a living nightmare as he uncovers the unbelievable truth: the Tall Man is in fact some sort of shape-shifting inter-dimensional being, protected by lethal flying silver spheres, who is stealing the town’s corpses and mystically crushing them down into an army of malevolent zombie dwarfs with which, it seems, he intends to conquer our plane of existence.
When you put down in writing like that, Phantasm sounds too absurd to take seriously, but it really works. I’m not sure whether or not we might regard it a precursor for A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it plays by similar rules in that real-world logic is off the table for almost the entire running time. However, where Craven’s film would make his waking world and nightmare world fairly distinct, Coscarelli doesn’t signpost things so clearly, forcing the viewer to do a little more work, and having a lot of fun messing with our heads. Whether or not any of it makes much sense is largely besides the point, as the real joy of the film is in its striking imagery and atmosphere; one can look at a mausoleum corridor, a small silver ball or a blonde-haired woman in a lavender dress the same way after seeing this movie, nor can we hear the word “boy!” without thinking of Angus Scrimm. Just to polish off that nightmarish quality, Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s score is among the most haunting in horror history.
Following up Phantasm was always going to be tricky, and in the extras Coscarelli admits it wasn’t something he had ever intended to do until offered the chance in the late 80s by Universal, who – clearly with eyes on the amount of money that the likes of Elm Street and Friday the 13th were raking in – had designs on making a modern horror franchise of their own. Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that 1988’s Phantasm II would wind up a somewhat compromised and commercialised piece of work, and from Coscarelli’s remarks on the matter it certainly seems he didn’t have the best experience making the film. Even so, it remains my second favourite film of the series, and in many respects the three films that followed owe it as much as they do the original.
We might easily liken what Coscarelli does on Phantasm II to what Raimi did on Evil Dead 2, or Hooper did on Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (other horror sequels I absolutely love); it takes the essentials of what went before, but plays it out in a louder, faster, brighter, and more explicitly tongue-in-cheek manner, as a now 19-year old Mike – here played by James LeGros, one of the sequel’s major compromises being the studio’s insistence on casting a more marketable actor than Baldwin – is discharged from psychiatric hospital and reunites with Reggie, the duo setting out to hunt the Tall Man down and destroy him. It’s in this entry that Phantasm turns into an apocalyptic road movie, with the arid desert landscapes and the iconic Hemi Cuda becoming real characters in their own right. It’s also in this one that Reggie really becomes a central figure, forging his signature four-barrelled sawn-off shotgun, wielding a chainsaw, and battling his sexual frustration, all of which become signature components of the series from this point on.
As an action-horror spectacle, then, Phantasm II is great fun, filled with car chases, explosions, fight scenes and lovely 80s practical make-up FX. All this being the case, though, it clearly gears some way from the more abstract, otherworldly approach of the original, which may disappoint some. Nor does 1994’s Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead do much to redress that balance, even though this film was again a lower-budget independent production with Baldwin reinstated as Mike. While the third entry does develop Mike’s relationship with the Tall Man in an interesting manner, it’s also easily the goofiest of the series, with the addition of a Home Alone-ish kid in Kevin Connors’ Tim, and an unlikely love interest for Reg in Gloria Lynn Henry’s nunchuck-twirling bad-ass Rocky. Curiously, this film also becomes something of a zombie movie, which feels like a bit much of a departure from what came before.
Still, if the second and third films seem too linear, coherent and commercialised, Coscarelli went to pains to ensure that the fourth, and for a time final instalment, 1998’s Phantasm: Oblivion, went in a very different direction. A considerably smaller scale production which draws heavily on deleted scenes from the original Phantasm, Oblivion largely eschews the action-heavy spectacle of the previous two films for something more character-based and intimate; Baldwin’s Mike, Bannister’s Reggie, Thornbury’s Jody and Scrimm’s Tall Man are for the most part the only players on screen. The tricky part is, whilst attempting to revive the abstract, nightmarish vibe of the original, Oblivion also seeks to bring things full circle, providing some answers and closure. In some respects it’s successful in doing so, but whether or not it’s an entirely satisfying conclusion is open to debate.
But of course, that’s largely immaterial now that Oblivion is no longer the series finale. So, does Ravager bring Phantasm to a satisfactory climax, open the series up to new possibilities, or some odd combination thereof? Well, in a strange and sad way director David Hartman’s film was perhaps doomed to be underwhelming from the start. As is discussed in the extras, Coscarelli had at one point made efforts to shoot a big budget Phantasm IV in the 1990s with Roger Avary writing the screenplay, and – much as Romero’s Land of the Dead utilised elements of his original Day of the Dead script that were jettisoned for budget reasons – it seems feasible that at least some of what we see in Ravager may be rooted in the aborted Avary Phantasm script. Early teaser images showcasing gargantuan silver spheres levelling cities and glimpses of armed combat in the Tall Man’s red world certainly hinted at something epic, which would be an appropriate place for the series to go from here. However, as Ravager was shot for little or no money, built into a feature from what had originally been conceived as a web series, it really doesn’t have the means to carry off its vision – and as such, it does rather leave one questioning whether it was really even worth it. It also hinges on a somewhat tired hook – the implication that maybe, just maybe, the entire series has been a delusion – which feels a bit lazy at this point. Still, Ravager does have its high points, not least the final scenes from the sadly-missed Scrimm, and a moment in the final minutes with the core trio of Reggie, Mike and Jody, which you’d have to be a pretty hard-hearted bastard to not be at least a little moved by.
All this considered, then, is Arrow’s Phantasm boxset worth it? Obviously die-hard series fans will need no persuasion, and will probably be happy with what we have here. As well as giving us the films in glorious HD (the remaster of the original having been famously overseen by JJ Abrams), this set reproduces all the Nucleus Films-produced extras from the existing Anchor Bay DVD set, as well as whole bunch of new extras on each disc, with a sixth disc dedicated entirely to bonus content, much of which is your expected in-depth discussion of technical aspects on each film, but some of which also goes to a more personal level, notably with a look at a number of Phantasm fans who wound up working on the franchise. As such, this is a set that’s very much for the fans, the completists, although I think it’s a pity that the films (or at least the original and Ravager) haven’t also been released individually for the benefit of those with a more casual interest.
Is this where Phantasm ends, then? Part of me thinks it definitely is, and part of me kind of wishes Coscarelli had just left it with Oblivion – yet there is a sense that the floodgates have been opened now with Ravager, and it seems inevitable more films may follow. However, I have to say – and I realise this might not be the most popular opinion – I really do think that if Phantasm is to continue, it’s time for a reboot. Scrimm was too significant a figure to be replaced, so it would be better to start entirely from scratch. New cast, new crew, big budget, the way Ravager really should have been. It doesn’t have to be a literal remake; do like JJ did with Star Trek, set it in a parallel universe/alternate timeline, which would be entirely feasible given the nature of Phantasm. Hell, we know JJ’s a fan and we know he’s got a proven track record with reviving old franchises, why not let him handle this? I realise many steadfast anti-mainstream horror fans would be aghast at the idea, but it strikes me as the best way to take Phantasm to the next level. Otherwise, maybe this should indeed be where the Cuda meets the end of the road.
Arrow Video’s Phantasm I-V limited edition Blu-ray boxset is released on 24th April; pre-order direct from Arrow here.