I originally experienced PHANTASM on VHS, recorded from late night cable. I watched it more than a few times over the years and I knew of at least one sequel, but the opportunity to watch the second one, or the others, never occurred until...
I was stumbling around Wal-Mart, my Mad Scientist Glasses in tow so I could browse the dwindling, but surprisingly eclectic DVD selection. There was all 5 PHANTASM films in one collection. I hesitated at first because sequels to classic horror films can really suck sometimes, but I ultimately couldn't resist the temptation of The Tall Man and his deadly balls.
The first is the best. The sinister Tall Man has gruesome plans for the recently deceased and it's up to brothers Mike and Jody, along with Reggie, an ice cream vendor, to stop him. This film is atmospheric with its dream within a dream reality. It's unsettling in a gets under your mind-skin way. It's downright scary, especially Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man. He exudes pure evil with just a glance. The bug scene also totally freaks me out! Putting all of that aside, the main reason PHANTASM drew me in was the relationship between brothers Jody and Mike. It's the heart of this horror-fantasy film.
PHANTASM II (1988)
My gut reaction to this first sequel was it was good but not great. The first PHANTASM, in my opinion, must have inspired Wes Craven a few years later with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Both films deal with similar themes of reality versus dreams, but each in their individual ways. PHANTASM II feels like it takes more than a little detour through Elm Street in certain plot elements and especially in visual style. The reason may partially fall on Universal Studios wanting a horror-fantasy franchise to compete with New Line Cinema's Nightmare juggernaut. Also, it's a shame A. Michael Baldwin didn't reprise the role of Mike. James Le Gros is acceptable but not the same. All of that aside, the scene of Reggie and Mike walking through the emptied cemetery is disturbing and haunting.
PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD (1994)
I typically dread it when a horror film franchise attempts to answer questions and add new characters, especially a kid. I know -I know, Mike was a kid in the first one, but I was terrified that newbie Tim would be the Cousin Oliver to Mike's all grown up Peter Brady. Thankfully, I was wrong. Tim is great and brings out Reggie's good qualities. Plus, Rocky, the baddest bad-ass woman in any horror franchise, is a welcome addition to the predominately white, male cast. As for a particularly revealing answer about the killer, silver spheres, it made complete sense and elevated the stakes.
SPOILER: I was bummed Rocky left at the end, but I was thrilled she survived!
PHANTASM: OBLIVION (1998)
As much as I enjoyed III, this one may be my favorite PHANTASM sequel. The fourth film is an utter mind...um...screw in the best way possible, which makes it close to capturing the eerie dream within a dream quality of the first film. The plot takes what we think we know, flips and turns it around in our minds, and transforms it into a personal journey for the characters and the viewers. Plus, that quiet ending, so unlike the first three films, left me meditative, contemplative and forgetting to breathe for a moment. I think I would be strangely fine if IV had been the final PHANTASM.
PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016)
Here's the truth. I was disappointed, but not completely. Perhaps some of my disappointment is because writer/director Don Coscarelli stepped down from the director's chair and collaborated on the script with new director David Hartman. Can V truly be called pure PHANTASM? I don't know, but I did enjoy Reggie's mind-trip through different realities, especially the reality where it seems like Reg is in a rest home/psychiatric hospital. It's the future (real?) reality that kind of disappoints me. It doesn't feel like PHANTASM to me. It's bigger, even the killer, silver spheres come in extra-large, and it's computer special effects heavy. Plus, and this is probably my biggest complaint, it's neither Reg nor Mike who once again defeats The Tall Man. Chunk, an admittedly great new character, gets to do the honor, which was a let down because this appears to be the final PHANTASM since Angus Scrimm has now passed away. I guess I was hoping for a more personal conclusion. All my grievances aside, the very final scene made me geek out with unbridled glee because (SPOILER) Rocky turns up, still a bad-ass, and rides off with our heroes to fight another day.
The PHANTASM series may have some ups, downs and all arounds, but the sequels were worth watching, albeit 20 years later. One overall aspect that is also worth experiencing is the evolution of Reggie from an ice cream vendor to a middle-aged action hero. It's a revolutionary transformation for any film franchise, horror or otherwise.
Now it's time to watch all 5 films again, this time with commentaries on!
P.S. Coming next month...
The Second Great Hammer And Amicus Blogathon!
My books & blogs...