Monday, February 18, 2013


Directed by Don Coscarelli
90 mins. Color.
MGM DVD release, circa 1998

MPW-39204 (500×741)

The Phantasm series is one of the craziest things ever put on celluloid.  The first five minutes of Phantasm IV is a big reminder of how totally wild and original it all is.  Similar to II and III, it starts with a narrated flashback to put you in context.

This movie is a departure from Phantasm II and Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead.  It feels a bit more similar to the seriousness of the original Phantasm.  This may be because a lot of the unused footage from the 1978 classic shows up here.  It is also because it is the life’s work of a man that has spent two decades building a world and mythology that has since provided mostly questions and very few answers.  That being said, Coscarelli does not set out to here to tie up all the loose ends.  Phantasm IV: Oblivion is more science fiction spiritual journey than wild horror comedy.  It has a dreamy quality.  A very surreal mixing of all the tropes and themes put forward so far with the uneasy existentialism of The Tall Man’s appearance in our world.  

In some ways, it reminded me of Return of the Jedi (1983).  Of course there are other similarities that can be drawn to the seminal science fiction saga, not least being the robed look of the dwarves that are eerily similar to the Jawas.  That being said, the first Phantasm film was in production at the same time as the original Star Wars, and I don’t think one had any influence on the other.  In Phantasm IV, Michael returns to the audience, all dressed in black.  He has been on a journey, similar to Luke Skywalker, and returned with a bit deeper understanding of his “powers.”  He is learning to move things with his mind.  That is probably as far as I want to take that analogy, but as a similarity in tone, it seems worth mentioning.

The American west, or as much of the world as we see really, has been ravaged by the Tall Man by now.  Every place they come upon has been deserted.  Graves have been emptied and Mike’s only interactions with other people are his visions and memories.  In this way, we get to see some really beautiful images that were removed from the original.  Reggie and Michael in his ice cream truck, driving through the blackness.  And, in that place, the Tall Man appears in Michael’s car and offers a depressing reminder, “You have no one, but me.”

Meanwhile, Reggie has been released by the thousands of flying spheres as the Tall Man realized he has no use in Reggie’s death.  He is back on the road, trying to hunt down Michael.  He gets pulled over by a highway patrolman who turns out to be a member of the Tall Man’s undead army.  One thing leads to another, and Reggie big time blows up the cops car with a flare in his gas tank.  It’s pretty killer.  He then continues on, saving a hot babe from a car crash.

reggiebannister-phantasm-iv.jpg (608×336)
"Wow.  Some Cops can be real assholes."

Mike wanders death valley, has visions of the Tall Man operating on him during the Civil War and begins to work on his last will and testament. He proceeds to set up a noose and attempts suicide, flashing back to him attempting to hang the Tall Man in the first film (never shown).  The Tall Man pleads with Mike, assuring him that he will leave forever if Mike will cut him down.  Eventually, Mike is presented with large number of portals.  Jody (his dead brother who is now a sphere, but seems somewhat un-trustworthy, as he later tells Reg not to trust him) tells him which one leads to the origins of the Tall Man.  Mike goes through and finds a sweet old man named Jebediah (Angus Scrimm)  in the 1800s.  He seems to be the creator of the dimensional fork, and asks Michael if that’s where he came from.  

Reg shacks up with the hot babe he saved from the car crash, Jennifer, and you get some sweet images of him with a beautiful ape drape and some wicked jammies.  Reggie wakes up to find Jennifer’s boobs are apparently spheres, to which Reg replies, “Far out.”  He is then forced to kill her.

The awesome only starts there.

Michael has to make some tricky choices with regards to Jody.

Coscarelli pulls some surprising twists that may not please everyone, but I loved.  

Reggie is awesome.

As this is the “end” of the Phantasm series, Coscarelli deliberately leaves a ton on the table. Other series, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween or Friday the 13th, manage to burn down their credibility by giving easy answers that inevitably leave the viewer feeling unsatisfied. I have no doubt that the Phantasm series would feel the same had Coscarelli gone the usual route: Explain away the main villain, kill off the major characters so you can replace them with cheaper younger stars, have a baby in the 4th film, etc.. Instead, we grow old with the characters, watching Coscarelli dream up what happens next as we do.

Of course, there are the characters from Phantasm III that seem to be the set-up to take over the series (Rocky and Tim), but Rocky simply decides to leave and Tim is pulled off and never seen again. (It was originally planned to have Tim be violently ripped apart at the beginning of this film, but budget didn't allow.) Just one more way that he undermines what we would expect, and what makes this series all the more interesting.

Coscarelli talks about the Phantasm movies as one might expect. They have been a blessing and a curse. Originally inspired by his obsessive watching of horror films, especially Invaders from Mars, Coscarelli was able to create a completely unique world of his own. It managed to get him on the map and helped him to gain the independence he so desperately wanted. However, as most directors run into, he was pigeon-holed into having a hard time getting funding for anything except more Phantasm sequels. However, never at any point do these films feel like a paycheck.

And, as we move on from the Phantasm films, he changes gears. Taking on major historical figures fighting mummies, a foray into low-budget television horror and totally crazy drug adventures, these Phantasm films and the themes he's been working with play into all of it.

phantasm-angus-scrimm-and-reggie-bannister1.jpg (470×283)

The Trivia:

  • Filmed in only 23 days, the production was a marathon. One particular sequence, the deserted Wilshire Blvd, was shot illegally on Thanksgiving morning in ten minutes.
  • The dwarf that gets shot in the face by Reggie is played by Don Coscarelli's daughter, Wendy.
Set Yourself Up:
  • To finish strong, it makes sense to go all the way. Hot dogs. If you're in the Minneapolis area, there is no better place than The Weinery. That or buy Cheddar Brats from Everett's. Grill or fry that up. Make up some Ore Ida tater tots. Finish up with Orange Sherbet in a stainless steel bowl.
  • Keep it serious. Only invite Phantasm lovers who aren't going to ruin it for you.

The Hype:

  • By now, you should've separated your friends into two groups: Those that love Phantasm and those you no longer associate with. This one shouldn't take any convincing after that.

The Goods:
There is pretty much nothing noteworthy on the MGM release of the DVD. A trailer and a double sided DVD with widescreen and standard versions. The later Anchor Bay release is undoubtedly better, as they tend to do a great job though I can't personally vouch for it.

"The Nightmare Lives on, but Humanity May Not!"

-J. Moret

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