Tuesday, May 15, 2018
It's something of a mystery to me as to why I have only just now gotten around to seeing Don Coscarelli's Phantasm. Doubtless I was put off by what I perceived to be the slasher and horror elements of the movie which I assumed was just a typical gory mess from the era. I was really wrong about that. Phantasm is a low-budget masterpiece. It's a movie made over a very long time on a shoestring budget by people dedicated to the weird project. We don't have a slasher film here at all, but a dreamlike horror movie which plays with the head as much as the gut. It's a quiet and suspenseful movie which doesn't pretend to answer all the questions it asks and I have to say I'm sorry I never got around to seeing this flick sooner.
It would be many years before there was Phantasm II and frankly it's a rather poor follow up. The lead actor Michael Baldwin from the first movie was denied by the new studio bosses in this one and his replacement is capable but not the same. They wanted to turn what had been a bizarre tone piece into an action horror blend and it's a mess full of visual gags and nonsense. It's clear in this second story that Reggie Bannister who plays the Ice Cream man named "Reggie" will be a focus of the story. He becomes the center of the story and over the next several sequels the glue that holds the yarn together along with Angus Scrimm as the mysterious and vile "Tall Man".
Phantasm III and Phantasm IV were made pretty much at the same time and the return in both of the original hero played by Michael Baldwin allows them to reclaim much of the flavor of the original, though both while giving us more insights into the mystery of the "Tall Man" don't actually tell us everything. And that's the beauty of these Phantasm movies, the same as existed with the Wolverine character for many years, a profound mystery at the core which defies exposure, though remaining tantalizingly close to revelation. It's a nifty formula to keep the fans coming back. Also Reggie is back as the main driver in the story, becoming more and more central to narrative. Both these movies were direct-to-video, though neither was made with that intention, and one can tell that was a significant disappointment for director Coscarelli.
And finally from 2016 we get the fifth and "final" Phantasm movie, this one named Phantasm Ravager. Our heroes have aged and the new director, under the close watch of producer Coscarelli, does much good work taking advantage of this changed circumstance. This is the best Phantasm movie since the original and does a wonderful job of switching up timelines and creating a mystery which is more than a mere conundrum. We follow our heroes as they confront mortality in real time. Angus Scrimm actually passed away soon after this final movie was made. It gives this last Phantasm a sting of reality which adds to the luster of the storytelling, sad as that might be. These movies are purported to be reflections on mortality and certainly this final one does that in spades.
You can get the Phantasm movies cheaply enough these days and I heartily recommend them. I'm late coming to this fascinating show, but I'm glad I finally did.