Wow. So, I’ve now seen the end of the Phantasm series. 37 years wrapped up in 5 somewhat low-budget movies. How does the last one stand up to the first one? Well, I recently got an awesome look back at the first one.
Phantasm is strange. Even the original trailer is pretty strange, with it’s text:
phantasm: The delusion of a disordered mind. A phantom. A spirit. A ghost.
For those who’ve never seen the original Phantasm… why are we even having this conversation? 😉 It’s a classic horror film that inspired a number of others, but, has never really been replicated. It takes a set of fears (death, funerals, and the unknown), and works fairly well with them. The Tall Man (Angus Skrimm) makes a great villain – partially because he’s got a great voice and face for it, but also because of a few tricks. He’s 6′ 4″, then they threw platform shoes on him, and gave him suits that were a few sizes too small. The Tall Man looks enormous. The whole thing starts with a mysterious death, and friends trying to cope with it. Then… well, it goes downhill. If you want the full plot summary, let me direct you to the Phantasm entry at Wikipedia. It does a better job than I could.
The important parts are The Tall Man, the ending, the dwarves, dimensional(?) travel, and the Spheres. See, he’s got minions, in the form of the freaky dwarves. Except, what they really are is humans that have been compressed down and reanimated. …What? Yes, I really described that properly. He has portals to an alternate dimension or planet, where he has tons of them – you get to see it briefly. Then there are the spheres. Metal spheres with “abilities”. The first movie they could extend a set of prongs that stick into a person’s head, then a drill and syphon system that would drill in, and suck all the brains and blood out, spewing it nearly the goriest possible fashion.
And, as for the ending: they beat The Tall Man, and those left alive go home. Six months later, one of the folks that took him down die (off screen – his name was Jody), and there’s a friendship moment between the youngest member of the team (Mike) and the oldest member (Reggie). It’s all very nice. The kid goes upstairs, and The Tall Man appears in his mirror, grabs him, and yanks him in. The End. Seriously, the last scene is sort of inexplicable, but falls in with the concept of the “indestructible bad guy” seen in a lot of horror movies. To do Phantasm II, well, they backtracked on the ending from the first one, so the kid didn’t die. It was a bit of a cheat, but otherwise, well, there wouldn’t have been a good opening to do II.
As for the spheres – they’re unique in concept, and not repeated in other movies. The first one shows up with a loud, annoying noise, and attacks. It floats in the air, but follows a certain level of physics. They just happen – there’s no explanation of them at the time. There’s no soft lead in to them showing up. It just happens. And, most of the movie is done that way – sort of a “screw you, I’m not coddling you, or explaining any of this.” Which is why it works well as a horror movie: rather than 45 minutes of exposition on the subject, it just happens. If you were living the experience, someone wouldn’t sit you down and tell you what’s coming. It would just happen. And that’s how Phantasm did it.
It’s not the best, really, but it works out well. This year, there was a new version of Phantasm released. The entire thing was reworked in 4K, and honestly, it looked AMAZING. Crisp, clean, and a lot of cleanups done. Best 37 year old movie I’ve ever seen.
Now, here’s the thing: I’m not going to bother explaining Phantasm II, Phantasm III: Lord of The Dead, and Phantasm IV: Oblivion. Those movies spend a lot of time on the road, trying to find The Tall Man by following his trail of destruction, and of course trying to kill him (and failing.) He wipes out entire towns. You also finally get a little back story on him, but even that doesn’t really explain him. He’s something alien somehow, but you never find out what. There’s some interdimensional travel, some time travel, updated versions of the spheres, and twists with the characters themselves.
But, the important thing is this: Phantasm II – IV follow the rules set in place by Phantasm I. The stakes ratchet up over time, but the rules remain the same. This isn’t like Friday the 13th, where the first one is the mom, but every movie after that is Jason. Or Halloween III, which had nothing to do with Halloween I & II. Or A New Nightmare, which tried to re-tell A Nightmare On Elm Street from a completely different concept (which I liked actually, but it’s not part of the original rules.) Phantasm remained consistent.
Which brings us to:
Phantasm V: Ravager
(Warning: If you haven’t seen Phantasm Ravager, and are planning on seeing it, this section has spoilers. Duh.) This seems to pick up right after Phantasm IV: Oblivion. Reggie, the sole remaining member of the original party that was after The Tall Man, wanders out of another dimension into the desert, and is looking to get back to his hunt for his friend Mike (who’s not dead just… it’s complicated.) I’m not going to cover the entire plot here – just some highlights that are good and bad. I’m going to get the “bad” out of the way first.
Time has passed between movies, and Reggie Bannister (the actor who plays Reggie) has aged between movies, and it kinda shows. But, that’s not a bad thing, particularly in the framework of what’s going to happen. Reggie gets the car back, and we get the first attack of the Spheres. Which sucked.
There’s something wrong with the spheres in that set of scenes. They don’t look right, and at one point, they try and use fake sun reflections to make them visible. It doesn’t work worth a damned, unfortunately.
Oddly, the next scene we see them show up in, they look right again. Go fig. But, then, something else goes horribly wrong.
My guess is either they had to do a reshoot, or were using a different camera (I’ve read elsewhere that Phantasm Ravager started it’s life as a set of shorts so either one is entirely possible). So, it suddenly felt like we went from normal cinema frame rates (24 fps) to a newer frame rate (either 48 fps or 60 fps). It only lasts for a while, but it’s one of those little things that drives me nuts – frame rate conversion if it was shot in 48 wouldn’t have been a problem. (If it was 60, or higher, then it’s much harder to do a change in frame rates – 48 stepped down to 24 means you drop every other frame. 60 divided by 24, on the other hand, doesn’t work out so well.)
There’s a scene with The Tall Man in a hallway where, well, it looks like they attempted to CGI on a Tall Man face on someone else. Or tried to use a Tall Man mask, and shoot it with poor lighting. Either way, it was a really bad looking scene until the final shot.
Well, there’s the bad. See, that wasn’t too painful. Now for the good.
Phantasm: Ravager takes the rules, and continues to run with them. But, it does throw a new twist. See, in the first Phantasm, The Tall Man appears in a photo from the horse and buggy era. So, he’s either really, really old, or a time traveler of some sorts, along with being able to travel between dimensions. Ravager takes that time-travel and dimensional travel idea, and uses it to fuck with the audience. Reggie ends up having to deal with his conscious mind being flung from body to body in different time periods. He sees some of the other characters in the various incarnations of his life. Remember I said Reggie Bannister was looking pretty aged? He looks really old and worn down in one of his alternate timelines: he’s in a hospital setting, and has been informed he has dementia. It works PERFECTLY. Suddenly, there’s a great amount of doubt to be had as he bounces back and forth: is the entire Phantasm storyline just the delusion of a disordered mind, a man with dementia? Or is he really hopping back and forth? Is this a trick of The Tall Man?
Along the way, we get new spheres, too. The Mace Sphere has the nice spikes off of it – it slams into someone’s head, and instead of bothering to suck the blood out, it just explodes. Leaving a nice, gory, headless body for those who are into such a thing. But, that’s not all: we get city-destroyer sized spheres, slowly wiping out high-rise buildings, and bombarding the area our heroes are in.
This is my pet peeve with most horror movies with indestructible (or, just infinitely resurrectable) bad guys: eventually, you’re screwed. Their power level gets ratcheted up for each movie, just to keep it exciting. The first trailer I saw with the city destroying spheres excited me: this is the logical extension of such a war where you can’t stop the bad guy. Eventually, he’s going to win, or at least the stakes are going to be cranked up so high, the loses won’t be a person here and there, it’s going to end up being sections of territory. They did throw in one oddity – they mentioned The Tall Man introducing a virus to the world, to wipe a large portion out.
I’m a little bummed that I couldn’t see more of the city-destroying war. But, damn, that was cool.
They managed to fit in just about anyone who’s been in a Phantasm movie previously. Because of the dimensional (or dementia) hoping involved, they could bring back the dead to give them one more time around. And, it worked fairly well, and as a fan (er, Phan) of the series, I really did get a kick out of seeing all those characters. (Keep in mind, the Phantasm movies don’t have a ton of characters, so, we’re not talking 60 or 70 people. 🙂
As with all good things, it has to come to an end. Angus Skrimm died (at 89 – if only we could all be so lucky to get that old and still get to do movies), so The Tall Man is gone. In theory, it could be continued using a number of different processes, but honestly, I don’t think it would be worth it. So, this has been billed as the last one – and this is a good place to stop. The movie “ends” with The Tall Man being blown up again – but, we know that’s not a big deal. He’s already revealed there’s hundreds, thousands of him. It’s just one of those quick revenge moments.
Reggie – the man with dementia – passes away in a hospital bed, with his friends Mike and Jody holding his hands. It’s a perfect ending for those who want to go with the idea that this really was just the “delusion of a disordered mind”. It works. And, if you wanted that to be the ending, I’m hoping you quickly got up and walked out of the theater – nothing else to see here. In fact, quit reading. Just hit share on this, and move on.
Great, now that we got rid of that crowd… if you wait a bit, there’s still more happening. We end up revisiting a couple of characters, who then join up with Mike, Jody, and the living version of Reggie, and all head into Hell. I say Hell, because the last shot for this is of the car headed for a city with multiple city-destroyer spheres above it. Honestly, I see this as being a “blaze of glory” ending: they may hit the city, they may do some damage, but in the end? The Tall Man is going to win. At this point, he’s got this thing in the bag. And, well, I’m kinda happy to see it – I’m sure there will be plenty of people to debate which way the ending really went, and that’s a great way to screw with people (in a movie series that has been great at screwing with people anyway.)
With the credits we also get quite a bit of battle action that appears like it was shot, but hit the cutting room floor. Some scenes looked familiar, but a number of them didn’t – however, that may have been because of the red color post-processing they used on it to stylize it (it looked cool.) Stick around for it (unless you fled the theater during the dementia ending.)
So, what’s my take on it? Was it worth seeing? Is it a good ending?
Very much worth seeing on the big screen, for quite a few reasons. There’s a number of scenes that wouldn’t have nearly the impact it does on the big screen, with the Warren Theater’s sound system. And, since it’s a small company film, it’s always awesome to see it hit the big screen, rather than DVD / Netflix only distribution. It makes it a bit more legit, in my mind 😉
And, it was a good stopping point for the movie series. 37 years of fucking with people’s heads, and they still managed to deliver an ending that people will discuss. Perfect. The power escalates to the point I’ve always wanted to see bad guys get to: being completely unstoppable, humanity ending forces. It’s not that I want to see the bad guys win, it’s that the rules that movies like this have played by SHOULD have resulted in endings like this.
There’s one other parting though, a mystery that doesn’t get resolved; The Tall Man’s plan. He mentions in this movie, at one point, that he has a plan where everyone would benefit, if Reggie would leave him alone. We know he’s taking the dead, compressing them, and bringing them back to life. We know he holds at least one planet, if not more. We know the spheres are actually driven by human minds (that are also compressed – The Tall Man really has a thing for saving space.) But, what is it he wants to do with them? Is it just about conquest, or was there a deeper goal in mind? Seems like a lot of effort just to take over more planets. With the first Phantasm, it threw the characters “in the shit” without much explanation of why. In the end, we never find out what it’s all about. It ends up being a mind fuck, slowly executed over 37 years.