December 28, 2016


It's only fitting that the newly remastered Phantasm and what's certainly its final sequel, Phantasm: Ravager, have been simultaneously released. The original, of course, is a beloved classic and remains a superlative example of budget-minded creativity. The other, intentionally or not, serves as a nice coda and love letter to legions of fans who've embraced this sporadically revisited franchise over the years.

Starring Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm. Directed by Don Coscarelli. (1979, 90 min).

"If this one doesn't scare you, you're already dead!”

That was the tagline used to promote Phantasm back in the summer of 1979. Coupled with an absolutely stunning trailer, which prominently featured the flying skull-drilling sphere that became a franchise trademark, the film was too enticing for a teenage horror fan like me to pass up.

Perhaps because I first saw it as a co-feature with Romero's Dawn of the Dead (which blew me away at the time), Phantasm didn't quite live up to its own hype (though few horror films ever actually do). The film's limited budget was obvious, the story sometimes incomprehensible and, Angus Scrimm notwithstanding, the performances strictly amateur night. Phantasm's patchwork attempts at surrealism ranged from suitably creepy to downright goofy. The only real constant was its inconsistency, and I must have been one of those who were already dead because I never found it particularly scary.

The Tall Man's rendition of Goodnight Moon provides little comfort.
Still, the dreamlike structure is effective, allowing writer/director Don Coscarelli and pals to unleash some moments of sheer brilliance that have made Phantasm a cult classic. The deadly sphere remains a wonderfully sinister creation. Despite the ad campaign and its prominence in subsequent sequels, the sphere only shows up a couple of times, but its arrival ushers in one of the greatest death scenes in modern horror history. And what more can be said about The Tall Man? As played with over-the-top gusto by Angus Scrimm, he may not be quite as iconic as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, but he's a menacing villain in the classic boogeyman tradition. His sudden reappearance in the very final scene is as effective as horror gets; viewed as a stand-alone film, that scene still manages to induce chills.

Aesthetically, Phantasm is definitely a product of its time, but like digging out a high school yearbook to reminisce about the good times preserved on its pages, this 4K restoration (supervised by J.J. Abrams) makes it 1979 all over again. The film has never looked or sounded this good on home video, which helps compensate for the surprisingly underwhelming batch of bonus features. The audio commentary is pretty good and the vintage interview is interesting, but for such a relatively high profile re-release, one would think an all-new retrospective feature would be in order, especially since most of those interested in a disc like this have probably seen the film many times before (and already own DVD editions with more comprehensive extras).

AUDIO COMMENTARY (with writer/director Don Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm & Bill Thornbury).
1979 INTERVIEW (featuring Coscarelli & Scrimm...looks like a local cable access program).
TRAILERS (Original and Remastered)

Starring Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm, Kathy Lester. Directed by David Hartman. (2016, 86 min).

If Phantasm Remastered is like digging out your high school yearbook, then Phantasm: Ravager is like hooking up with old friends at your 40 year reunion. You're happy to see them once again, alive and well, but perhaps a tad melancholy because none of you are getting any younger and the prospect of never seeing them again afterwards looms larger with each reunion.

Such an analogy is fitting regarding the cast, all of whom return for this fourth sequel. Think about it...aside from occasional minor roles in other projects, the only time we ever see them onscreen is when they gather for another Phantasm film. It isn't simply one movie in their long career...Phantasm is their career. Like your reunion buddies, everyone's obviously older, heavier and balder, but other than that, they haven't changed a whit since you last saw them.

Nor has their situation. By now, it's well established that The Tall Man is unkillable, yet no one seems at-all aware of the utter futility in continuing to do battle with him. This time, the primary focus is on Reggie, a wise decision since Reggie Bannister was always the best actor of the bunch and is largely responsible for the surprising amount of humor in this entry. Though it's the only film not directed by Coscarelli (who co-writes and produces here), it's far more entertaining than Phantasm III & IV, both of which were downright terrible. Then again, what do I know? I'm in the extreme minority thinking Phantasm II remains the best one in the franchise.

Donald Trump comes to town.
Ravager is arguably closest in overall tone to the original, and if you aren't already a fan of the series, utterly incomprehensible. And that's okay because you weren't invited to the party, anyway. The story, such as it is, serves only to throw all the beloved Phantasm elements together one last time...the spheres, Jody's Hemi 'Cuda (now decked-out like a Mad Max vehicle), Reggie's four-barreled shotgun...even the Lady in Lavender. And, of course, The Tall Man looms large. He may not look or sound as menacing as he once did, but the late Angus Scrimm still gives it his all, his advancing age rendering this once-malevolent character oddly endearing.

In fact, despite all the violence, death and apocalyptic implications, Phantasm: Ravager ultimately becomes a charming feel-good film for those who grew up on the series. Over the course of 36 years and five films, no attempt has been made to push boundaries, go in new directions, clarify the ongoing story or even improve the sometimes-questionable technical aspects. Despite concluding just as ambiguously open-ended as the others, Ravager leaves little question that this reunion will be the last, and now it's time to bid a fond farewell.

AUDIO COMMENTARY (with director/co-writer David Hartman & producer/co-writer Don Coscarelli).
(from old friends)

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