When I was much younger, my aunt told me of a film she’d seen at the drive-in many years ago, of how she almost fainted at the sight of a flying silver ball with spikes burrowing itself into a man’s head. This film was Phantasm. With this newfound knowledge I had been given, I began hyping this movie to almost epic proportions in my mind. Before finally obtaining a copy from the video store and sliding the yellowed tape into the VCR, I asked myself “Am I ready?” I wasn’t sure I could handle the horrors that lie before me as I pressed “play”. Turns out, I handled it just fine.
No, Phantasm didn’t wreck me. It was far from the scariest film I’d ever seen in my then fairly young life. When the credits rolled, however, I was terribly intrigued. I didn’t fully understand what I had just seen. There were sequels, though! Three of them! Surely the answers I sought would be found there. Yeah…not so much. The Phantasm films exists in some strange, hazy, nightmare like void of shiny silver balls, alien morticians, creepy Star Wars rejects, and where one of the most unattractive men in the world gets all the hot tail of your wildest dreams. Yes, Phantasm is one truly strange franchise.
With the fifth and final (for now anyway) film, Phantasm: Ravager, coming out on Oct. 7th, I thought it a great time to revisit the epic journey of Mike and Reggie. I have always admired the series as the “little franchise that could”. The Tall Man may have never reached the pop culture saturation level of Freddy Kruger or even Pinhead, but that never stopped writer/director Don Coscarelli from bringing his vision to life and always looking out for the fans.
So keep reading to see how they all stack up in my opinion!
#4 Phantasm II (1988)
Universal stepped in to bankroll this follow up to the super low budget original. Picking up several years later, we find Mike (now played by James Le Gros, because Universal wanted one of the original leads replaced…they didn’t care which one) has been spending his time in a mental institution. He’s also been sharing dreams with a teenage girl named Liz. Once free from the confines of the institution, he’s determined to find her and save her from the clutches of The Tall Man. Naturally, Reggie tags along to crack wise and whoop some Jawa butt.
Along the way they pick up Alchemy, the first in a string of hot chicks who find Reggie magnetically irresistible which also leads to the first truly awkward sex scene in the series. Alchemy rubbing her breasts all over Reggie’s bald head is the epitome of sexy times, at least when following Phantasm’s nightmare logic.
While not my favorite, the film still maintains some goofy charm. There are about three massive explosions, tons of yellow pudding blood, and one seriously demented puppet monster with The Tall Man’s face. The reveal of said creature is one of the film’s highlights.
In my opinion it’s not sacrilege A. Michael Baldwin was replaced. Le Gros is easy enough on the eyes and a strong, captivating lead. Now if they’d tried to replace Reggie, then we would’ve had a problem.
The effects work is nice and gooey, while the mythos is expanded nicely. It’s in this entry we uncover the large scale plan of The Tall Man and his cohorts. They’re going town by town recruiting the living dead, killing the living in order to then recruit them as the living dead, and turning them into pint-sized, dwarf/zombie slaves. Seems legit. This one is certainly worth sticking around to the end for the delightfully yellow puss infused finale. The eyeball popping is worth the price of admission alone.
#3 Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
Initially, I thought this would be on the bottom of the list. The first time I watched Oblivion, I recall being bored to tears. My main memory of the film was a weathered Mike standing around pontificating with The Tall Man in the middle of the desert. What I forgot was the ever imposing sense of desolation across abandoned cityscapes, the fantastic practical effects provided in part by KNB, and naturally…a bunch of explosions.
While Oblivion is certainly a lower budgeted affair from the previous entries, Coscarelli wisely keeps the cast to a bare minimum, only increasing the character’s sense of isolation. We focus almost exclusively on Reggie, Mike, and the possible return of Jody. There is some back story given to The Tall Man’s origins which doesn’t really land in this writer’s opinion. Learning where he came from doesn’t clear up any long lingering questions. It really only creates new ones.
The film is nowhere near as talky as I recalled. It’s essentially split in two story threads; we follow Mike’s journey for answers and Reggie’s quest to save Mike…once again. There’s a Mario and Princess Peach parallel going on here. I’m just sayin’. The Reggie side of the story is surely the most captivating; it’s basically a series of vignettes that allow him the chance to kick various kinds of ass. One shocking moment pits him up against the Sentinel Spheres as they fly up from a very…um, private place, it had me screaming out loud just a tiny bit.
The narrative structure, while more reminiscent of the original’s meandering dream logic is just another road film at its core. Also, like the previous two installments, Reggie does in fact pick up a stranded female along the way. This time out, Coscarelli spares us from further awkward Reggie sexcapades. While I understand some fans’ disappointment that Oblivion is not the epic continuation we were left wanting at the end of Lord of the Dead (Phantasm’s End could’ve been that conclusion). The pace grinds to a halt when we’re focusing on Mike or The Tall Man’s origins. Despite this, Oblivion is still the most underrated film of the series. If you, like me, wrote it off upon your initial viewing – give it another chance. Oblivion might just surprise you.
#2 Phantasm (1979)
Yes, I know. You’re shocked that the original Phantasm isn’t #1 on my list. I think this goes back to when I originally saw it; I had high hopes of never being able to sleep again. That certainly wasn’t the case, and perhaps it’s unfair to hold an almost 40 year old film to the 20 year old expectations of a 12 year old kid. I dunno.
I certainly appreciate the film more now. Some of the imagery is pitch perfect: The Tall Man hovering over Mike’s bed, the initial discovery of “the white room”, the first in Coscarelli’s obvious explosion fetish, plus that mind trip of an ending. There’s a reason the film is considered a classic. It exists on a completely different wavelength than most genre films of the era or even of those since.
What I’m saying, if you’ve never seen any Phantasm film, there’s no reason to skip this one. You won’t understand much of what’s going on, but that is part of the wonder of Phantasm.
#1 Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)
Here we are at my favorite film in the series, Lord of the Dead. There’s so much to love here. For the most part the plot is very similar to Part 2. What we have is another road film with Reggie on the hunt for The Tall Man who’s captured Mike (returning A. Michael Baldwin) as his prisoner because…Still not sure and we’re three films in.
Along the way, Reggie picks up Tim, a more deadly version of Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone, whose parents were taken by The Tall Man. Introducing a rug rat this far into a series is usually a bad sign, but Kevin Conner’s Tim is a lot of fun. Sure, he lacks the blue collar realness of young Mike from the original, but he’s one tough kid. He holds his own during several of the fights with a mean aim and brutal booby traps. Tim doesn’t exist to merely be cute or get captured by the bad guys at the most inopportune moment, though that does happen too.
Reggie also meets the tough as nails Rocky whose wooden acting somehow fits her character. She’s constantly fending off advances from Reggie’s pawing hands, spouting one liners with her monotone delivery, and proving herself adept at whooping ass with a pair of nun-chucks. Yes, Rocky is my favorite character from the series. She even does the most sensible thing at the end of the film and bounces. When all is said and done and it appears the fight with The Tall Man will rage on, Rocky says, “Nah. I’m good.” She drives off into her own happy ending. Despite her character wanting nothing to do with Reggie sexually, she still ends up in bed with him for one more gross and awkward Phantasm sex scene. It might be a dream sequence, but our eyes can’t tell the difference. Ah, Phantasm, got to love it.
Lord of the Dead has a much more direct narrative than some others in the series. I understand that being a drawback for certain viewers, but not this one. At the end of the day, this is one hell of a fun movie. Reggie is at his most Ash-esque while still bringing his own style of sleaze to the show, there are some crazy effects sequences, and the finale teases quite the epic finale. Granted, we are only just now being gifted that conclusion 22 years later. Here’s hoping Ravager is all we’ve dreamed of.
In honor of this crazy franchise, be sure to check out Phantasm: Ravager next week when it hits theaters and VOD! Ravager will be the last film in the series as we sadly lost The Tall Man actor, Angus Scrimm, earlier this year. Of course, there are always chances of the remake/reboot/reboot-quel. Only time will tell. Stay tuned here to Halloween Love over the next week for some more Phantasm goodness.
Let me know what you think of my ranking below. How would you rate the series so far?
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