From the very beginning, ‘Phantasm’ was unlike any other horror franchise. Nearly 40 years later, the latest offering, ‘Phantasm: Ravager’, is made purely for fans and yet would likely make about as much sense to viewers who have never seen these movies before. That’s how it’s always been. These movies don’t pander, even to those who love them the most.
The original ‘Phantasm’ was made on a shoestring by a young Don Coscarelli, mostly financed by his family. The mixture of nightmare dream logic storytelling, imaginative horror/fantasy imagery, crude indie production and oddball comedy was totally unique, and many of the movie’s failings turned into either charming mysteries or campy strengths. As the series stretched on through four sequels, little changed. The movies have remained equally cheap and inventive, the ever-growing mythology has never fully expanded into concrete explanations, and genres seem to shift at will. You’re either on-board with the distinct nuttiness that Coscarelli has fed audiences for all these years or you throw up your hands in disbelief and question what all the fuss is about.
This time, former ice cream vendor turned shotgun warrior Reggie Bannister takes the lead. He opens the story wandering through the desert, living in a ‘Mad Max’-style wasteland now that the Tall Man (the late, great Angus Scrimm) has taken over the planet. We see Reggie do his badass thing to steal back his car and then meet up with a new lady (Dawn Cody) for a night in a cabin in the woods. Unsurprisingly, those brain-eating silver balls show up en-masse and blood flies around liberally. Then, just as the horror starts, Reggie wakes up in a hospital where he’s confronted by his old friend Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and told that none of that Tall Man stuff was ever real. He actually had a breakdown and has been ranting and raving in a mental institution, convinced that the dying old man in a neighboring bed is some sort of agent of evil. Uh oh? What’s going on with reality?! Guess it must be a ‘Phantasm’ movie!
As usual, this ‘Phantasm’ sequel dives deep into all the franchise mythology, yet at the same time goes off in a completely different direction. That’s how this surreal series has always worked, starting with nightmare 1970s horror (‘Phantasm’), segueing into goofy ’80s action/horror/comedy (‘Phantasm II’), descending into pure camp for kids (‘Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead’), and then retreating back into fantasy/horror that pulled unused footage from the first movie to travel through time and reframe the whole narrative (‘Phantasm IV: Oblivion’). In this one, co-writer/producer Coscarelli and co-writer/director David Hartman (it’s the first time Coscarelli hasn’t directed himself) mix in apocalyptic action, multiple dimensions of reality, and even a dash of psychological horror. So it’s different, yet the same – just like all ‘Phantasm’ sequels. Also just like all ‘Phantasm’ sequels, it doesn’t quite match the magic of the original, but is still batshit insane enough to please the oddballs who make up the fan base.
Reggie Bannister is predictably entertaining in the lead, mugging up a storm to be both a badass and a clown in delightful ways. While Angus Scrimm doesn’t get as much screen time as most fans would like, it’s nice that he got one last run at his horror icon before his death. A. Michael Baldwin is fine, but it’s not a bad thing that he isn’t the main character. New characters enter and are fun, but never the focus.
The script mixes tones and outlandish ideas with ease. It’s funny and creepy and mysterious and just cheesy enough to get a few extra laughs without embarrassment. Hartman handles directing duties rather well, matching Coscarelli’s usual exaggerated style and mixing in some epic CGI imagery on a shoestring. The movie has some genuinely strong scare and action scenes, as well as some downright silly ones. Some of the ideas in play are really clever, while others just feel odd. There’s a nice building on the mythology that kind of explains why all the previous movies have been so different while also keeping all the answers just out of reach. In short, it’s a good as the last few ‘Phantasm’ sequels. That’s either high praise or an insult depending on whom you talk to.
The ‘Phantasm’ movies aren’t for everyone and ‘Phantasm: Ravager’ is certainly only for those who are already invested in this inexplicably odd franchise that Don Coscarelli has clearly been making up as he goes along. The chances of anyone other than a superfan diving into the fourth sequel of a franchise are slim, so there’s no need for the filmmakers to play for the uninitiated. At this point, you know what you’re getting out of one of these movies. Though ‘Ravager’ is under-budgeted, absurd, convoluted and unnecessary, these are all part of the ‘Phantasm’ charm in a weird way. The series always walks the line between art horror and incomprehensible cheapo sleaze.
‘Ravager’ is at least as good as the last two sequels, and that’s just fine. The magic concoction of the first movie was always going to be impossible to top and the Hollywood sheen of the first sequel was unrepeatable in its own way. For those who enjoy dipping in and out of what is probably the strangest and most unique horror franchise around, ‘Phantasm: Ravager’ at least provides more of the same. The fact that the movie even exists at all is kind of a miracle. When the credits roll, it both feels like a possible conclusion and suggests that the movie didn’t need to exist. Don’t expect answers or a definitive series ending, but then again if you enjoy ‘Phantasm’ you’d never expect that, would you? All you want are some brain-sucking balls, that freaky Tall Man and a wisecracking hippie action hero. You know, the good stuff.