The Phantasm Series – A Retrospective

When you’re looking up the term “cult classic,” I’m sure a picture of Phantasm probably would accompany the description. Made by indie filmmaker Don Coscarelli, the original spawned a series of films that quickly became favourites of horror fans everywhere. Now let’s take a look back and enter the world of the walking dead, killer silver spheres and a terrifying undertaker hellbent on conquering our world.

Phantasm (1979)

Synopsis: After the death of a friend, brothers Jody and Mike Pearson and their friend Reggie investigate strange going-ons centered around a mortuary run by a creepy, tall mortician.

Retrospective: 39 years after it came out, the original Phantasm still holds-up. Obviously heavily influenced by Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the original film has a dreamy surrealism where you’re not quite sure what is real and what isn’t. Though he’s not in the film that much, Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man casts a pall over the entire film, and his influence and menace permeates throughout the film. A. Michael Baldwin stands out as young Mike, who careens from bizarre situation to bizarre situation, and despite being the main protagonist, it’s clear there’s just enough wrong with the kid to make you question the strange experiences he’s encountering. Reggie Bannister is also absent for most of the film, but when he shows up, the movie picks up, and his strong personality is evident in his few scenes. Bill Thornbury’s Jody is the rock that holds the group together, and upon discovering his fate at the end of the movie, you feel the loss as strongly as Reggie and Mike. Phantasm to me is the last word on movies that not necessarily have to make sense, but the fact that so much in the movie just seems…wrong…heightens the unease, as you’re never sure what is going to happen next. Coscarelli took the book on conventional horror and threw it out the window. The result is a movie that at times, doesn’t make sense, but undeniably deserves its reputation as a classic.

The Version: I have the Remastered blu-ray version distributed by Well Go USA – I highly recommend getting this version. The picture is fantastic, and the extras, (my favourite is the Graveyard Carz feature on the Hemi-‘Cuda) are worth it.

Phantasm 2 (1988)

Synopsis: Fresh out of the insane asylum, Mike convinces Reggie to join him in tracking down the Tall Man and save Elizabeth, a woman with whom he shares a psychic connection.

Retrospective: While the first Phantasm is the best in the series (in my opinion), the first sequel to me, is the worst. It’s not bad but suffers from obvious studio meddling which takes away much of what made the first one such a hit. First, replacing A. Michael Baldwin with James LeGros was a mistake. LeGros tries, but he lacks the expressive eyes and honesty that Baldwin had in the first film. Secondly, the film is more straight-forward and thus lacks the charm of the original. It plays like a competently-made, conventional horror film, that bears no stylistic resemblance to the first film. Lastly, the Elizabeth character is completely wasted and basically plays the damsel in distress. The set-up to her connection with Mike has no payoff and feels like a half-forgotten idea by the end of the film. It’s not bad, but you expect better from a Phantasm film.

The Version: I only have the bare-bones DVD, so if you’re going to get this one, shell out extra for the blu-ray.

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

Synopsis: After Mike is abducted by the Tall Man, Reggie teams with youngster Tim and ex-military soldier Rocky to track him down.

Retrospective: I liked this one when I first saw it and enjoyed it, even more, the second time through. I think it’s pretty ingenious to have the main protagonist change from Mike to Reggie (Mike is barely in the first half of the film) and both Tim and Rocky turn out to be terrific characters. It’s hard especially to nail loner pre-teen males – the general result is a kid who is mouthy and unlikeable. Tim is both lethal and grounded, which makes him an asset instead of an annoyance. Rocky has auspicious beginnings but turns out to be alright. The silver spheres are explained more in this film, and the result is kinda terrifying and turns the sentinels from occasional lethal device of the Tall Man to something a little more emotional. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and place it right in the middle of the series – my only complaint is I want more Mike, but at least we’re back to a surreal narrative, and the big reveal at the end about Mike’s possible origin is a game-changer.

The Version: I have the version just released by Well Go USA and recommend it. The picture is phenomenal, you get behind the scenes, a short deleted scene and the trailer. The commentary on the package states it’s by A. Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm – you actually get Don Coscarelli and Norman Buckley. I would normally be miffed that the commentary was mislabeled, but in this case, I would rather have the director and editor talking about the film than the two stars – Coscarelli and Buckley would have more insight (in my opinion) on the making of the film than two actors.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

Synopsis: After Mike’s departure at the end of part three, Reggie tracks Mike, who is embarking on a quest to stop the Tall Man, once and for all.

Retrospective: Despite its very low-budget origins and recycling of content, I think this movie is great. Firstly, I love harkening back to the events that happened in the first film – it connects what’s going on in this film back to the first one, which ramps up the relevance of what you’re seeing. I really like Mike’s quest, which takes him back to the Tall Man before he was evil, which humanizes what at this point was an unknowable evil entity that never seemed to possibly be human. I also think that splitting up Mike and Reggie was smart – both men’s quests had different tones, with Reggie very grounded in what was going on in the “real” world, while Mike’s journey is more like a vision quest, very odd and fantastical, but ultimately providing more answers than the viewer had previously received. I think this is the best movie in the series, next to the original.

The Version: Like part three, I watched the newly-released Well Go USA version and like three, recommend this one. The picture is crisp and clear, the commentary with Coscarelli, Baldwin and Angus Scrimm is entertaining, and you also get the original trailer and behind the scenes footage).

Phantasm V: Ravager (2016)

Synopsis: Back from the Tall Man’s dimension, Reggie searches for Mike, but discovers he’s not sure what’s real and what isn’t.

Retrospective: Eighteen years after the last film, Phantasm V is the last of the series. As a payoff, the movie is both satisfying and not. It’s satisfying because you get everyone you like back together and still fighting the Tall Man at the end. While it’s not conclusive, you feel that this is the best position the good guys have had in the entire series – they’re now aware of the threat and prepared to deal with it. It’s not satisfying because so many occurrences were not wrapped up, and throwing the whole idea that the entire series may have been the product of a dying, demented man leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. The movie plays more like a series of vignettes than a singular coherent (or semi-coherent) vision – I’m not sure if it’s because of the extreme low-budget nature or what, but it feels like so much left to be said was left somewhere else and not in the film. It’s better than part two, but as a conclusion to the series, it leaves something to be desired.

The Version: I watched the (you guessed it) Well Go USA release for this film – the picture was great (as it should be, released in 2016) and you get commentary with Don Coscarelli and director David Hartman (which again was very informative), with some behind the scenes stuff, three deleted scenes, a trailer and some bloopers and outtakes.

The Verdict

Despite the unevenness and lack of a conclusive ending, the Phantasm series is undeniably classic. A moody, intense and unconventional horror series, it delves into fear – fear of death, fear of losing your loved ones, fear of corruption of the dead and fear of not knowing if you can trust what you think you’re experiencing or not. It’s cerebral horror, and iconic villain ensure that the series will continue on for new horror fans to discover its twists and turns, while people who saw it the first time can look back and remember when Angus Scrimm first scowled, raised an eyebrow and growled “boy!”