Digging Into The Phantasm Film Franchise


You might be surprised to learn that I've never seen a Phantasm film before a month ago. As much as I love horror, and grew up on it, the Phantasm films never appealed to me. I guess I just didn't know enough about them, which extended to my close group of friends back in the 80's. None of them ever mentioned them whenever we dove head-first into horror films.

Recently our last remaining video store closed it's doors for good, and believe it or not, it was a Blockbuster. Though the main stores shut down a while ago all over the U.S., the independently run stores were allowed to remain open, so our local Blockbuster, the one and only remaining video store in the area within a 50 mile radius, was still active. I was a weekly customer, sticking primarily to their older films in horror and action, which you could keep for 5 Nights for $1.20, or a single night for 50 cents. You just can't beat those prices. So when I heard they were finally succumbing to the financial decline of the video store, I was sad. Really sad. Which also meant they would be selling their entire inventory of DVD's and Blu ray's. In the prorceeding weeks, I made several trips and purchased a few stacks of films, one of them being the OOP Anchor Bay release of Phantasm. I figured I couldn't pass it up at just $5, and now would be as good a time as any to finally give the film a shot.

Phantasm (1979)

Here's what I knew going into Phantasm. The main villain is a tall old man and there was something about flying spheres that kill you. I knew that Don Coscarelli was responsible for the series and that he also did Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep. That's it. So I went in fairly cold.

One of the things I noticed immediately was it's incredible score. It instantly became a favorite and I couldn't wait to track it down on vinyl, which was easy to do with the re-issue by Death Waltz/Mondo. The Goblin-influenced synth score by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave is just phenomenal. The films main theme medley will instantly get stuck in your head for days after and rightfully sits at the top of the list of best scores in horror film history. I can't remember the last time I watched a film and was immediately captivated by it's score, other than my first time watching The Visitor. It's an amazing score and one you need to include in your collection.

Phantasm was a good film. For better or for worse, it ended up being about as good as I had expected. I wasn't blown away by it, and I didn't love it. For me personally, I feel there are things that work really well, and then there are things that don't. I know the whole history behind it (I did my research), so I can understand and forgive a lot of it's Low-Budget DYI sensibilities. I just can't help but feel there's a much better and stronger film in there.

The things I found that work are of course, it's monumentally impressive score, but also Don Coscarelli's evenhanded direction. He keeps it simple and it works for the material. The story, though it could have been more fleshed out, is interesting enough to keep you invested. They don't give you all the answers, so a lot of history and who or what The Tall Man is or where he comes from is left out, which keeps you guessing and asking a million questions.

Of all the things that work for Phantasm, none is more important than the character of The Tall Man. It's safe to say that he makes the series, and it's just 100% brilliant casting in my book. Angus Scrimm's portrayal immediately cemented himself as one of the biggest horror icons of the last 40 years. He only utters a handful of lines in the entire film, but it's the way he delivers them and the simple, yet effective words chosen that make them memorable.

Overall it's an interesting and amusing start to a horror franchise. You can't help but notice it's shortcomings, like it's budget restraints and wooden acting, but there's enough to like here that warrant at least a one-time watch. I know others love it though, so I might be in the minority of finding it only marginally enjoyable. Still, I liked it enough that it got me to want to check out the rest of the series.

Phantasm II (1988)

Released a whole 9 years later, Phantasm II picked up immediately following the events of the first film. I'm talking literally minutes. Mike is released from a mental hospital 10 years later, coincidentally runs into Reggie, and together they begin their pursuit of The Tall Man.

I had always heard that this sequel was everyone's favorite. After having finally seen it, I can see why. This time around, the film was backed by Universal, giving it a significant jump in budget, and it's all over the screen. Everything is bigger and glossier this time around; effects, explosions, lots of guns, blood, you name it. A big difference you'll notice immediately is that the role of Mike has been recast, at Universal's insistence. This time around he's played by James Le Gros, who was kind of just breaking out into the business himself. Le Gros does the job fine, but I found it really distracting that he looked and acted so different from the first film, where Mike was originally portrayed by A. Michael Baldwin.

I found this one to be more enjoyable than the first film, mainly because of it's big budget sheen. It's still not great, but the bigger look and feel to everything gives the film a significant jump in entertainment value. Again, explosions seem to be a big part of the series, and this entry doesn't disappoint. We can all thank the geek gods that Universal did allow Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister to return. I'll admit that Reggie isn't the strongest actor out there, but there's still something likable about him. It doesn't really come off as natural, but you can tell he really tries hard.

The Tall Man does have a few more lines this time around, spouting off catchphrases that nerds like us tend to repeat over and over. One of the significant things for me that attracts me to this series is seeing how much Angus Scrimm enjoys playing the character. You can just tell. You can feel it. He was born to play this role and goddammit he's going to deliver the goods and make you remember his performance. The thing about him is that even though he rarely utters a word, it's in his body language; the way he walks, the way he scowls. He conveys so much theatrical emotion with just those few physical characteristics that it just makes the character and the film.

I wish I could say I loved it, but much like the first one, I just enjoyed it for what it was. It still feels like there's something missing, something keeping it from being great. All the right ingredients are here, but it just never hits the mark 100%. I think some of that again falls on returning writer/director Don Coscarelli's writing. Again he doesn't really fill you in on a lot of the details surrounding The Tall Man or what his intentions fully are. So much of the story is still a mystery that it can be a bit aggravating.

If you can shut your brain off and not dig into the psychology of what's going on, then you'll enjoy the film for what it is; a big budget summer horror film, which helped push the franchise more into the mainstream.

Phantasm III: 
Lord of the Dead (1994)

6 years after the release of Universals big budget sequel comes Part III. Since Part II didn't do so well in theaters, Universal backed out of fully funding it this time around, but did distribute it on home video if Coscarelli was able to get it made, which he did.

I've seen the first 4 Phantasm films to date, and this entry is my favorite. Why? Because it's batshit insane. I think we can all agree that writer/director Don Coscarelli had no clear vision of what he was going to do because it's painfully evident. It's almost as if he made shit up on the spot and just threw in any crazy idea he had in his head and stitched it all together. At times it looked and felt like a Post Apocalyptic flick, before it veers off into another direction. I liked that about this though. I never knew where this was going to go, and the fact that none of it still didn't make any sense didn't bother me.

I couldn't even begin to think of a synopsis to give you other than Reggie and Mike continue their search for The Tall Man, all while coming across towns that are abandoned, confirming their suspicions that The Tall Man and his band of minions are responsible and working their way across the whole country wiping out towns in their path. 

This time out, James Le Gros is out and A. Michael Baldwin returns to the role of Mike that he originated in the very first film all the way back in 1979. This added a huge "cool" factor for me, because it just added a very special ingredient to the mix. It made it more legit. Reggie, and Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man also return, but the addition that really threw me for a loop was Mike's brother Jody also returning, again played by Bill Thornbury, completing the circle of principle players from the first film. This was awesome.

Phantasm III is a lot different from the previous film. You can tell the budget is smaller (just look at that poster), and this third entry takes a huge detour into WTF? territory. Half the time it was pretty silly, and the only time it eve became predictable was when Reggie meets a girl. Somehow, in some way, he always manages to bed a girl in these films, knowing full well that it always leads to something bad, like the girl really being a monster or something. It's like a signature of these films, just like random explosions for no apparent reason.

If there's one thing Phantasm III proves is that Don Cosceralli just cannot film a sex scene, even if his life depended on it. They're awkward, the complete opposite of sexy, and highly unflattering for anyone involved. I mean, they're humping, yet she still has underwear on and he's still got his jeans on. So what are they doing? You just end up rolling your eyes at the whole thing and that's a constant theme in all of these whenever Reggie hooks up with a random girl. Ultimately, these end up being some of the worst sequences in the entire franchise.

Of all the Phantasm films, I enjoy this one the most because it's so bizarre, but in a fun low-budget direct-to-video silly kind of way. Even the inclusion of a kid didn't bother me. He was actually pretty good and didn't annoy the shit out of me like most others do. The random badass army chick was a nice inclusion, and the effects were pretty solid.

Phantasm IV:
Oblivion (1998)

One of the things that I find so odd is that there are so many years in between all of these Phantasm films, so you would think that creator/writer/director Don Cosceralli is using this time (years!) to flesh out a great script that will eventually be made into a feature film. But each time we get a new Phantasm film, however many years later, it's always the complete opposite. Instead of getting better, or stronger, they only become more and more bizarre and nonsensical. Of all the Phantasm films I've seen to date, this one takes the cake as being the worst by far. *before you jump down my throat, I haven't seen Ravager yet.

Where to even begin? Phantasm IV makes absolute zero sense. Just the way the previous entry did, this film takes place literally minutes after Part III. And that's all I can tell you really. The film ends up being a bunch of completely random sequences that have nothing to do with one another, and have zero impact on the film or franchise as a whole. I don't know what any of it meant and I exhausted myself trying to figure it out. This is pretty much the nail on the head for me, the moment Cosceralli realized he had nothing left and just gathered his friends and made shit up on the spot. At least, that's exactly how it felt.

This was so radically random and all over the place, but in a very uninteresting and boring way. It's almost like Cosceralli attempted to take an "existential" approach to this one. There's not a lot of dialogue, which only adds to the frustration as none of the previous entries made any attempt at really trying to explain anything anyway. It's as if Cosceralli had an image in his head, like maybe the sequence where Mike and The Tall Man meet in the desert, next to a lone tree, and just shot it spontaneously, without any clear idea of what he wanted to do or how it ties into anything else going on. It looks cool visually, but it doesn't mean anything and goes nowhere.

If there was anything good about this film, it would simply be that we get to see the origins of The Tall Man. While cool, it was also another head-scratcher because, much like everything else, it totally contradicts everything that we knew and were told about The Tall Man leading up to this point.

Another element that makes this particular entry stand out from the rest is the fact that long-lost footage that was filmed and cut from the first film back in 1979 had been re-discovered. So Cosceralli integrated a lot of that unused footage into the film as flashbacks/dream sequences, making things even more surreal. It was fascinating to see all this new footage that was shot 20 years prior, but none of it gives you any real information or offers any clue's as to what the fuck is actually going on. What's real and what's a dream?

Just like all the other films in the series, the ending leaves you hanging, which isn't a big surprise as none of these films have any linear storytelling. It's just a bunch of random sequences stitched together using recycled footage and music. I can honestly say that Phantasm IV is without a doubt one of the weirdest films I've ever seen, and not in a good way.


I know it probably sounds like I am hating on these films, but the truth is, I actually quite enjoyed them for what they were, except for part IV. I'm glad I finally got around to watching them and I'm happy I can say that I've seen them. The first 3 were all uniquely entertaining in their own way, with Part IV being a pretty big downer for an ending and a sad way to end the series for the next 18 years, before Ravager came out. The Phantasm film's is one of the most unique and bizarre horror franchise's in history, for better or for worse. People seem to really love them, and I guess I can understand, to a degree, why. They're not really my cup of tea personally, but there are things about them that I can appreciate. If there was anything I took away from the experience, it's that The Tall Man is arguably one of the best horror icon's out there, and deservedly so. He immediately became my wife's favorite horror figure to worship. Our next stop is of course, Ravager, but with all the terrible word of mouth, we're going to take our time getting to that one. But, being a completest, I know it's something we'll have to do eventually. To be continued with Ravager....

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I checked these out a few years back. Like you the score is the thing that stays in my head. I liked all of them but you're right part 4 is the least. It's more a collection of scenes than a full script. I still enjoyed all the "flashback" footage and was happy with the ending. I still haven't checked out Ravager... yet.