PHANTASM ***** USA 1979 Dir: Don Coscarelli. 89 mins
You think you are in familiar territory at the start of PHANTASM: a not-uncommon slasher-era graveyard shag; a familiar small American town with a HALLOWEEN-like suburban house; and an insistently eerie Carpenter / Goblin-inspired electronic theme tune. Things quickly, however, refuse to go according to plan when the boob-baring horny blonde in the graveyard yanks out a knife and the haunted visage of Angus Scrimm emerges for the very first time. Lowly ice cream vendor Reggie Bannister (grounding the movie and predating Bruce Campbell’s equally hapless, cartoonish unlikely-hero Ash) finds his humble existence of beer and guitar-strumming on the front porch turned upside down following the opening murder.
Alongside unwitting partners Bill Thornbury and his 13 year old bro (A Michael Baldwin), Bannister’s charmingly retro solution to the mayhem they face is to “stomp the shit” out of Scrimm’s foreboding “The Tall Man” and drive a stake through his heart. These amiable characters wisecrack their way through a series of nightmarish scenarios, allowing for nervous chuckles (“It was probably just a gopher in heat!”) as reality fractures. Everyone remembers the money shot moment of the iconic flying silver sphere drilling geysers of blood out of a guy’s forehead, but just as haunting are the tiny barrels of cadavers, the hooded dwarves scuttling between gravestones and the Tall Man’s severed, living finger wriggling around in yellow goo. Positioned somewhere between the terrifying ride you always yearned for from the carnival “Ghost Train”, and the surrealistic nightmare logic of the later ELM STREET series, it remains one of the most haunting U.S. horror films of its period. Coscarelli makes particularly evocative use of the scowling Scrimm, with one terrific throwaway scare in which he turns to intimidate the audience while seemingly confined to the safe world of an ancient monochrome photograph. It also has one of the best, and earliest, post-CARRIE / pre-FRIDAY THE 13TH final-frame scares designed to jolt audiences reaching for their coats en route to the exit.
PHANTASM II **** USA 1988 Dir: Don Coscarelli. 93 mins
Given the modest nature of the rest of the PHANTASM franchise, it’s strange to think that, in Hollywood’s desire to milk New Line’s ELM STREET cash-cow, Universal Pictures gave Don Coscarelli a healthy chunk of change to make a belated sequel to his low-budget 1979 flick. It picks up where the earlier movie left off, as Reggie saves Mike (for one film only, at the studio’s insistence, played by the hunkier James Le Gros – a role Brad Pitt auditioned for, fact fans!) and the movie becomes a pacey Tall Man-chasing road movie, weirdly prefiguring TERMINATOR 2 in its structure and downbeat narration. With more money at his disposal, Coscarelli is able to indulge his wilder ideas and deliver the kind of pyrotechnics and splatter that funding prohibited in the surrounding PHANTASM pictures. Hence, we have explosions, Freddy-like gore gags of the Tall Man manifesting as an over-sized maggoty thing, slicker / shinier silver spheres burrowing through heads and bodies, and even an elaborate climactic Tall Man melt-down rife with yukky yellow goo. Ostensibly, the movie reincarnates the feel and concepts of PHANTASM as a slick theme park ride, with splashy gore moments or comic shenanigans every few minutes, and Bannister officially confirmed as the main Schmuck-hero rival to THE EVIL DEAD franchise’s Ash. Getting off with hot girls, afforded his own obligatory 80’s tooling-up montage and challenging better-equipped rivals to chainsaw duels, Bannister is hilarious and adorable. Some kind of series highpoint for eye-candy is reached with cool, cute brunette hitchhiker Samantha Philips as “Alchemy”, enthusiastically giving Reg the ride of his life (“God Reg, I love your head!”), though Coscarelli doesn’t lose sight of the eerie surrealism of the original: there’s a stand-out creepy scene in a ransacked graveyard. It also has the best shock ending of the series, with everybody apparently perishing at the indestructible Tall Man’s hands.
PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD **** USA 1994 Dir: Don Coscarelli. 87 mins
Returning to the series’ indie roots after the Universal-funded II, the third outing revives continuity by bringing back A Michael Baldwin, the original “Mike”, to rejoin his original co-stars Reggie Bannister and Bill Thornbury. After a rousing “Previously On Phantasm” montage, it follows the series trend of picking up immediately from the previous film’s cliffhanger, something relatively rare in the world of horror franchise-dom. Mike keeps having coma-visions of the dead Thornbury in a back-lit afterlife speaking like the squeaky midget from POLTERGEIST, and Reggie continues to channel Bruce Campbell by dividing his time between exploding the heads of evil dwarves and getting his ass consistently kicked. While Thornbury is trapped within one of the silver spheres, Reg forms a fresh buddy act with a gun-toting, evil-fighting orphan whose parents were offed by The Tall Man. The most playful of the series, this revels in movie quotes (“I’m too old for this shit!”) and Raimi-inspired comic-horror territory with scuttling disembodied demon hands. Considering the reduced budget, the film impresses with a brisk succession of car stunts, decapitations, spheres invading craniums, effective shocks (a Frisbee-induced throat slashing) and fine surrealistic horrors including a Tall Man-controlled nurse erupting in yellow goo before a sphere emerges from her brain pan, complete with detachable eyeball. Bannister is again great value as the indefatigable Reg, successfully seducing a nunchuck-wielding butch black chick (Gloria Lynne Henry, sporting a Grace Jones buzz-cut) in a low rent motel with the outstanding line “You ever try Vanilla?” Sadly, their handcuffed passion (“You’re so big!”) turns out to be an amusingly optimistic Reggie fantasy. As ever, the film is enhanced by the effectively insistent score and by Scrimm’s indelible presence as the malevolent force behind all of the unfolding horror – and, as ever, it bows out with an elaborate cliffhanger (The Tall Man bellowing “It’s never over!”) that leaves us wanting more.
PHANTASM IV OBLIVION *** USA 1998 Dir: Don Coscarelli. 90 mins
Arguably the weakest of the PHANTASM saga, the fourth chapter all too clearly lacks the funding to achieve its ambitious goals, though it is not without pleasures of its own. It follows the series’ strong hold on continuity by picking up from III’s cliffhanger, as Mike flees in pursuit of the Tall Man while Reggie is literally left hanging in the evil dude’s lair. It’s the most nostalgic of the series, with Mike recalling their earlier lives via previously unseen / unused footage from the first PHANTASM, and the script aping the road movie structure and kiss off lines of the earlier films. Sadly, Reg’s screen time is ill-advisedly reduced, leaving the less engaging Mike Baldwin to carry the movie, while an excess of black and white Civil War backstory scenes prevent the saga moving forward in any significant way. Amidst the dimensional forks and gratuitous exploding cars, Angus Scrimm gets to do his first non-glarey acting in the franchise during the film’s most compelling scenes, portraying the friendly Jebediah Morningside – the earlier, non-evil incarnation of The Tall Man. Meanwhile, Reg shacks up with another hottie (Heidi Marnhout) in another low rent motel, failing to get off with her in any conventional fashion and recoiling as her boobs become attacking silver spheres (“Far out!”) during an otherwise fruitless bedroom scene. Lacking the visceral horrors and eerie charge of its predecessors, OBLIVION is unashamedly sentimental in the way it sacrifices the traditional series cliffhanger for a low key, 1979 character moment. Undeniably poignant for long-term fans, it was probably unsatisfying for those seeking a more thrilling climax.
Reviews by Steven West