Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Film Appreciation - Phantasm 2013 A.D.


Cody Hamman digs deep into the Phantasm series for Film Appreciation. Ditch the silver bells, celebrate the holidays with the silver spheres!


PHANTASM (1979)

At the age of twenty-two, Don Coscarelli was looking to start working on his third feature film, following the childhood dramas Jim, the World's Greatest and Kenny & Company. Inspired by an audience's reaction to a jump scare moment in the Halloween-set Kenny & Company, and looking to achieve a level of success his dramas hadn't, Coscarelli was set on giving the horror genre a try. At first, he considered making an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, which centered on two young boys and the horrors that befall them when a mysterious carnival headed up by the evil, mystical Mister Dark arrives in their town. But the rights to make a cinematic adaptation of Something Wicked were held by Disney, so Coscarelli retreated to an isolated cabin to spend a few weeks working on an original idea in solitude.


The title he got from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Phantasm. The set-up was spun off from the basics of Something Wicked This Way Comes; Coscarelli's story would still deal with a young boy and the horrors that come to his town with the arrival of an evil outside force - but in this case, it wouldn't be a carnival. Coscarelli decided to base the horror around a concept that makes everyone uneasy, and yet it's something we all inevitably face and must deal with - death. In particular, Coscarelli was fascinated by the American way of death, how we hand the bodies of our loved ones over to a mortician to work on behind closed doors and prepare for the event of the funeral days later. His own Mister Dark would be a mortician known only as The Tall Man. The plight of the youthful protagonist would also harken back to 1953's Invaders from Mars. Another literary source of inspiration for Coscarelli was Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel Dune, and he was further fuelled by images from his own nightmares and the off-balance thoughts that came with spending weeks locked away in the mountain cabin alone.


With a loose, constantly evolving script in hand, Coscarelli proceeded to cast the film with actors he had worked with on his previous films and then production began. Being shot with rented equipment and exclusively on weekends, production continued on for nearly two years, with the budget ending up somewhere in the range of $300,000.


The film begins in the spookiness of a cemetery at night, where a young man named Tommy is getting it on with a nameless young lady in a lavender dress. Once they've both reached their climax, the lady draws a large knife out of nowhere and plunges it into Tommy's body. As Tommy lays dying, the face of the lady in lavender is replaced by the face of a frightening older man. The Tall Man. As The Tall Man looks down on Tommy's corpse with approval, we've gotten our first experience of the film's "nightmare logic" approach.

Tommy's funeral is attended by two of our lead protagonists, twenty-four year old Jody Pearson and his musician/ice cream man buddy Reggie. We get the impression that Jody was once a touring musician himself, but was forced to come in off the road two years earlier when his parents died, leaving him to take care of his younger brother Mike by himself.


Jody hasn't brought Mike along to Tommy's funeral because the young boy had nightmares for weeks after the services for their parents, but that hasn't stopped the headstrong thirteen-year-old from riding his dirt bike over to the grounds of the Morningside Mortuary to watch from a distance as Tommy is buried in the very cemetery he was murdered in... Or at least, everyone attending his funeral believes that Tommy is being buried. From his vantage point, through a pair of binoculars, Mike witnesses the tall, strange mortician lift Tommy's coffin back out of the grave all by himself after the priest and mourners have left and place the heavy object back into his hearse. This isn't the only odd sight Mike sees at Morningside that day, also catching glimpses of cloak-wearing dwarves making odd, inhuman sounds as they run and hide among the tombstones... Jody doesn't see the dwarves, but he also hears those sounds while visiting their parents' vaults in the mausoleum.


At first, greater than Mike's fear of what's going on at Morningside is his fear of being abandoned by his brother, as now that he's thirteen, Jody has been talking about moving on and sending Mike to live with an aunt. Mike is worried that he's going to lose his brother like they lost their parents, and he really likes their life of hanging out, drinking Mexican beer and working on Jody's Plymouth Barracuda. But as the brothers have more strange experiences at and around Morningside, they take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of it all. This is another example of the film's dream-like sensibility: no matter what the Pearsons and their pal Reggie find themselves up against, they never once consider alerting the authorities. Delving into the mystery, they discover that The Tall Man is actually an alien from another world or dimension, gathering corpses on Earth to revive them and shrink them into the vicious dwarf creatures, sending them to his red-tinted, rocky desert homeworld through portals that are similar to large tuning forks. Once there, the corpses-turned-dwarves are used as slaves for unknown purposes. The Tall Man intends to ravage our planet, but despite the scope of this threat, it is only ever Mike, Jody, and Reggie standing between him and the end of the world.


The Tall Man is the embodiment of Death, a supernatural, otherworldy force around which reality and time distort. He can appear as other people, like the lavender lady. He is able to haunt dreams and cause hallucinations. When wounded, he spouts yellow blood, as do his dwarf creations. When his fingers are severed, he simply regenerates them, and the severed digits appear to take on a life of their own. Mike keeps one in a box, and it soon turns into a large, toothy, fly-like insect. And how is it possible that The Tall Man could be in a picture from the 1800s that Mike finds in an antique store?


The Tall Man's funeral home is protected not only by the dwarves but also flying silver spheres that attach to a person's head and drill through flesh and skull, pumping out blood. The brain-drilling silver spheres are one of the most popular elements of the Phantasm films, and the idea for them is one that came to Coscarelli in a dream - just like the spheres roam the halls of the mausoleum in the film, in Coscarelli's dream he found himself being pursued through endless corridors by a silver sphere.


There are plenty of horror movies that take the nightmare logic approach that I find to be either off-putting or maddening, but in the case of Phantasm it works for me perfectly. The events are so strange and scattered, the concepts so odd and unique, the atmosphere so dark and creepy, it truly does feel like a crazy bad dream captured on film. It's never certain if our heroes have stumbled across an alien evil for real or if this is all occurring only in the mind of a scared, traumatized young boy. There are no easy answers in the world of Phantasm, and the more you know, the more confusing it gets. And yet, it's completely fulfilling as a film, very entertaining and involving.

The effectiveness of the film is enhanced by the fact that it has one of the best scores in horror history, with a fantastic and memorable theme composed by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. The exterior of the expansive Morningside Mortuary provides a wonderful setting for a horror movie. The mansion also served as a filming location for the 1976 horror film Burnt Offerings and the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill.


The cast all do well at inhabiting their roles, with A. Michael Baldwin making Mike one of the best child protagonists in horror, a tough kid who shows great bravery when going up against the forces of evil and a lot of ingenuity, particularly when it comes to escaping from a locked room. Bill Thornbury comes off as extremely likeable in the role of Jody, and Reggie Bannister gives the brothers great support as Reggie, who offers to help them "snag that tall dude and stomp the shit out of him". As you can tell from the character names, some of these roles were written with the actors so in mind that they were named after them. Kathy Lester appears as the seductive Lady in Lavender, while Mary Ellen Shaw and Terrie Kalbus make an indelible impression as an unsettling, silent fortune teller and the teenage granddaughter who speaks for her. The character of The Tall Man was created with 6'4" actor Angus Scrimm in mind, and this gave him his career-defining role, one which made him a horror icon.


The film runs approximately 88 minutes, during which time the characters come off as perfectly well-rounded, we get a great idea of who they are. Yet Coscarelli arrived at this running time by paring the film down from a 3 hour long cut, excising a lot of scenes that developed the relationship between the brothers even further, as well as giving background on the two sisters, Sally and Susie, who briefly become involved with the story - one is Jody's girlfriend, and her sister works at Reggie's ice cream shop. Removing the scenes establishing the girlfriend keeps viewers from wondering why Jody would attempt to have his own cemetery dalliance with the lady in lavender.


At one point, a nervous Reggie walks through the empty Pearson residence, on the lookout for anything connected to the Tall Man's schemes. This scene ends with a jump scare, as a middle-aged woman comes barging through a doorway, asking a question in a very loud, high-pitched voice. The audience has no idea who this woman is or why she would be in the house, even though Reggie is relieved that he has merely been scared by "Myrtle", who he appears to think has reason to be there. She's a total mystery within the finished film, this is the only time we ever see her, but deleted scenes would've explained who that character is - she's the boys' housekeeper.

Coscarelli also had several different ideas for how to end the movie. While the finished film ends on ambiguity and twists, some would've clearly explained just what the entire movie had been. There were some interesting possibilities considered, but Coscarelli ultimately chose wisely. While the climactic confrontation with The Tall Man centers around a mine shaft, there were alternate versions of the demise of the villain conceived and filmed, and a couple of them came into play as the series continued.


Phantasm has gone on to be an intriguing, mind-bending franchise, but it's the original film that stands tall among the bunch, being widely considered a true horror classic. Like George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper before him, like Sam Raimi after him, Don Coscarelli was an independent filmmaker who scraped together a low budget and set out to make a horror movie, and ended up making one of the greatest, most notable films in the genre.

Phantasm has been one of my favorites ever since I first watched it on VHS in the early '90s. It's a horror essential, one I would highly recommend to anybody.


After twenty years of being a Phantasm fan, I was very glad to finally get a chance to see the movie on the big screen, projected on 35mm at this past October's 24 hour Shock Around the Clock horror marathon. As great as that screening was, my most memorable viewing of Phantasm was at the Fall 2010 Cinema Wasteland convention, where I watched the movie projected on DVD in one of the convention's screening rooms, with Reggie Bannister himself sitting in the row behind mine. I sat sideways in my seat so I could regularly look back at the man and see his reactions to the movie he acted in more than 30 years before. It was clear that he's a big fan of it himself and is quite proud of it. When the movie ended, Reggie's wife Gigi came over to me and asked me if I had liked it, of course being unaware that the movie was already one of my favorites and I had seen it many, many times previously. I responded in the positive.

I had gotten Reggie to sign my Region 1 DVD copy of Phantasm earlier that day (I also own the Region 2 set of the entire series, where the discs are contained within a plastic silver sphere). The autograph reads: "To Cody, Phantasmic dreams, dude! Reggie Bannister". When signing the DVD cover, Reggie told me that he really likes the name Cody. When he entered the screening room that night, he and I made eye contact, he recognized me and we nodded to each other. A nice moment with a man I had long been a fan of. Reggie is a really cool guy in person, and though he has a supporting role in the first Phantasm, he would go on to become one of horror's coolest heroes in the sequels.


 

PHANTASM II (1988)

Don Coscarelli was often asked about the chances of a sequel to Phantasm being made over the years, but he was always resistant to the idea... Until, nearly a decade later, the thought came to him that he could have the sequel pick up right where the first film left off.

And so part 2 does begin with the final scene of the first film. In a last minute twist, it appears that the entire movie had been a nightmare had by Mike in the wake of Jody's death. Jody is said to have died in a car accident, but Mike believes that The Tall Man is real and took his brother from him. Though we saw Reggie get stabbed by the lady in lavender, he appears to be just fine, with no recollection of what we saw go on throughout the movie, and Mike is in his custody now. After being assured that it was all just a bad dream, Mike returns to his bedroom... Where The Tall Man and his evil little dwarves are waiting to attack. The attack occurs and the story of the sequel begins - Reggie's house is crawling with dwarves and the situation is so hopeless that he has to blow up his own home to save Mike from being taken by The Tall Man.

 

Jump ahead seven years, when Mike, now twenty years old, is released from the Morningside Psychiatric Clinic after convincing the staff that he no longer believes the stories he's told of The Tall Man and his dwarves. He's just telling them what they want to hear. He knows The Tall Man is real and is still out there, destroying towns and plundering graveyards to enslave the dead. He's still haunted by visions and dreams about the mysterious mortician.


Mike is released back into the care of Reggie, who has gone on to become a family man, getting married and having a daughter. And Reggie still doesn't believe in The Tall Man, saying that the house explosion never happened... But as Reggie drives Mike up to his house in Jody's old Barracuda, his house really does explode this time, with Reggie's family inside.

Finally convinced that The Tall Man is real, Reggie agrees to help Mike track him down and stop him. Through his dreams, Mike is being drawn to The Tall Man... and he's not the only one.


In a town somewhere in the northwest United States called Perigord, there lives a girl of Mike's age named Elizabeth Reynolds, who for the past eight years - ever since the events of Phantasm began - has also been having dreams and visions of The Tall Man. And of Mike. In their dreams, Mike and Liz have fallen in love with each other. Liz knows it's only a matter of time before The Tall Man reaches Perigord. When her grandfather dies, The Tall Man will arrive, and her visions will come true. She calls out in her dreams, "Mike, help me." He hears her. He has to find her.


Hitting the road in the 'Cuda in search of The Tall Man and Liz, Mike and Reggie break into a hardware store in the middle of the night, stocking up on weaponry and tools, even building enhanced weapons for themselves. Mike fashions for himself a flamethrower, and in a bit of ingenuity reminiscent of the hero Ash replacing his missing hand with a chainsaw in 1987's Evil Dead II, Reggie creates a quad-barreled shotgun. Before leaving, they drop a wad of cash in the register. They may B&E, but they're not thieves.

When Liz's grandfather passes away and her nightmares begin to become reality, we're also privy to further information on how The Tall Man's operation works. In addition to the dwarves and spheres, he also has zombie-like assistant morticians and gas mask wearing lackeys called Gravers, who are the ones that exhume the bodies.


The minister officiating the funeral service knows of the evil that has come to his town, but he's powerless to stop it, drowning his fear in booze. At one point, there's a confrontation between The Tall Man and the minister, during which the man of God is taunted with the famous line, "You think that when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!" This line had originally been written for the first film but was deleted, so Coscarelli worked it into this one.


The minister tries to prevent The Tall Man from being able to use the body of Liz's grandfather for his schemes by plunging a knife into the corpse's heart, but that doesn't stop anything. In fact, the re-animated corpse of Liz's grandfather shows up at the minister's door that night... and later on, in bed with Liz's grandmother, his terrified widow.


As Mike and Reggie near Perigord, they're joined by a young female hitchhiker named Alchemy, Kimmy to her friends. Since Mike has seen Alchemy in his dreams before, as a corpse, Reggie's idea to give her a ride may not be the best decision.

After eight years of dreaming about each other, Mike and Liz are finally brought together. But with The Tall Man lurking around, they may quickly be torn apart. The climactic sequence brings a rematch between Mike, Reggie, and The Tall Man... and all the weapons they've gathered and made may still not be enough to stop him.


Coscarelli got studio backing for Phantasm II, getting a budget of almost $3 million from Universal. That's huge by Phantasm standards, and yet the movie was still the lowest budgeted movie that Universal made in the 1980s. With this extra money, Coscarelli was able to greatly expand the scope of the series - as Mike and Reggie drive through the northwest, they find that The Tall Man's activities are reaching more clearly apocalyptic proportions. Entire graveyards emptied out, towns abandoned, cars flipped in the streets and crashed into buildings. The locations and set design are awesome, and the special effects are wonderful in the certain way that only those made in the '80s were. Even the spheres get new variations and upgrades. The silver ones are revealed to have more attachments to do different sorts of damage, like saw into (or saw off) body parts, and there's also a lazer-blasting, super-powered golden sphere.


The tone is a bit different this time around. While it has its own great, creepy, dark atmosphere, there's also a bit more humor in it, as well as a more action/adventure slant in some sequences.

Part of the shift in tone and style was a studio mandate - though the budget allowed Coscarelli to do more within the film, he also had to follow some rules. For one thing, Universal did not want any dream sequences in the film. The story had to be much more straightforward. It is, but Coscarelli still managed to make it very strange and trippy.


The studio also wanted Coscarelli to hire "working actors" in the lead roles, not the friends he had cast the first movie with. Angus Scrimm could stay on as The Tall Man, but it was suggested that Reggie and Mike should both be recast. Well, you can't recast Reggie. Reggie is Reggie! But since there was a jump ahead in years at the start of the story, there was room to replace A. Michael Baldwin in the role of Mike. Baldwin did audition to reprise his role, but didn't get it. Another actor who auditioned but didn't get cast was Brad Pitt.

Ultimately, James Le Gros won the role. Le Gros was just starting to work his way up at the time, and though he may not be a household name, he has continued to work steadily ever since and be rather prolific, best known for appearing in movies like Drug Store Cowboy and Point Break. Baldwin really resented being recast and as such hates Phantasm II and prefers not to talk about it, but I think Le Gros did a fine job.

New additions Paula Irvine, Samantha Phillips, and Kenneth Tigar also make great impressions as Liz, Alchemy, and the beleaguered Father Meyers. Irvine and the character of Liz are especially likeable.


Phantasm II is not just an awesome sequel, but it was also my first introduction to the series, when I saw a commercial advertising an upcoming TV showing of the film as a child. I was already a huge horror fan, but had never heard of Phantasm before seeing this commercial. The tagline was "The Ball Is Back!" and I never even knew the ball had been around in the first place. As I watched Mike and Liz get chased down by the golden sphere, slamming doors behind them only to have it smash through and continue pursuing them, I knew these were movies that I had to check out.

By the time the next film was released, I was an established Phantasm fan, and I was ready and waiting to see where things would go from the ending of 2.




PHANTASM III (1994)

Subtitled Lord of the Dead in marketing materials, the third film begins, like part 2 did, right where its predecessor left off. The Tall Man had a gooey meltdown at the end of the first sequel as acid-spiked formaldehyde was pumped into him. His apparent death only put him down for mere moments, though. Another Tall Man emerged through the dimensional gateway, tossed the remains of his previous body back through the portal, then went right back to work terrorizing Reggie and Mike.


The character of Liz is unceremoniously dispatched immediately, found dead with a dwarf gnawing on her face. She is then decapitated so her head can be delivered to The Tall Man... Quite a blow to anyone who grew attached to her character while watching the previous film. Angus Scrimm himself has even expressed regret over this turn of events.

Reggie and The Tall Man have a confrontation over the unconscious Mike, during which it's made clear that Mike is very important to the villain for some reason. By threatening to blow himself and Mike up with a grenade, Reggie is able to make The Tall Man and his dwarves leave them alone - Mike is no good to The Tall Man in pieces. As he walks away, The Tall Man tells Reggie to "take good care of him."


Some time passes, during which Mike lies comatose in a hospital bed. Reggie gets a home near the hospital to watch over his friend. It might be up to two years that go by, as there's a reference to the events of the first movie being "ten years" before. It's a near death experience that finally causes Mike to awake - he sees the light of the afterlife, he goes toward it... but Jody is there to tell him that he doesn't belong with the other spirits entering the light.

The Tall Man is there, too. It's his presence that causes Mike to snap awake.


As soon as his eyes open, Mike is attacked by his nurse, who turns out to be a zombie with a sphere implanted in her head. Phantasm III is particularly heavy on spheres and zombies.

Reggie takes Mike to his home, where they encounter another sphere, one which seems to be inhabited by the essence of Jody, it even morphs to appear to Mike as Jody briefly. Reggie and Mike intend to hit the road again, but before they can The Tall Man arrives - and this time is finally able to capture Mike. The Jody sphere attempts to attack The Tall Man, who is able to stop the sphere in mid-air telekinetically and heat it up until it's red hot, leaving it scorched... and thus giving it a different look from the other spheres in the film, for the sake of the viewers.


The Jody sphere informs Reggie to travel to a town called Holtsville, so Reggie gets in the Barracuda and heads up that way... To find a ghost town just like the ones he and Mike cruised through in the previous film. One that dwindled down from a population of 978 to 0 over reports of a "toxic spill". There was no toxic spill. What hit Holtsville was The Tall Man.


While in this abandoned town, Reggie meets both adversaries and new allies. The adversaries are first, three homicidal scavengers who drive around in a pink hearse. These criminals make the poor choice of attempting to ransack a large old farmhouse and are quickly dispatched by a young boy who has rigged the house and property to ensnare scavengers in a deadly play on Home Alone... And when first watching this movie as a child myself, I found this sequence to be very creepy and disturbing.


Holtsville's last resident is named Tim, and his father, who was the town sheriff, was one of the first to die when The Tall Man came to town. Tim's father was found dead after going to meet the new owners of the local cemetery.


Tim is similar to Mike in the original film. The first time he comes into contact with The Tall Man is when he sees the mortician lifting his father's coffin out of its grave and placing it back into a hearse. In addition to the telekinetic abilities we've seen The Tall Man exhibit earlier, Tim's flashback further confirms that his powers appear to be growing stronger. In the '79 film, he actually had to lift Tommy's coffin into the hearse. Here, he raises Tim's father's coffin simply with the power of his mind. Unfortunately, Tim's mother was with him when he witnessed The Tall Man taking the coffin, and when she went to confront him about it, The Tall Man had her husband rise from the coffin as a maniacal zombie and murder her, leaving Tim an orphan. He's had to fend for himself as the town crumbled around him, and now that he's found a friend in Reggie, he follows him much like Mike followed Jody.


Reggie and Tim also join forces with a tough young woman named Rocky, who used to live in Holtsville herself and has returned to be shocked by what has become of it. With Rocky, Reggie continues his quest to get laid that started with Alchemy in part 2... He's not very successful.


With the otherworldy guidance of Jody, our heroes advance on a town called Boulton, which was recently abandoned due to an "anthrax plague" and is home to the largest gothic mausoleum in the western United States. Along the way, they must contend with spheres, Gravers, the insect-like creatures that a pair of severed Tall Man hands become, and the relentless zombified scavengers... whose pink hearse is destroyed in a spectacular crash performed with stuntman Bob Ivy behind the wheel.


Through the knowledge Jody has gained spending ten years as a sphere, some further information on The Tall Man is revealed. His kind are amassing an army to conquer worlds and dimensions. When a corpse is compacted into a dwarf drone, its brain is removed and placed within a sphere to power it. That's how the Jody sphere came to be.


Along with answers come more, bigger questions. What does The Tall Man want with Mike? Why does he want to release Mike from the "imperfect flesh that ties him to time and space", and why does he speak as if Mike has always been one of The Tall Man's own? When The Tall Man begins to cut into Mike's head, why does he bleed yellow? Why does there appear to be a sphere inside of him? These questions are left hanging, and when I first saw this movie, rented as soon as it hit VHS when I was ten years old, I was not happy with that story angle at all.

 

A direct-to-video release with a healthy budget just slightly below that of the second movie, Phantasm III builds on the action/adventure aspect of part 2 while amplifying the comedy. There are goofy reactions to some situations, the zombie scavengers are silly, there are gags like a super-powerful sphere getting stuck on a plunger. How viewers react to the comedy is the biggest deciding factor on whether or not they enjoy the third installment in this series, and I've been on both sides of the fence. I've disliked the comedy, and then it's grown on me.

The element of dreams and nightmares is played up a bit more again, and in fact at one point something that is done in a dream is able to alter reality.

A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury both returned to the series with this one, reprising their roles as Mike and Jody, and with them again acting against Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm, it is fun to watch the old gang back together again.


For the ending, Don Coscarelli returned to an alternate ending he had devised for the first movie. At one point in the original film, The Tall Man walks past Reggie's ice cream truck as he has the freezer door open. The Tall Man stops to react to the cold air rising out of it... Now, when I first saw Phantasm, I thought The Tall Man's reaction was one of pleasure. I was completely wrong. In fact, there was an ending shot for the movie in which Mike, thinking back to the image of The Tall Man reacting to the cold, realizes that he hates the cold and sprays a fire extinguisher on him, causing him to explode... Since that ending hadn't been used, Coscarelli has Mike flashback to The Tall Man's reaction here, ten years later, and finally relay that information to Reggie so they can use this weakness against him.

In earlier drafts of the script, The Tall Man's hatred of the cold was even used to provide a definitive ending to the series, capping it at a trilogy. But in the finished film, The Tall Man again finds a way to work around death, opening the door to another sequel... Which was needed, to answer some of these lingering questions.




PHANTASM: OBLIVION (1998)

Soon after sharing an Academy Award win with Quentin Tarantino for co-writing the stories that made up Pulp Fiction, screenwriter Roger Avary went to work crafting his own spec script sequel to the Phantasm trilogy. Avary's idea for the series was to widen the scope even further, have the outside world take notice of The Tall Man's activities, which have turned a large portion of the United States into a wasteland, and have Reggie join up with a squad of military commandos to battle the forces of evil. Avary then took his script, titled Phantasm 1999 A.D., to Don Coscarelli, who was interested in turning it into the fourth film in the series. The script was shopped around, but the necessary budget could never be raised.



Wanting to get another Phantasm made regardless, Coscarelli moved ahead with writing and directing Phantasm: OblIVion, which could work equally toward two purposes - it could either be a stepping stone toward getting Avary's script produced as a follow-up, or it could be the end of the franchise.

OblIVion begins where Lord of the Dead left off, and if you got too attached to Tim, you likely won't be happy to find that he didn't make it past the last shot of the previous film.


Terrified by the transformation that he seemed to be going through at the end of part 3, Mike takes a hearse and escapes into the wastelands, a desert landscape dotted with places that have been turned into ghost towns by The Tall Man and his lackeys. Soon, Mike realizes that he's not in control of his destination at all - the hearse is driving itself out into the middle of the nowhere. Out into Death Valley.


Having cut down the first film from its initial 3 hour version, Coscarelli was left with a lot of extra footage, a lot of which has never seen the light of day, and some of which he effectively utilizes within this film. As Mike thinks back on his life and the conflicts he's had with The Tall Man, he has flashbacks to scenes we hadn't been shown before.

It becomes clear that what The Tall Man intends for Mike to be his protégé, perhaps even his replacement at the head of this evil enterprise. Mike is becoming like him. He bleeds yellow. He discovers that he has telekinetic abilities. Mike's idea for how to deal with this situation is to ruin The Tall Man's plans by taking himself out of the equation. He writes his will and attempts to hang himself.


As Mike hangs from a tree with a noose around his neck, we're treated to another ending that had been shot for the first movie. Rather than dropping The Tall Man down a mine shaft, in this one Mike and Jody managed to hang him from a tree. Being a deleted, alternate scene, this did not happen in the first movie, there's no room for this to have really occurred... So is it merely a dream? A glimpse into an alternate reality? That's unclear. It's Phantasm nightmare logic.

Killing himself isn't as easy as Mike had hoped. Death is The Tall Man's domain, and he will not let him in. So, isolated in the desert, Mike starts thinking of different ways out. He combines his newfound powers and the mechanical abilities he displayed in the first film and lays a trap for his enemy... And while he waits, he's visited by the spirit of Jody and sees dozens of the dimensional portals in the desert.


Travelling through the portals, Mike sees both the past and the future. In the future, The Tall Man has even turned Los Angeles into a ghost town, and it's not safe to be out on the streets for too long because there's "a risk of infection"... a nod to Roger Avary's script, a bit of set-up for it if it were to happen. In the past, Mike is witness to how this all began.

In a dual role, Angus Scrimm appears as Jebediah Morningside, a kindly old man who worked as an undertaker in the Civil War era... and appears to be married to the fortune teller from the first movie, somehow. Remember the antique photo of The Tall Man that Mike saw in the original film? That was Jebediah Morningside. Constantly surrounded by death, Morningside became obsessed with unlocking the secrets of the afterlife. In his office, he built a primitive version of the dimensional fork portals. He waited for someone or something to come through the portal... and then one day, he stepped through it himself. He never returned. Who did step back out through the portal mere moments later was The Tall Man in Morningside's form.

Mike observes this birth of The Tall Man from a different dimension. He's in Morningside's office, but Morningside can't see him. When The Tall Man arrives, he can feel Mike's presence, he seems able to see into the dimension Mike is in... And so The Tall Man's drive to go after Mike began as soon as he first stepped into our world.


While these secrets are being revealed to us and Mike, Reggie is making his way through the desert as well, seeking out his friend as The Tall Man's monstrous underlings try to impede his progress. For being such a good guy on the set of Phantasm III and delivering such an awesome stunt with the pink hearse crash, Bob Ivy got upgraded to making a featured appearance in this sequel, playing the zombie-like "Demon Trooper" cop that makes an effort to kill Reggie.


Bob Ivy would go on to play the soul-sucking mummy in Coscarelli's 2002 horror/comedy classic Bubba Ho-Tep. Reggie encounters another future Bubba Ho-Tep cast member on his way, when he ends up giving a young woman named Jennifer, played by Heidi Marnhout, a ride after saving her from her wrecked, burning car. Reggie's quest to get laid continues... and he has worse luck than ever with Jennifer.

Eventually, Reggie does find Mike in the desert, and dons his old ice cream man suit as he prepares for battle. Together, Reggie and Mike wait for what may be the final confrontation they'll ever have with The Tall Man.


Shot on the shortest schedule of any film in the series, 23 days of shooting, with the second lowest budget, $650,000, OblIVion was the Phantasm series' return to its independent roots. Stripped way down in scope, the movie still manages to be a perfect mixture of elements of each installment that preceded it. The strange, nightmare tone. Some action/adventure moments. And a little bit of humor. Overall, it feels the closest to the original of any of the sequels.


Many questions are answered, but of course, others are left dangling. This is Phantasm, after all. But unlike the way I felt after watching part 3, with the ending of OblIVion I'm content if we never see another chapter. If this is truly where the series ends, it has done so in great fashion, in a way that feels like we've gone full circle. And not only because the last scene in the film is a deleted scene from the first. Coscarelli's story feels complete, even if it continues for the characters.




After OblIVion, the attempts to get Roger Avary's script produced continued. As time went on, the title was changed from Phantasm 1999 A.D. to Phantasm 2013 A.D., and then finally to Phantasm's End.

In Avary's script, a large section of the U.S. population has been infected with a virus called the Bag Plague, which originated from The Tall Man's dimension. The infected are called Baggers, who basically become insane zombies as the stages of their sickness advances. The virus causes their heads to swell, until they reach stage four of the disease, at which point their heads explode with such force that skull fragments can pierce car doors and shatter bulletproof glass. Anyone who comes in contact with the yellow pus that comes from a Bagger's body will also become infected. Apparently this yellow pus is different from the yellow blood that The Tall Man and his dwarves spew, otherwise our heroes already would've been infected in previous films. Reggie has gotten yellow blood in his mouth on multiple occasions.

To stop the spread of the plague, a massive quarantine wall was built that separated the United States into just three sections: California to the ocean is safe, New York to the ocean is safe, everything in between is the Plague Zone. As such, in the 2013 that Avary envisioned, there are only three stars on the American flag.


Government scientists have realized that The Tall Man is the person behind the plague that has ravaged our country. The Tall Man has been spotted and science tells us that he's a corpuscular holographic projection, basically a ghost that wears flesh. The base of his operations has been determined to be a massive Mormon mausoleum that was built over a salt mine just outside Salt Lake City. To bring The Tall Man's reign of terror to an end, the military sends in the infamous S-Squad, a team of six badass commandos led by Colonel Heckleman, a role which Bruce Campbell of the Evil Dead series and Bubba Ho-Tep was at one point attached to play. S-Squad's mission: carry a case containing the Quantum Phase Device, a bomb-like product of the Cold War that consumes matter in a cascading wave chain and could eat up our universe in less than six milliseconds, into the Plague Zone, get it through a dimensional portal, and detonate it on the other side, destroying The Tall Man's universe. It's a suicide mission they agree to take on, no question.

Concurrent to S-Squad's entry into the Plague Zone, Reggie is also preparing to give up his citizenship to go over the wall. Through a projection that shines on the surface of an old silver sphere, Mike calls for Reggie to stop The Tall Man, to destroy his portal before he can fold his reality into ours. Mike is trapped in the Plague Zone and says his situation is hopeless, but Reggie is out to save his friend. With a visit to a brothel, he finally gets laid, and the next morning he crosses into the Plague Zone, stocked with weapons, driving an armored Barracuda that's called the Battlecuda, and with a spider monkey named Titi riding shotgun.


Now, in theory, this does sound like the ultimate badass Phantasm sequel. The set-up could make for something amazing. Reggie Bannister and Bruce Campbell side-by-side for a final, large scale assault on The Tall Man? Sign me up. But, and maybe it's just the fact that the script was hyped up for years that raised my expectations too highly, despite being a big fan of Roger Avary I did find the script to be rather underwhelming. Though revised to take place after OblIVion (there's a nod to Jebediah Morningside), it doesn't follow any of the story elements that film set up, aside from the infection line. The additions that are made to the Phantasm mythology are unnecessary, the way a beloved character is treated is very disappointing, and the main draw of a film based on this script would just be the chance to see a Predator-esque team of heavily-armed hardasses mowing down dozens of dwarves and hundreds of Baggers. Baggers never even existed before this script, so the promise of a Phantasm sequel that features an extended battle with them doesn't really get me excited. It's a shame that Coscarelli, Avary, and the others involved couldn't get the funding to make the movie they wanted to, but as a viewer I'm not let down that this never happened. OblIVion is a much better and more satisfying conclusion to the series than this would've been.

However, Avary's script is not the only Phantasm 5 screenplay in existence. Coscarelli has also done drafts of his own with co-writer Stephen Romano that have never been leaked, details have never been revealed. The possibility of a Phantasm 5 being made is always out there... but fifteen years after OblIVion, and with Angus Scrimm now pushing 90 years old, it looks less and less likely all the time.

In 2005, New Line development executive Jeff Katz tried to get a Phantasm project of a different sort off the ground - a reboot trilogy with Coscarelli stepping back into a producing role with someone else in the director's seat. The director Katz had in mind? The soon-to-be-superstar J.J. Abrams. Abrams had scheduling issues, though, and never signed on, and the project soon fell apart.

As of now, the Phantasm series remains the perfect collection of four, a thrilling, entertaining, mind-bending story of sci-fi horror. A twenty-two year old Don Coscarelli came up with an idea for an independent movie that became a classic and it took him on a twenty year journey of filmmaking that resulted in fantastic series of films that are adored by a legion of fans. Including myself.


3 comments:

  1. Well, it appears that the fifth installment is finally here, Phantasm RaVager for next year. Didn't you hear? Sadly it looks far too cheap and sloppy, so I fear this series will die not with a bang but a whimper.

    This was a good blog post by the way. Phantasm may have got muddled and schlocky towards the end (or maybe starting with the sequel) but the original really is something unique. You can sorta see its influence in a wide range of stuff, from Silent Hill to Donnie Darko.

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    1. Thanks for checking out the article. I have heard the news about RaVager, and I'm looking forward to it. I'll definitely be writing about it once it's released.

      - Cody

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  2. the trailer they released was pre after effects and its undergoing after this post production as we speak. filters and effects and music are all to be added. i for one think its been a wild ride and im sure we are in for a treat

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