Cody Hamman takes a look at the fifth and possibly final installment in the Phantasm series.
Back in December of 2013, I wrote a Film Appreciation article about the first four Phantasm films, a mind-bending sci-fi horror saga that followed the same group of characters through nightmarish adventures over the course of nineteen years - the first movie was released in 1979, the fourth in 1998. Since fifteen years had passed since part 4 had come out, at that time I was feeling like a fifth film might never be made. It just didn't seem like it would ever get off the ground, for one reason or another. There had been a lot of dashed hopes over the course of those fifteen years, scripts written that never made it into production - I discussed one of them in that article, the Roger Avary screenplay Phantasm 1999 A.D. / Phantasm 2013 A.D. / Phantasm's End. New Line Cinema had even tried to put together a reboot trilogy at one point. It didn't happen.
While I was ready to welcome a part 5 with open arms, I was also fine with the series wrapping up as a four parter. Although some questions were left unanswered, I still found the ending of the fourth film to be a satisfying conclusion to the story. Little did I know that a fifth Phantasm film had already been filming. Just under a year after I posted that article, it was announced that the fifth Phantasm had already wrapped production in secret and the title was Phantasm: Ravager. Eagle-eyed fans had caught sight of a DVD case with this title on it in Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli's 2012 movie John Dies at the End, a Easter egg tease years in advance, but I'm not sure if I was aware of that when I wrote one of the lines in that article - a line where I say that the villainous Tall Man "intends to ravage our planet". Regardless, Phantasm: Ravager is a title I can fully support.
The most surprising thing about this latest entry in the franchise is that it wasn't directed by Coscarelli, who had written and directed all four of the previous films. While Coscarelli remained closely involved with Ravager, co-writing the script and producing the film, this time he handed the reins over to his co-writer, visual effects artist David Hartman, who he met while making his "Elvis vs. a mummy" classic Bubba Ho-Tep. As Coscarelli says, "How many Phantasm movies can one person do in a lifetime? I think four is probably enough."
And truly, Ravager happened because of Hartman. He would shoot short films on the weekends, and in 2008 or so he approached Coscarelli with the idea of heading out into the countryside with series hero Reggie Bannister (whose character happens to be named after him) and shooting a Phantasm short. Around that time, word leaked out that there was a Phantasm web series in the works that would be titled Reggie's Tales - but while filming with Hartman and Bannister, Coscarelli began to realize that they could actually build the long-awaited feature sequel in this low budget DIY manner rather than just release shorts online. And so Reggie's Tales became Phantasm 5, Phantasm: Ravager, a movie that was pieced together over a few years, and in the end fans got a film they had been waiting nearly twenty years for.
Each Phantasm movie picks up right at the very moment when the previous entry left off, but Ravager is the first time that the new sequel and its immediate predecessor couldn't be directly spliced together - it would have been impossible, because the last shot of Phantasm: OblIVion was previously unused footage from the original Phantasm, a shot of Reggie and his fellow hero Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) riding off into the night together. It's a flashback to 1979 that Mike is having while seemingly dying after The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) removed a metallic sphere from his head and stepped through a gateway to another dimension in the desert. In pursuit of The Tall Man, Reggie also stepped through the gate...
The first shot of Ravager is of the desert, Reggie walking through it with his four-barrel shotgun in hand, having returned from an apparently unsuccessful journey through dimensions. He didn't catch up to The Tall Man, and Mike's whereabouts are unknown. Reggie isn't even sure if he's in the right dimension at this point; he doesn't know what's real and what isn't anymore. His experiences with The Tall Man have thoroughly messed with his mind. Because of this, the movie proceeds to thoroughly mess with the viewer's mind as well.
There is a trace of that original web series plan evident in the finished feature, as Ravager is quite episodic in nature. This film doesn't tell a straightforward story that you can follow from point to point, it's very scrambled, as Reggie seems to be mentally phasing between multiple dimensions, with different things going on around him in each.
In the dimension where Reggie walks through the desert after the events of OblIVion, he gets his Plymouth 'Cuda back from a car thief and proceeds to have a high speed chase as the Tall Man's deadly silver spheres pursue him down the road... This sequence made me quite antsy, because chances are extremely high that Ravager is the final Phantasm movie - it was marketed as such, and with Angus Scrimm having passed away it would make sense to end things here. The movie already runs short at 85 minutes, and the last chapter in this saga wastes its first 10 minutes on a car thief and a sphere chase.
Reggie will eventually come across an attractive young woman in that dimension, giving him another opportunity to make some awkward seduction attempts, a series tradition, and The Tall Man also has an offer to make this Reggie, but before we get to all that there is a jarring cutaway to another dimension.
In this other dimension there is an explanation offered for all the strange things that have occurred in this franchise: Reggie is in a nursing home, where he is regularly visited by his longtime friend Mike. Reggie has been diagnosed with dementia, and it seems that all of these stories about a tall mortician from another world, his silver spheres, the resurrected dead being compacted into dwarf servants, and everything else we have seen in the previous Phantasm movies (and in the scenes around the nursing home scenes here) may have simply been conjured up by Reggie's diseased mind. This explanation is given even more weight by the fact that Reggie's roommate is Angus Scrimm as Jebediah Morningside, the man OblIVion told us The Tall Man stole the appearance of after the man opened a doorway to another world - The Tall Man's world - long ago.
If you don't like the nursing home dimension or the one where Reggie was wandering in the desert, there's another option as well. In yet another dimension, Reggie wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world when a group of resistance fighters - a group that includes Mike and the attractive young woman from the other dimension (although she goes by the name Dawn in one dimension and Jane in the other) - find him with his head stuck in a strange device that has been keeping him in a coma of sorts for a decade, ever since the ending of OblIVion. It has been feeding off of Reggie's mind all that time, and while this device has kept him out of the fight the world has pretty much literally gone to Hell. The Tall Man's forces have taken over the planet - giant spheres float in the sky, Earth is resembling The Tall Man's red home planet, and some concepts that were featured in Roger Avary's Phantasm 1999 A.D. / Phantasm 2013 A.D. / Phantasm's End script are worked in here.
The post-apocalyptic dimension was the most interesting to me, but it gets short changed a bit, because by the time Reggie is faced with this ravaged world the slips between dimensions are becoming even more frequent and rattling. The dimensions even start to merge in one scene that at first seems to be the end of the nursing home storyline, but there is actually more to come at the nursing home.
If you thought Hartman and Coscarelli might use the final Phantasm film to answer some questions and provide some resolution, you're going to be disappointed with Phantasm: Ravager. Unless you accept the idea that everything we've seen was created by Reggie's dementia, there are no answers given. If you want to know why The Tall Man has been so interested in Mike throughout the films and why Mike had a sphere inside his head (or what The Tall Man did with that sphere after he extracted it), you're still going to be wondering these things once the end credits are rolling after Ravager's clunky ending. All this film really does is stir up more questions, and it's as open ended as any of its predecessors... maybe even more so.
As "the final Phantasm film", Ravager is a bit of a letdown. I didn't find any satisfaction in the way the movie ends - I still feel that OblIVion was a more satisfying conclusion to the series. Ravager doesn't really add anything more to the story after that conclusion except some extra confusion.
That said, I do find Ravager to be entertaining, and it was nice to see the actors reprise their roles one more time after so many years. If a fifth/final Phantasm movie was going to be made, I wanted more out of it than Ravager provides, but I'm coming to terms with the fifth/final movie being more of an 85 minute trifle than a triumphant blowout. It gave me some extra time with these characters and creatures, and I appreciate it for that.
Phantasm: Ravager is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, with special features including audio commentary with Coscarelli and Hartman, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and deleted scenes.
On the same day that Ravager hit home video, Well Go USA Entertainment also released Phantasm: Remastered on DVD and Blu-ray. J.J. Abrams has long made it clear that he was a fan of Phantasm; he cast Angus Scrimm on his TV show Alias, he named a character in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens in reference to the film, and when New Line Cinema was pursuing that reboot trilogy idea, Abrams was the director they wanted to hand the reins to. The greatest show of his fandom is this 4K remastered version of the original film, which Abrams had done through his company Bad Robot. The incredible picture quality is the main draw of the Remastered release, as the bonus features are mostly things fans have seen on previous releases, and to have Phantasm re-released in such pristine condition is a wonderful thing.