Wednesday, March 28, 2012
PHANTASM Series Retrospective
From the opening moments of the first film in the series we are are faced with the horrors within. From The Tall Man and his surreal mind tricks, to his dwarf zombie slaves and the diabolical silver spheres, to the overbearing feeling of dread and unease. The central theme is fear and how it can play with your mind.
The first of four films, PHANTASM was released in 1979 on a very small budget but found very big results. Director Don Coscarelli used every penny of that small budget (reportedly $300,000) to have the film dripping with thick atmosphere that reminds me greatly of Lucio Fulci's City Of The Living Dead and The Beyond (with this film predating both of those films by a year or 2 respectively). There is a dream like quality to the entire production, where nothing is quite as it seems until it slaps you in the face, and even then you may be left wondering what exactly is the truth.
Jody (Bill Thornbury) has been left with the task of raising his little brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) after the death of their parents. He uses the family's good friend (and neighborhood ice cream man) Reggie (Reggie Bannister) for support. After the death of Tommy, Michael sees the undertaker lifting the coffin off the ground and into the hearse and drives away. This is of course The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who seems to be the ring leader in the madness surround Morningside cemetery and funeral home. As Michael digs deeper into what is going on Jody and Reg both get involved and we find out how far reaching The Tall Man's powers can reach with fear.
PHANTASM is a great representation of it's time. The bridge between the late 70s and early 80s before the slasher film took over. I've already made mention of the Euro-horror feeling it has, but it also has a few moments of well placed dark comedy to balance things out a little bit. And enough gore (and other bodily fluids) to have initially earned this film an X rating. PHANTASM is a horror film that should satisfy any niche of horror fan.
8 years later the first of 3 sequels was made and the theme of fear is immediately evident in PHANTASM 2 when the film opens with a young girl waking from a nightmare to enter it in her dream journal. It becomes apparent that she is now telepathically linked with Mike and Reggie (by default). She has visions of The Tall Man and his dwarf zombies and the spheres. Mike and the girl are linked through The Tall Man who is also playing with their mind and endangering their lives in order to draw his victims to him. Reggie jumps on board with Mike to hunt down the tall man after a near death experience with an exploding house. The film then turns to a road trip hunting of The Tall Man. There is no doubting the influence this had on John Carpenter's VAMPIRES from 1998, a full decade later, with vampire lord Valek taking the role of The Tall Man and James Woods' character in the linked hunter position of Mike and Reg. When they finally find The Tall Man, they also find Liz, Mike's ESP friend. There is a lengthy stay in the dizzying halls of the funeral home filled with all of the perils and henchmen you've now come to know to do The Tall Man's work.
Just as PHANTASM was a movie of it's time, it's first sequel is as well. Don Coscarelli certainly had no problems adapting to the "more is more" attitude of horror films of the 80s with PHANTASM 2. There is a lot more gore, more nudity, more corny one liners. And in the midst of the ramped up action much of the atmosphere and the theme of fear is lost. More isn't always more. That said, it works. And it fits nicely with the first film. This isn't the classic that the original is, but it is a really fucking fun follow up.
Filmed in 1993 and released straight to video in 1995 PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD starts with a brief recap of the previous entries and picks up right from the end of part 2. The search for The Tall Man continues but a kink is thrown into the plan as Mike is captured and much of the movie is spent with Reggie meeting new characters, a few of which become a large part of the movie. This entry is without a doubt the cheesiest and most cliched of the bunch. That isn't to say it's bad. It is extremely entertaining and expands on a few ideas that we've seen in the earlier chapters. There is a bit more sci-fi here that is interesting and gives us a little bit deeper look in to the evil forces present in the series.
This entry asks you to turn your brain on and off in order to enjoy it a couple times throughout the movie and if you're willing you'll have a good time. A tighter script with less generic horror movie fluff would have helped PHANTASM 3 be a special sequel but as it stands it is still an entertaining film.
Now under the watch and partial control of The Tall Man, Mike is taken to Death Valley where he dreams of The Tall Man performing macabre surgical procedures in a Civil War camp. Jody, through his spherical form persuades Reggie to continue the hunt to save what is left of their friend and brother. While in Death Valley Mike is stalked in a scene straight out of STAR WARS, and finds a desert devoid of all life containing the dimension forks and a hanging tree. Mike strings himself from the tree with a noose and begins to have dreamlike flashbacks as he clings to life. The Tall Man cuts him down and Mike runs to the dimension fork and enters it, where he's transported back in time and meets Jebediah Morningside. Mike discovers the origins of The Tall Man and uses his secrets to battle him once and for all.
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION was released in 1998 after a bigger Phantasm production was unable to get enough funding. This entry was written as a pre-cursor to that in hopes of generating the money for it, which never happened. As it stands the fourth entry in to the series is a worthy and successful entry (and possible finale) to the series. The brief but intriguing look into the origins of the central villain of the series was great and gave us a little more understanding as to how and why he works his evil. The dark humor and cornball horror elements are there, but Don Coscarelli is never to heavy handed with them, leaving the feeling of dread and despair to be the main themes. While some fans may find this conclusion to the series to be a let down and unsatisfactory I think it plays into the original theme of fear as well as the Tall Man's ability to manipulate space and time through vibrations and dimensions extremely well.
Four films over 20 years, all written and directed by Don Coscarelli (BEASTMASTER) encompass the PHANTASM series. While each was influenced by the time in which they were made the series never became a parody of itself. Many of you know that is an achievement worth making note of for any horror franchise that spans two decades. From the iconic scenes chronicled on several TV Halloween programs over the last sever years to the ramping up the gore and campiness of the sequels, and turning Reggie Bannister into a balding Bruce Campbell, Coscarelli always kept the scripts smart enough to allow for more lighthearted fun without. The performances from the cast were shaky at times, with probably the best of the bunch being Angus Scrimm in the role of The Tall Man receiving about 15 lines per film on average, but they were sincere. Even in part 2 when the role of Mike was switched from A. Michael Baldwin (parts 1, 3-4) to James Le Gros. The sincerity of the acting is evident throughout and Coscarelli was smart here in that he kept the entire main cast throughout the entire series, which no other horror series that I can think of did. HALLOWEEN had Laurie Strode come back after 5 movies and FRIDAY THE 13th had Tommy Jarvis in 2 movies but PHANTASM kept the core group together without hampering the stories. That allowed for some character depth and exploration that most horror films don't have and builds a bond between the audience and actors that lasts the duration of the series. There is no denying the science fiction elements present in the series, and the series wears them proud. From discussing the vibrations in humans and how the interdimensional travel effects them to the barren lands held within some of the dimension forks that resemble Mars.
PHANTASM has been overlooked in favor of the more popular series with Freddy, Jason, Michael and more recently Jigsaw and all of the SAW ripoff type films. And it doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. The found footage movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY are making a killing at the box office as the modern audience would rather be scared with cheap jumps than a well written and atmospheric horror series that also provides all of the staples they seem to love. I mentioned earlier that OBLIVION may be the conclusion to the series. It has been rumored on and off for the last few years that part 5 might happen. The cast has seemed to be behind it and Coscarelli does too so it really seems like a matter of financing. I truly hope someone steps up and gets it together because another PHANTASM film would be a welcome addition to the series and my collection. As long as Angus Scrimm still walks the earth there is hope.
Phantasm - 9/10
Phantasm 2 - 8/10
Phantasm 3 - 7/10
Phantasm 4 - 8/10