There’s a loathable and inescapable truth in discussing the legacy of the horror franchise. Those titles with a tangible look, whether it’s the pallid white mask of Halloween’s Michael Myers, the grotesque abominations of Hellraiser’s Cenobites or the red and black sweater/bladed glove combo of Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, they are all marketable and instantly identifiable. Whether the films are good or not matters little, it’s that look that identity that ensures they become part of the public consciousness whereas other, equally iconic horror franchises get forgotten and become tarred with the brush of ‘cult film’. Arrow Video has two such releases on the cards in the coming months, the first is Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm and the second, coming later in 2017, is House. The prior of the two comes in an impressive limited edition set accompanied with a display item of the iconic silver sphere in Coscarelli’s near 40-year opus, each of the films is contained with the addition 2016’s finale (Ravager).
The series centers on the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), a near-mythic alien using the guise of an undertaker, who is taking the re-animated dead, weaving his science on them and transporting them to his own planet as slaves. The 1979 original sees brothers Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury) unlucky enough to invoke the wrath of this near immortal aberration after the younger brother noticed him putting a casket into the hearse unaided. Instead of thinking that impossible sight too much, the then 13-year-old Mike decides to pick a fight with the tall man and his diminutive hooded zombie army, coming along for the ride is Jody’s best friend and ice-cream vendor, Reggie (Bannister). With the town ravaged by the Tall Man, Mike and Reggie take it upon themselves to rid the world of the Tall Man.
That first film is a real standout in 1970s horror, a low budget, and a feel unlike anything else. Dream logic is a term, lazily, used to describe films with a hazy atmosphere or titles that march to the beat of their own drum. For an example, some use that dream logic idea as a shorthand for David Lynch or his legion of imitators. Phantasm is different, it literally takes place within a dream, some of the scenes actually happen while others don’t. Perhaps a little on the disorientating side, through this Coscarelli has created a genuine sense of the unknown. In 1979’s Phantasm, there is a feeling all too rare in horror – anything can happen from any time and any place. Usually, when this is strived for in a horror film, it is basically a framing device for the spontaneity of death. That is where the significance of the dream comes into play, while the mythology of the Tall Man is being invented in this first film, one thing is explicit, the intergalactic undertaker can control both the real and unreal. Angus Scrimm as the tall man has absolute power and in this first film, Coscarelli teaches the audience to fear his presence. Yes, his minions are far more visceral and violent, but they are mere pawns in the presence of this unexplainable entity.
There is no way to say this other than to dive right into spoiler territory, but the only two survivors of the original film are Reggie and Mike and the remaining films concern themselves with the two traveling across America following the wave of chaos the tall man left in his wake. Town after town abandoned – a particularly direct comment on the death of small-town America. While the first film is straight horror, scored by a brilliant John Carpenter/ Goblin-like compositions by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, the sequels follow a more action horror mold, think a bloodier Tremors and its legion of sequels. It could be debated that the sequel is a relocated retelling of the same sorry, be that as it may, each new entry builds up the mythos.
Phantasm II came out in 1988 and is the only occasion where A. Michael Baldwin didn’t appear, instead, he was replaced with James LeGros. In this follow-up, Mike escapes from a psychiatric hospital with help from Reggie to find another one of the Tall Man’s victims who he shares a psychic connection with. With a notably larger budget, Coscarelli has been afforded more opportunities to flesh out everything, especially the gore and violence. There is a sequence early on that features a reverse Quato (total recall) version of the tall man emerging from an innocent woman’s back to issue a warning. Greg Nicotero of Evil Dead II and the Walking Dead worked on these effects. Similarly, the silver sphere makes a return appearance, kick-starting an adventure of digging holes in people’s foreheads with far more bloody viscera than could ever be hoped for back in ‘79.
In 1994’s Phantasm III, Mike and Reggie are joined by Tim (Kevin Connors) and Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry) as a ragtag bunch in hot pursuit of the specter. Tim is introduced in a scene that makes Home Alone’s Kevin McCallister appear positively normal, with Phantasm’s proxy murdering his home invaders in grizzly cold blood. Rocky, on the other hand, could only be described in terms akin to Grace Jones’s character from A View to Kill with added Nunchaku. As odd as that sounds, Phantasm is a series in which the dead are reanimated and compressed into murderous dwarves or their brains removed and placed inside of murderous floating silver balls that drill into people’s faces – comparatively speaking, these two new characters are relatively normal in the grand scheme of things. This entry into the franchise also uses mind-controlled zombies as a further display of the tall man’s seemingly unending powers and ups the violence rather spectacularly with this grand attempt to kill the big bad revolving around pumping him full of acid.
1998 saw the release of Phantasm IV: Oblivion, and of all the sequels it has one feat that makes it more impressive than the typical fourth entry of a series. Within the narrative very little happens, instead of focusing on the unceasing cat and mouse chase between a dogged Reggie and the Tall Man, Coscarelli has the Angus Scrimm’s antagonist tighten his grasp on Mike and his mental well-being. This sees a return to the reality-bending of the first film, but more impressive is the footage contained. Phantasm IV is littered with unused film from the original, filling in gaps in the history and adding an incomparable layer of depth. This is incredible, to memory, no film that runs in excess of 20 years retains the same cast and, more importantly, uses archival footage to expand its own story. Coscarelli keeping all of his footage shows just how much he cares about the universe he has created. He even calls himself a fan of these films. Moving past the filmmaking ethos instilled, it depicts with a much simpler discourse just how long both Reggie and Mike have been chasing down this phantasm. Humbling would be the perfect adjective.
Just last year in 2016, a few years after Coscarelli directed the eccentric John Dies at the End, comes Phantasm V Ravager. Instead of being directed, written and edited by Coscarelli, the director’s chair is instead filled by David Hartman who has principally worked on children’s animated series. As displayed by the use of unused footage, series mastermind Don Coscarelli considered all eventualities and with Ravager he wrote a series of shorts if ever there was a major re-release (like this) of the series. And that’s exactly what the film feels like, a patchwork of short films re-edited to feature length. Some of the ideas are great such as the Tall Man playing with Reggie and making him question whether he is senile and whether all the previous events actually happened, again playing around with that linearity. Some are interesting like the dystopian future created and the tall man trying to actively bargain with Reggie, a development that has significant substance after he receives his necessary, and surprising, backstory in film 4.
The biggest and all-consuming problem, however, are the effects. In previous films, it was only when the silver spheres appear in great mass that computer effects were used. Everything in Ravager is used with computer effects, making you pine for the rustic and impossibly charming in camera work used in the proceeding films. It’s obviously a low-budget film, but instead of scaling the story down to a somber ending, the ideas and effects are big and unfortunately, they look incredibly cheap making it feel awfully artificial, almost as if an alternative episode of Star Trek with its holodeck. It does end with a shot that bluntly implies that the war with the tall man continues, so more from the franchise could be on the cards and there are whispers of a remake, but the fact remains that for this to end such a wonderfully entertaining and unpredictable action-horror series is little more than upsetting.
Not to end on a sour note as an arrow video with such a beautifully considerate restoration and an army of extra features that provide you with all the information and personality deserves infinitely better. Particular mention needs to be directed at Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister. First things first, Scrimm was a delightful man evidenced by the warmth he shared with fans and the genuine enthusiasm you can find in every word he speaks about his work with Don Coscarelli, but as the Tall Man, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. He communicates a quiet menace and an extremely limited vocabulary most notable is the way he crows ‘Boy’ or the way he scrunches his face and scowls. As mentioned at the top of this review, the tall man may not be iconic with him just being a tall man in a suit but everything about the performance, body language, and delivery make him absolutely unforgettable. Talk of a remake may be afoot, but no one could ever fill these massive shoes. No such actor exists.
Reggie Bannister makes just as much of an impact, ‘the hardest working man in horror’, a balding, ex-ice cream man who wields a four-barreled shotgun (two strapped together) is every bit the equal of Evil Dead’s Ash Williams insurmountable legend. Or in other words, a ridiculously endearing if idiotic man who exudes absolute charisma. In those terms, Reggie Bannister action hero is the Phantasm movies, a flawed considerate man who wins people over with his one of a kind ingenuity, resilience, and likability.