Take a moment and conjure up some images of horror-movie icons. Likely you’re picturing Jason’s hockey mask, or Freddy Kreuger’s knife fingers. If you are a little older, you might envision Frankenstein’s Monster or Count Dracula. Younger, and you’re imagining the Scream mask or that creepy little puppet from the Saw movies. Think a little harder and eventually you’ll remember a shiny metal ball drilling into someone’s skull. Phantasm’s little ball of death might not be as iconic as some of the above monster’s but it's pretty close. Call it second-tier horror iconography.
Made in 1979, Phantasm never drew the audiences as other horror films of the era did. It was too weird to draw in the full teenaged crowd. It did however create quite a cult audience, enough to spawn four sequels. The last of which, Phantasm: Ravager came out in 2016. That’s five films in 37 years. I’d call that a Kubrikian pace but no one in their right mind would ever compare Stanley Kubrick with anything having to do with Phantasm.
Phantasm was independently made on the tiny budget of $300,000. Yet director Don Coscarelli does a lot with very little. When the citizens of a small Oregon town start dying mysteriously, young Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) blames it on the tall mortician (Angus Scrimm) who interred his parents. He sees this strange, Tall Man (who is never given any other name throughout the series) dead lift a casket out of a grave site and back onto his hearse.
Enlisting his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and his ice-cream-vendor friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) to investigate, the trio discover many strange things afoot at the local mortuary. This includes some Jawa-looking little monsters, the aforementioned silver ball of death, and a large chrome tuning fork that works as a portal to a mysterious red planet.
Infused with some surrealistic imagery, a fresh villain (Scrimm’s portrayal of The Tall Man is weird, creepy, and totally unsettling), an iconic murdering ball, and a dream logic that defies literal interpretations but somehow works, Phantasm is a much better film that it really ought to be. The sequels incrementally destroy all that good work.
Starting with Phantasm II, all of the sequels up until Ravager follow a pretty similar plot structure. Reggie and Mike somehow survive the explosive finale of the previous movie and hit the road looking for The Tall Man. Along the way, they cross town after town that has been ravaged by The Tall Man and his minions (why no one including any federal agencies has noticed large swaths of the Northwest disappearing is a question left unanswered in all of the films). They grab some weapons including a souped-up flame thrower and a quadruple-barreled shotgun (Phantasm II). They meet with some companions, including a boy who has booby trapped his house Home Alone-style (Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead) and a woman with a Grace Jones haircut and nunchucks (also Phantasm III). None of which make it to the next film. Then they fight off the Jawa-looking monsters and an increasingly number of the silver balls - both of which eventually get names, Lurkers and Sentinels respectively (Phantasm III). Each film ends with a showdown with The Tall Man where he seems to die, but really doesn’t.
When your horror film uses dream logic to start with, it's difficult to flesh out your own mythology, but the sequels do sometimes try. For instance, we learn that Sentinels use miniaturized brains harvested from the humans turned into the Lurkers (Phantasm III - as you can tell most of the mythology building happens in the third film). The Tall Man can regenerate if he is mortally wounded (pretty much all the films but explicitly seen in Phantasm III) possesses psychic powers and can shape shift (Phantasm).
Phantasm IV: Oblivion departs significantly from the routine for two reasons. The first is that Roger Avery wrote a sprawling script for it creating some major studio interest (Universal actually funded Phantasm II, but when it bombed they backed away). Unfortunately, there was not enough interest to get that version made, but enough that Coscarelli was able to independently finance a much smaller version using some of Avery’s ideas. Secondly, before they started shooting the film, someone discovered several reels of unused footage from the first film. Oblivion uses copious amounts of this footage to create a unique (and no doubt vastly cheaper) film. It's also a return to the more surreal (and less coherent) aspects of the series.
It would be 19 years before another Phantasm was made. Phantasm: Ravager doubles down on the whole "is he just dreaming?" concept the other films had touched on. This time, Reggie phases through different timelines, one being with him in a hospital where he is told there is no Tall Man. Others find him in a future world where The Tall Man has nearly destroyed all of Earth, the other being the long distant past where The Tall Man is lying next to him, dying in another hospital bed.
Ravager’s budget isn’t much more than the originals and it shows. Skimping on special effects, they went the CGI route, but bad CGI looks worse than bad practical effects. The story makes even less sense then the others, but there is no interesting imagery to make up for it.
One must be made of stern stuff to make it through all five films within a week. The original still holds up as an interesting (if not exactly understandable) horror film. It's got some surrealistic imagery and gave the world both The Tall Man and the silver balls. The first couple of sequels take a step down but at least create a few nice scenes. After that, it’s best to pretend the remaining films were lost in a fire.
Well Go USA is releasing all five films in one boxed set on DVD September 12. It's an odd release. All five films have previously been released on Blu-ray. Four of them (I, III, IV, and V) were released by Well Go USA, but Phantasm II was put out by Shout! Factory. All five disks were obviously ported over from those previous releases, extras included (they didn’t even bother to change the Shout! Factory cover art). The audio and video have been well done, simply downgraded from generally well-reviewed Blu-rays. Surprisingly, Ravager looks worse than all of the other films. It looks like it was shot on cheap digital cameras with very little care taken when lighting each scene. Extras are well done. Each film comes with at least an audio commentary and a short feature on the making of, plus the usual trailers and stuff.
It is an obvious budget release with no reason to exist other than to put them all in one box quite cheaply. But if you aren’t interested in having the films in high definition and you don’t have a lot of cash, this is a good way to go.