Although I was routinely exposed to the few horror film franchises that existed within the world of film before movies like Scream started to pop up all over the place, there was always something about the Phantasm series which appealed to my youthful self. Perhaps it was the creepy, lawless atmosphere where the dreaded Tall Man (as played by the late Grammy-winning Angus Scrimm, in what would become his claim to filmic fame, be it for better or worse) and his otherworldly demonic dwarfed minions reigned over the living, usually to quite cataclysmic extents. Or the iconic flying silver spheres of death, capable of gleefully extracting one’s cerebral matter via hidden blades, drills, and whatever else might be in there.
Ultimately, I think what made Don The Beastmaster Coscarelli’s Phantasm series so appealing was the same element a good joke relies on: timing. The first film, released in 1979, was a truly phantasmagoric experience. It featured two young men (as played by A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury) and their loyal ice cream vendor pal (the great Reggie Bannister, who would become the series’ one constant hero throughout) engaging in oft-explosive battles with a weird shape-shifting mortician from another dimension. It also had boobs, lots of gore, and a catchy Goblin-esque theme song which would receive a disco cover before the year was out ‒ all of which more than made up for how truly incoherent the movie really was.
I mean, what else would you expect from a movie called Phantasm, right? If nothing else, the surreal shocker was an effective product of its time.
Then, in 1988, back when horror film branding first began to crown its ugly head unto the world, Coscarelli managed to find a second home for his independently-financed first film in Universal Studios. Desperate enough to have a horror franchise of their own (hence the many one-off movies they produced and released during the era, including several movies by Wes Craven), Universal backed what would prove to be the biggest-budgeted entry in the entire series, Phantasm II. But bigger doesn’t always mean better, especially when your backers don’t permit you to focus on the previously established ambiguousness; opting instead to cram as many explosions and gunshots as they could into a tale of the living vs. the unkillable dead.
And yet, despite the increase in budget, most of the film’s gory special effects would wind up getting axed for the final cut. Universal even insisted the main character be replaced, replacing actor A. Michael Baldwin with future Point Break co-star James LeGros as the series’ always-in-danger hero, Mike. These would all prove to be unforgivable offenses, but most of the Phans out there eventually learned to let it go ‒ especially after Universal (still affiliated with the brand for some reason, even though it was quite apparent they already hated it) flat-out refused to theatrically release Coscarelli’s 1994 follow-up feature, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, assigning it instead into that illustrious category of fate known as “direct-to-video.”
Manufactured in a time when subtitles to sequels had become mandatory and interest in the series had most likely piqued (Lord of the Dead would, ironically enough, become one of the top-selling direct-to-video titles of the era), the third film brought back the missing cast members from the previous entry. They even added new ones, including actress Gloria Lynne Henry, who became the first female in the entire franchise to actually survive in the next installment, Phantasm IV: Oblivion. Not that you actually see or hear from her in the 1998 sequel to the 1979 original, which started out as a big-budgeted post-apocalyptic epic from Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary, and which was supposed to feature cult movie legend Bruce Campbell.
It didn’t happen, of course, since there were now more coherent horror film brands for people to chime in on, including ones that actually made sense from time to time. And so, despite the best intentions of both Avary and Coscarelli, a very-scaled-back-on-the-budget (and edited) version of Phantasm IV: Oblivion hit home video from the bankrupt Orion Pictures and MGM without much ado from anyone. Incorporating a great deal of unused (recently discovered) footage from the first film, Oblivion is about the closest the series would ever come to providing any backstory to its ever-present antagonist, The Tall Man (his character even gets a name finally here). Nothing else makes sense, of course, but that was pretty much a given at that point.
After four films, three distributors, and two different Mikes, it appeared as if Coscarelli’s one story with zero resolution was finally slated to die a peaceful death. Over the next 15 years or so, rumors of reboots and direct sequels would surface, but never went anywhere. And then, one day, as if it had just beamed in from another dimension, 2016’s Phantasm: Ravager appeared without rhyme or reason. Originally beget as a web series (so my advice to you is to run away, now), the graceless, no-budget shot-on-video nightmare was expanded into something resembling a feature film. Coscarelli himself sat in the back seat for this one, letting one of the conventional digital world’s many untalented filmmakers take charge.
While the heart behind Coscarelli’s characters may be observed throughout this maligned “conclusion” (a word I use with extreme caution, although I sincerely hope it is the end, especially after having actually seen Phantasm: Ravager), amateur auteur David Hartman ultimately turns what could have been an actual film into a bastardized variant of the dreaded reunion movie where many a classic film and television property ultimately “went.” Sure, we get to see just all of the leads one last time here ‒ including the aforementioned talents of Scrimm (in his final film role ever), Bannister, Baldwin, Thornbury, Henry, and even an extra from the first and third films, Kathy Lester ‒ and there’s also a couple of nifty story ideas to be found here.
Like the four films that preceded it, Ravager is a product of its time. In this case however, it’s more like a byproduct. I guess I should not have been as shocked as I was to see a favorite horror film franchise from my youth become just another poorly-shot shitfest with craptastic digital effects, but watching Phantasm descend this far is like having one of The Tall Man’s silver spheres of death burrow itself directly into my soul. It even finally provided my lifelong interest in the series with an “out.” But it is what it is. It’s also what it isn’t, and there is an awful lot of that happening here, since Phantasm: Ravager is (amazingly) even less coherent than the other four films put together. Even at 85 minutes, it doesn’t know where or when to stop.
But then, one could easily say the same thing about Phantasm in general. It is, after all, The NeverEnding Horror Story.
Released time and time again on home video since the advent of home video itself, the whole of the iconic (if weary) series hits DVD in this repackaged five-film set from Well Go USA. Spread out over five discs (which are all housed on one spindle, so be careful how you handle the set), this is, essentially, the cheaper version of the previously-issued Blu-ray set featuring all of the same special features (note how Phantasm II is a “loaner” from Shout! Factory). Ultimately, there’s really nothing new to be found here (in many respects), but Well Go USA’s Phantasm: 5 Movie DVD Collection will make a good modestly-priced Halloween or holiday present to any Phans you may meet in this dimension. Or perhaps in the next.