WATCH THE SERIES: Phantasm

When I was 16 years old, I probably watched Phantasm II every single day. Honestly, I was completely obsessed with the film and its gliding metal spheres that promised destruction every time they whizzed past the screen. At that stage of my life, I hated where I was and couldn’t wait to be where I was going. Its nihilistic tone and brutal violence suited me just fine. In fact, when I finally watched the original film, I found it silly and stupid by comparison.

Now that I’m in my 40’s, I can see how totally stupid sixteen year old me was.

Phantasm (1979)

Directed, written, photographed, and edited by auteur Don Coscarelli, the original Phantasm makes much more sense if viewed less as a linear film and more as a collection of imagery, a “complete movie” to use the words of Fulci.

However, if we were to look at the basics of the story, they’d concern the evil Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), an undertaker who comes from a red dimension where he transforms dead people into dwarf zombies and commands an army of flying metal spheres. He’s obsessed with a young boy named Mike (Michael Baldwin), who is trying to convince his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) that their town is being taken over.

Sure. It’s kind of about that. It’s also a surrealistic rumination on how teenagers see death and the worry that they won’t be there for those they love. Or worse, that those they love won’t be there for them.

This is the kind of movie that has a villain who can also become a woman, the Lady in Lavender, who transforms back into the Tall Man at the moment the men orgasm. There’s some strange commentary at play here, right? It also has fortune tellers who tell you that fear is the killer, characters dying and coming back and characters that lived actually dying and chopped off fingers filled with yellow blood being transformed into winged monsters that can only be stopped by garbage disposals. And it’s also the kind of film that can completely stop the narrative for everyone to play “Sitting Here at Midnight.”

For all the narrative and psychological questions that Phantasm raises, I often wonder: exactly what kind of ice cream man wears a leather vest over his uniform?

This initial offering also introduces a trope that will endure for the rest of the series: at the end, when it seems like everything is making sense,nothing does and the villains end up exploding out of a mirror or from hiding, dragging our heroes back into the void.

I’ve watched Phantasm at least once a year since my first viewing and each time I watch it, I am struck by its strange power. Unlike so many of today’s independent movies, it looks and feels like a big budget film, except it’s been beamed to Earth from another dimension.

Phantasm is available on Shudder along with commentary by Joe Bob Briggs.

Phantasm II (1988)

Liz Reynolds is a young woman who has a psychic bond with Mike, the hero of the first film, as well as the Tall Man.  She finds them in her nightmares, where she begs for Mike to save her before her grandfather dies and is taken away by the villain.

We then see how Mike escaped the end of the last film — Reggie saved him by blowing up the house, but our hero has been institutionalized from seven years. He then must convince Reggie that the Tall Man really exists. He learns when the Tall Man blows up his entire family (yes, this movie has two exploding houses within minutes of one another).

It’s time for a road trip — not the last they will take — that takes them to Périgord, Oregon. Liz’s grandfather dies and her sister Jeri disappears. The priest who does the funeral knows all about the Tall Man, so he desecrates the body which rises anyway.

On their way to Périgord, Reggie picks up a hitchhiker named Alchemy who looks like a ghost they saw earlier. This is where you learn the lessons that Reggie will never learn for the rest of the series: never pick up hitchhikers, never sleep with strange women and every girl who will actually have sex with you is really the Tall Man.

Regardless, Liz arrives at the mortuary where she learns that her grandmother is now one of the Tall Man’s lurkers (she was taken by her grandfather, who we can also assume is part of the Tall Man’s crew). The priest gets killed by a ball, which is always nice. And then one of the saddest moments in the Phantasm series happens: the Tall Man blows up Reggie’s Hemicuda.

What follows are plenty of guns (a quad-barrelled shotgun!), a chainsaw battle, more spheres, the portal to the Red Dimension and the Tall Man pumped full of embalming fluid, which causes him to melt all over the place.

Alchemy has taken a hearse, but she’s really the Tall Man, killing Reggie (again, but of course, not really) and Mike and Liz convinced they’re trapped in a dream. The Tall Man utters the best line of the movie: “No, it’s not!” before pulling them through the back window.

While the lowest budget Universal film of the 1980’s, they also exerted a lot of control over the film. The, well, phantasmagorical style of the first movie was asked to be toned down with a more linear plotline and character voiceovers. Honestly, any time you hear a voiceover in a film, you should read that as a note from the producers saying, “No one will understand this if we don’t spell it out to them.”

Plus, no dreams were allowed in the final cut and a female romantic lead was created for Mike.  And most distressing, Universal wanted to recast both leads but allowed A. Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister (neither of them had acted in the nine years in between the films, with Reggie actually working at a funeral home as an embalmer) to audition for the roles they originated. Big of them. Coscarelli was allowed to keep one of them in a Sophie’s Choice and went with Bannister, casting James Le Gros in Baldwin’s place. Seriously, were the Universal executives supervillains? That’s some crazy thinking there.

Actually, the Tall Man has plenty of great lines here, like “You think that when you die you go to Heaven… you come to us!” This movie pretty much dominated my teenage years and nothing that followed it would ever top it. But hey — they took three chances trying.

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

Universal Studios was going to put this out in theaters before differences with Coscarelli, yet the direct to video release of this film was in the top 100 rentals of that year — ah, the magic days when video rental could help a movie succeed!

Right after the end of the last film, the Tall Man comes back from the Red Dimension just as the hearse with Liz and Mike in it explodes. Reggie finds that Liz is dead and saves Mike from the Tall Man by threatening to set off a grenade. The Tall Man just laughs and says that he will come from Mike when he’s well again. This takes two years of hospital time, as he wakes up after a dream with his brother Jody and the Tall Men in it. The minute he wakes up, his nurse turns into a demon with a ball inside her skull.

Soon enough, the Tall Man is back, transforming Jody into a sphere and taking Mike with him, sending Reggie on a road trip. He ends up in a small town where three gangsters — somehow this movie becomes The People Under the Stairs for a bit — throw him into the trunk of his car but are thwarted by Tim, a young kid who has been fighting the forces of the Tall Man.

Of note, Tim’s house is the same house from House!

Much like how Princess from The Walking Dead comic has to be directly influenced by  Alma from Warriors of the Wasteland, the way Carl Grimes dresses seems like too much of a coincidence when we see Tim in the film.

Reggie and Tim make their way to a mausoleum where they team up with Rocky, a tough woman who is good with nunchakus. They follow a whole bunch of hearses to the Tall Man’s base, where they rescue Mike and use the portal to cut off the Tall Man’s hands, which of course become monsters.

Mike then talks to his brother who is now a ball and learns that the Tall Man is making an army to conquer every other dimension, using human brains inside his spheres and shrunken down dead people as his slaves. “There are thousands of them!” yells Mike as the Looters wheel in Tim, who is saved at the last minute by Jody, still a metal ball. Whew!

Reggie and Rocky arrive just in time to shoot the Tall Man with a spear and liquid nitrogen just as a gold ball emerges from his head. Reggie destroys that as everyone learns that Mike also has a gold ball inside his head that turns his eyes silver. He warns Reggie to stay away from him and leaves with his brother, still a ball.

Rocky leaves just as Reggie is pinned to the wall by a ton of spheres. Just as Tim tries to save him, the Tall Man comes back to say, “It’s never over!” and pulls Tim through a window.

There was an alternate ending filmed where Reggie and Tim travel to Alaska, where they bury the Tall Man’s gold sphere in the ice and leave a plaque over it that says “Here Lies The Tall Man – R.I.P.” Reggie then exclaims, “Now, all we have to worry about is global warming” as they leave.

As a rule, the less money the Phantasm films have in the budget, the better they generally are. This one is considered the roughest by fans as it deviates so much from the storyline. I’d argue that these films have no real storyline and are all over the place, necessitating the use of stimulants any time you try and watch them.

You can watch this on Shudder with Joe Bob Briggs commentary.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

This one opens right where the last one ended, with Mike leaving town and Reggie trapped. The Tall Man lets him go to play one last game while the ball form of Jody becomes human long enough to tell Reggie that he has to search for Mike.

Reggie saves a woman named Jennifer from some of the Tall Man’s soldiers and just when it seems like our ice cream dude is finally about to get lucky, her breasts rip apart to reveal two silver balls — yes, really this happens — before Reggie uses a sledgehammer and his tuning form to stop her.

Mike has flashbacks to his younger days — using footage shot during the original Phantasm that was never used — to try and determine who the tall man is. He tries to kill himself, only to be stopped by the Tall Man. He escapes through a gateway where he meets a kindly old man named Jebediah Morningside, who looks exactly like the Tall Man (the old lady on the porch is supposed to be the fortune teller from Phantasm).

Then, Mike learns that he can move things with his brain. Jody finds him just in time to escape the Tall Man again.

Reggie arrives in Death Valley, fighting off some dwarves as Mike and Jody reappear, yet Mike tells him not to trust Jody. Mike and Jody then go through another gate back to Jebediah’s house, where they learn how he created the first interdimensional gate and became the Tall Man, who chases them back to another cemetery where Jody turns on his brother. Mike kills his brother with a sphere he built out of car parts and runs from the Tall Man.

If at this point your head is spinning from reading this, imagine watching it. This installment tries hard to keep the crazy narrative shifts from the beginning, constantly shifting the questions when you think you have all the answers.

Mike and Reggie use the car sphere and the hearse’s motor, now an interdimensional bomb, to destroy the Tall Man, who of course emerges seconds later from the gate, unharmed. He reveals that he is one of many as he removes the gold sphere from Mike head and leaves. Reggie arms himself and jumps through the gate, just as Mike has a memory of them riding in his ice cream truck together.

This installment’s budget was minuscule when compared to the last two Phantasm films. In fact, if you look at inflation, it was shot on a lower budget than the original. That’s why so many scenes are set in the desert. And the film wasn’t afraid to call in some favors, like the swarm of spheres, which was created by fans and KNB cutting Coscarelli a break on the cost of their effects.

Sadly, this movie could have been even bigger. Roger Avery, who co-wrote Pulp Fiction as well as Silent Hill, is a super fan of the Phantasm Series and suggested an epic ending called Phantasm 1999 A.D. This post-apocalyptic film would also star Bruce Campbell but cost way too much to get made in the pre-Kickstarter world.

Here’s the synopsis from IMDB, which will make you crestfallen that we never got this sequel: “The year is 2012 and there are only three U.S. states left. Between New York and California is the wasteland known as the Plague Zone. Unfortunately, the evil Tall Man controls that area. Since many people are dead, the Tall Man is able to make thousands of dwarf slaves for his planet daily in the Mormon Mausoleum. Besides him, the other residents are “baggers,” human-like creatures that are infected by the Tall Man’s blood, the dwarves, and, of course, the silver spheres, all trying to break out of the barrier that contains them and into the real world. A group of hi-tech troops are sent in to destroy the red dimension where the Tall Man gets his power. Reggie follows so he can find Mike after a series of nightmares he had. Will they be able to finally destroy the Tall Man for good?”

There’s one awesome scene in this one, where the Tall Man chases Mike down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, which is completely deserted, an effect achieved by shooting it on Thanksgiving morning.

Oh yeah — where is Tim? The kid who ended up being a main character in the last film was to have been eaten by the dwarves in this one, but the budget kept that from being filmed.

You can also watch this one with Joe Bob Briggs on Shudder.

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

Directed by David Hartman and produced by Coscarelli, this final sequel was done in secret and announced a few months before it was released. It’s the final word — one imagines — in the series, as it ends at least Reggie’s story. Or maybe it doesn’t. It’s hard to tell with Phantasm.

In development since 2004, this one starts with Reggie still hunting the Tall Man. Or perhaps he’s suffering from dementia in an assisted living facility. Or perhaps he’s at a farm where a potential love interest and everyone but him get killed by the Tall Man’s spheres. Or maybe he’s in a hospital in the 1860’s and there to die alongside Jebediah before he became the Tall Man or maybe even in a reality where he never becomes the Tall Man. And oh yeah, the Lady in Lavender shows up again.

The Tall Man then meets Reggie in 1979, where he tells him everything that will happen and offers to save his family if he never gets involved. He replies that he’d rather be loyal to his friends Mike and Jody.

My favorite part of this one is the gigantic spheres that are battling whole cities as Mike leads a hi-tech future squad (shades of the Avery script) against the Tall Man’s forces. Reggie has been in a coma for ten years (shades of Mike in Phantasm II) and now, the Tall Man has taken over the world.

The ending is up for debate: does Reggie die in the real world? Is that a dream? Is the reality where Reggie, Mike and Jody — joined by heroic dwarf Chunk and the surprise return of Rocky from Phantasm III — continue to fight the Tall Man’s gigantic spheres the truth? Are all of them?

As Reggie himself said when he was on with Joe Bob for the Shudder marathon, “Well, it’s Phantasm.” Eventually you have to stop asking questions and just enjoy. I guess it’s just nice to see everyone together again, no matter if the last film doesn’t live up to what it could be.

You can — you guessed it — check this one out on Shudder with Joe Bob Briggs.

In case you didn’t know, the Star Wars character Captain Phasma was named for this movie and Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams is such a big fan of the film he personally oversaw the new cleaned up version of the original film.

So many movies can cite Phantasm as an influence — Poltergeist 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street, One Dark Night and the TV series Supernatural has its protagonists drive around in a black muscle car…kind of just like Phantasm.

Its influence can also be felt in the world of metal, as Tormentor covered the theme, and the line “The funeral is about to begin, sir” has been sampled by the bands Splatterhouse, Marduk and Mortician. You can also hear the band Entombed play the theme at the end of their song “Left Hand Path.”

Someday, someone is going to get the idea to make an entirely new Phantasm. But it won’t be so strange and it won’t be so special. Until that time comes, we’ll always have five movies — one awesome, a few ok and a few stinkers that I still love — to enjoy. And remember: “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!”

11 thoughts on “WATCH THE SERIES: Phantasm”

  1. […] Originally, George Romero was to direct this when it was to be a theatrical movie. He didn’t feel that he could work within the constraints of television censorship. However, Tobe Hooper really succeeded with this effort, despite much of the book’s violence being trimmed. That said, there is a European theatrical version that contains a longer cut of Cully threatening Larry with the shotgun. It was released in Spain as Phantasma II, a supposed sequel to Phantasm! […]

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  2. Bad Moms brought me here via a link on the page.

    What gets me about P2 is that Brad Pitt auditioned for Mike . . . and lost to James LeGros. Now, no insult intended to James. I dig him. He’s great in Drugstore Cowboy. For me, he’s a Fritz Weaver or Richard Crenna. He’s in it, I watch. But here’s Brad . . . this superstar . . . and he got passed over? Just funky how casting works. And how “stars” rise. And to find out that Gregory Harrison passed on Jody? Can you see a Phantasm with Brad Pitt? If he did, you know damn well there’d be sequels and reboots today.

    There are great elements in all the films . . . that can be squished into one great, over the top reboot. I love how the series had the fortune teller from the first movie be the wife of the Tall Man, when he was Jebediah, and the gateway was of his own invention. Nice twist.

    I always felt Part 2 has elements (such as the souped-up spheres) that Don wanted to do in the first film, and couldn’t afford it. Or with the space gate being behind a plain wood door and not a “star trek” door with the spheres as a “key.” Also, the fire extinguisher sequence in P1 where Mike puts it’s all together with Reggie and the ice cream truck and . . . the Tall Man explodes–that should have been in the final cut. Such a great sequence. Thank god for years-after-the-fact DVDs.

    I was fortunate to have read the novelization. The old Phantams website published the first 5 or so chapters . . . then never released the rest. Steve, a fellow horror and sci-fi buff, bought the overseas-issued novel for $300 bucks. He allowed me to read it—at his house (it’s a quick read; more novella than novel)—and, I have to say, I wish Don has stuck to the original screenplay and left the backstory in (Jody with the bank, roadie for the Rolling Stones, and Sally and her sister at the antique store are more fleshed out). The book is not as disconnected and dreamlike as it is in the film. Actually, if this was to be rebooted, they should shoot the book and not recreate the original film.

    I could go on and on.

    As you with Part 2, I was obsessed with Part 1 and rented it practically every weekend when it came out on tape. I only got to see it once at the twin plex in ’79. My dad thought it was the dumbiest movie ever. He actually said, “I thought Plan 9 was bad.” And it’s funny he said that because, Phantasm has the same “use the dead to take over the earth” plot from Wood’s masterpiece; it’s Plan 9 with a way better director and budget. (He also took me to see Alien . . . and loved it.)

    But my P1 VHS-used copy ran without fail–alongside Rocktober Blood–every Halloween. Then it burnt out into blue screen and my sister got me the DVD (along with the VHS of Fantastic Planet).

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