It’s not an exaggeration to state there was nothing else like the original Phantasm when it was unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences in 1979. Don Coscarelli’s low-budget wonder employed an almost indescribable mixture of genres and tones, all under the overarching theme of the fear of death. Although most would label Phantasm as horror, it employs many different items from its toolbox, with elements of science fiction, action, mystery, and brief comic moments. It’s a funhouse attraction, purposely designed to engage the viewer through a baffling lens of dream reality. From one moment to the next we’re left questioning what we just saw – or thought we saw. The mystery is the thing. Ultimately, we’re left to draw our own conclusions.
After the success of the first movie, the idea of a sequel seemed inevitable, except that Coscarelli was unsure how to proceed with the daunting task of topping his first film. Perhaps as a result of this uncertainty, the subsequent Phantasm films took the series in unexpected directions. Over the next four decades, we’ve witnessed the continuing saga of Reggie and Mike as they square off in time and space against their enigmatic opponent, the Tall Man. How do the sequels measure up? Read on…
(1988) Written and directed by Don Coscarelli; Starring: James Le Gros, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Paula Irvine, Kenneth Tigar and Samantha Phillips; Available on Blu ray and DVD
“…I had a lot of demand after the first Phantasm as to doing a sequel, and I resisted it for a number of years, because I really didn’t know how to make the story work. I had already seen the original Phantasm as a one-off, and one day, about a year before we started shooting, this idea came to me that we would start the moment after Phantasm I had ended.” – Don Coscarelli (from DVD commentary)
At $3 million (a drop in the bucket by Hollywood standards), Phantasm II was by far the biggest budgeted film in the Phantasm series, and it shows. The long-awaited follow-up to the mind-bending original featured a greater sense of scope and more polished effects. This time, instead of one wicked silver sphere, we’re treated to three of the nasty balls, equipped with a plethora of deadly hardware. Setting the pace for all of the subsequent sequels, Phantasm II is a road movie, with Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and Mike (James Le Gros) hitting the asphalt in their venerable ’71 Plymouth Barracuda,* in pursuit of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Along the way, they meet Liz (Paula Irvine), a young woman with a psychic connection to Mike, and Alchemy (Samantha Phillips), a perky hitchhiker. They join in the quest to take down the Tall Man and his minions, who roam from town to town like a plague, sucking the life out of the residents.
* Phun Phact #1: According to Coscarelli, there were three 1971 Plymouth Barracudas used for filming: The “Hero,” the “Stunt,” and the “Wreck.”
It’s Reggie’s (Reggie Bannister)** turn to shine, as he takes charge (with a chainsaw and four-barreled shotgun) to become the hero we didn’t know we needed. Phantasm II is especially notorious for replacing the original Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) with James Le Gros, at the insistence of the studio.*** Le Gros is the Rodney Dangerfield of the series – he doesn’t get a lot of respect for the unenviable position of replacing the actor who established the role, but he does a respectable job. Also, he delivers one of the movie’s best lines (“Reg, who are we kidding? I’m a 19-year-old kid, you’re a bald, middle-aged, ex-ice cream vendor.”). Compared to the other cast members, Paula Irvine is a little stiff as Liz, paling in comparison to co-star Phillips, who approaches her character Alchemy with an uninhibited, free-spirited performance. Phillips shares a most unusual love scene with Bannister, and also provides one of the movie’s biggest shocks. Phantasm II**** is an under-valued chapter in Coscarelli’s saga, setting the stage for the adventures to follow.
** Phun Phact #2: In an example of life imitating art, Reggie Bannister worked at Sunnyside Mortuary in Long Beach, California, in between acting gigs.
*** Phun Phact #3: Among the young actors who auditioned for the role of Mike was a 23-year-old Brad Pitt.
**** Phun Phact #4: While at Universal, Coscarelli made his acquaintance with Sam Raimi, who wanted a role in the upcoming sequel. Due to the limited cast, Coscarelli couldn’t accommodate him, but gave a nod to Raimi in the film in a cameo of sorts – as a bag of ashes.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead
(1994) Written and directed by Don Coscarelli; Starring: Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, Bill Thornbury, Gloria Lynne Henry and Kevin Connors; Available on Blu ray and DVD
“You have lived in this flesh construct for long enough. Now it is time to come back to me.” – The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm)
Coscarelli remedied one of his regrets with the previous film by bring back A. Michael Baldwin to reprise his role as Mike. We also see the return* of Mike’s older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), who shows up briefly, in otherworldly form. In the third outing, we learn more about the unique relationship Mike shares with his archnemesis, the Tall Man. While the budget was a step down from the previous film, Coscarelli made good use of available resources, including an expansive mausoleum at Angeles Abbey Memorial Park in Compton, California, and an impressive assortment of hearses, courtesy of the L.A. Hearse Society.
* Phun Phact #5: Watch for a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo of Kat Lester (the Woman in Lavender from the first film), who appears at Reggie’s hospital bed. Lester would return as her eponymous character in the fifth film.
Phantasm III also introduces us to several new characters. The most notable is Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a nunchaku-wielding Gulf War vet. She’s more than a match for Reggie, and seemingly immune to his clumsy advances. Much less welcome is an obnoxious kid, Tim (Kevin Connors), who sets up booby traps in a house for some Home Alone-style hijinks. He takes on a cartoonish trio of looters, dispatching them one-by-one with his deadly toys. Coscarelli included Tim as a call-back to the first movie, but he’s a poor substitute for young Mike, and only makes me wish there were more scenes with adult Mike. Even if it’s one of the lesser outings in the series, it’s worth a look for Mike’s return, the introduction of Rocky, and the most elaborate stunt of the series, involving a pink Cadillac hearse.**
** Phun Phact #6: Coscarelli noted in his autobiography that stunt driver Bob Ivy was knocked unconscious as his hearse flew through air. When the car hit the stunt ramp, Coscarelli (serving as cameraman) instinctively blinked while he was panning, but still managed to keep the shot framed.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion
“I have cats, and if you’ve ever seen your cat play with a mouse…it really is just a game. And they love it. And you know, the game’s not over. How many times has the Tall Man said that? It’s just begun.” – Reggie Bannister (from DVD commentary)
Of all the Phantasm films, Phantasm IV: Oblivion (originally titled Phantasm Phorever) might be the best example of doing more with less. While managing diminishing monetary resources, Coscarelli arranged makeup by KNB EFX Group for next to nothing, and re-purposed unused footage from the first film for flashbacks (the original cut of Phantasm was three hours, but it was eventually trimmed to about 90 minutes). Additionally, some key location shots were done without permits. In one of the most impressive examples of Coscarelli’s guerilla filmmaking, he shot one scene at dawn on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., effectively creating the illusion that the city was deserted. In another scene, set during the Civil War, Coscarelli saved money on wardrobe and props by hiring a group of Civil War re-enactors.*
The fourth entry breathes new life into the series by providing a glimpse into the Tall Man’s past, as Jebediah Morningside, a 19th century scientist. When he opens a portal to another dimension, he’s transformed forever, setting the wheels in motion for the events in the Phantasm saga. Reggie has some nice moments when he helps a stranded motorist (Heidi Marnhout). As in the previous film, Bill Thornbury makes a brief appearance as Jody, but the character never regains his footing. Despite some necessary cost-cutting, it’s a satisfying film that sets up the final chapter, with a cliff-hanger of sorts. Who knew we’d have to wait nearly two decades for the follow-up?
* Phun Phact #7: Coscarelli had two friends appear as corpses in the two upright coffins: the body on the left belongs to Roger Avary (co-writer of Pulp Fiction), while on the right is frequent Coscarelli collaborator Guy Thorpe.
(2016) Directed by: David Hartman; Written by Don Coscarelli and David Hartman; Starring: Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, Bill Thornbury, Dawn Cody, Gloria Lynne Henry, Stephan Jutras and Kathy Lester; Available on Blu ray and DVD
“The budget on Phantasm Ravager, by necessity, was almost half of the original. We were making a target film, by fans for fans. By nature, it had to be the lowest-budget Phantasm on record.” – Don Coscarelli (from his autobiography, True Indie)
After years of speculation, a fifth (and final?) installment of the series came to fruition, made with a minimal crew (using no more than five individuals at a time). Following the example of the previous film, several location shots were done without permits. The production also utilized Reggie and his wife Gigi’s house for one of the main locations. To its credit and its detriment, it’s the most ambitious of the sequels, taking us forward and backward in time through multiple dimensions and an alien world.
Rest home-Reggie believes he’s battling the Tall Man and his undead minions, until he faces the sad realization it might all be a product of his dementia. It’s an interesting thread seeing Reggie come to grips with aging, jumping between different realities as he continues the fight. On a touching note, Phantasm: Ravager marked the final performance by the late Angus Scrimm, who was in poor health, but still willing and eager to play the Tall Man one last time. There are some nice moments, particularly between Scrimm and Bannister, but these are only moments. Ravager introduces us to one of the most unlikable characters of the entire series (the extent of his wit is to call Reggie “Baldy.”), Chunk (Stephen Jutras), a mercenary fighting the Tall Man in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Unfortunately, Ravager can’t keep up with its ambitions. There’s so much going on, it often feels like more than one Phantasm installment, with 20 years of ideas crammed into a 90-minute movie. Also, the over-reliance on CGI (Director/co-writer David Hartman unwisely chose to depict the spheres with CGI instead of practical effects), give the film an unintended video game look. Coscarelli and Hartman throw some bones to the fans with a new incarnation of the ‘Cuda (introducing the “Battle Cuda”), and (Minor Spoiler) we get a welcome (if all too fleeting) cameo from one of the stars of part III, Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry). If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the first movie and its progeny, the fight against the Tall Man is never over. Even if the fifth movie falls short of the mark, it ends with a glimmer of hope, leaving the door open for further excursions into the strange, hallucinogenic world of Phantasm.
* Phun Phact #8: Genre fans will appreciate the tunnel scene, shot in the venerable Bronson Cave at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California.
Sources for this article: Blu-ray commentaries, The Phantasm Collection; True Independent, by Don Coscarelli