Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ice Cream Man, It's All in His Head

PHANTASM IV picks up pretty much right where PHANTASM III left off. Mike (again played by an increasingly odd-looking A. Michael Baldwin) is on the road, running from (to?) the evil, interplanetary grave-robber known as The Tall Man. Former ice cream vendor Reggie is now a full-fledged soldier in a war against an army of the living dead (the somber narration evokes THE TERMINATOR series) and despite being pinned to the wall by a bevy of spheres, Reg is let go by a bemused Tall Man who informs our bald, ponytailed hero that “the final game now begins.”

( Couldn't help but find it interesting how often The Tall Man refers to things as a “game” over the course of the four films. Just what is his reason for coming here and plundering our cemeteries? Is it all just a game to him?)

Mike drives along, flashing back to unused footage from the first film, wondering just who or what The Tall Man is. Eventually, he discovers that The Tall Man was once a turn-of-the-century mortician named Jebediah Morningside and in one of the series' freakiest moments, the friendly, pre-Tall Man version of Morningside offers time traveling Mike some lemonade. (I couldn't help but think of the Itchy and Scratchy episode where the two enemies sit on the porch drinking lemonade.)

Unfortunately, in one of the moments that really bugged me about this installment, Mike decides NOT to talk to Retro Friendly Tall Man and instead returns to Death Valley where the desert is becoming more and more overgrown with Dimensional Forks.

Meanwhile, Reggie is up to his old ways, searching for Mike and battling The Tall Man's minions, be it evil jawas or maniac cops (reminiscent of, well, MANIAC COP). Along the way he hooks up yet again, this time with a saucy blonde whose car – yep – flips over and blows up. (There's even a joke as blondie remarks, “I thought cars only blow up like that in the movies.”) Like all of his relationships with women this one eventually goes way sour, in perhaps the most itchy skitchy scene in the film.

With Mike finally starting to pick up on and hone his powers, it's up to Reggie to track him down and help out in the final battle (?) against The Tall Man.

I actually liked PHANTASM IV much more this time than I did during my previous viewing. I still think it meanders too much and the whole subplot featuring Mike seems disjointed, even for a PHANTASM flick. Jody (Bill Thornbury) is again a big, fat zero, adding little to the flick other than reuiniting the cast of the original. His character's actions and motivations seem all over the place and it's hard to determine where his allegiance lies. (Interestingly enough, both Baldwin and Thornbury have not aged particularly well, with Thornbury looking paunchier, puffier and balder with each installment. Bannister, meanwhile, looks simply like an older, greyer version of his PHANTASM character.)

There's a few cool, time travel sequences in the flick, especially a black and white Civil War sequence in which The Tall Man is sticking a big metal probe up Mike's nostril – except he ain't dead and it sounds like the probe hits metal. I've already mentioned the bizarre Lemonade Flashback and Jody and Mike travel into a desolate, not-too-distant future where there's talk of some kind of “infection”.

PHANTASM IV is in many ways the most tantalizing and unique entry in the series, which makes its shortcomings all the more frustrating. Coscarelli seamlessly weaves leftover footage from the original into the tale and there's a particularly cool sequence where Jody traps and hangs The Tall Man, only for Mike to let him go. And while the other films in the series all feature a 'gotcha!' shock ending, the anti-climactic ending of IV is actually quite melancholy as Mike lays on the ground, dying (?), flashing back to a gentler, less scary time.

Unfortunately, IV is the one entry in the series that had me looking at my watch throughout. Its action sequences pale in comparison to II and III and while the Sphere Implants provide a great moment, I still enjoyed the more Reggie-centric third installment more. All I hope is that when PHANTASM V eventually rolls around that we finally get to see what happens when Reg stepped through those dimensional forks, all dressed in his ice cream vendor gear, ready to do battle with who knows what awaits him on the other side.

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