Wednesday, October 08, 2008

31 DAYS OF FRIGHT: Let's Get Phantasmed!

While most popular horror franchises tend to pile on the sequels and remakes without much of an eye towards consistency, quality or keeping fans of the original films happy (I'm looking at you Freddy, Jason and Michael!), one series stands head and shoulders above the rest.

I'm talking about Don Coscarelli's PHANTASM series, which set the original “is it a dream or is it real?” horror standard back in the late 1970s and has followed it up with three entertaining sequels, though your mileage may vary. (A girl I dated in college once referred to PHANTASM II as the worst film ever made. My opinion differs just a bit.)

Though the larger-budgeted PHANTASM II remains legitimately unavailable on DVD in the States, the other flicks in the series are finally available on DVD and I marked the occasion by getting, as series star Reggie Bannister once called viewing the quartet in one sitting, “PHANTASM-ed.”

The Funeral is About to Begin
It had probably been a good five years since I'd sat down with the original PHANTASM and I'd forgotten how unsettling it could be at times and how you rarely know what the hell is going on. In fact, once the topless babe making out with her boyfriend in the graveyard kills her lover, all bets are officially off.

At its core, PHANTASM – and the entire series – is about the relationship between Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), Jody's friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and the film's unstoppable villain, the horror icon known mainly as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm).

The victim of the graveyard murder was a friend of Jody and Reggie's and their efforts to spare Mike – who suffered nightmares after the death of his parents – the trauma of the funeral sets the film's bizarreness in motion. Sneaking away to catch a glimpse of the goings on at the cemetery, Mike spies The Tall Man hoisting a full casket into the hearse by himself, casuing the perplexed teen to quietly mouth the words “What the fuck?” Frankly, it's just one of many WTF moments to come in the film and its sequels as Mike, Jody and an increasingly freaked out Reggie try to piece together what is happening.

Naturally, one of the flick's highlights is the initial appearance by the deadly flying silver spheres that did for PHANTASM what Jason and his hockey mask did for the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise. They fly, they drill, they burrow and people who seem human bleed weird crazy fluids.

By the end of the flick, you'll be scratching your head as much as the main characters. Though we're initially led to believe that Reggie is dead, Jody turns out to be the real victim, there are a bunch of crazy little hooded monsters running around that do The Tall Man's bidding, the funeral home appears to house a portal to another planet or dimension, and well, the whole thing may or may not have been a bad dream.

The Ball is Back!
Though the original film had its premiere in 1979, it would take almost a decade for Reggie, Mike and The Tall Man to return to the big screen in PHANTASM II, though only Bannister and Scrimm were back to reprise their original roles.

Picking up where the original PHANTASM ended, Reggie comes to the rescue as Mike (now played by James LeGros as a far beefier version of the young adolescent from the original) is attacked by The Tall Man and his army of mutant zombie dwarves from Planet Squishy (apparently, The Tall Man's planet creates these shrunken zombie slaves thanks to its gravity and heat).

Once again, Coscarelli who wrote and directed all four installments, plays with the dream vs. reality concept because we're not sure what – if anything – we've witnessed so far has actually happened. Turns out that Mike has been in a mental institution since the initial attack and it's only after his (unseen) family all die at the hands of The Tall Man and his minions that Reg buys into this war.

Mike – who shares a mental bond with blonde, bland Liz (Paula Irvine) another teen being pursued by The Tall Man – convinces Reg that they need to follow the trail of death and destruction being left by the killer mortician from another planet. Along the way we get far more gore and action than the first installment, including multiple spheres, an extended look at Planet Squishy, evil dwarf hatching, creepy mortician henchmen, “Gravers”, and even a fight with The Tall Man that features oozy yellow blood spewing from him like some sort of interplanetary custard fountain!

The flick's biggest revelation, though, is the evolution of Reggie from sidekick to flat out horror/action star. An unlikely hero thanks to his ponytail and laid-back hippie 'tude, Bannister turns in a crowd-pleasing performance that defined him as a B-movie icon. It's too bad the flick hasn't been given the proper DVD treatment since it's a slam-bang follow-up to the slower, more thoughtful original.

Seeing's Easy, Understanding Takes a Little More Time
As PHANTASM III opens, Reggie, Mike and Liz think they've killed The Tall Man thanks to a mix of embalming fluid and hydrchloric acid. Escaping with their new friend Chemy (short for Alchemy, played by former Penthouse Pet and current radio/TV host Samantha Phillips), the trio quickly realize their future is not so rosy.

Reggie jumps from the hearse just before it explodes into flames and discovers that Mike – now played by Original Recipe Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) – has been thrown from the car, dazed but largely unharmed. Young psychic Liz ain't so lucky – she gets crisped up in the explosion, munched on by the evil dwarves, and decapitated for her troubles. (The crash apparently killed actress Paula Irvine's career, too. PHANTASM III is the last credit on her IMDB filmography.)

Even worse, The Tall Man isn't dead and our worst fears are realized when we see a new Tall Man emerge from the dimension forks and drag his old body into the void. After seeing something like that one wonders if The Tall Man can be killed at all.

A reunion with brother Jody (a returning Thornbury) on “the other side” results in The Tall Man grabbing Mike while Reggie and Jody (now one of The Tall Man's killer spheres) towards Holtsville. Once there Reg runs afoul of a couple extras from A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY but ends up getting rescued by Timmy, a kid who is a lot more dangerous and capable of defending himself than he looks.

At the Holtsville Cemetery Reggie hooks up with a pair of para-military sistahs, one of whom is quickly dispatched. The other, Rocky, adds to this installment's amped up comic side as Reggie keeps trying to get into her military issue pants despite the constant threat from legions of the undead.

Taking refuge in a giant mausoleum – thanks to the kind of cinematic logic that can only get you in trouble – Reggie, Rocky, Tim and a reunited Mike find themselves battling The Tall Man, the re-animated Roxbury Crew, spheres and, yes, evil dwarves. We also discover that Mike may be more connected to The Tall Man than we originally thought.

Though certainly more lighthearted in tone than the first two installments, PHANTASM III is an entertaining entry in the series. Once again, as your enjoyment of Reggie goes so goes your enjoyment of the series. For years the only way to see the uncut version of this installment was to track down a dub of the Japanese laserdisc, but that situation has been remedied by the recent DVD release.

By the end of the film we're left with more questions than answers: Is Mike from Planet Squishy? If not, why is The Tall Man so interested in him? Can The Tall Man be killed? And, why is Reggie so horny?

Ice Cream Man, It's All in His Head
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION picks up pretty much right where the previous flick 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 balding, ponytailed hero that “the final game now begins.”

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 dwarves 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.

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”.

In many ways PHANTASM IV is 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 also 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 Reggie-centric third installment more. All I hope is that when PHANTASM V eventually rolls around – it's rumored to be headed for a direct-to-video release – 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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