Directed by David Hartman
Phantasm is one of the few film franchises that have stayed solely in the hands of their creators and never been remade, reworked, reimagined, or rebooted. That’s quite a feat in today’s ever-churning slick Hollywood content machine.
Since it debuted in 1979, writer-director Don Coscarelli has remained a creative force, and actor Angus Scrimm has played the iconic Tall Man villain as only he could. (Sadly, Scrimm passed away earlier this year; without The Tall Man, there probably won’t be any more Phantasm movies so… while some series end with a whimper, it’s a good thing this flick says sayonara with style.)
I’m happy to report that Phantasm: Ravager continues the tradition even as it signals the end of an era. From the very first frames fans will know they’re in for a wicked ride when they see that the famous 1971 Plymouth Barracuda is back, and it has brought with it a few intergalactic hitchhikers. There’s a cheeky-fun first death scene involving those silver orbs; then the story launches into high gear.
The first movie had a genuine teen empowerment vibe, which is why young fans connected so well with brothers Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Mike (Baldwin). With the help of their everyman friend Reggie (Bannister), those two teens managed to survive the wrath of the almighty Tall Man. But they didn’t quite defeat him. The task proved too much to contain in a single story, so Coscarelli and co. stretched the Phantasm horror into four sequels – following in 1988, 1994, 1998, and 2016. The empowerment of the original characters comes full circle (or full sphere, if you will) as they age and suffer the consequences of their mortal bodies. The central themes from the first Phantasm – what happens when we die? – are more relevant than ever.
Reggie is older now, wheelchair-bound, and living in the confines of a convalescent hospital. He’s plagued with nightmares and memory lapses, and maybe even early-onset Alzheimer’s. Or is he? In another dimension, shotgun-toting, former ice cream man Reggie is time-tripping through the universe, hot on the trail of The Man and his mini minions. Or is he? Maybe he’s trapped in a post-apocalyptic alternate dimension in which The Tall Man has already won and annihilated mankind with a nasty virus that’s wiped out everyone except clones of himself, the Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester), and those darn dwarves.
It’s anyone’s guess, as Phantasm: Ravager pops back and forth between all these possible realities. Writer-director and Coscarelli protégé David Hartman keeps several balls in the air – literally and figuratively – with epic battles, heartfelt intimate moments, existential wonderings, gory horror, and more, all while working on a meager budget. The lack of dough does show at times, but hey, at least Hartman went for it. Even when the visuals don’t depend on CGI or elaborate netherworlds, there is some nice artistic attention to detail and a lush color scheme of reds and blues.
On the downside, the story felt too ambitious at times, with a plethora of characters and scenes that went on just long enough to make me squirm. Then again, while I like and appreciate the Phantasm movies, I am not an uber-“phan.”
Phantasm: Ravager is clearly made by and for the fans. That’s what makes it feel so sincere – and seeing Scrimm in his final performance makes the ride that much sweeter. He was an excellent actor, and we get to see a lot more of him than in previous installments as The Tall Man gives ultimatums, offers devil’s bargains, and basically chews the blood-soaked scenery. There’s the feel of suspense, adventure, and actual stakes, as the Phantasm universe is taken seriously… but not too seriously. Hartman strikes just the right balance between fear and fun and manages to leave the viewer stunned with a powerful ending.
Phantasm: Ravager is not the place to start with the series (noobs beware), but it’s a helluva way to end it.