Way back in the early 80s, probably 1981, me, my mother, and my brothers sat down in front of the TV for a horror film called Phantasm on like the late, late show. Little did I know that this was an unheard of airing at the time on basic television of an R-rated horror movie that had been in theaters not two years before. Had it even gone the cable premium channel route before being transmitted with little fanfare through standard rabbit ears after primetime? Not sure.
Me being only 11 or 12, this 1979 movie scared the frick out of me! And rewatching it, I can see why. It is a perfect low-budget product of its time, loaded with the chilling, surreal, trippy imagery that was all the rage in horror back then. And I think what most scarred my young mind was the fact that it’s predominantly told from the perspective of a young teen.
After some dude is stabbed by a blonde chick he was having sex with in a cemetery at night, we meet our three main characters. Jody and Reg were friends with the dead dude, so they go to his funeral at the eerie, isolated funeral home that’s right next to the cemetery. Jody’s little brother Mike wants to come to the funeral, but Jody says no…so Mike sneaks there by himself.
As Mike hides in the bushes of the cemetery watching with binoculars, he sees these creepy, short, hooded figures making hellish noises while darting behind tombstones. He also sees a tall, stony-faced caretaker lifting a casket into a hearse all by himself. And so begins Mike’s near 40-year struggle with the supernatural.
The original Phantasm is a spine-tingler. The spooky music box melody used as a theme for most of the films in the franchise is perfect. The dark lighting and shadows plus the stark and desolate halls inside the funeral home set the tone of dread, vulnerability, and isolation. And the fact that young Mike decides to enter that dead zone on his own was beyond my comprehension when I was a boy nearly his age.
Young Mike suspects something is very sinister at this funeral home, but his older brother and ice cream truck driver Reg don’t particularly buy it. So Mike breaks into the funeral home to find out the truth. WTF? Is he fricking crazy? Inside this house of the dead are those little cloaked figures, which I like to call “demon jawas,” the evil caretaker that we’ve all come to know as the “Tall Man,” plus that damn floating silver ball that zoom-floats through the halls of the place in search of your forehead. Once located, it embeds its sharp screw into your brain and sucks it all out. When I think of balls on my forehead, this just isn’t what I have in mind.
Mike encounters the Tall Man’s yellow blood when he cuts off his fingers, the demon jawas become relentless, the Tall Man walks down a street in slow motion, his shoes clomping with an echo on the pavement like nails in a coffin—and then, worst of all, the fricking demons and Tall Man infiltrate the safe haven of Mike and Jody’s home. Finally, Jody and Reg believe Mike’s supernatural stories.
That’s when things get really confusing—for the remainder of the fricking franchise! Characters seem to die and disappear and then come back to life. Mike, Reg, and Jody spend the next three sequels chasing the Tall Man from town to town and funeral home to funeral home in an effort to stop him from taking souls of the dead to a hellish otherworld—while occasionally crossing each other’s paths and teaming up before fighting and separating again.
What’s real and what’s not? Who’s really alive and who actually became the Tall Man’s bitch? Why didn’t the prick producers let the original actor play Mike in the second movie instead of completely ruining the continuity by recasting him with James LeGros (love you James, but your presence really spoils the franchise)?
To create the illusion of continuity at the beginning of part 2, we never see Mike’s face before he’s dragged away by demon jawas (and conveniently, the otherworld looks just like the sandy Tatooine desert). Sure, by 1988, some may have bought James LeGros as Mike grown up, but for most of us, it was painfully obvious it wasn’t the same actor.
Then when 1994’s part 3 opens, the flashbacks are careful to show no clips of James LeGros, because the original Mike is back! WAHOO! And he makes it right through to the fourth film from 1998. Good thing, because parts of the fourth film include plenty of footage from the first film—footage that wasn’t USED in the first film. They did an excellent job of incorporating these lost scenes into the plot—while vividly reminding us as we watched this fourth run-of-the-mill sequel of what made the first film so atmospheric.
The first film actually has some humorous moments—for instance, when Jody is screwing a girl in the cemetery (he has a nice butt!!!), Mike runs by screaming, causing Jody to look up…with a pair of panties in his mouth. But the real hero of the series as it progresses becomes ever-horny Reg, whose always trying to hump the leg of whatever female hitchhiker he picks up. He’s a strongly comic hero that seems to be molded after Bruce Campbell’s Ash at times, which completely changes the tone of the remainder of the series (just like Evil Dead 2 did). The best is when he’s having sex with some chick and she begins to slap his bald head silly because it makes her hot.
Even though they tried to return to the roots of the series with the fourth film, Reg had become such a personality that they couldn’t pull away from his humorous situations completely. For this reason, we get comic scenes like him in bed with some chick who suddenly has deadly silver balls for boobs. What a waste of good balls.
Tall Man also became a bit of a personality, losing much of his initial edge, just like Freddy Krueger at around the same time in his own franchise. Heck, at one point, Mike tells his current love interest that “it’s only a dream,” causing Tall Man to appear suddenly behind them growling “No, it’s not!” before pulling them through a window in classic Elm Street 1 fashion.
In a classic “more of the same” franchise downfall, the demon jawas go from being the mysterious cloaked critters in dark corners that were so frightening in the first film to in-your-face monsters for the remainder of the series. Plus, we are introduced to a variety of different balls, including gold super balls and fricking swarms of balls that pin you to the wall and screw you good until all the juice is flowing from your head.
And of course, body count is important, so random characters you care nothing about are introduced incessantly for the sequels—the kind of fate that befell the Bates Motel. There are a couple of new “main” characters introduced, including a blonde love interest for Mike, a feisty black chick for Reg, and a young boy who also wants vengeance on Tall Man for stealing his parents’ souls, but they never make it through more than one film.
And the walking dead become a running theme of the series, including an undead nurse and an undead cop.
So yeah, the series becomes a conveyor belt of horror franchise clichés by the fourth film…and you still really never understand exactly what the hell is going on as it tries harder and harder to reach complex sci-fi/horror epic status. Instead, it becomes just another decades-long franchise killed by the unfocused horror years of the 1990s.
AND JUST WHEN YOU THINK IT’S OVER…
It’s back! And so am I, with a Phantasm expansion pack. Rather than write a solo blog for 2016’s Phantasm:Ravager, I’m just slapping that shit onto this one about the entire series.
Remember when the Halloween franchise went on too long, so what simply began as John Carpenter’s story of a mental patient in a mask chasing after a babysitter with a knife turned into a big conspiracy plot involving a major underground cult? Well, Phantasm also steps into the over-the-top realm with Ravager – and the only one to blame is Don Coscarelli, the man who created the original simple concept of a young teen who looks a little too closely at the happenings at a funeral home.
Ravager comes nearly 40 years after the original, and it’s just as messy as the other sequels. Actually, it’s even more convoluted. It jumps from dimension to dimension…or is it from fantasy to reality? We can’t be sure, because Reggie is caught between an existence in which he is still looking for Mike while being chased relentlessly by steel balls, and one in which he is confined to a wheelchair at a hospital and suffering from dementia according to Mike.
As we jump from one possibility to another, Reg also has a few confrontations with the Tall Man and the demon jawas, but the steel balls are the stars here, delivering the most gore and even screwing a horse. The movie should have been titled Phantasm: Overkill. Eventually, we land in an apocalyptic situation, with Reg meeting up with a military team—led by Mike—that is apparently assigned to jump from one dimension to another chasing down multiple versions of Tall Man and his minions to stop them from world domination. And yes, you’re actually seeing a giant steel ball destroying a building.
Hitting fans in their nostalgia is never enough, but this film tries. Reg and Mike eventually escape the battle…by hopping into a car that pulls up and is being driven by Jody! But don’t expect any tidy ending, because it’s suggested that there are so many alternate dimensions of existence now that our heroes’ fates differ depending on which one they’re in.
With Tall Man Angus Scrimm’s passing, it’s very possible this is the final installment of the franchise as we know it. But there could be a reboot, because just when it seem the Ravager end credits are starting to roll, there’s a surprise return of one of the heroes from Phantasm III! I vote let the franchise go, but if they MUST come back, I’d suggest ONE more film, 2019 on the 40-year anniversary, at last giving us some sort of logical resolution…as in, everything after the first movie was just a really, really bad dream Mike was having…