(Do you really think you should read this review if you haven’t seen Phantasm: Ravager? Beware of spoilers, boyyyyyyy)
Let’s get this out of the way: the Phantasm movies don’t make any fucking sense. They didn’t make sense at the beginning. And they don’t make sense here, at the end.
This is not to imply that a particular internal logic doesn’t run through the series — it absolutely does — but instead to point out that, on a narrative level, Phantasm does not string together in an orderly and direct fashion. There are dreams within dreams, events which were supposedly someone’s fantasy are later remembered by others as real, characters appear and disappear and transform and combine, and there is a general feeling that nothing is ever what it seems.
This approach stands as a far cry from the other horror series of the 70s, 80s and 90s, typically repetitious slasher fare with which the Phantasm films are often unfairly lumped. Whereas those movies tended to have wonky continuity because the people who made them weren’t paying much attention and $$$(TM) was the bottom line, Phantasm has always played it fast and loose . . . not due to inattentiveness, but because the films’ “reality” itself is often slippery.
Don Coscarelli’s original Phantasm was styled as a nightmare, the bad dream of a young boy unable to process the deaths of his parents and his brother. Phantasms II and III reacted against that more poetic interpretation, instead depicting a scenario where that nightmare became objectively real, but paradoxically set in a world where everything seems to be getting less real by the second. And the fourth film, Oblivion, dovetailed back to the more existential tone of the first movie, where everything occurring might be the continued fantasy of that same young boy, or possibly even a Bardo Thodol-type of afterlife state.
Now we have Phantasm: Ravager, the fifth and final entry in the series. Of all the films, this is where the story truly casts off the shackles, hopping through time and multiple versions of reality, and truly embracing the labyrinthine structure and spiritual questions suggested by the earlier movies. Oddly enough, it’s also the only Phantasm film not directed by Coscarelli. Instead, the reins have been handed to protégé David Hartman. But no matter, as Ravager was conceived and executed with Coscarelli’s full blessing and involvement, and his hand is still firmly felt as the series is guided to a landing.
And an incredibly strange and flawed landing it is. Ravager plays like Resident Evil meets the last episode of LOST meets David Lynch’s Inland Empire. A bizarre mashup of action sequences, hallucinogenic images, contradictory narratives, and tearful hellos & farewells, it fits more into 90 minutes than any of the previous entries.
Appropriately, Ravager reunites the cast of the original movie: A. Michael Baldwin as troubled boy hero Mike, now middle-aged; Bill Thornbury as older brother Jody, who has an on-again/off-again relationship with being dead; Reggie Bannister as Reg, erstwhile ice cream man turned zombie killer; Angus Scrimm as extradimensional angel of death The Tall Man; and Kathy Lester as the Tall Man’s seductive projection, the Lady in Lavender. While all of them had made prior appearances in the sequels, it’s fitting to have everyone back on board for this final adventure in flying ball-land.
(Apart from those whose characters have been killed off, the only missing major cast member from the series is James Le Gros, who took over the Mike role at the studio’s insistence for the Universal-backed Phantasm II. Obviously it’s more pertinent and satisfying to have Baldwin play the part, but given the series’ propensity for alternate universes, it could have been interesting to see competing versions of Mike in the same movie).
We start off straightforwardly enough by reuniting with Reggie, stumbling around in the desert after his encounter with the Tall Man in the last film. But within no time we begin glimpsing other scenarios. A world where Reggie is dying of a degenerative disease in a rest home. A post-apocalyptic future where the Tall Man and his minions have overtaken the planet. A surreal Civil War-era hospital that reintroduces us to Jebediah Morningside, apparently on his deathbed. Though the story skips through a handful of alternate worlds, Reggie ties everything together and is the clear center of the film, an about-face from the movie’s predecessors where Mike seemed to be the key figure in the Tall Man’s plans.
Not that Mike is underserviced. Baldwin is given quite a bit of work to do, getting to play his character as a caretaker and surrogate son for Reggie, and also as the confused and mutating version of himself from Phantasm IV, and also as a John Connor-esque warrior in a future rebellion. But it all comes back to Reggie, who as usual seems just as confused as the audience as to what the hell is really going on, and is now experiencing that confusion at metaphysical extremes.
But while this is certainly the wildest and most idea-stuffed Phantasm, it’s also the most noticeably hampered by its limitations, in particular the budget. In the past, Coscarelli managed to make the most of limited resources; the first film is practically a how-to in low budget independent filmmaking, and the fourth film cleverly worked around its lack of money by focusing on mood, atmosphere, and dreamlike setpieces, using as its framework a handful of never-before-seen deleted sequences from the original.
Ravager, on the other hand, aims higher than any of the other films in terms of scope and special effects, and therefore comes up the shortest. The sequences set in the desolate future and the Tall Man’s home world prove especially jarring, the almost entirely CGI landscapes looking like something out of a video game or SyFy original movie, their digital artificiality wince-inducing. Even the series’ infamous flying balls suffer at times compared to their practical effect counterparts.
That being said, other visual effects work beautifully, such as depictions of giant spheres hovering in the sky or lasering buildings in half. Hartman creates some memorable images here; a strong sense of visuals is important to a Phantasm movie, and he proves a deft choice. Even if the film is sometimes visibly compromised by its budget, it still offers a handful of haunting and even beautiful moments. (And it’s not like the original movie didn’t wear its budget on its sleeve at times). Phantasm is far from high art, but this also isn’t just the work of a director-for-hire. Hartman clearly cares about this world and its characters, and is serious about not dropping the silver ball that Coscarelli handed him.
Ravager originally began around 2009 as a series of short films for what would have been a web series, before Hartman and Coscarelli realized what they had and decided to let the material coalesce into a feature. This contributes to the fragmentation of the narrative — and also explains some of the occasionally uneven cinematography, as certain shots seem intended for smaller screens — but that fragmentation simply enhances the movie’s dreamlike approach to the notion of multiple realities, so it all ultimately works.
Not that it wouldn’t have been intriguing to see this as a collection of shorts. The deleted scenes on the Blu-ray/DVD reveal some extended sequences that were filmed for the web series but trimmed for the movie, including a confrontation between Reggie and a giant zombie dwarf (played by Derek Mears) that would have added an interesting variation on the movies’ standard tropes. (And the makeup effect for the creature is actually pretty cool. In the final film the scene is quite brief and the effect of the giant dwarf has mostly been dropped). On the whole, though, Coscarelli and Hartman made the right choice to create a mind-fuck of a movie out of this footage, and finish shooting it as an official Phantasm V.
The pivotal scene which is sure to impact any long-term phan is no doubt when we see Reggie die, succumbing to his unspecified illness with Mike and Jody by his side. Not only is this the most emotionally charged part of the film, it’s hands down the most emotional moment in the entire series, and Hartman nails it. The way the scene is filmed and scored and edited allots it prime emotional power. Reggie has been many things in the world of Phantasm . . . comedic relief, unlikely action hero, leering aging hippie wannabe-womanizer, and most importantly a father figure, impromptu older brother, and best friend to the much besieged Mike. So to witness Reggie dying in a hospital bed, with Mike holding his hand, really feels like the final closing of the door on this series. It’s an unexpected punch to the gut that had me weeping profusely.
Most of us have watched loved ones pass away, reduced to a frail shadow of who they were before, and this moment with Reggie is 100% predicated on tapping into that. While Reggie has often been relegated to a Bruce Campbell-level role of buffoonish action comedy, it’s hard to imagine a scene of such weight and import happening in Evil Dead, which demonstrates just how much heart has always been beating beneath the blood and guts of these movies.
At their very core, the Phantasm films are about death. That’s fairly hard to miss, considering this is a story involving a villainous undertaker, and many scenes take place in graveyards, mortuaries, and mausoleums. But beyond the supernatural shenanigans, Phantasm really does touch upon the fear of loved ones being taken away at any time. Mike lost his parents, and in most versions of reality he also lost his brother, who keeps reappearing but is never quite the same. Reggie himself lost a wife and daughter. And those characters who aren’t part of the main cast are typically either suddenly and mercilessly killed off (Liz and Tim) or revealed to be illusions (Alchemy, Jennifer).
There is a hope throughout the films for an afterlife, but the Tall Man runs counter to that. In his world, there is no Heaven or Hell or eternal happiness or salvation or damnation or reincarnation, just a grotesque funhouse mirroring of human remains into reanimated servants, Jawa-like dwarfs, and brain-sucking spheres. A mockery and parody of any sense of sacredness to existence. He is the inevitability of death, and our worst fears about what it might mean.
Ravager ends on an ambiguous note. Reggie reawakens in the post-apocalyptic future timeline, which now comes across like a type of afterworld. Reunited with his best friends Mike and Jody, they drive off into the sunset together to kick some more zombie ass and sing terrible songs. (For good measure, we also get a surprise end credit reunion with Phantasm III’s Rocky, the long missing Gloria Lynne Henry putting in a welcome cameo).
But is that really what happens? In addition to death, the films also trade in the whole concept of reality’s porousness. Dreams, visions, specters, other worlds. It’s impossible to tell what’s real, hence the whole notion of a phantasm. Anything or anyone might be illusory, a trick.
There are at least several ways to interpret Ravager. One is that the entire story has taken place in the mind of Reggie as his brain slowly dies, his consciousness increasingly lost in a delusion. (In this reading, the unrealistic CGI actually works in the movie’s favor, as those scenes would be childish fantasies playing out in Reggie’s mind a la Sucker Punch). Another is that Reggie’s time in the hospital is in fact the fantasy, a glamour conjured by the Tall Man to ensnare and idle his opponent. Yet another is that there is validity to all of the disparate plot threads; Reggie dies in one world but lives in another, and the line between those worlds is blurry. It’s not for nothing that Mike has a conversation with Reggie about the possibility of a multiverse. The concept certainly makes sense given the trajectory of the series as a whole. But no matter what the interpretation, Ravager is crafted as a goodbye, not just to the trio of main characters and their unbreakable sense of friendship which has driven the series, but also to the long-time viewer.
A factor which adds extra emotional punch is the recent passing of Angus Scrimm, who has portrayed the Tall Man throughout all five films in the series. If Ravager is lacking one thing, it’s a real sendoff for the Tall Man.
While the Tall Man has always been used sparingly, it seems appropriate that this final entry would offer a heavy exploration of his character, but that’s not to be found here. Though the character meets his demise (in a ridiculously mundane way straight out of a Die Hard movie), his appearances feel too few and far between. Most likely, this had something to do with Scrimm’s age and health, so we should be thankful he was able to play the Tall Man again at all. He certainly seems delighted to be getting one last crack at the role, and his death in real life gives another edge of finality to the proceedings. (It’s also worth noting that the fourth film, which was touted as a possible conclusion at the time, does offer a very involved investigation into his character).
Phantasm is enjoying a bit of a resurgence at the moment, thanks to the recent releases of Ravager as well as Phantasm: Remastered, a restoration of the original film undertaken by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot company as a favor to Coscarelli. Between the five of them, the movies paint an interesting history of the course genre films have taken over the last several decades. Phantasm is an independent film made by friends and shot primarily on weekends in the 70s. Phantasm II is a classic late 80s studio sequel, slicker and with a bigger budget but also more creatively limited. The third and fourth movies are direct-to-video, often the fate of genre fare in the 90s. And now the final film has seen both a theatrical and digital release after being practically willed into being by years of intense online fan interest and speculation — a very modern phenomenon that could only happen with today’s advances in technology and in the current genre-friendly climate of pop culture — but returns to that same friends-filming-on-weekends style which defined the original.
Perhaps death is the end, perhaps not. This may be the end for Phantasm, but the movies and the Tall Man will continue to live on and to, like life, not make any fucking sense. I think we can all take comfort in that.