Judge Bill Gibron often dreams of traveling a post-apocalyptic wasteland with a saucy military babe by his side, but his fantasies aren't quite as fatalistic as Don Coscarelli's third go-round in his Tall Man scare saga.
We Tried To Warn You. If You Don't Get It This Time, We're Going To Have To Drill It Into Your Head!
As the world becomes a barren wasteland of abandoned towns and raided graveyards, former-ice-cream-man-turned-mercenary Reggie (Reggie Bannister, Bubba Ho-Tep) continues his hunt for old friend Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin, Kenny & Co.). Locked away in an asylum by the evil Tall Man (Angus Scrimm, Alias), our young hero seems to be a missing link between this foul fiend and his devilish plot to enslave the human race. With the help of former best buddy Jody (Bill Thornbury, The Lost Empire), who's now a disembodied spirit living inside one of the Tall Man's evil silver orbs, Reggie starts a cross country trek to rescue Mike. Along the way, he runs into Tim (Kevin Connors, Pleasantville), a pre-teen survivalist who's been battling the bad guys since his parents were killed by our gigantic ghoul. With a military babe named Rocky and Jody's guiding presence, our intrepid team must battle murderous monsters, foul freaks, and a band of reanimated reprobates with a little payback on their minds. If they're not careful, they'll find themselves permanently locked in the Tall Man's Phantasm, a disturbing place of living death.
Phantasm III suffers from its own mythology, a cinematic legacy that begins and ends with Don Coscarelli's brilliant 1979 original. Coming as it does 15 years after the first film, an effort that reminded audiences of how potent good old-fashioned fright could be, III now has an entire cinematic cottage industry to support. Since our valiant creator has been there every step of the way, walking this franchise through every one of its peculiar motion-picture permutations, there are several constants that make each entry in the series seem like a part of a greater, more meaningful whole. As in all installments in the decades-spanning spook show, Coscarelli keeps family and friendship at the forefront. He also overloads his narratives with sidetracks, tangents, and non-sequiturs. One moment we will be dealing with the enigmatic Tall Man and his ever varying band of monstrous minions, the next we are in a sexually oriented fantasy with one of our heroes having a pow-wow with a pal from beyond the grave. At first, we thought the shiny silver orbs with the desire to drill heads were merely mechanical sentries. By this third installment, they've become vessels for the dead, a place to hold their shrunken brains after our villain finishes compressing the rest of the victim's body. Add into this a whole post-apocalyptic feel, a bunch of zombie bad guys, a lot of paranormal hocus pocus, and an ending that suggests more sequels than any type of closure, and you have one hard macabre mountain to climb.
Sadly, Phantasm III barely makes it to the first summit. Returning to the franchise after James LeGros replaced him in Phantasm II, actor A. Michael Baldwin is a sight for sore fanboy eyes. But his appreciated presence is short-lived, since he ends up being kidnapped almost immediately and removed from the narrative for almost an hour. This leaves Reggie Bannister to hold the plot in place, but without a sidekick to bounce things off of, he's an insular, even leaden, lead. Of course, Coscarelli anticipates this and brings back the kid component by teaming the actor up with a pint-sized pistol-packing sharpshooter named Tim. Played with pluck by young Kevin Connors, our sassy survivalist is the kind of character who never once carries a cloud of concern. No matter the trouble he's in, Master Tim always seems to find a way out. Some of the storyline involving Reggie and his new ward is repeated from Part 1, especially much of the search and rescue stuff. In addition, Coscarelli wants to keep the possible romance factor up as well. Bannister is given a pair of babes to woo and, each time, his advances are shot down in decidedly comic ways. It's hard to get a grip on what this filmmaker feels about sex. Every time a person tries to indulge in said act onscreen, they are killed, captured, or visited by demons from another dimension.
But perhaps the most uninteresting element of Phantasm III is its grasping at sensibility straws. We love the first movie for its relative randomness, its "anything scary can happen at any time" dynamic. Phantasm II was more of an actual adventure, with a pair of weapon- toting champions looking to defeat the Tall Man for the very last time. But this third time out purposefully attempts to extend the entire series, to string out the storyline for as many potential sequels as studios and fans demand. Nothing is ever resolved here. The Tall Man can act at will, be harmed or hindered, and still come back with full powers intact. Similarly, Reggie and Tim are virtually indestructible, coming out of every dangerous scenario with their bodies—and the ability to cameo in Part IV—intact. Unlike II, which had a series of nasty orb kills to recommend its gruesomeness, there's a limited amount of blood here. We get a single shiny ball death, a couple of creative zombie slayings, and a lot of major mortal wounds. But for sheer volume of slime, this is a lesser installment in the franchise. No one can question Coscarelli's work behind the lens. His camera is consistently creative and never without invention. As a link in a growing Phantasm chain, III is pretty paltry. It frequently feels like a placeholder for a bigger and better installment of the series (and wouldn't you know it, there is indeed a fourth part of this particular fright flick for all to enjoy).
As part of their ongoing Don Coscarelli love fest, the suits over at Anchor Bay have reconfigured this title in order to give it a proper Region 1 release. The image has been remastered to a pristine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen wonder, and the aural elements are amplified by the inclusion of a cleaned-up Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track and a new 5.1 Surround mix. From a purely technical standpoint, the movie looks and sounds great. The colors are consistent throughout, the balance between light and dark maintained expertly. During the multi-channel feature, we do get some unsettling noises in the back speakers, and the familiar Phantasm music does get a good sonic workout. As for added content, this particular DVD comes up a tad short. Baldwin and Scrimm are on hand for an amiable audio commentary and, while Coscarelli's absence is unfortunate, he's not really missed. Our two actors talk up a storm, even dishing a little pre- and post-production dirt along the way. In addition, there's a minor deleted scene that actually plays like mere missing footage (it's only 11 seconds long) and a behind-the-scenes documentary that's just home movies offered without a lick of narration. Toss in some trailers and you've got a decent, if rather dry, collection of extras.
Though it's action packed and occasionally ingenious, Phantasm III plays like the last few ideas in a writer/director's creative concept catalog. It's one thing to mangle a mythology with pointless particulars. It's another to simply milk it for every ounce of originality it contains. This so-so sequel is guilty of both cinematic stumbles. It doesn't hurt the original so much as make you want to revisit it. Trying to figure out how that drive-in delight led to this overwrought offering remains one of Phantasm III's many mind-boggling secrets.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Full-Length Audio Commentary with Actors A. Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm
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