For Judge Jim Thomas, the Phantasm films are cautionary tales: Never let a strange man show you his balls.
Their tagline: The sequel with balls! (lame)
My tagline: If this one doesn't scare you…Oh hell, you know the drill.
Horror gained a new star in 1979 with Phantasm, a low-budget indie that tapped into just about everyone's hidden dreads. The acting was marginal, the special effects redefined "low-tech," and the audience had to work perhaps a little too hard to piece the narrative together, but damned if it didn't work, and before you could say "blood geyser," The Tall Man and the flying sphere of death became instant icons. Phantasm II (1988) and Phantasm III (1994) followed, and a mythology began to emerge.
From a dark dimension comes The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), a gaunt, foreboding figure who travels from small town to small town, leaving desolation in his wake. He animates the dead, sending them to another dimension as slaves, their bodies grotesquely crushed to withstand that dimension's high gravity and heat. Those who oppose him are killed, either by previous victims, or by Sentinels, flying chrome balls of unearthly power and destruction. Michael (A. Michael Baldwin, Phantasm) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister, Phantasm), survivors of one such town, follow in his wake, desperately seeking some means of defeating The Tall Man once and for all.
Phantasm III (1994), a pretty lackluster affair, ended with The Tall Man looking at the camera and intoning "It's never over." I feel the same way about reality shows. So we arrive at Phantasm IV: Oblivion. Here's what you need to know: Writer/director Don Coscarelli had a script from Roger Avery (Oscar winner for Pulp Fiction) for an epic, concluding chapter to the series. However, Coscarelli had trouble securing the projected $20 million budget. That may seem like pigeon feed these days, but most of the Phantasm movies were shot for under $1 million. So Coscarelli wrote and directed Phantasm IV: Oblivion to set up the Avery story, hoping to generate interest and the $20 million budget. To save money, he incorporated a lot of discarded footage from the first movie as flashbacks. Anchor Bay brings us the direct-to-DVD results.
Facts of the Case
Phantasm III ends with Mike discovering that one of the Sentinel spheres is inside his head; horrified, he flees in a hearse. Reggie, trapped by The Tall Man and his Sentinel spheres, is unexpectedly set free. "The game is just beginning," the Tall Man comments. Reggie sets out after Michael in his HemiCuda, armed with his .45, his tuning fork, and his four-barreled sawed-off shotgun. But can he find Mike? And even if he can, what can an ice cream man do against the forces of darkness? And what sinister game does The Tall Man have in mind?
In the commentary, Don Coscarelli asks Angus Scrimm why he thinks The Tall Man lets Reggie go at the beginning of the movie. Scrimm's reply: "Because if he didn't we wouldn't have much of a movie." That comment inadvertently hits the core of this movie's problems—too many things fill out the running time instead of advancing the plot. The result is a jumbled, chaotic mess. On one level, the movie is frustration incarnate; more questions are raised, but none are answered. In a different type of frustration, Reggie's attempts to get laid redefine the concept of coitus interruptus. Fans of the series have gotten used to having all these narrative balls up in the air, but at some point, it's no longer enough to merely HAVE the balls—you have to DO something with them. As the series progresses, "doing something" increasingly becomes an issue. No one's doing anything but marking time until the final showdown.
For all the movie's problems, though, there is a compelling narrative somewhere in Mike's physical and spiritual journey. Mike flees into the desert to figure out what is happening. That process of discovery raises multiple possibilities, most of which are merely suggested. The possibility that Mike is being groomed to become The Tall Man's apprentice and/or replacement seems to be the most likely option—The Tall Man leaves Mike a matching suit; Reggie later has a dream in which he sees a very tall Mike wearing said suit; Mike begins to exhibit some of the same mental powers that we've seen in The Tall Man. But the end of the movie just makes you shake your head. The Tall Man shows up, takes the golden sphere back out of Mike's head, and disappears through a gate. With Mike dying, Reggie promises Mike that he'll be right back, and follows The Tall Man through the gate. In his final moments, Mike has a vision of a happier time, riding in Reggie's ice cream truck as a kid. WTF? Why put the sphere in Mike's head if you're just going to take it right back out?
Other things in the film don't make any sense, either, such as the sequence in which a young Mike cuts down The Tall Man, who has been hanged (that sequence is actually a discarded ending from the first movie). But the major misstep in the film involves Jody's betrayal of Mike. He leads Mike into the past to discover the origins of The Tall Man. Jebediah Morningside (Angus Scrimm, sans pallid makeup and ill-fitting clothes), a late 19th century undertaker/physician is obsessed with…something. His research led him to construct a dimensional gate. He entered the gate—and The Tall Man returned. Mike decides to stop Morningside from becoming The Tall Man, so he goes back a second time to kill him. During the previous visit, Mike speaks with Morningside, who recognizes Mike as a dimensional traveler (a more extended discussion would have helped—exactly what is Morningside trying to accomplish?). This time, though, Morningside can't see him, and Mike can't touch him—Jody informs Mike that they're in a different dimension. Presumably, Jody acted to prevent Mike from interfering, because Jody later delivers Mike to The Tall Man. The scenes involving that betrayal ring false; even the acting is off, as though no one really knew how to sell the scene.
Video is pretty good for a low-budget film; much of the film takes place in the desert, and the varying shades of brown are captured wonderfully. The audio track is better still, particularly for music and ambient noise, but at times The Tall Man's dialogue is difficult to follow. The commentary track, with Coscarelli, Reggie Bannister, and Angus Scrimm is good from a behind the scenes perspective, but anyone hoping to glean some plot enlightenment will be sorely disappointed. It's interesting hearing Scrimm's regular voice; he comes across as quite a gentle man. The making-of featurette is fairly short, and just shows a few key sequences being set up. Seeing how they pulled off the shot of Reggie pinned to the wall by hundreds of balls makes you appreciate just how creative Coscarelli is. Based on the featurette, if someone would just give him a few million dollars, he could create something spectacular.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the strong points of the series has been the soundtrack. Both in terms of music and background noise, the sound of the film and the music—which uses the main theme from the original film to wonderful effect—keep you from becoming complacent. Moreover, the movie also has some striking images. The Tall Man striding purposefully down a devastated city street—not the sort of small town in which we've become accustomed to seeing him, but a larger metropolis. Acting has also improved over the years; you can get a sense of that just from the outtakes for the first film.
The original movie had more than its share of narrative gaps; however, the film provided enough information that the audience could fill those gaps in without too much trouble. But this installment just doesn't do enough with the ideas it tosses out. It's a better film than Phantasm III, partly because they're at least trying to move the story forward, partly because it is truer to the mythology—Part III's undead are little more than annoying fugitives from the first two Return of the Living Dead films. By most standards, Phantasm IV: Oblivion disappoints simply because so many questions are left unanswered, with no end in sight.
Guilty. The court hereby confiscates the defendants' Sentinel spheres, in the hopes that they'll grow a pair of their own and give this series the sendoff it deserves.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary with Don Coscarelli, Reggie Bannister, and Angus Scrimm
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