This past week, I had the chance to watch all the PHANTASM movies for the first time ever and to say it was quite the journey would be an understatement. These films have been a staple within the horror/sci-fi world since the inception of the first movie in 1979. I had been wanting to see the films for years but due to the limited availability and quality of the original film, I never got around to it. Luckily, producer/director extraordinaire J.J. Abrams came to the rescue and through his production company, Bad Robot, was able to remaster PHANTASM to a beautiful 4K restoration.
On April 11, film distributor WELL GO USA released the entire PHANTASM collection in a brilliantly dazzling box set. Even though I had never seen the film, I couldn’t help but be blown away with the packaging and the accompanying material that came with the films. It was quite clear that fans of the PHANTASM series were going to be just as impressed as I was. So without further ado, let’s get into the review of each of these films, and make note there may be some spoilers!
The first film of the series introduces us to one of horror’s most paramount icons, The Tall Man, played expertly by Angus Scrimm. The film, which came out in 1979, centers around Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), a teenager who must go up against The Tall Man’s supernatural powers and arsenal of deadly silver spheres. The film itself is pretty low budget, and the acting leaves a bit to be desired, but where it shines is through its use of practical effects and strong storyline. Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man is a sight to behold and I can see why he had such an effect on horror fans early on. We are also introduced to ice-cream man turned iconic hero, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), who becomes the fearless and loyal hero throughout all five films. Reggie, Mike, and Mike’s brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) set forth to unravel the mystery of The Tall Man and destroy him and his undead minions before hell breaks loose. Overall, I enjoyed the movie for what it was and appreciated what creator Don Coscarelli was able to put together for such a low budget and I can now see why this film has become such a cult classic.
PHANTASM II starts off with the release of Mike from a psychiatric hospital as he continues his search with Reggie for the truth surrounding The Tall Man. With the help of a mysterious girl that has a strong psychic bond to Mike, the three of them go forth in hopes of destroying The Tall Man once and for all. In all honesty, this was probably my least favorite of the entire series and I think a lot of that had to do with A. Michael Baldwin not returning as Mike for this film. Having done some research to see why, I learned that Universal Studios had a much bigger say in the sequel and made director Don Coscarelli re-audition both A. Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister. Coscarelli was given the choice of one or the other and eventually chose Reggie to return. I think the absence of A. Michael Baldwin really effected my overall feelings towards this film because he’s such an integral part of the entire franchise. With that said, I will admit that there were some highlights throughout the movie that I did enjoy, such as the new deadlier spheres and the battle towards the end of the film. To me, PHANTASM II was more of an action film as opposed to a horror movie, with some enjoyable carnage intertwined throughout.
PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD
This is where the series started to pick up for me, and is the subsequent return of A. Michael Baldwin who is now a full-grown adult. The film heavily focuses on Reggie while also showing the increasing hold that The Tall Man has over Mike. For whatever reason, this film spoke to me the most, and I appreciated the lengths they went in regards to practical effects and the use of yellow blood. We also have the surprise return of Jody, who has been encapsulated within one of The Tall Man’s spheres and is trying to guide Mike and Reggie away from harm. We are also introduced to Tim, a young boy who becomes somewhat of a sidekick to Reggie and helps him out when danger draws near. I don’t know why this film worked so much for me but it did. I felt like I had a better understanding of the films at this point and I loved the addition of Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a strong female character who had no problem kicking ass and standing her ground in a room full of men. I was also intrigued with how prominent the spheres were in this film, not only as deadly weapons, but also as a means of communication. There was also a strong reminiscent of the zombies from EVIL DEAD which I appreciated. Overall, I would say that PHANTASM III was my favorite film out of the entire series.
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION
As I’m sure you’ve figured out from the above reviews, our main characters Reggie and Mike are still on their never-ending quest to destroy The Tall Man. This time, they go through time and space to find out how The Tall Man became who he is. What I enjoyed so much about this film was that we were finally able to get a bit of backstory about who The Tall Man aka Jebediah Morningside. When we first meet Jebedia, he is a kind, old scientist which is jarring considering how he has been portrayed up until this point. A lot of this film had a dream-esque quality to it which I found to be quite fascinating. One of my favorite scenes is when Mike comes face to face with The Tall Man on a deserted street in LA. It’s beautifully shot and there is an intense feeling of foreboding upon their encounter. Though a lot of the film had a surreal feel to it, especially surrounding The Tall Man’s story, it was a nice departure from the narrative focal point of Reggie and Mike.
We have finally come to the end, and it’s been a hell of a ride thus far. Between PHANTASM IV and PHANTASM: RAVAGER there has been 18 years with the newest film being the only one not directed by Don Coscarelli. With this film, there is so much that is happening that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around what I think to be true. As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, there would be the chance of spoilers and this is one of those times, so if you don’t want to know anything, I suggest you stop reading now. In terms of the ending, I’m not sure what actually happened – did Reggie make up The Tall Man in a state of delusion? Are Mike and Jody actually alive? Is Reggie the true hero destined to stop the war that The Tall Man has started? I ended this series with more questions than answers and I’m wondering if director David Hartman did this on purpose. Maybe all along, throughout the entire series, it’s always been up to us to figure out the meaning behind the films. Maybe we need to choose which reality best suits our journey through the franchise and if that’s the case, then bravo to the creators. This isn’t the best film out there, lets be honest, the CGI and acting could use a bit more life to it, but it’s still a heart wrenching finale to a series that is beloved by many.
Overall, my experience watching all of the PHANTASM movies is one for the books. I definitely had a few gripes with the production quality and level of acting in the beginning, but I was willing to look past that to see the true heart and passion that went into creating each and every one of these films. It’s a true testament of Coscarelli’s vision when each of the actors that played their respective roles continued to come back time and time again over a 30 year time span.
Fans of PHANTASM will want to scoop up this box set, because not only are the films restored beautifully, they are loaded with so many bonus features including commentary from Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, and David Hartman. Fans will also enjoy the behind-the-scenes and deleted clips that the box-set offers. However, to me, my favorite aspect of this collection was the 120-page “Phantasm Compendium” which really gave me a much deeper insight into the background of the films as well as the relationship between all those involved (with a touching tribute to the late Angus Scrimm). I truly appreciated how informative the compendium was to the point that I wish all films would include one.
All in all, this is one of the best box-sets I’ve ever owned and one that I think all horror fans should have in their collection. Die-hard PHANTASM fans will absolutely love everything that this collection has to offer and new fans, like myself, will have a growing appreciation for this iconic series. One final thought before I leave you, and that is I have yet to watch a movie, or a series with as many sequels as this one, have as much heart and soul as this does. And in the end, that’s what makes these films so remarkable and special.