Back in 1979, indie filmmaker Don Coscerelli realised that to make some money, maybe he should shift his efforts from making family movies like Kenny & Company and Jim The World’s Greatest and turn his eye onto the horror genre. With that simple revelation we got the minor masterpiece of mortuary madness known as Phantasm, a hallucinogenic trip through the nightmares of a grief stricken child as he’s stalked by an interdimentional being in the form of an elderly mortitian known as the Tall Man. After the film’s cult success, any of the film’s “phanatics” had to wait patiently for a sequel while Coscerelli went off and got Marc Singer to talk to animals while wearing a loincloth in 1982’s The Beastmaster. However, acolytes of the Tall Man rejoined when the squinty-eyed lank meister returned in 1988 for that long awaited follow up; but something had changed: Phantasm II was a product of a major studio looking for a Nightmare On Elm Street style franchise and while Coscerelli had a sizable budget to play with (for a horror film in 1988 at least) which allowed for grander special effects and a ton of polish, he also experienced some push back from the money men and had to make concessions. So eventually, in 1994, the director returned to the world he created with greatly reduced funds in order to gain back full creative control to this bizarre franchise – chiefly signaled by the recasting of orginal lead Michael Baldwin after being replaced by James Le Gros in the sequel. But does this kind of budgetary gear shift really benefit a horror franchise or does the added freedom mean a reduction in scope – something that’s fairly important when your movie deals with zombies from another dimension.
Kicking off literally where Phantasm II ended with the sexual conquest of reluctant, middle-aged sidekick, Reggie revealing herself to be yet another simulacrum of the Tall Man, we join proceedings as both Mike and the previous film’s female lead are yanked out the back of their getaway hearse. Giving us utterly no time to process the death of a major character (Liz is written out pretty decisively by being decapitated and having her face eaten off – it’s pretty cut and dry), the otherworldly mortitian attempts to spirit Mike away for reasons unknown (the two share a mysterious link) and is eventually successful despite the efforts of the loyal Reggie and his quadruple barrelled shotgun. While trying to track Mike down (not exactly a walk in the park seeing as the Tall Man chills out in another freakin’ dimension), Reggie acquires numerous allies in pre-teen, sharp shooting Tim, who’s into some Home Alone style personal security and ex-military, ass kicker Rocky who both have their own personal reasons for joining our hero on his suicidal rescue mission but their most precious resource turns out to be Mike’s brother Jody, back from the grave but trapped in the form of one of the Tall Man’s deadly flying spheres. Making the most of this unconventional good news/bad news situation, Jody may be the key to getting Mike back, but many questions still prevail: is it really wise to trust an implement who’s sole purpose is to drill out brains? What exactly is the link between Mike and the Tall Man? Is Reggie’s obsession about getting laid ever going to stop putting him in dire situations? Don’t be holding your breath for the answers to all these questions – this is a Phantasm movie remember, and they pride themselves in refusing to answer anything!
So, full confession: as much as I adore Phantasm, I utterly LOVE Phantasm II. It carries a similar dynamic to that of The Evil Dead and it’s similarly upscale and loopier sequel in that it manages to iron out some of the roughness while enhancing the deep weirdness that fuels the far out stories. While I totally understand abd admire Coscerelli’s desire to not have a studio suit looming over him and telling him how to film a franchise he himself created, usually the first sign of horror sequel fatigue is when the budgets start to drop.
So was Phantasm III destined to stand shoulder to shoulder with such franchises such as Wishmaster and Candyman whose fiscal corner cutting left their monstrous villians as threatening as a kitten post on Tiktok? Thankfully no… but not by much.
Where the first movie is still pretty creepy in parts and the second has slick, unpredictable feel about it, Phantasm III is by far the goofiest entry to date containing almost next to no real actually scares but exchanges them for tons of new plot based tidbits for loyal “phans” to sink their teeth into.
Where the previous entries hinted that Mike is clairvoyant and even has some kind of mental link to his lanky adversary, this film goes all out to suggest that Mike is in fact not exactly human, yet predictably offers no real explanations whatsoever and in true Phantasm style just desides to fling more questions at you that Coscerelli obviously has no intention of answering. Is Mike also a member of the Tall Man’s species? Is he some sort of interdimentional sleeper agent? What exactly lies beneath his skull that everyone wants to drill out?
This furious flurry of questions is also turned on full force to Angus Scrimm’s villain of the piece too as the film final gives us clear origins of the Jawa-esque dwarfen soldiers and the silver spheres only to muddy the Tall Man’s abilities and goals to the point of confusion confirming that there are multiple Tall Men (Men? Mans? What’s the plural here?) which could suggest that he could be a single consciousness with multiple bodies (which explains how he can possibly keep returning from utter obliteration) OR that he’s actually multiple individuals with a hive mind. This sort of shit is like oxygen to long time acolytes to the series (which I am admittedly one) and the subtle altering to the franchise’s status quo (Jody being a rogue sphere is a fucking doozy) opens up the world into being even more unpredictable than it’s ever been but it creates somewhat of a problem when it comes to accessibility…
Catering to a wide audience is obviously the opposite of what Coscerelli is trying to achieve here (and rightly so) but it often feels that the franchise is dangerously close to vanishing completely up it’s own butthole like it’s a sphincter shaped white dwarf, choking it’s own story with visions and twists the filmmakers obviously have no intention of clearing up. Similarly, the change of tone may (finally) free up Reggie Bannister to fully take the reigns of the series as a clueless Bruce Campbell type but the spectacularly inventive gore of part II has been replaced with Tex Avery slapstick that sees a Last House On The Left style trio resurrected into unkillable zombies who get stirring but silly Tom & Jerry style demises that sort of fly in the face of the original like when the heroes subdue a silver sphere using only a plunger…
That being said, some of this stuff is still pretty cool thanks to returning FX maestro Marc Shostrom who gives us such delights as a pair of severed hands turning into screeching insect creatures (light years away from the finger-into-monster fly gag from the original) and a lager sized super sphere blowing through someones head so face it leaves a gaping, perfectly round hole where the face used to be.
Fun, but completely bewildering to anyone who has never seen a Phantasm movie, the franchise was still yet to go even further into the impenetrable with it’s next installment, but for now the enigmatic mysteries of the Phantasm universe were still precariously balanced between fascinating and being a load of (admittedly silver) balls…