Serious About Series is the sporadically recurring feature on franchises both popular and obscure. You can find the entire table of contents for what’s been covered in the past by clicking HERE.
Of all the horror franchises I wanted to write about, it’s long been my dream to do one on the strange history of the Phantasm series. These movies, with all their Tall Mans and death orbs and evil Jawas, manage to create one of the most unique artistic statements in horror cinema. How many franchises have four very solid, very different movies that span twenty years and even a variety of horror sub-genre in their quest to tell its tale? I don’t know of any that have even tried, much less succeeded, in the same way these four modest little movies did.
So this November we’re taking a trip into the world of mortuary horror, of mortal terror and endless dream sequences, a world where death is just the beginning of the horror. Wind down from your more traditional October horror movie projects and marathons with the stranger weirdness of Phantasm, a series that feels much more at home in the wastes of an encroaching winter than the harvest bounty of Halloween. Or maybe that’s just my excuse for being a month late with this project. The world may never know.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)
Phantasm is a series that’s predicated on an increasing upward amount of lore, and never is that more prevalent than in Phantasm III, a movie that takes the arc of the first two, already complex in ways that most franchises never manage in four times as many installments, and blows it out into something vast and complicated. The ideas are there, and now it’s time for the lore. And what a crazy insane amount of lore it is.
Which is also part of the problem. After Phantasm II didn’t exactly set the world on fire, Don Cascarelli was working with a much more truncated budget and a much smaller production scope. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead then was the first of this franchise to go straight-to-video, that eventual resting place of all horror franchises, after a production marred with delays and a drifting release schedule that would have killed a less scrappy film. Thankfully, Phantasm’s a fighter, and we get a third installment that basically just kicks ass front to back.
Continuing with the not-quite-surprising ending of the second film, Phantasm III opens with Reggie, Mike (now replaced once again with original actor A Michael Baldwin) and that woman from the second movie getting attacked by the minions of the Tall Man. The Tall Man, presumably not quite as dead as people might have thought, emerges from another of the dimensional forks and tries to steal away Mike, as Reggie fends him off by threatening to blow up him and Mike. In a blast of hilarious narrative convenience, the dwarves are quick to dispatch the psychic girl (Laura? Mia? I just looked, and her name is Liz. Who knew?)
The movie then fast-forwards an unidentified amount of time (Wikipedia says two years, but I don’t know where they would have gotten that idea), where Mike has been comatose in a hospital. While there, his dead older brother Jody appears to him in a dream and convinces him to wake up, using the threat of the Tall Man to convince Mike to come out of a coma just in time to fend off a demon nurse that tries to attack him. When the Tall Man appears to interject on his own, Jody appears (having been turned into one of the spheres) and attacks the Tall Man only to get cooked into a charred form as the Tall Man captures Mike.
The burned Jody sphere then appears to a Reggie who has apparently settled into some form of normalcy again (because why not, right? Lots of folding cash in the ice cream vending business). Telling him he can guide Reggie to Mike, our intrepid hero gears up once again, grabs his crazy quad shotgun, and sets off in his Hemi across the blasted wastes of dozens of small towns and the increasing forces of darkness in search of Mike. Which is when things get really goddamn weird.
You see, as we’ll talk about later on, this is really Reggie’s movie. Much of it is spent with him interacting with the few scant survivors of the Tall Man’s warpath through the American midwest, including a sharpshooting kid named Tim and in one ramshackle town a militant ex-Army black woman who might or might not be a lesbian named Rocky, who serves as the romantic foil to the eternally frustrated Reggie. This weird ad hoc family all gather together in order to confront the Tall Man and take him down, which of course goes horribly wrong.
The full difficulties of that final fight involve some zombies, the increasing number of spheres, and the Tall Man’s increased and much more aggressive presence in the film. But at the same time this is all going down, Mike is undergoing something resembling an initiation as the Jody sphere appears to him and shows him facts about what happens with the Tall Man and the bodies he steals. It’s in this movie that we’re shown that he shrinks down the dead, reanimating them and putting their brains into the spheres that are under his full psychic control. Which means that the Tall Man really does control the dead, which makes the subtitle make sense. Look at that, movie writers! Good job!
The thing is, as Reggie and company are all rushing to save Mike, the Tall Man takes a crazy stabby thing to Mike’s head and cuts open his skull, only to reveal that Mike not only has the yellow preservative blood that the Tall Man and his minions have, but apparently has a silver ball tucked inside of his skull. Why? I don’t know, because the movie’s almost over and Reggie and his friends burst in just in time to disrupt us finding out any answers as they take out the Tall Man in a burst of blood and bullets. And Mike, horrified at his crazy brain-ball, runs away with the Jody sphere, explicitly promising that there will be answers in the next movie. I wish!
Gleaming Balls of Death
The balls, which the movie now refers to as Sentinels (and which I will never do) end up all over this movie, as the Tall Man supposedly has used the hundreds of people he’s killed or exhumed to create a full army of the things. So they’re all over, filling up ceilings and pinning people to walls and being in the brains of otherwise normal looking humans. Not to mention the Jody ball, and the strange eyeball-stalk ball that the Tall Man apparently uses to spy on people when he’s busy doing other things. This movie is, to borrow from the vernacular, straight trippin’ balls.
But more importantly, right when they’re about to ‘kill’ the Tall Man, a giant golden ball bursts out of what’s left of his head, and begins flying around being totally badass because this is the ballsiest of ballers. But because it’s still one of the balls, it has that proclivity for slamming into bad guys instead of the heroes like it’s supposed to. But this ball? Not content to drill through people’s skulls, it instead just blows right through them, leaving a neat round hole like a shotgun in a cartoon. Which it does to the zombie woman, leaving her head looking more like the eye of a needle than a face. Because the Tall Man don’t stop for nothing.
The Reggie Factor
This is Reggie’s movie, and it’s clear from the beginning that the adventures of Reggie Bannister are not only the heart of this series, but some of the best bits of the entire franchise. From his random moments of being a total badass, to his endless fascination with hitting on any woman he can find (no matter how obviously evil), to his endless array of flannel shirts that accessorize so well with his ponytail—Reggie comes into his own as one of the greatest heroes of horror cinema. Not through actual skill, but through trying hard enough.
Some of the highlights? Reggie’s constant running down of the Jody sphere, using ball jokes that would put mine in the prior section to shame. His ability to kill four jawas in a single shotgun blast, no matter how far apart they might actual be in space. That he basically adopts the kid Tim only to drop him off with the next family he sees. Or his aggressive attempts to get into Rocky’s pants, no matter how obviously not into it she seems to be. Reggie’s a born loser, and like all born losers spent his whole life waiting for just enough shit to go wrong to fail upward. That he gets the chance makes him endearing, that he learns nothing and never changes cements him as a beloved cinematic icon.
Reggie, you sorry bastard, we love you.
Mike’s fled, the Tall Man’s supposedly dead, and Rocky decides after the fighting that she’s sick of all this crazy nonsense and takes off in a hearse like a total BAMF. As Reggie and Tim scour the mausoleum where everything went down trying to piece together what exactly did go down, Tim remembers that Mike warned him to tell Reggie ‘there are thousands of them’. Not understanding, he tells Reggie too late, as he walks into a room only to see Reggie pinned against the wall by dozens of the balls, hundreds more clinging to the ceiling. As he does this, the supposedly dead Tall Men bursts into the room and reminds us that “It’s never over!”
Which is when hands reach through the window and pull Tim through it into the darkness. Which is fine Phantasm tradition. The problem? There is no window. Tim is standing in an empty doorway and it jump cuts to a window that exists only for this window gag. Because Phantasm is the kind of series that worries more about doing it right than doing it sensibly. Thank god. They care more about greatness than logic, and that’s why Phantasm continues to live on in our hearts.