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 IV: Oblivion (1998)
Nearly twenty years after the first Phantasm film strode confidently into a world that wasn’t ready, we were gifted the beauty of the fourth and (to date) final Phantasm film, a movie so baffling in its ambitions and scope that I’m probably going to spend most of my time talking about the ending and what I think the movie might mean. This is further compounded by the movie’s weird origin, which is as follows: by the mid-90s super-producer Roger Avery wanted to help make a big finale to the franchise, and approached Coscarelli with an idea that they had trouble getting off the ground. In order to get that movie made, Coscarelli decided to create this fourth film as a sort of bridge between Lord of the Dead and this hypothetical fifth film.
Which really explains a lot about the movie we got. I don’t want to sound mean, but much of the movie is a glorified clip show, expanding the now-dogmatic recap of the prior films out into a whole mess of montage from the first three movies. Normally I’d be very angry about this, but to be honest it kind of works for the movie for two reasons: a) they use a lot of footage that they apparently shot and cut for Phantasm, and b) the movie that surrounds a lot of the clip stuff is absolutely goddamn bananas.
The movie begins where the previous one ended: Mike ran away with the Jody-ball, and Reggie is trapped by the Tall Man and dozens of spheres. What about the kid Tim? What kid? He got pulled through a window. Obviously he’s dead to us. But the Tall Man seems happy with erasing the kid, and basically just lets Reggie go for no reason other than he’s got better things to do and Reggie has diplomatic immunity because someone has to bring the funny to the movie. So Reggie, on his own, decides to drive around until Jody-ball shows back up and says that Reggie needs to go save Mike (again) because the Tall Man is nearly onto him (again!) and if he gets a hold of him something cataclysmic might happen (AGAIN!). Reggie’s a veteran by now, so he drives off after Mike.
Mike, meanwhile, has his hearse hijacked by the Tall Man and commandeered to Death Valley, where it breaks down in the middle of the desert and Mike struggles to make sense of a series of visions and his increasingly strange abilities brought on by contact with the Tall Man and the ball that still seems to be in his head and as-yet unexplained. Things like the ability to manifest the dimensional gates and a slowly increasingly telekinesis. So Mike sits around and has a vision quest, while the Tall Man tempts him like Jesus and Satan in the desert, and Mike drinks wine and has flashbacks and builds a sphere of his own out of parts of the hearse engine. Yeah, that’s right, he totally DIYs himself a floating death sphere. Because why not?
Meanwhile Mike travels through the gateways and relives moments from the first film, as past and present collide and he travels through time and space to the 19th century (or earlier, who knows) to a time where Jebediah Morningside lives with his mother, a strange woman who looks just like the gypsy woman who started Mike on this quest as a kid. Morningside seems like a tinkerer, a happy man with a desire to know the secrets of the universe. He also happens to be the Tall Man, but only Mike is aware of that, as right now Morningside is simply a normal guy going about his business, preparing a large Tesla coil-style prototype of the dimensional gate.
All the while, the Tall Man seems ready to turn Mike into some sort of Not-Quite-As-Tall Man, and the dimensional gates keep multiplying in the desert, and Reggie shows up ready to chew bubblegum and kick ass and he’s all out of … oh, wait, wrong movie. But seriously, things are crazy, and what does it all mean? Certainly there has to be a logic to this madness! Certainly Phantasm has to have some internal consistency, especially since it’s now probably inevitable that we’ll never see another movie. Right? Right?!
I don’t know. I have thoughts, but they’ll be down on the section about the ending, where I pontificate about just what this whole god damn series might be about.
Gleaming Balls of Death
You know what sucks in this movie? If you answered CG, you’re absolutely right. Sadly, this movie is in the post-digital revolution, and thus a bunch of the ball shots of them floating around being menacing are made up of too-shiny baubles wobbling through the sky like schools of fish, being not at all menacing and losing any of their sense of practical majesty. CG robbed us of many things, and the joy of seeing a hovering metal ball it just one of them. It’s not the same when it’s not practical, sorry Phantasm.
So let’s talk about the infamous scene. In what is undoubtedly one of the most amazing gags in all of horror cinema, Reggie finally gets a woman who seems like she might be willing to sleep with him. I mean, she says no, but she does hop into bed wearing very little, and unlike Rocky she doesn’t break out handcuffs at the first sign of him being interested. So he ends up sleeping in the same bed with her, only to wake up to find her sprawled out in a barely-buttoned shirt and pair of panties. The only problem? Something seems to be moving under her barely-there shirt.
Which leads to the amazing reveal of two balls taking up the space where her boobs should be, having burrowed into her chest where they bounce unnaturally with a sudden and intense desire to burst out and give Reggie the 2nd base of his lifetime. Which happens when he unbuttons the shirt and has to contend not only with two balls, but a topless, bleeding zombie woman with holes in her chest. It’s about as ridiculous as it sounds, and played almost entirely for laughs, as the Tall Man intended. That scamp.
The Reggie Factor
This is more Mike’s movie than Reggie’s, but it’s not like he’s without things to do. Reggie carries a lot of the levity in this movie, only really coming into his own in the final twenty minutes or so when he finally reaches Mike in the desert. But when he does? Oh man does the movie jump on the opportunity to do crazy Reggie things. You want him shooting demons? Check. You want him scrambling to fight zombie cops? Got it. You want to see him back in the ice cream uniform from the first movie? That’s really weird, dude, but guess what? Phantasm IV has your back, and Reggie absolutely suits up for the final confrontation.
This is also the movie that firmly casts Reggie in the role of mentor, an Obi-Wan Kenobi of perpetual disappointment but steadfast reliability, serving as the father that Mike never had and the best friend he probably doesn’t deserve, swooping in to save the day again and again through nothing more than his infinite decency as a human being. There’s something fundamentally sweet about Reggie, that makes his bumbling heroics inspirational even when they’re played for laughs. And when he walks out of the film in full heroic fashion at the end, chasing after the Tall Man in a moment of utter defeat, you get the sense that the man who leaves is really the person we should be rooting for. He’s become a champion through these movies against literally all odds, and that’s why Reggie is the best.
So the Tall Man shows up, rips the ball out of Mike’s head (finally!) and disappears through a dimensional gate. Mike, dying, is comforted by Reggie who says he’ll be right back before leaping through the dimensional gate in true heroic fashion behind the Tall Man, ready to do anything to save his friend. As Mike lays there dying, he drifts into a vision of himself as a child and Reggie, a scene cut from the first movie, where the two of them drive through a nightmare void of blackness, and Mike hears a noise (his own words from the present about dying) and Reggie both in the air and in this memory/dream comforts him, as the ice cream truck drives into the darkness and disappears into a cut to black. It’s kind of bleak, absolutely beautiful, and one of the most amazing moments of ‘making do with major constraints’ I’ve ever seen a movie pull off.
But what does it mean?
One might argue, in the absence of a fifth film revealing all the secrets, that the whole thing becomes an addled dream of a crazy or perhaps just lonely Mike, still a kid in 1979, dealing with the death of his parents and his older brother by creating this world where death is never the end and his cool friend Reggie and the scary patriarchal figure of the funeral director are locked in eternal combat for the fate of the universe. And that makes a certain amount of sense, especially given the links between this movie and the first one. Also? Only a child would think Reggie was cool enough to become as cool as Reggie became. Only in the movies.
That said, that’s a philosophically pat reading that manages to feel totally unfulfilled because it renders everything we’ve seen in the three sequels (a lot of it very entertaining) totally meaningless. It also flies in the face of some of the hints the 4th movie drops explicitly, about Morningside as a man and a sequence where he’s shown as the Tall Man corrupting the corpses of soldiers during the Civil War, one of whom appears to be Mike. That stuff? Totally unexplained, and left for a movie that will never be, along with the fate of all the characters and the explanation of why Mike has a ball in his head and when he managed to get it. That stuff, I’m afraid, might forever be a mystery.
Thankfully, everything leading up to it is still pretty amazing. But it remains a source of perpetual disappointment. Like Mike and Reggie, we have to coast into the blackness, uncertain of our fate, as Phantasm as a series disappears into the gloom.