This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Despite the original Phantasm being a cult classic and its first two sequels each having their merits, series mastermind Don Coscarelli got hideously bogged down trying to get a finale made, his vision for how it should go outstripping what investors were willing to pay for. In the end, the last two sequels in the series were both made on shoestring budgets, with one film treading water and the fifth film putting an end to the series.
The original plan for the followup to Lord of the Dead was to have a final confrontation between Reggie and the Tall Man take place in a post-apocalyptic setting, civilisation having collapsed as a result of the Tall Man’s depredations. However, it proved incredibly difficult to get funding for the project, and so 1998’s OblIVion was devised as a straight-to-video stopgap measure, something to keep people invested in the series and tide the fans over until funding for the final installment could be acquired.
Coscarelli filmed OblIVion on a budget of only $650,000 – accounting for inflation, that’s actually a shade less than the original. Between that and the fact that it’s largely a filler episode, it’s unavoidable that OblIVion is a bit slow and spends a lot of time spinning its wheels, not advancing the plot very much at all beyond further developing and making explicit what’s happened to Jody and what the Tall Man wants from Mike (a trainee/replacement, basically), as well as offering an entirely needless origin story for the Tall Man which comes dangerously close to demystifying him outright. On top of that, a good deal of the movie consists of reused footage from the previous three films, sometimes including unused scenes.
Actually, the use of old footage isn’t half bad – Coscarelli and editor Scott Gill do a fine job of weaving it in, and there’s enough stuff we haven’t seen before that it isn’t as stale as you might expect. As I’ve alluded to in previous articles in this series, it’s evident that an enormous amount of footage was shot for the original Phantasm and the story went through numerous radical shifts and changes before we got the final version which was actually released, and as such much of the footage from the original film constitutes “new” material, some of which constitute fully-developed scenes. (There’s a particularly effective use of this at the very end to give a little note of hope to things, just as it seems all is lost.)
Despite the savings arising from reusing old footage, the miniscule budget means that the cast is greatly constricted. There’s a Civil War scene which they were only able to do by persuading a Civil War re-enactor’s group to do it for fun and a $200 donation, and just as Lord of the Dead all but entirely abandoned the new characters added in Phantasm II, so too are the new characters who were added in Lord of the Dead forgotten here.
Tim’s fate is especially egregious, because we were left on a cliffhanger there and not only does the movie fail to address it, but none of the characters even show any signs of being worried about him – so far as I can tell he was just completely written out of the series. Apparently the original shooting script specified that he just got savagely torn to bits immediately after the end of Lord of the Dead, which is undignified but not without precedent in the series, and Reggie’s rather subdued and melancholy mood here might conceivably reflect that – but Tim’s fate is never even hinted at in the cut we get, and Reggie’s sadness could just as easily come down to his worries about Mike and mourning all the other friends lost along the way.
Although OblIVion continued the tradition of jettisoning most of the new characters introduced in the previous sequel, the difference this time is that we don’t really get any new characters of any substance to replace them. There’s a moment where we think we are going to get one in the form of Jennifer (Heidi Marnhout), a woman that Reggie rescues from a car wreck, but that just leads into a riff on the “Reggie scams a woman into sleeping in the same motel bed as him” bit from the previous movie, only with that ending much, much worse for Reggie than it did that time. In fact, out of the newly-shot sequences here, that part probably shows the best production values – the rest were very obviously made on the cheap in remote desert locations so they could just drive out there and film their stuff, rather than renting buildings or soundstages or the like. (This is particularly notable for the fact that the newly-shot footage is incredibly light on sequences in mausoleums, which is a shame because by this point the sequences of the characters prowling about in mausoleums constituted an iconic tradition of the series.)
In short, there isn’t much to say about OblIVion because it isn’t a movie with very much to say itself beyond “Phantasm is cool, you all like Phantasm, please stay tuned until I can make the end of Phantasm”. It’s the weakest movie in the series by quite a stretch, and if it was supposed to whet people’s appetite for more and convince investors to fund the finale, it’s not surprising that it’d take well over a decade to finally wrap up the series.
Shot in secret in 2012 and 2013 and finally released in 2016, RaVager is distinguished by being the only Phantasm film not directed by Coscarelli – he produces and co-writes, but it was directed by David Hartman, a regular Coscarelli collaborator who had done visual effects on Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies At the End. Given the movie’s reliance on making the best use it can out of what visual effects it can craft with its limited budget, it’s possible that this might have helped prompt Coscarelli to let Hartman direct so as to ensure that the footage was shot with the needs of the special effects taken into account as much as possible.
This much pays off at least; we don’t have figures for the budget of this one with the same reliability as we do for the others, but allegedly it was made for about $300,000 – less than half the budget of OblIVion, and the same amount the original Phantasm was made on, and when accounting for the fact that 2014 money doesn’t go nearly as far as 1979 money (or, for that matter, 1998 money) that makes this by far the cheapest entry in the series. Yes, some of the special effects here are a bit rudimentary – but other special effects moments are actually very nicely executed, especially considering the budget, and thanks to technological advancements Hartman is able to give us far more of a visual feast than OblIVion could have ever contemplated despite only having a fraction of the budget.
Although he’d been increasingly important across the various sequels, RaVager focuses on Reggie more or less exclusively. It unfolds on various levels – sometimes he’s getting to grips with traditional Phantasm action, creeping around through the Tall Man’s various mausolea or battling spheres on a desert road or in his latest crush’s mountain farm – but other times he’s chatting to Mike on the grounds of a hospital he’s been confined to with dementia or being tempted to give up his hunt for Mike and Jody by the Tall Man offering him a way out.
Hanging over proceedings is the impression of lost time; even when Reggie wakes up to an apparently “real” world distinct from any of these alternatives, it turns out he’s been kept on ice for a decade. Time itself is the titular ravager, as is age and dementia and all the rest of the baggage time inflicts on us, and it seems to hang heavy on our old friends – and even on the Tall Man himself. (The fact that Angus Scrimm died not long before this was released adds additional poignancy there.)
The dementia angle allows the movie to indulge as much as it likes in the classic Phantasm weirdness and delirium whilst adding a certain additional spin and a new layer of interpretation to it, which is perhaps more than OblIVion could say for itself. Sure, the whole “dementia as time slips” thing isn’t a wholly novel way of depicting the subject – that’s the entire premise of Slaughterhouse Five, after all – but it’s an apt one for the purposes of Phantasm. It also nicely suggests new ways of interpreting earlier installments in the series – for instance, it occurred to me when watching this that during the original Phantasm Mike is at around the age people start showing early symptoms of schizophrenia. The horror of losing control of your own mind and being unable to trust your own perception and thoughts is, after all, just as universal as the fear of death that the series has played with from the beginning.
Based on the standard of the CGI and other special effects involved this can’t have had much of a higher budget than OblIVion, the good thing is that that very same CGI budget extends much further than it did back then. (I suppose it helps a lot that shiny floating spheres are among the easiest things you could want to animate in CGI – and plenty of imagination is shown when it comes to new tricks to play with them.) There’s even a sequence where the apocalyptic vision originally intended for the end of the series is brought to quite effective life – it’s perhaps the cheesiest moment of the movie, but it then transitions into another one of the hospital sequences, allowing the poignant and the absurd to get woven between each other nicely.
The nice thing about the whole package is that it cuts the Gordion Knot that the Phantasm series had made for itself – where ending the series with a final, climactic, action-packed confrontation with the Tall Man would on the one hand be a totally natural and apt conclusion and at the same time be entirely inappropriate. Hartman and Coscarelli cleverly find a way to have their cake and eat it, giving us the high-octane finale but undercutting it effectively – and Phantasm is one of the few series where taking the option they take wouldn’t feel like arbitrary bullshit. The post-apocalyptic sequences and the trip to the Tall Man’s home are particularly well-executed; they come across like scenes extracted from a movie which was more concerned with this stuff and where we had more of an introduction to the various ancillary characters involved in that confrontation, but despite lacking that context it feels like you already know how that movie would have panned out anyway – so why would they need to bother making that conventional film whose properties you could have comfortably predicted rather than striking for this more unusual presentation, from which we can infer the conventional narrative and also get something richer and different besides?
This isn’t necessarily even the end; Coscarelli actually has plans for a sixth entry in the series, though he’s gone on the record as saying that the original characters probably won’t be involved. This makes a lot of sense – with Angus Scrimm gone, a certain amount of thought will be needed when it comes to replacing the main villain, and the story of Mike, Jody and Reggie has been through enough permutations at this point that it feels like anything that they could want to do with it has already been done.
A nice cameo towards the end by Rocky from Lord of the Dead suggests that subsequent action might focus on her, which I’d personally like to see – as perhaps the best character to be introduced during the sequels, she’d provide continuity without being too bound to the pattern set by the first movie. (It’s also fortunate that Coscarelli seems to have found a good pair of hands to leave the series with in the form of Hartman – after all, if it takes the next movie as long to come out as this one did, Coscarelli would be 80 when that happened.)