Try as I might, I am genuinely hard-pressed to think of another horror franchise that feels anything akin to Phantasm. With its nonlinear, dreamlike narrative, its continuous serial storytelling – which makes it daunting to try and come into this series mid-stream, much less explain to a newcomer simply – and its outlandish antagonists in the likes of the Tall Man and his lethal spheres, it’s an altogether unique animal in the world of horror franchises.
For the past thirty-seven years, and now five movies, Don Coscarelli and his small team of core cast members have come back to repeatedly visiting this strange world blurring the line between reality and nightmares. With this fifth movie, and the death of Tall Man actor Angus Scrimm (going out in high form on this movie, blending his usual dour presence with an almost malicious playfulness), the team – after numerous cliffhanger endings that always left the fate of the series a mystery, brought everything to a close with this final conclusive entry.
As someone who’s been a fan of the series since high school (and to set on a timeline how long it’s been since the last movie, I still remember renting Oblivion on VHS from Blockbuster), I went into this movie with a weird mix of excitement and uncertainty. For as long and odd as the road has been, could this end in a way that felt satisfying without feeling quick-fix?
That will depend on what you’re expecting from the movie, to be perfectly honest. I know some people have expressed displeasure with it. Personally, I feel like this is the best possible ending to the series I could have hoped for – to the point it’s jockeying with Phantasm II as the best of the sequels for me.
To clarify that statement, and not give too much away, I will just say this now – no, this movie will not solve all of the mysteries posed by the series. In fact, some of the information this installment brings to light will wind up introducing more questions rather than answers.
To be perfectly fair, however, if you’ve already been on the ride this long, this is nothing new, and if anything, a movie that would answer all the questions would feel uncharacteristic for a Phantasm film. Where the movie DOES provide closure is with regards to many of the characters’ story arcs. In particular with regards to the sidekick turned elevated hero, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), who was last seen hopping into a dimensional gate in a desperate bid to save or avenge surrogate younger brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin).
In fact, this movie is ultimately hanging on Reggie as a focal point – picking up with him wandering as we last saw him, still hunting for Mike. From there, it jumps between multiple different worlds and versions of the ice cream man turned monster hunter as he tries to make sense of what’s happening to him and which reality is the ‘real’ one.
At this point, I almost feel like I have to use a phrase that, in review, I normally hate having to invoke due to how often it’s abused. Too often, when someone describes something as ‘for the fans’, it feels like an easy out – suggesting that something is somehow above criticism if you’re not an invested fan, or that if you were a fan you wouldn’t dislike it.
In a case like this, however, I feel the phrase is merited – simply because the very nature of this series is such that trying to come in to this movie blind would make a new viewer utterly confused. This takes a lot as standard that was already established in previous entries, and isn’t designed to be new user friendly as some other franchises can be with their sequels.
Fortunately, this year’s as good a time as any to get started, especially in light of the first movie getting a new restoration last month.
Having said that, even as from the fan perspective, the movie is certainly not perfect. As admirable as Coscarelli’s determination to keep the series going despite the lower budgets has been, sometimes it does betray him, particularly with this movie’s CG. Some of it’s not too bad at least, but there are moments where it can be a nuisance – this marks the first movie where the spheres are fully CG, and despite how seemingly simple their designs are, the new look is distracting on them.
Granted, again, the low budgets have been part and parcel for the series arguably since the beginning anyway. It’s strange to call them out in just this movie because a lot of the flaws in this, as overall movies go, are flaws that it inherits as part of the larger franchise.
All in all, this is a series that has never been among the very best of movies made. For all those flaws, however, they have always had a unique appeal and, for everyone involved, the feel of a labor of love – again, everyone involved has been coming back to these for almost forty years now.
In that regard, this final chapter feels incredibly emotionally satisfying in terms of conveying that aspect of the series. In particular with how much this movie goes into the theme of loyalty between its protagonists despite everything that’s been thrown their way. It’s been a through-line established at the start of the series that bookends in the final part in a way that actually manages to be surprisingly touching amid all the stranger elements of these films.
If you’ve come this far, it’s worth the time to complete the series. If you’re new to it, you may want to wait on this part for now, but seeing as it’s October, now is the perfect time to try the films out for yourself and see how you feel.
-Seeing all the old team back together one last time is REALLY satisfying emotionally
-Some good action set-pieces
-Despite old age, Scrimm still sells his signature role
-CG looks rather cheap at points
-Some fans may be unhappy with parts of the story left unfinished
-I can’t stress this enough – going into this without seeing the earlier films is a BAD idea