Rewind: PHANTASM FEVER

Phantasm Intro & Main Theme by Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave

It’s been, as they say, a long and strange trip. But who could have imagined a trip so long, so strange? Not Don Coscarelli, never dreaming that the outré script he penned in 1970-something would slowly transmogrify into what is arguably the most unique and original series in the horror-fantasy genre. Love it or hate it, Phantasm undeniably made a lasting impression on everyone who saw it in the summer of 1979. Set in a small town so sleepy as to seem one big cemetery, the master of the local mortuary (Angus Scrimm, soon to reap global fame as the Tall Man) appears at first only mildly menacing and out of place. But to young Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), everything seems menacing and out of place. Mike’s recently lost his parents, he’s worried that his beloved older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) will dump him with relatives then hit the road. When Mike discovers the Tall Man is up to some serious weirdness at the mortuary, his world—and the film—takes a 90 degree turn into the skewed realm of nightmare, unleashing a torrent of blazingly original concepts and visuals that have never been equaled. It was this one-two punch of heartfelt emotion (Mike’s love for Jody) coupled with the avalanche of heretofore unseen imagery (the silver spheres, the demon bug, the space gate) that made Phantasm so rare and inimitable. Backed by a haunting score and acted with enthusiastic innocence by its youthful cast, Phantasm attained an almost subliminal yet eternal presence in the minds of its many “phans,” a presence that demanded to live again, like a scary-but-good-dream we wished we could revisit.

Yet when Phantasm II finally rolled into theaters nearly ten years later, it was in many ways everyone’s worst fears made flesh. Though it boasted the money and backing of a major studio and was technically flawless, the sequel was for the most part a tired retread, lifting whole scenes (sometimes shot for shot) from the first film. James Le Gros might have been excellent in his own interpretation of Mike, but he didn’t make anyone forget A. Michael Baldwin. (Perhaps cast and crew jokingly refer to Le Gros as Mike’s “tough guy” period.) Yet there was still something there, something unique: the mood, the mystery. Reggie Bannister (Mike and Jody’s oft-terrified ice cream vending pal) emerged as the series’ most lovable character.

And there was one fucking scene in Phantasm II…

Alternate Poster Design, Phantasm II by Lafe FredbjornsonAll the images in this post came from his site.

There was one fucking scene  in Phantasm II: Mike and Reg, hot on the trail of the Tall Man, discover the corpse of small town and find its cemeteries emptied, its mortuary abandoned and laced with otherworldly traps. It’s a sequence so effective it’s easily worth the price of admission. But as a film, as a successor to the original? Unsatisfying.

The situation improved (I think) when Phantasm III arrived in 1994. Orignal actors Baldwin and Thornbury made a triumphant (and appropriately disconcerting) return to the series, marking also a return to the original’s dreamlike quality and strangeness while still propelled by an action-driven plot. Some new characters were added to the mix, with unavoidably mixed results. And instead of remaining a mere trans-dimensional bogeyman, the Tall Man was slowly edged into a different—even ambiguous—light, suggesting that his “plans” for Mike might extend past mere “death.” Yes, a definite improvement… yet Phantasm III very much remained a sequel, forever suffering under the shadow of the original. Too many sequences in Phantasm III played like rituals (or worse, rules) to be observed rather than spontaneous elements of a living and vibrant story; we remember the dance, we know what words to say—why doesn’t it feel the same? Perhaps that’s what it’s all about. Maybe trying to recapture the magic of the original Phantasm is as elusive as trying to recapture the past. As the summer of 1979 recedes faster and faster behind us and the dreams we once dreamt echo fainter each day, maybe these films, in their own weird way, are about the persistence of memory, shadows we give names and form and voice and call “ghosts.” It’s getting dark, it’s almost time for the fourth installment, Phantasm: Oblivion. Meet me at the space gate; the long strange trip is almost over.

A moody epitaph instead of a rock-em sock-em final chapter, Phantasm: Oblivion is at once a haunting farewell to long cherished characters and a surprisingly ironic exploration of the power (and dangers) of the imagination. Kicking off with a killer montage of the series’ more impressive visuals, Oblivion begins with Reggie growing disillusioned with the never-ending war with post-dead creeps, while longsuffering buddy Mike is spirited away by the Tall Man to realms desolate and forbidding: Death Valley, transmuted into an inter-dimensional wasteland. It’s here that Mike must finally face his longtime foe, peel back the mystery of his adversary’s origins, and ultimately address his own destiny. “Be careful what you look for,” cautions Scrimm as the Tall Man, “you just might find it.” With Oblivion, Coscarelli has abandoned all attempts at fashioning a franchise installment and produced instead what has been described as a “love letter to the phans.” It’s a ballsy move, but one not without risks and Oblivion is not without the consequent problems endemic to such a move, not the least being it’s a film so umbilically linked to the prior films it can’t possibly stand on its own, a risky strategy for any movie, cult-flick or otherwise. Also troubling is the inclusion of some truly pointless action scenes, the worst involving Reggie and a “demon trooper.” And though Coscarelli is to be applauded for throwing the Phantasm sequel-model out the window, one can only wonder at the series staples he chooses to retain: the exploding car, for example (three of them, a new record), or the useless dwarfs (who’ve never looked worse), or the sexy babe we finally just can’t trust (yeah, we’ve come full circle, all right). It’s enough to make me wish for a hearse-Hemicuda chase scene! But these seemingly persnickety complaints issue from a longtime phan who knows the series perhaps a little too well; I have an opinion on every frame of this freaking movie. Another phan will find sixty other things to complain—or rave—about. In the final analysis it’s important to remember that every inch of Oblivion was made with considerable love for the characters and the material, and that the film’s positive elements far outweigh the negative. Veteran phans will delight in the countless secrets revealed and marvel at how effectively—and movingly—unseen footage from the original Phantasm is woven throughout this final chapter. The trip is worth taking, and the final destination is one denied the characters (and us) for perhaps too long… this long strange trip. Pleasant dreams, all.

“It’s NEVER over!” Click it!

Phantasm II, Exit Music by Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave, Produced and Arranged by Christopher Stone

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