The cool thing about the ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists that we post at the end of every year here on Bloody Disgusting is that they showcase the diversity of our writing staff’s opinions. I may love a film, for example, that one of the other writers absolutely loathed, and that’s the beauty of this whole thing. How boring would it be if we all felt the exact same way about every single movie?!
I bring this up because, well, I loved a horror movie released this year that Trace Thurman loathed. That film, as you’ve probably gathered by now, was David Hartman’s Phantasm: Ravager, a sequel that literally came out of nowhere a few years ago and then finally saw release this year. Ravager made its way onto Trace’s 5 Worst Horror Movies of 2016 list, and I not only respect its inclusion on that list but I also understand it. As Trace explains in the post, he’s never been a fan of the Phantasm franchise, and he compared Ravager to a “cheaply-made student film.”
Honestly, I don’t disagree. Phantasm: Ravager plays out like a fan film you’d expect to find on Syfy, so Trace is right on the money there. It’s far from one of the best horror films released in 2016, but as someone who is a longtime fan of the franchise – and of its mythology and characters – I feel pretty comfortable at least dubbing it the most downright charming horror film of 2016.
To explain what I mean, I wanted to share the Phantasm: Ravager review I wrote back in October. I only published it, at the time, on a personal Medium blog that I’ve since taken down, so I figured now was the perfect time to actually get it out there. So here’s why I love Phantasm: Ravager.
Out of all the big horror franchises, Phantasm is perhaps the most special. For starters, it’s long been the only one to feature individual installments written and directed by one person (Don Coscarelli), and it’s also the longest-running horror franchise that has to date never been rebooted. For nearly forty years, dating way back to 1979, friends Reggie and Mike (and sometimes Mike’s not-quite-alive brother, Jody) have been doing battle with the dimension-hopping Tall Man and his army of diminutive creatures, and that decades-long battle comes to a bittersweet end in this year’s fifth installment.
Written by Don Coscarelli and David Hartman, but directed by Hartman, Phantasm: Ravager picks up some time after the events of 1998’s Oblivion. Alone in the desert, Reggie is on the hunt for Mike, and he’s of course got his four-barreled shotgun by his side. But things take a time-traveling twist when Reggie and Mike reunite in what may be the present, future, or some alternate reality taking place inside Reggie’s mind; together, they battle the Tall Man one last time… in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The most mind-blowing stat about the Phantasm franchise is that all five installments have cumulatively been made for just under $7 million, and while Phantasm 2 makes up the majority of that collective budget, Phantasm: Ravager barely makes a dent with its alleged $300,000 budget — roughly the same amount of money that Don Coscarelli turned into a horror classic back in 1979. As beloved as the franchise may be, its low-budget limitations have certainly reared their head on more than a handful of occasions throughout, but serious fans of all things Phantasm understand that the charm of the series is very much tied to those budgetary constraints. And Ravager, well, it’s got no shortage of DIY charm.
There’s a moment in Phantasm where Don Coscarelli showed off the Tall Man’s home planet, and that iconic glimpse into another world more or less personifies the “we’ve got no money to do this but we’re going to do it anyway” spirit of the Phantasm franchise. With Ravager, David Hartman both taps into and pays tribute to that independent spirit, bringing back the key players from Coscarelli’s film for a brand new sequel that feels like nothing short of a massive love letter to the journey Coscarelli and friends took us on from 1979 through 1998. Hartman captures all the quirks, charms, and both good and bad qualities that make up the series, cobbling together what feels like a fan film as well as pure fan service.
The Phantasm franchise is at its best when it’s at its weirdest, and oh boy do Coscarelli and Hartman get weird with Ravager. While the film starts off straightforward enough, it soon hops back and forth between different times and realities, alternately depicting Reggie as a lone badass looking for his friend, an insane old man whose mind is completely fried, and a soldier in a post-apocalyptic battle against the Tall Man. Like some of the franchise’s best sequences, it’s often hard to figure out what the hell is even going on in Ravager, and as convoluted as it may be, it all just feels so right. Even the finale is totally open to interpretation, but either option manages to feel like the perfect conclusion to the series.
If you like your Phantasm crazy, confusing, and cheap, all three boxes are admirably ticked off by Phantasm: Ravager. With less than half a million bucks at his disposal, Hartman takes us to both the Tall Man’s home planet and a future world that has been completely ravaged by the sinister time-traveler, and though some of the digital effects are undoubtedly of the “Syfy Original” variety, it’s hard to complain about a movie made with such love and so full of genuine charm. The whole thing just feels like a treat for fans of the series. A movie that exists against the odds. A movie we’re lucky to have.
An ambitious and thoroughly entertaining nostalgia trip, Phantasm: Ravager brings the band (including the late Angus Scrimm, whose signature scowl is as on-point as ever) back together for one last hurrah, and I can’t imagine any longtime fan of the series not cheering, smiling, and perhaps even squirting out a few tears while watching it. In a world where all the other horror franchises have been rebooted on at least one occasion, there’s just something about the existence of this decades-later sequel that feels worthy of cherishing; at the very least, it’s worth overlooking its flaws and just appreciating and enjoying it for precisely what it is.
Some will say Ravager ends the franchise on a high note. Others will say it ends it on a low note. As for me, I’m not exactly going with either “high” or “low.” I’m going with “perfect.”
Color me satisfied.