Phantasm IV: Oblivion

My memory must be worse than I thought. I could have SWORN I saw Phantasm OblIVion in high school, circa 1996 or 1997, but by all accounts, the film hit VHS in the fall of 1998, when I was already in college. What the hell? I even recall talking about it with a buddy who I am pretty sure I haven’t spoken to since high school. Whatever.

And while I couldn’t remember a damn thing about the movie itself either, I did remember correctly that it was a rather underwhelming “finale”, with more confusion than necessary and a way too obvious low budget. It’s still a good movie, but I think I’d feel better knowing that Phantasm V, with a big budget and all the resources Coscarelli needed, was in the can or at least in serious pre-production. The next to last Dark Tower book is also kind of weak on its own, but when you read the next one right after, it’s hardly an issue.

One thing that bummed me out is that, for the first time, the film doesn’t really attempt to pick up right where the last one ended. The character of Tim (the kid) was taken out the window at the end of III, a la Mike in the original, but Reggie doesn’t even utter his name here. Reggie is also completely out of character at first; he’s more concerned about his car than his best friend. He acts like a character might if it were ten years after, not ten minutes. Instead, it starts with Mike wordlessly “narrating” the events of the previous films, then The Tall Man inexplicably lets Reggie live a few minutes later. Later, the always horny Reggie sees a beautiful girl on the side of the road and doesn’t even wave hello (to be fair, she returns later and then he hits on her). Despite the fact that the time between production of the two films was shorter than ever, and they didn’t have to work around a different actor in the role of Mike, this one just doesn’t have that sort of connective tissue that has always been appreciated (and truly rare in horror franchises).

Coscarelli also relies way too much on old, unused footage from the first film. Granted, it’s a really unique idea (and a great way to save some dough on film), but for every really good use of the old stuff (the final scene), there are twice as many baffling ones. For example, Mike begins reminiscing about his “last perfect day”, before The Tall Man entered his world. This leads to 2-3 minutes of young Mike stealing an ice cream from Reggie’s truck. It doesn’t say much about Mike that his idea of a perfect memory is stealing from his best friend. Later, he tries to hang himself, and he remembers when he and Jody hung The Tall Man from a tree, then Mike cut him down after his arch-nemesis promised not to bother him anymore. Isn’t that something he might have mentioned (or at least though about) before? It’s kind of useful information, don’t you think? Once a scene is deleted, it becomes non-canon, and while using it again later isn’t “against movie law”, something that important being brought into the fold is just jarring.

Now, one thing about the lower budget that works in its favor is the limited cast. Really, only our four guys are in the movie. The only other two cast members are the traditional Reggie Girl (Heidi Marnhout, also the hottest RG in the series) and a glorified stunt guy playing a demon cop for about 3-4 minutes. Marnhout doesn’t last long either, which means the focus is on the people who are important (as opposed to the previous two films, in which characters that never appeared in another Phantasm film took up large chunks of screen time). I like that; it’s sort of like coming full circle. Reggie even puts his ice cream man suit on for the film’s final act, for some reason.

This one attempts to reveal more about The Tall Man, and while it’s still not crystal clear, I like that he has a less annoying name to type (Jebediah Morningside). We also learn a bit more about that photo from the first movie, so that was a nice touch. I also loved the bit where Mike turns a car engine into a weapon to use against ol’ Jeb (I just wish it was the Hemicuda’s engine instead, since it’s sort of like the 5th character in the series). And the ending, while a bit low key for a finale, has a nice sort of cyclical (or spherical!) nature to it that again reminded me of The Dark Tower.

This one also has a bit more of the dream logic that has mostly eluded the series since the original, which was nice. It would be easy to have a film with just answers and action (especially considering it may be the last one) but thankfully, Coscarelli retained some of the oddball nature of the 1979 original. It’s not always as successful, but that may be due to the fact that after the last two films, I am sort of used to the sequels sticking to coherency.

Like III, for extras we get behind the scenes stuff (it seems to be a pretty tense set; everyone seems pissed off) and a commentary. Coscarelli and Bannister return, and Scrimm is there, but Baldwin is absent (another tradition; someone is always missing). It’s mostly a nuts and bolts track – shooting locations, names of crew members, etc. By now you should be used to it. I don’t know why, but Coscarelli never really delves into the storytelling aspect of the films. He wrote all of the scripts, yet he never has much, if anything, to say about plot elements, character motivations, etc. But hey, you’ll know the name of the key grips and where they shot the mausoleum stuff, so it evens out.

Supposedly, a script for a 5th film has been written, and the cast read it and everyone seemed to enjoy it. But as usual, money is an issue. Now that Anchor Bay owns the rights to the entire series (save for part 2, which Universal still owns, at least in the US), and have been distributing original films for the past couple years, I hope they can pony up maybe 2-3 million (about the budget of III) for the guys to make their film before the series’ villain is too old to make it (Scrimm is hardly a spring chicken). If it never comes to be, maybe they can make it into a graphic novel or something; I know there is still another story to tell; and while the sequels may not live up to the original, the tight bond between films (as opposed to the continuity be damned approach of most horror franchises) means that one film could give the others new meaning.

Also I like seeing folks get their goddamn heads taken off by flying silver balls.

Official Score