After it was announced that there would be a fifth Phantasm film, titled Phantasm: Ravager, I thought it was time to look back at the first four movies in one of the eeriest of horror franchises. These films are worth watching, but not just casually as you get around to them. To fully experience the series, I recommend marathoning them, as I did when I first watched all four films. To understand why this method is recommended, let me give you a peek into the films.
The first Phantasm is one of those films I wish I could go back and watch again for the very first time. That's not to say that subsequent viewings don't reveal new layers or become dull. These films are a lot of things, but they are definitely not flat and dull. Within the first few minutes of the film, you will get a pretty good feel for the rest of the film (and most of the franchise). The basic plot follows Jody, who has returned home to care for his brother Mike after their parents die. But Phantasm is also far from basic, and this seemingly simple plot is filled with twists and turns. Mike spies some odd activity at the cemetery: The funeral director (the Tall Man) is able to pick up a casket all on his own. This odd display of strength or trickery is enough to pique Mike's interest, and he soon begins investigating the Tall Man and the funeral home.
The Tall Man is one of horror's greatest villains. Angus Scrimm is fantastic as the out-of-this-world undertaker. His stilted gait and raised eyebrow bring fear without requiring much dialog. The Tall Man doesn't work alone, though. He has a bevy of minions, including memorable dwarfed hooded figures. And then there are the orbs! Freddy had his claw, Jason had his machete, Michael had his butcher knife, and Tall Man has flying orbs that hunt down victims and usually drill into their skulls, spitting out blood as the helpless victims cling to their shiny tormentors.
Along with the villains, Jody, and Mike, the other primary cast member is Reggie, the ice-cream-truck-driving friend of Jody's. As Jody's closest friend, he becomes drawn into the Tall Man's tangled web, too. Reggie's importance in the series only grows with each film, which is great as his performances are always fun to watch. He seems to be invested in each film, and he provides a great balance of comic relief without making the films seem too goofy to be scary.
The original Phantasm is a great mixture of elements. It has a lot of supernatural elements, from clairvoyants, to illusions, to extraterrestrials. It also has some bloody (human and alien) moments, thanks to those incredibly creepy orbs. There's a dash of mystery, a pinch of humor, and even some family drama. Instead of feeling bloated or chaotic, all of the elements mix together perfectly, creating a must-see horror film.
The subsequent films build off of elements presented in the first. Phantasm II is great for a lot of reasons. Most of all, it introduces viewers to the franchise in a way the first one simply couldn't. While many horror series are written and directed by a rotating crew, all of the Phantasm films are written and directed by Don Coscarelli (with the exception of the fifth, currently titled Phantasm: Ravager, which lists David Hartman as director and co-writer). Much of the main cast stays the same as well, although there is a notable change in the second film.
Phantasm II follows the story of Mike and Reggie, while filling the viewer in with some flashbacks to the first film. This pattern is continued throughout the series, which is why I recommend watching them in order with not too much time between viewing each film; however, each movie also stands on its own as a great work of horror. But there aren't too many flashbacks in the second film, likely because of a change in casting. James Le Gros replaced A. Michael Baldwin as Mike for this film only. Jody's character is also mostly written out (or barely mentioned) in this one, but he figures into the other films. Reggie's bump up to starring role, and another A+ performance by Angus Scrimm help cover some of the holes left by the absence of Baldwin and Bill Thornbury (Jody).
The third film picks up where the second ends, and Reggie and Mike were only given a brief reprieve from the Tall Man and company before continuing the battle. Since Baldwin replaced Le Gros, there is again some fudging of the last scenes of Phantasm II to take the switch into account. The men continue their road trip of terror, the orbs keep coming, and pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place. By the third film, a clear rhythm was found, and even though some pieces of the formula remain (vacant or dying towns, orbs, false perceptions) the film doesn’t feel repetitive. When watched in order, the viewer will feel like another member of the cadre. After establishing otherworldly creatures, false perceptions, and dream fantasies in the first film, none of the stylistic choices or plot points that further the narrative seem too far reaching. Whereas in some franchises it might seem unlikely that the villain has once again escaped death, it isn’t too difficult to accept that the Tall Man just can’t be kept down. Phantasm IV is clearly the culmination of the series, yet it also leaves room for a fifth film, so news of that possibility becoming a reality was exciting. This film more than any of the others really uses a lot of flashbacks and early footage to solidify the interwoven narrative.
Don’t get me wrong: I love series' like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, but there is something unique about the Phantasm series that really makes it stand out from other horror franchises. When I first watched the films, I did a two day marathon, and I was blown away by each. I couldn’t figure out if the entire series had been carefully plotted out from the beginning, or if the extra and reused footage was just carefully placed and connected to each film’s plot, but it didn’t matter. One of the things I didn’t like about some of the early Friday the 13th films was the requisite recap of killings from previous films. But each Phantasm film built off the ones before it, so the footage never felt like it was only stuck in to take up run time and fill in the casual audience.
I am optimistic that the fifth film will stay true to the heart of the series, and I don’t imagine it will be a disappointment to fans, even with a new director. But if you haven’t seen the films, or if you’ve only seen the first one, do yourself a favor and set aside some time to watch one of the cleverest horror franchises around.