FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*
The last three installments of the PHANTASM saga (thus far) demonstrate that no one can fairly accuse Don Coscarelli of over-repetitiousness. True, the writer-director has a number of favorite tropes that appear throughout the series. But few writer-directors, with the exception of Australian George Miller, try as hard to knock the viewer for a kinetic loop even in the midst of relatively simple narrative structures. Like Miller, Coscarelli rarely devotes much time to scenes of talking heads, and the few to be found in the PHANTASM series never allow the viewer respite from tension, but bristle with a sense of unremitting peril.
Now, although installments three, four and five are no less relentless in tone, Coscarelli does take the franchise in some unexpected directions. The first film focuses upon young Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin), in that he’s the first character to become aware of the sinister activities of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Mike’s also the one who convinces both older brother Jody and family friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) of the danger. Jody dies in the first film, and Mike appears to succumb to the Tall Man at the first film’s conclusion. However, PHANTASM II rewrites this ending, asserting that Mike (now played by James LeGros at the insistence of studio heads) has remained in an insane asylum for years. As soon as he’s free, he continues his vendetta against the Tall Man, and enlists Reggie as well. Coscarelli positions Mike and his implicit brother-surrogate Reggie as fearless ghoul killers, and when at the climax Mike and new girlfriend Liz are seized by the Tall Man—a virtual reprise of the first film’s conclusion—the viewer would be justified in assuming that Mike and Reggie will be back in the sequel, kicking ghoul butt.
But PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD throws a wrench in the narrative gears. While Liz dies as a result of the Tall Man’s attack, Reggie gets Mike (again played by Baldwin) away from their spectral enemy. However, Mike is then hospitalized for two more years. Then the young man beholds an apparition that seems to be his dead brother Jody, transformed into a slave of the aliens—which apparently means that he has a silver ball inside him, animating his corpse. After Jody shows up and makes some vague oracular statements, the Tall Man reappears, banishes Jody (though he continues to show up in subsequent films) and spirits Mike away.
Coscarelli then puts the narrative weight of this film and its sequels on the middle-aged shoulders of Reggie, everyman-turned-hero. Following one of Jody’s allusions, Reggie goes looking for the Tall Man’s next victims. He stumbles across Tim, a boy of middle-school age, who like Mike in the first film ferreted out the weird nature of the insidious mortician. Reggie and his new accomplice locate one of the Tall Man’s funeral homes, but they also encounter Rocky and Tanesha, a pair of (implicitly lesbian) black women, armed to the teeth for some vague reason. Tanesha’s killed by one of the Tall Man’s spheres, and Rocky joins Reggie and Tim’s crusade to gain vengeance.
Coscarelli gets a lot of comic mileage out of the interplay between tough girl Rocky and perpetually horny Reggie (whose lubricious nature gets him in trouble with at lest one demon-woman per film from Part Two onward). Indeed, one such demon-woman even takes on Rocky’s form in order to lure the horny fellow into a literal fatal attraction. However, Jody is still capable of manifesting wherever he pleases, and he conducts Reggie to one of the Tall Man’s hideaways, from which the two of them rescue Mike. To be sure, though, even in the finale Mike doesn’t really do very much, by which neglect Coscarelli again signals his preference for Reggie. The four heroes attack a mausoleum where the Tall Man conducts his experiments, and during their attack on this base, Mike learns from Jody that the Tall Man seeks to amass a conquering army, which certainly seems more logical than simply raiding the Earth for day-laborers. Though the good guys vanquish the villain’s minions, and Rocky takes her leave of the group, the Tall Man once more puts in a final appearance, nullifying Reggie and seemingly executing Tim, who does not appear in the following films.
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION, filmed for less money than any of its predecessors, relies less on ultraviolent battles and more on jarring imagery. Mike and Reggie are separated, and although the spectre of Jody can still appear to Reggie and offer guidance, Mike seems more than ever under the thumb of his gaunt nemesis. While Reggie searches for Mike and encounters yet another sexy demon-woman, Mike flees the Tall Man and blunders through a gate in time. He ends up in the America of the late 1800s, where he meets a man, Jedediah Morningside, a dead ringer for the Tall Man. Coscarelli never spells things out, but since Jedediah is working on a dimensional-door device, he’s either transformed into a monstrous being or, more likely, he becomes the template for a whole series of monsters, given that every time the heroes destroy one Tall Man, another crops up to take the dead one’s place.
OBLIVION proves a fitting name for the fourth film. The distortions of time and memory constantly play havoc with the viewer’s expectations, so that, where an ordinary “origin story” would make things clearer, this one only confounds the viewer’s desire for clarity. Mike and Reggie are seemingly reunited after another temporary defeat of the Tall Man, or one of his clones. But even this minor triumph remains questionable, as if it may be a fantasy born from the oblivion of the subconscious.
Sure enough, at the beginning of the final film, Reggie is on his own, with no reference as to where Mike went. Reggie wanders along an open country road, where he meets a man driving a car that belongs to Reggie. After Reggie tosses out the car-thief, he’s chased by two silver flying spheres. Though the middle-aged warrior escapes this threat, he’s then subjected to a half-dozen changes of scenery and situation—stuck in an asylum telling his wild story to Mike (reversing their relationship from the first film), traveling back in time to talk to Jedediah Morningside, meeting another hot young woman—who, rather than morphing into a demon, later turns up in another time-continuum as an entirely different person. To top it all off, the Tall Man’s invasion of Earth, using both various slaves and gigantic silver spheres, has transpired, reducing the world to chaos—unless, of course, the chaos is purely a product of Reggie’s delusions. Mike and Jody are even more peripheral to the story here than in the previous two films, although Coscarelli gives fans of the Rocky character a quick cameo at the film’s end.
Since the first film started with the psychic chaos fomented by untimely death—i.e., the result of the “monsters getting you”—I find it fitting that the series meets its (probable) end by confronting the waking world with a new apocalypse. Angus Scrimm passed in 2016, and while in theory any actor can be replaced in any role, I doubt fans of the franchise would welcome such a substitution. Further, since RAVAGER was the only one of the films that Coscarelli did not direct, in that he ceded that chore to co-writer David Franklin, I think one would be justified in suspecting that the creator has nothing more to say with his characters, and thus the series might be allowed a quiet and dignified death.