Phantasm is one of the few horror movies to benefit from its sequels. Not that the original isn’t a horror classic, but watching it alone, there’s a great deal left unexplained. What you’re seeing when you watch the first movie by itself is a prologue more than anything else. It’s not a complete story on its own. Instead, unlike most franchises, what you have is a single story that unfolds over multiple films. There are four chapters to date, all building to a fifth and final that looks to finally be released next year. What follows is the general overview of what you’ll need to know going into Phantasm: Ravager.
After the death of their parents, Jody Pearson is left to look after his thirteen-year-old brother, Mike. Disappearances begin to rack up pretty quickly and Mike begins to suspect the local mortician, known only as the Tall Man, is responsible for their deaths. He’s right, of course, but what’s really happening is far stranger than that. When following his brother, Mike sees a short, robed figure in the cemetery and is attacked by it. It turns out that the Tall Man has come from another dimension, where he shrinks human corpses down to dwarf-size to use as slave labor. He is aided by flying spheres that harvest the brains and fluids of his victims. Mike and Jody, aided by their ice cream truck driving friend, Reggie, decide to take a stand against the Tall Man if they have any hope of saving their town.
It’s a lot to take in on the first try, and that’s why each subsequent Phantasm film is an easier pill to swallow, because you’re already familiar with the mythology. The original cut of Phantasm was nearly four hours in length, so there’s a lot to work around and the movie definitely feels like there are entire chunks missing. Even the death of a major character happens off-screen before the film comes to its abrupt end. But this jarring nature actually helps the first Phantasm, when things don’t flow completely into one another. Because director Don Coscarelli wanted the movie to feel like a dream, and in that he succeeded.
After being in an institutionalized for six years, Mike has convinced himself that the events of the original film never happened. At least, that’s what he tells his doctor in order to get released. In truth, he has formed a psychic bond with a girl named Liz, who he has never met. In Mike’s absence, the Tall Man has been going from town to town, sucking them dry and leaving nothing left alive with no one to stop him. He has made it to Liz’s town, and both she and Mike know that she doesn’t have a lot of hope unless somebody can come to her aid. He meets up with Reggie, who actually does believe that the events of the original film never took place and is only convinced otherwise when Mike has a vision that Reggie’s house will explode with his family inside—a moment before it actually does. With nothing left in the world, Reggie gets back in the fight and he and Mike resume tracking down the Tall Man and stopping him before Liz and her family suffer the same fate that their families have.
This second installment in the series is a road movie more than anything else and that works for it. It moves the series into an action-horror direction that would help to define it. The only thing making Phantasm II stick out like a sore thumb when watching through the entire series is that this is the only movie in which a different actor plays Mike. Michael Baldwin played the young character in the original and would pick the role back up in Phantasm III and IV. Other than that, this is a fairly effective horror. The mythology isn’t as silly or jarring after the viewer has been through it once already. And the threat is much greater when we see the damage that has been done to whole towns in the Tall Man’s wake.
PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD-
Phantasm III is the high point of the sequels. It picks up right where the last film left off (although it was filmed six years later) and centers the action mostly on Reggie this time. After the events of Phantasm II and an attack in the hospital, Mike is abducted by the Tall Man and it’s up to Reggie to track him down. He meets a few new people to help him on his quest, some who believe in the things that are taking over, town by town, and some who don’t. It’s almost a Lord of the Rings style fellowship he’s gathering here to help him fight against the Tall Man, even if it ends up only being a young boy and a hardened woman named Rocky. That’s part of the overall draw of Phantasm III, even though it’s small, it has an epic feel.
This is also when the Tall Man’s plan for Mike starts to become clear, or at least hinted at. In horror movies, people often wonder why the villain may let the hero go time after time. It’s amazing how many run-ins with Michael Myers that Dr. Loomis survived. But here, it starts to become clear: the Tall Man is saving Mike for some reason. And it’s better to go in to the first film with this knowledge to try and see how it develops, than to simply be lost and confused right off the bat. This is also the most accessible Phantasm film to the average horror fan because it is pure cult horror from beginning to end. There’s a lot of action that rarely ever lets up, there are some great characters being introduced, there are the typical series staples of dwarves and spheres and yet there are some good old-fashioned zombies as well.
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION-
Phantasm IV is probably the weakest of the four films, but a few of its faults are similar to the first: it doesn’t feel like a complete film by itself. Much of Phantasm IV is setting up something bigger, setting up the final showdown. Part of the problem for years has been that it seemed certain that we would never actually see this final showdown, but now we know that this isn’t the case.
The real and most obvious issue with Phantasm IV is how cheap it is. There are numerous shots inside a single unmoving car, there are few locations and few characters, but more than anything, there’s the fact that this film is constantly and needlessly padded with scenes that were cut from the original movie. It’s almost like a clip show, but not quite, because Mike keeps reflecting back on events we’ve never seen before now. He is repeatedly visited by the ghost of his brother, Jody, but he does not trust him because he can’t be sure (given that Jody’s dead) whether or not he’s a servant of the Tall Man.
The best and most important thing about this entry is that we get a look at the Tall Man’s origin, although it is still not yet fully explained. We see that he was once an old, kindly mortician named Jebediah Morningside, who uncovered a pathway to move between worlds. He went in, but the Tall Man was what came back. Mike also begins to be able to use some of the Tall Man’s powers and it looks possible that the Tall Man’s purpose for Mike has been to train him as a protégé.
There’s a lot of speculation, of course, as this is more involved than most horror franchises. Watching the Phantasm franchise is like watching a condensed television show. But in that respect, now is the perfect time to rediscover it. TV is bigger than ever, and this is definitely a franchise that benefits from binge-watching.