Even if “Phantasm” were nowhere near as good a series as it is, you’d have to give it some credit for its continuity. Going since 1979, no reboots or anything like that, with the same guy in charge (writer/director Don Coscarelli just co-wrote and produced this most recent instalment) and the same four actors starring in this one as starred in the first one 37 years before. Also, they bring back one of the actors from part 3 in 1994, who basically quit acting back then but looks like she hasn’t aged a day. It has, admittedly, been 18 years since the last instalment, but they’re still keeping on.
One of the things that was most unusual about part 1, the dream-like logic that came with filming on off-days and weekends over a two year period with no money, is right back at the centre of things here, for a similar reason. Director David Hartman (best known for the Transformers animated series) and Coscarelli were making a series of “Phantasm” shorts and realised they had enough footage to turn it into a movie. The leaps between realities are handled pretty well, though.
Anyway, we first see Reggie (Reggie Bannister), still in his ice-cream man outfit, trudging down a desert road, lamenting the loss of the car he hid out in the desert 18 years ago. But luckily, the thief drives up to him and Reggie’s able to get it back. He’s chased by silver balls, and then gives us a line which he’s used at least once before – “like all good stories, it starts with a girl”. This is Dawn (Dawn Cody), and Reggie helps her before doing a bit of mild flirting, but she rebukes him and he immediately accepts it – a pleasant change from the old days. But then the silver balls come again and he’s on the run.
Or is he in a mental hospital, after having been found wandering the desert, being looked after by his old friend Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), apparently suffering from dementia? Or is he in a nightmarish future of an Earth completely taken over by the Tall Man and his silver balls, having been asleep for a decade? These are the main strands of story which are weaved through over the course of the movie.
I sort of assume you know the rough story of the Phantasm franchise, if you’re reading a review of part 5, but perhaps not. The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) is first seen as an undertaker, stealing bodies in his hearse and taking them to (SPOILERS) an alternate dimension where they’re turned into midget minions and…not really sure what his end-game was, honestly. Universal domination? What happens with a person when they actually achieve their plans, I wonder? What would you do if you owned literally everything? He merrily goes on with this plan over the course of the series while Reggie tries to stop him. The two brothers who were the stars of part 1 (Reggie being the comic relief, sort-of) pop up to help out too.
Anyway, Reggie is reunited with Mike and even Mike’s older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury, whose last non-Phantasm acting role was in 1984), and it’s really cool, seeing the three of them together again after little more than cameos in the previous couple of movies. Which strand of reality is the “real” one? Will the Tall Man finally be defeated, this being the last movie and all?
Here’s where I’d like to get on my soap-box a little. Those of you who remember the last episode of “Quantum Leap”, where they knew without a doubt it was the end, may sympathise with me. At the very end, they just throw their hands up and say “yeah, he never made it home, just carried on leaping for the rest of eternity”. Is this satisfying?
I think it’s fair to want an ending to a piece of entertainment, for the foe to be defeated and for the sacrifices made by the main characters to mean something. This doesn’t apply to everything, of course, but it feels like a slight cheat to know you’re not making any more movies (your lead villain being terminally ill during shooting) but still to just leave it open-ended. There are other analyses of the ending of “Phantasm: Ravager”, but it’s still us imposing our wishes, desires, or whatever, on an unfinished piece of entertainment. Imagine if “Moby Dick” had ended with Ahab still chasing the whale?
All that aside, it’s not bad! The main actors and Coscarelli clearly have a deep friendship that’s lasted down the decades, and it was nice to see Gloria Lynn Henry as Rocky again, although it was weird that, during the mid-credits sequence where she and Reggie meet up again, he’s not more pleased to see the last woman he had sex with (in fact, he makes a reference to her companion, who he briefly met earlier in the movie, and not her, as if she was added in at the last moment after they’d already filmed Bannister’s scenes). It was a little sad to see Angus Scrimm so frail, though, although they hid it well by having one scene be filmed in bed, and lots of middle-distance shots where you can CGI his head onto someone else’s body.
I didn’t love the almost non-story, the cheap special effects or the disjointed-for-its-own-sake narrative, though. I’m surprised there was so little money available for a “Phantasm” sequel in 2016, given the generations of fans it had, but I wish they’d sat down and written a proper movie, or kept it as the web-series it was originally intended as, because this halfway house is unlikely to really please anyone. Amazingly, the budget of “Ravager” was the same as the budget of the first movie from 1979! ($300,000)
One last thing is the interesting ambience that parts of 3 and 4 had. The Tall Man took over whole cities, after starting with small towns, not to invade but to use humans as slaves to do whatever it was he was doing elsewhere in the universe. Villages were empty, and at the end of part 4 LA is completely taken over. This is an interesting idea, but although they have the same setting for this one – empty roads, desolate areas – they have none of the same atmosphere. There’s always the idea that humanity is carrying on as before, just off camera, and the Tall Man is just after the three of them.
I’m sorry to see the end of “Phantasm”, but perhaps it was for the best. RIP Angus Scrimm, and the franchise you made so memorable.
Rating: thumbs down