AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT: 25th April, from ARROW VIDEO in the PHANTASM LIMITED EDITION COLLECTION BOXSET
RUNNING TIME: 91 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Mike flees from Boulton mortuary in the hearse, while Reggie is trapped inside by The Tall Man’s spheres. Rather than kill Reggie, The Tall Man lets him go, saying he is doing so “to play one last game”. Mike’s brother Jody, now a steel sphere who can occasionally resume his human form, contacts and persuades Reggie to search for Mike. On the way, Reggie rescues a woman, Jennifer, from a car accident. Meanwhile Mike finds himself drawn to Death Valley and, discovering that he seems to have certain powers, decides to lure The Tall Man into a final confrontation where he can hopefully kill him for good….
In a 1998 interview, writer/director Don Coscarelli stated that Phantasm 4: Oblivion was being filmed: “just to make money out of the series”. That may very well have been true, and I’m sure that if lots of deleted footage from Phantasm hadn’t been found then we probably wouldn’t have even had this fourth part at all. In a move that Roger Corman and Charles Band would have approved, he decided to insert quite a bit of the cut scenes in this sequel, and because this is a Phantasm film it doesn’t seem out of place. In fact, I’m going to go one further and make a claim for Phantasm 4 being the best of the series since Phantasm. Perhaps Coscarelli is better when struggling with a tiny budget. Unable to stage lots of action this time round, he was forced to adopt a more minimalist approach, but I feel that this benefits what is after all a horror movie, allowing it to concentrating more on atmosphere and head scratching weirdness. There’s a really haunting feel to this film, and the dreamlike vibe of Phantasm also returns. On the other hand it’s easy to get frustrated by a movie which expands the Phantasm world yet fails to give us any more answers, and there are certainly some bits which don’t really work. But overall Phantasm 4 seems surprisingly fresh, especially for a fourth part in a series.
The initial screenplay for this was written by Roger Avary, entitled entitled Phantasm 1999 A.D, then Phantasm 2012 A.D.,and then Phantasm’s End. Bruce Campbell was intended to co-star. As the project ran into financing difficulties, Coscarelli quickly wrote and directed this fourth instalment as a precursor, but the budget for Phantasm’s End still couldn’t be secured and the project was abandoned. While Phantasm 2 had a budget of $3,000,000 and Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead had a budget of $2,500,000, the filmmakers were only able to secure $650,000 , which was closer to Phantasm’s $300,000, to make Phantasm IV: Oblivion. This is why much of the film uses very few sets, takes place largely outdoors, and has less in the way of special effects. Some scenes were shot guerrilla style, notably one set in Wilshire Boulevard, the largest street in Los Angeles, which had to be devoid of people. The filmmakers had ten minutes to film the sequence as the sun was rising before people would begin to appear. Much was cut from the script, including Tim from Phantasm 3 being killed by dwarves. There was no theatrical release whatsoever, but the film did well on video.
Some eerie new footage of a hearse slowly driving past a graveyard and The Tall Man walking down a corridor accompanies the usual re-cap, though faster cut than before. And then we come to a rather dumb moment. We previously left Reggie hanging with loads of spheres pinned to him, but The Tall Man now just lets him so he can “play one last game”.. Huh? Even in a Phantasm film, this just smacks of really bad writing, especially as we still never learn why he has some kind of vendetta against Mike and his family. I hope we get some kind of answer to this in the fifth film, but I’m not hedging my bets. The horde of spheres flying around didn’t get me to thinking that this film wasn’t going to be much good either, as the digital effects are crap and the spheres look more like bubbles. However, things do improve quite a bit after that. Mike has some flashbacks and we begin to get the Phantasm footage, but it’s well integrated into the film proper. Because it’s stuff we haven’t seen before, like Mike riding along in his brother Jody’s car, or later on Mike and Reggie trying to kill The Tall Man by hanging him, it almost feels like these scenes are taking place in some kind of alternate universe – which isn’t entirely stupid considering all the space gate stuff that happens later in this film. And how often do you get movie flashbacks where both older and younger versions of the same character are played by the same person? I can see many fans not liking what Coscarelli’s doing here, but it works far better than it probably had a right to be.
The film cuts back and forth from Mike and Reggie. Mike, who by the way has a sphere embedded inside his head, spends an awful lot of time wondering about in the desert, but the salt flats [their sheer openness is used extremely well] and the rocky hills are made to seem extremely forbidding – cinematographer Chris Chomyn really helping here – and the sinister atmosphere here is incredibly strong. Meanwhile Reggie gets to spend another night with a delectable female – though this time doesn’t even get to first base and, in a scene that was in the Avary screenplay, notices that her breasts seem to be throbbing under the bed sheet and pulls away the cover to reveal that her tits have been replaced by spheres! He eventually catches up with Mike, and then things get even weirder with Jody seemingly back from the dead, jumping through different times [or dimensions] and even an encounter with The Tall Man before he became The Tall Man amd was called Jebediah Morningside. One can’t help but think of the line from the third film: “Seeing is easy, understanding takes a little more time”, as it’s very hard to understand what’s going on. We are sometimes given tantalising hints to questions, but often little more, but it only occasionally bothered me, because Coscarelli has basically make a strange kind of art film here. It’s the kind of film where, for example, a character suddenly discovering that he can move rocks with his mind, and yet this being something that is of no importance to the plot, doesn’t come across as being quite so stupid as it may sound and even fits in.
An especially disconcerting touch is when Mike visits Jebediah and sees his wife. For some reason probably only known to Coscarelli, she looks just like Phantasm’s fortune teller. The often surreal nature of the going-ons only really get out of hand with some silly plot devices like Mike being able to construct a sphere from a car engine. Action-wise there’s the usual fight or two with dwarves zombies, and another [though not quite so impressive] car roll, though not much else, and there isn’t as much gore either, without even a sphere death – but they were wearing rather thin so I think it was a good choice by Coscarelli [though he probably didn’t have the money for them anyway]. The handling is generally far more serious too, which makes the odd amusing line or shot jar a little. And, while Mike and Reggie are separated for much of the time, there’s more warmth between them than in Phantasm 3, which helps to make their final scene genuinely moving. I didn’t think Baldwin was very impressive in that film, but he’s given more of an opportunity to shine here, and he certainly manages to do so. There’s a [very understandable] sense of anger about the character which he portrays very well while keeping it quite subdued. There’s also a muted subplot of Mike thinking that Jody has abandoned him by getting himself killed – he even tells him so in one scene – therefore fulfilling the fears he had when he was a child. Jody does seem to conveniently appear when the screenplay requires somebody to be told something or to be pointed in the right direction, but then this film does ask us to question what is real and what isn’t, which for me makes the [probably highly frustrating to some] bewildering final scene rather appropriate, being in some ways quite a fitting conclusion to the series it is sort of brings the story full circle.
Bannister just gets better and better in these films, though Scrimm, given quite a bit more screen time, sure shows his 72 years – though in a way that works because the fear of death [with which you could link old age] is a major theme of this series. Again, the score is mostly just a mediocre rehash – so far for me only the first film’s score has really provided a clear and memorable musical identity and it’s a shame that it’s style hasn’t so far been repeated. All we really have is an eight note pattern [which virtually became Jason Bourne’s theme in that film series] constantly turning up in various guises and some average ambient synth stuff. The Tall Man, certainly deserves better. Still, whether intended to be that way or no, Phantasm 4 is for the most part a weird, mysterious, and really rather unsettling little treat, feeling more like it’s poured out of its creator’s subconscious than being actually thought about – and that’s fine, because it’s often what we don’t understand which we find most frightening.
Phantasm 4 doesn’t quite have the punch of Phantasm 3 on Blu-ray – contrast levels aren’t always great – but still looks terrific considering it’s such a low budget picture. The audio commentary from the Anchor Bay DVD features Coscarelli, Bannister and Scrimm, and it’s well up to the standard of the other talk tracks for this series. Scrimm is often content to let the other two provide the talking, but the mix of insight, information and stories never gets dull. Bannsiter relating how his wife enjoyed pouring yellow liquid down his throat five times is funny, and listen out for an amusing conclusion to the Wilshire Boulevard story. The fourth instalment of the Reflections Of Fear documentary mostly talks about the low budget nature of the film and Scrimm who had recently passed away. Coscarelli seems almost tearful as he talks at length about him, and you even get to see and read a letter he wrote to Coscarelli just after Phantasm had come out, where he seems to have had a premonition on how lasting and loved the film would go on to be. And then there’s the usual behind the scenes stuff, with some real nuggets this time round, like seeing a stuntman on fire during a car explosion, and how tiny what sets they had really were.
PHANTASM 4: RAVAGER
*Exclusive Introduction(s!) by director David Hartman
*The Los Angeles Premiere Experience – join the audience of die-hard phans as they experience Phantasm: Ravager for the first time! Watch the entire feature with a 5.1 Surround audience track recorded at the 2016 Los Angeles premiere
*Audio commentary with director David Hartman and writer/producer Don Coscarelli
*Reflections of Fear: Realising Phantasm: Ravager – Brand new pheaturette looking at the final chapter in the Phantasm series, featuring interviews with actors A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Daniel Schweiger and director David Hartman
*Q&A panel from the 2016 Austin Premiere
*Deleted scenes with optional audio commentary
*Bloopers and Outtakes
*Phantasm and You – a light-hearted recap of the Phantasm franchise by David Hartman
*All 5 Phantasm movies together on Blu-ray for the first time!
*Limited Edition Bonus Disc featuring Exclusive Pheatures
*English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for all films
*Exclusive 152-page book with new writing on the Phantasm universe from Kim Newman and Bill Ackerman alongside a wealth of archive material, all fully illustrated with original stills and posters
*Replica Phantasm Sphere
*Limited Edition Packaging with newly-commissioned artwork from Gary Pullin