AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT: 25th April, from ARROW VIDEO in the PHANTASM LIMITED EDITION COLLECTION BOXSET
RUNNING TIME: 86 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Reggie is still in the desert on the trail of his nemesis – The Tall Man. After encountering two spheres, he wakes up in a hospital sitting in a wheelchair with Mike talking to him, apparently looking after him because he’s beginning to develop dementia. Seemingly in an apparent dream, Reggie meets a woman who mistakes him for a friend. Her car isn’t working, so Reggie offers her a lift. They go to a cabin on a farm, and he tries his usual lady wooing, but is turned down. As he plays a song, he cannot remember her name, and goes to sleep and awakes in a hospital, but this time it’s in a hospital from the 1860s, with The Tall Man – or rather his original identity of Jebediah Morningside – lying in the bed next to him….
Out of all the Phantasm films, Phantasm: Ravager is the one I’m finding hardest to get my head around and I wouldn’t be surprised if I produce a very different review or it when I eventually watch it again. Not because it didn’t made sense – I’d kind of expected as much – but because I can’t work out whether it’s actually a good film or not. I recall reading some scathing reviews of it when it came out, and it’s certainly a very problematic picture, often very shoddy looking, from having seemingly been shot with several different HD cameras ranging widely in quality, to the large amount of horrendous CGI, some of which I can’t understand for the life of me director David Hartman and co. thought looked good enough to be shown on screen. Of course the first and fourth films didn’t make their respective low budgets a problem and in some ways they may have even helped those pictures, but Phantasm: Ravager can’t help but make the lack of money an issue throughout, and I sadly have to lay the blame of much of this at Hartman who clearly has little of the skill and creativity of Coscarelli, who unfortunately decided to hand over directorial duties this time. On the other hand though this is the deepest film since the first and has an overriding sense of melancholy about it which is quite moving, and what with its dream sequences, alternate timelines, different identities and all that, I can’t help but feel that if David Lynch had directed this many critics would hail it as a masterpiece.
A fifth Phantasm film was first announced in 2005 when the news broke that Coscarelli was in the final stages of talks with New Line Cinema to produce a film which was: “Being developed as a re-launch and as a possible trilogy about Mike’s coming of age.” Rumors about a sequel were reignited in 2007 by footage contained in Don Coscarelli’s Farewell to the Alamo Drafthouse video, a goodbye to a renowned cinema, which featured Angus Scrimm and A. Michael Baldwin in their roles. Then over 2012 and 2013 Coscarelli and Heyman shot some “test footage” with Reggie Bannister and A. Michael Baldwin, unsure of what they would actually do with it. They considered during a web series called Reggie’s Two Fisted Tales before deciding to use the 40-odd minutes they’d shot in a feature film with some new footage. The screenplay recycled some ideas from the Roger Avary un-filmed screenplay for Phantasm 4: Oblivion, including The Tall Man unleashing a disease on the population and the main characters traveling to a Tall Man-dominated world. The film was, much like the first one, shot largely over weekends, and with an average crew of just five people. It was supposedly completed in 2014, but was then for some reason delayed until 2016. Scrimm saw the completed film only a few weeks before he died.
After the usual montage of previous footage we rejoin Reggie in the desert, paying a man to offer him a ride, but realising it’s actually his stolen car they’re in. An encounter with two globes follows and I must admit they looked okay and I wondered if all those reports I read last year of bad CGI were over the top – though sadly this was only for a few minutes. Reggie does some cool backwards driving, then awakes in a hospital. What then totally floored me was when Mike told him that that none of the events in the previous films actually happened and that Reggie is developing dementia. I wondered if this was a twist too far until I realised that what we’re being told is not necessarily what’s actually happening, and the story begins to work on two levels – that of an aging person coping with either the loss of his memories or his mind causing him to imagine stuff as he faces death, and that of a barmy fantasy that goes back and forth from various times and locations. Back in the desert, Reggie picks up yet another hitchhiker who as usual turns down his ‘moves’. It’s a little uncomfortable seeing the 71 year old actor try it on with this young blonde, but it ends in a most amusing fashion with the lady actually changing her mind but Reggie having fallen asleep by then. It’s a neat twist, and if they ever do another one then I suppose there’s now a real chance he may eventually ‘get some’.
There’s an old hospital where The Tall Man/Jebediah is dying, and these moments are interesting and even allow us to have some sympathy for him –or at least before Jebediah became The Tall Man – though Scrimm’s other few appearances as the character are weakened by the highly distracting CGI they seem to have used on his face to make him not look so much like he’s in his 80’s. There’s a mortuary where a favourite character from Phantasm makes a brief but welcome return, and where The Tall Man proclaims he can resurrect Reggie’s dead family in exchange for him ceasing his meddling – though sadly this aspect isn’t developed. And then there’s a future world where The Tall Man has been victorious and Mike is one of a bunch of rebels. One woman in one world is the spitting image of a woman in another. Are Reggie’s memories just another attempt by the Tall Man to destroy him, or will he really reunite with Mike and defeat the Tall Man once and for all? Dreams and reality begin to blur, by which now you’ve either been content to go along with the sub-Terry Gilliam weirdness [even thematically it’s quite similar to much of his stuff] or are totally confused. Does the final act provide some answers? Not really, though it might bring on the tears [it nearly brought on mine] and does kind of conclude matters more decisively than I had come to expect for this series while still leaving a hell of a lot up in the air. It would have ended the film okay. Unfortunately we get some more stuff during the end credits which, as well as bringing back another old character, seems to set things up for another film, and which really didn’t need to exist at all. I can’t help thinking that movie number five’s final scene was a more suitable conclusion to this series. And what’s with all those fustrating action shots from scenes we’d like to see [and which were apparently done specially] under the end credits?
There is perhaps more gore in this one than in any other Phantasm film, and more use of the spheres – the highlight perhaps being one of them spouting spikes which smashes somebody’s head to a pulp. It’s the visual aspect though which constantly drags things down and is often downright inept. Some bits combine practical and digital quite well, and there’s a clever and almost seamless integration of a skyscraper being demolished so it looks like a huge sphere is destroying it as it attacks a big city. However, there’s also a moment with a digital car which I rewound three times because I just couldn’t believe my eyes at how ridiculous it looked, and as for most of the scenes in the Tall Man’s fire strewn hellscape words almost fail me, with shoddy greenscreen and a pan between some skyscrapers which has come straight from an early 90’s video game. It may not seem very fair to criticise the effects in a cheap film, but it’s not as if they didn’t have the time to do some of this stuff practically, which don’t forget [though Hartman obviously did] worked pretty well for the earlier films, or indeed to rewrite the script so it wasn’t so large-scale. I just don’t understand why they thought this stuff looked even vaguely acceptable [honestly, it’s SyFy standard]. Surely Coscarelli should have said something? I don’t really like criticising Hartman too much, as he clearly has a lot of love for this franchise and this does show in many places, but the dodgy digitals really lower one’s enjoyment of the picture, and makes it harder to appreciate things like, for example Hartman and Brad Burah’s cinematography which, while unavoidably poor looking for most of the time, does provide some interesting and pleasing moments like one section set almost entirely in blue with bits of bright red and green here and there reminiscent of Mario Bava. And Hartman does do a reasonable job of emulating Coscarelli’s style while still being a bit different, such as more scenes being shot handheld.
Bannister really has to carry this film actor-wise though like some of the other cast members he’s too old for his part really. As usual he’s asked to provide much of the humour [which is a bit more prominent in this one, around the level of the third film], his funniest line perhaps being “Dude, bad news about your horse”, delivered in a perfect deadpan fashion, as her watches the second animal death by a sphere in the series. There is a lot to like in Phantasm: Ravager, which is packed full of things for fans of the series to enjoy, and some nice tweaks on familiar situations and moments. And it most certainly has its heart in the right place. Having its main character nearing and fearing his life’s end is a poignant and suitable parallel to the situation of Mike in the first film. However, it’s a film that [perhaps unavoidably] constantly carries with it more than a whiff of fan fiction, rather than being a film that really deserved to actually be made. In general I found it to be a considerable lowering of standards for this series, but certainly not an unrewarding experience, and there could have been far worse endings [if it is indeed an ending] to this very unique and really quite insane franchise.
Perhaps partly due to the way it was shot, Phantasm: Ravager looks inconsistent on Blu-ray: sometimes marvellous, sometimes average and sometimes pretty lousy. There are a few noticeable stability issues early on, and a few blotchy black shots, but I reckon they’ve made the film look as best as they possibly could, and some of the brighter colour scenes are almost outstanding. The commentary by Coscarelli and Hartman from the Well Go USA Region ‘A’ disc never stops and does provide some great information – one great story has Hartman encountering and scaring some ghosthunters while they were shooting in a hospital that was supposedly haunted – but at least half of it consists of Coscarelli praising Hartman and the film to death. He even praises and unbelieavably seems in awe some of the worst of the special effects moments! It’s depressing to hear Hartman talk several times about considering doing an effect practically [i.e.the way it would have been done if this had been one of the earlier pictures] and then switching to CGI. Also in the ‘audio options’ section is a chance to watch the film with the soundtrack of the Los Angeles premiere. I opted to view the whole film in this manner. There’s clapping and laughter at a few moments, though it’s not as often as I expected, which must tell you something.
The fifth and final part of Reflections Of Fear is slightly longer than the others and goes more into the film’s production than normal. Then we have an interesting and often amusing Q&A which was after the Austin showing. The Well Go USA extras follow with the expected behind the scenes stuff here with some onscreen text, three uncompleted deleted scenes which are two extended action bits of spheres and a fight with a large dwarf, a fairly good bloopers and gag reel, and a jokey recap and guide to the previous four films in black and white done like an old instruction video, with Phantasm 2 irepresented by a five year old child’s drawings because of legal issues. It’s probably the most packed disc since Phantasm, and not quite the final one in this set either – there’s one further disc with some more goodies, notably the lengthy Phantasmgoria documentary that was created for the DVD boxset.
*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 Features
*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