DIRECTED BY: Don Coscarelli
PLOT: The Tall Man, a satanic funeral director from another dimension, continues to use his infinite superpowers to turn corpses into an army of zombie midgets with which to conquer the Universe, just as he did in the previous three films.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a thematically identical but vastly inferior third sequel to the Certified Weird original.
COMMENTS: If you’ve ever wondered why Sam Raimi, who started out making low-budget cult horror movies, is now a mainstream director of blockbuster superhero films, yet Don Coscarelli, whose breakthrough hit Phantasm is vastly more imaginative, ambitious, and technically accomplished than Raimi’s debut The Evil Dead, is still making odd little movies for a niche market, look no further than Phantasm IV: Oblivion.
The original Phantasm has been praised on this site and elsewhere for the gleeful absence of logic which contributes to its nightmare quality, but by the time the third sequel was churned out, it had become all too obvious that Coscarelli wasn’t so much being wildly imaginative as abandoning any pretense at creating a logically structured narrative because he wasn’t much good at that sort of thing, and didn’t particularly care. All four movies in this franchise end in exactly the same way: the heroes figure out the Tall Man’s weakness and destroy him, but then, minutes later, he pops up again as good as new and apparently wins. This would be fine in a weekly serial where every episode has to end on a cliff-hanger, but at intervals of roughly six years between films? Not so much. Even worse, Coscarelli’s use of this and many other increasingly predictable plot-devices in every one of the four movies makes the first one seem less imaginative in retrospect.
Phantasm IV is an anticlimax in every way. Even Coscarelli admitted at the time that he was only making it to squeeze the last few bucks out of the franchise. Having managed to obtain a budget of only $650,000, because nobody except the usual rabid clique of obsessive fanboys wanted more installments in this worn-out saga, he must have known all along that the proposed fifth movie—in which a near-future USA has been totally devastated by the Tall Man’s hordes, and the heroes face literally thousands of zombie midgets, silver balls, etc. in a post-apocalyptic wasteland—stood no chance whatsoever of getting the vast funding it would require. But he cynically shot a cheap, tired, inconclusive prequel to it anyway for the money.
In the laziest opening sequence ever, Reggie Baldwin, who ended the previous movie completely helpless and obviously doomed, is released for no reason whatsoever by the Tall Man, who mutters something cryptic about it all being a game, and then spends the rest of the film trying to kill him in ludicrously over-elaborate ways. As for Tim, a major character in Phantasm III whose final fate was extremely vague, he was supposed to be shown getting devoured alive by zombie dwarves. But they couldn’t afford the gore effects, so he’s simply forgotten about. Deleted scenes from the first and third films are used to pad out the running-time, and since they’re completely out of context, the narrative becomes especially muddled at these points.
The silver ball scenes are perfunctory this time; apparently they were only affordable because exceptionally rabid fans had worked out how to do the effect fairly well (and cheaply) for their amateur homages. The few prosthetics are extremely crude compared with those in previous movies. The most significant new monster is a big guy in a rubber mask. A great deal of footage was shot in Death Valley, because it was cheaper than building a set, but most of it consists of A. Michael Baldwin standing around having internal monologues and looking angsty. And the brief glimpse we get of post-zombie-holocaust LA, which, though deserted, is oddly un-devastated, is very obviously guerrilla footage shot at dawn when there was nobody about (the same trick was used in the Doctor Who serial “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” in 1963).
Rumors still persist that Phantasm V will finally go into production and the series will conclude properly, but with no serious claims that the project is alive since 2008, it doesn’t seem likely, especially as Angus Scrimm is, at the time of writing, 87 years old. So as far as the movies are concerned, the story ends here. For the fourth and final time, the Tall Man won.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I suppose that it’s very weirdness that makes it so distinctive and hypnotic becomes suffocating after awhile; parts of it are so arbitrary that they cross the line from surreality to pointlessness. Still, it’s a one-of-a-kind thing, a feverish gust of the warped and uncanny that works on a part of your brain older and more susceptible than the bits that deal with logic and reason.”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)