THE FEATURES: Spanning release dates from 1979 through 2016, one can reasonably expect a certain amount of unevenness in this long-running series. The first film, Phantasm, stands up well, despite some lo-fi clutter. The troubling story of Mikey, a boy who lost his parents and fears abandonment by his brother, is spiked by the supernatural presence of an inter-dimensional undertaker, the Tall Man, and the iconic spheres he sends to slaughter his enemies. Weirdness abounds, not least in the random inclusion of an ice-cream man instrumental in saving the day.
The 1988 sequel, Phantasm II, was intended to start off a BIG franchise. It had enough of the right ingredients: scary bad guy, relatable protagonists, and murderous spheres. However, its release among dozens of bigger name, bigger-budgeted features (Rambo III, Who Frame Roger Rabbit?, Die Hard, and so on) doomed the rest of the series to a “direct-to-video” fate.
Things take a turn for the worse with the largely time-wasting, but not wholly unpleasant Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), in which the director makes the (admitted) mistake of going too far in a silly direction. It was further marred by the presence of an eleven-year-old character who utterly fails to make an impression comparable to the first movie’s protagonist.
Sharply improving for the fourth go-around, Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998) explains a number of things in the sometimes confounding Phantasm universe as the ice-cream man’s journey toward action hero shuffles forward. With a now mature “Mikey” trying to turn the tables on the Tall Man, it ends with a satisfying bit of bleak closure: a seeming victory for the Tall Man.
Resurrecting the project for one final(?) spin, Phantasm: Ravager (2016) brings the whole gang back together to face off against the Tall Man, sinister dwarfs and, of course, more deadly metallic spheres.
THE EXTRAS: Each movie is accompanied by a thorough documentary featuring behind-the-scenes remarks from creator Don Coscarelli, as well as pertinent anecdotes from most everyone else involved in the production, from the actors to the good people behind the creepy dwarf sounds and sinister sphere effects. Of particular interest are the stories from crazy-go-nuts stuntman Bob Ivy (who also played the title role in Coscarelli’s Certified Weird Bubba Ho-Tep). Ivy never found a car stunt too fast nor an explosion too dangerous for his liking. And that’s just the start. The running time of the extras exceeds that of the movies quite handily, and I admit that I didn’t dive (yet) into the movie commentaries. (To highlight the thoroughness , just when I thought I was finished after the fifth movie’s disc, I discovered “Disc 6: the Extras.”) Impressively, everything was a lot of fun to watch, as well as incredibly informative.
THE VERDICT: Needless to say, there is enough here for any fan of the franchise. (If you find yourself wanting more, I suspect you’ll only be satisfied if one of the actors were to move in with you). The movies all look good—really good. They sound good. And they have mostly stood up to the test of time. With Phantasm: Ravager, Coscarelli sets up director David Hartman as the new minder of the franchise. Of course, this prompts the question: with the recent death of Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm, who could possibly play the role of the wicked undertaker? In a somewhat out-of-the-way bonus feature on the first disc, we get to see Scrimm’s first run-in with film, acting in a 1951 short playing Abraham Lincoln. So, the obvious replacement to carry on the Tall Man’s evil legacy in the Phantasm universe is none other than Daniel Day-Lewis. (Hartman and Coscarelli, you heard it here first.)