PHANTASM RAVAGER is the apparent conclusion to Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM saga, now available on VOD and very limited theatrical release. It doesn’t necessarily feel like it has to be the last one, but they probly wouldn’t want to continue without Tall Man Angus Scrimm, who passed away after filming.
This one focuses entirely on Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the ice cream man/singer-songwriter turned four-barrel-shotgun-toting warrior drifter who started as the adult friend to the young protagonist, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). We first find him falling through a portal back to earth in a stretch of desert somewhere. The badass opening sequence recalls MAD MAX as he scavenges wreckage in a seemingly unpopulated area, has to get back his missing Barracuda and then is involved in a high speed chase with the famous silver balls that fly around trying to stab or drill people’s heads. While this chapter does suffer from some phony digital gore, that’s thankfully not the case with the many incidents of balls digging into people’s skulls and spewing geysers of grue out their exhaust valves like water out the back of a jet ski.
The big shock of the movie is the down-to-earth part: Reggie suddenly wakes up at a home for memory patients, visited by Mike, who gamely listens to his stories about the Tall Man but attributes them to dementia. (A neat reversal of the first one, where young Mike has to convince people of what he’s seen.) Like the now-18-years-old (!) previous installment PHANTASM: OBLIVION, RAVAGER is kind of a head trip that skips around between different timelines and realities. Were all his adventures imagined, or is he being what they call gaslighted? Or could both be true? He also finds himself in more of a TERMINATOR: SALVATION post-apocalypse, rescued by paramilitary anti-ballist rebels, with Mike as their John Connor. I’m surprised how well Baldwin pulled off the grizzled warrior look after seeing him as the gentle pony-tailed college professor type in the retirement home scenes.
Let’s take a moment to admire the cleverness of the PHANTASM titling. Part IV was called OblIVion and now Part V is RaVager, even if they don’t emphasize the V on the opening titles. But it’s not just a cool sounding word, it’s a double meaning that the Tall Man and his metal balls are ravaging the earth, and in another reality a horrible illness is ravaging Reggie’s brain. It’s weird, because that’s kind of the non-horror part of the movie, but it’s the part that reflects my actual worst fear. The mundane reality is so horrific that you hope it’s not true, that Reggie really is waging the hopeless battle that’s against apocalyptic forces from another dimension, not the one that’s against a terminal degenerative brain disease.
Scrimm doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time, but he gets to use his gravitas in threatening, philosophical conversations with Reggie, and also shows a vulnerable side appearing as (seemingly?) another resident of the home. The knowledge that this was his final performance gives it more power as he talks frankly about the inevitability (and proximity) of death.
This could almost be different part 5 ideas they had over the years combined into one story with minimal linkage. The narrative is jumpy and intentionally illogical, lines blurred between reality, dreams, brainwashing and storytelling, and punctuated by some of the surreal scares the series is known for. There’s also a little of that charming I-can’t-tell-how-intentional-it-is oddness. What’s up with this nice lady Dawn (Dawn Cody, MOTORCYCLE GANG) letting a random older dude she met in the desert sleep over at her house? Especially after he told her his crazy story about hunting The Tall Man? And was he ever going to tell her what happened to her friend who also drove a Barracuda? Seems like she has the right to know.
The long hallways of the skilled nursing facility echo the halls of the funeral home in part 1 as well as the home in Coscarelli’s BUBBA HO-TEP. And those scenes capture a similar sense of melancholy about aging, the helplessness of the body breaking down, in this case the brain. In BUBBA, Elvis’s problem is that nobody believes him about the supernatural crisis. For Reggie it’s a combination of that and the possibility that they could be right. I like this unexpectedly somber side of the movie, but not as much as I like that opening car chase. I wish they were able to return to that level of excitement throughout the movie.
Part of me is a little disappointed that this is not directed by Coscarelli, since he did all four of the others. But it does seem like a family affair, with Coscarelli co-writing and producing for director David Hartman (Jackie Chan Adventures, Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles) who did visual effects for BUBBA HO-TEP and JOHN DIES AT THE END. He obviously brings his digital experience to this, creating cool shots of a giant silver ball destroying a building, and a stylishly fake-looking zoom through a digital phantasmocalyptic cityscape. Unfortunately, I don’t think squinting and pretending the digital effects are good enough is as fun as seeing old school effects that can’t quite keep up with the filmmakers’ ambitions. Nor does this style of digital photography feel as cinematic as grainy 16 mm. PHANTASM was made by an extremely young director with way less money and technology but it looks much more like a movie to me. And I’m afraid I won’t be the only one.
One last complaint: I could use some more additions to the mythology. Part of the fun of the other sequels is seeing new balls with crazier weapons, sometimes new creatures, learning new things about the Tall Man’s dimension and technology. This time we get a ball with spikes one time. I guess we get the giant balls. The giant balls are cool. But it feels like we see less of the dwarves, less of the Tall Man. I know they tried with the balls but I think for this to be completely satisfying they needed to do more to show us the rest of the phantasmverse on a bigger scale than before.
RAVAGER gets away with all this, though, because the heart is still there. It is primarily a tribute to these characters and the actors who play them. There’s a BOYHOOD or 7 UP quality to this series because (other than the tangent of part II replacing Baldwin with James Le Gros) we have seen the four leads all age 40 years over a span of five movies. I like that they use little flashes of footage from the ’70s, so you can see Baldwin as a kid change to a middle aged man in the blink of an eye. And there are a few unexpected-by-me appearances by other characters from the series. And that makes for some genuinely touching moments with these goofy characters.
In all these different planes of reality, Reggie keeps saying he’s searching for his friends. He’ll be with them and then reality will change and he’ll be searching for them again. Eventually (SPOILER) Reggie, Mike and Jody are together in “the ‘Cuda” and Reggie says how happy he is for them to be together. You can see on their faces that it’s real, that it really is a reunion of old friends. In that moment it doesn’t matter that they’re still running from death, or that they’re doing their last PHANTASM. And it makes this a pretty good ending.