Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series moves to video… but its still good? Explain…
Who made it?: Don Coscarelli (Director/Writer/Producer), Seth Blair (Co-Producer), Stairway International Inc/Universal Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Gloria Lynne Henry, Kevin Connors, Angus Scrimm.
Tagline: “The tall man is back for the final kill.”
IMDb rating: 6.0/10.
With the exception of Wes Craven’s Scream quartet, the initial Evil Dead trilogy, the Japanese Ring films, and Don Mancini’s Child’s Play saga, there aren’t many horror series with a consistent creative force. Horror fandom’s other big Don, Coscarelli, was both the writer and director of the original four Phantasm pictures, and the forthcoming fifth – directed by his John Dies at the End collaborator David Hartman – is produced and co-written by him. I think you’ll agree that the respective instalments in the franchises above were all good-to-average in a pool as creatively bankrupt as this. It seems that if you want to carry on making good sequels in a long-running horror story, you better well leave it to the original creators.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (oddly, the subtitle never shows up on-screen) is proof of this. Yet it also suffered an unfair fate. Shot as a cinema release following the mild success of Phantasm II, it was sent to direct-to-video oblivion after a spat between Coscarelli and Universal (perhaps the choice to bring back original star A. Michael Baldwin), and many promptly wrote it off. Luckily, this third chapter is nowhere near as foul as the DTV label would suggest, and while it never tops the absurd brilliance of part two or even the fear of part one, it is far from a bad movie. In fact, it’s probably the most blissfully fun third innings I’ve had with a horror saga this side of Day of the Dead (another anthology blessed with a continuing craftsman). But I’m possibly over-selling it.
As before, the film picks up exactly where we left-off. Mike (Baldwin replacing his replacement James LeGros), Reggie (Reggie Bannister), and their female companion Alchemy (Samantha Philips) have just burned down the Tall Man’s mausoleum headquarters and left him for dead. But, naturally, a new copy of the bastard emerges from the “space gate,” and his diminutive minions are soon tracking Reggie and Mike down. Almost too soon. Perhaps a wry comment on the uselessness of women in this particular screen universe, Alchemy is soon dispatched and the hapless pair of “zombie” hunters are once again on the trail of the sinister alien (played note-perfectly as ever by Angus Scrimm).
Lord of the Dead finds Coscarelli’s venerated creation on auto-pilot, but this never comes across as a negative while watching it. This is a highly pleasurable trawl through the franchise’s greatest hits. Again, we find our heroes evading the Tall Man, his silver balls of death, and those bloody dwarves, but the director is smart enough to add new elements to the chronology such as the unexpected return of Mike’s brother Jody (Bill Thornbury). I wouldn’t want to spoil this particular part of the plot anymore than I already have, but it’s an intriguing addition that builds heftily on one of the series’ core trademarks. Just when you think Coscarelli is merely going through the motions, he throws you a curveball… with knives sticking out of it.
The only real problem with PIII it that there’s too many characters, with Mike getting short shrift to detrimental effect (narratively-speaking, anyway). He was the driving force in the first two films. It just so happens that Bannister is the more entertaining screen presence. Reggie’s adventures on the “apocalyptic” road bring him across a group of unlucky thugs and a child – Tim (Kevin Connors) – who is basically a lethal Macaulay Culkin. Seriously, his introduction is like a messed-up version of Home Alone with a little bit of the “Feral Kid” from Mad Max 2 thrown in. I’ve read that a lot of fans disapproved of the young Connors joining the group, but I’ve no idea why on this particular occasion. Connors was a better actor here than Baldwin was in the original (plus, he’ll kill you with a fucking frisbee).
The addition of Grace Jones-lite “Rocky” (Gloria Lynne Henry) is equally superfluous in the grand scheme of things, but she does get in on the action with a sweet pair of nun-chucks and a sweet pair of something else. Damn, Bannister gets all the fun…
As a story, Lord of the Dead is a bit of a mess and Coscarelli can’t quite make the strands seamless, but once again you overlook the faults due to the sheer joy of it all. He still offers up several grandstanding bits such as an extended action scene at the Tall Man’s home base that is crisply shot and a car chase that results in one of the greatest stunts I’ve ever seen. This film cost roughly half-a-million less than last time, but you’d be hard pressed to really notice a difference; the cinematography by Chris Chomyn is often inventive and bold, and the continuing score by original composers Fred Myrow and Christopher L. Stone remains iconic. This is still superbly shot rubbish.
You know exactly what you’re getting with Phantasm at this point, and if you’re already on board with the purposely hammy turns, general incoherence, and Scrimm’s elevating presence, then you’ll probably end up giving it a pass when the awesome final scene arrives. Phantasm III is proof you can still have more of the same without it being a chore.
They missed a trick in Home Alone 3…
- After the mild box-office results of Phantasm II, Universal Studios chose not to personally pursue a sequel but did offer to distribute it should Don Coscarelli and associates make it themselves. With no casting restrictions this time, Coscarelli offered the role of Mike to his original performer, A. Michael Baldwin, who returned to the role after almost sixteen years.
- In this sequel, for the first and only time in the series, the main characters refer to the dwarves as “Lurkers”, the gas masked grave diggers as “Gravers” and the spheres as “Sentinels.”
- The character of “Rocky” stands out as the only main female character in the Phantasm movie series not to die, nor to be a Tall Man’s minion either.
- Coscarelli reportedly admitted during filming that he had run out of ideas after finishing the script for this sequel and had no clue which direction would the story take in case there was a fourth Phantasm movie. He jokingly added that if a Phantasm IV was ever filmed, it would actually be “just to make money out of it.” Phantasm IV: Oblivion arrived four years later.