Phantasm OblIVion

I was never able to get into the first Phantasm film, and only today did I finally realize why: Phantasm is supposed to be an American horror film, but in actuality, it’s a French art film. Interdimensional portals, flying killer orbs and mutated dwarves dressed in Jawa garb are balanced by a surreal, nonlinear plot and cinematography fraught with odd camera angles and a bizarre color palette. Tall Man and tuning forks coalesce with an abstract series of events and dream sequences that will probably throw the average Freddy vs. Jason fan for several loops. As a thinking man, I always appreciated Don Coscarelli’s efforts to go beyond the merely visceral type of horror that’s so common. But ultimately, Phantasm just confused me. I came out of Coscarelli’s most recent Phantasm work, OblIVion, feeling much the same as I did about the original.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for fans of the Phantasm series. The original followed a kid, his older brother, and an ice cream man who, with the use of a tuning fork, try to stop the local undertaker from enslaving the world. Two sequels followed the same set of characters. When OblIVion starts, the Tall Man has taken over many American towns. Michael, the kid from the first movie, drives a hearse through the dark night, as the Tall Man strolls down a long, cathedral-like hall. Coscarelli intercuts these two artsy shots with a French flair. As the Tall Man walks into camera range, he announces to the audience and Reggie that the final game has begun. Michael is on his way to an interdimensional showdown with his arch nemesis, with the state of the world in the balance. Put plainly, Phantasm OblIVion is a weird movie. It’s not a conventional horror flick that relies on a guy in a mask bluntly killing people with a knife. Yes, breaking it down, it’s still good vs. evil, with three normal guys fighting a monster. But the execution takes it to a whole other realm. This is high concept, not the kind of flick you turn on so you can shut your brain off.

Is that a good thing? Yes and no. I suspect that avid followers of the Tall Man and his three foes will eat this film up. Coscarelli knows what fans of the franchise want, and he squarely delivers. This is a solid entry that follows through on the tone and conceptual elements he set up back in the original. But with this, there comes a price. For those who could never quite wrap their brain around the original, this entry won’t win them over. Even with a Master’s degree in English, I find this movie hard to follow. Let’s face it: Phantasm is an acquired taste. But I don’t think Coscarelli intended this film for me anyway.

Interestingly, the audio commentary reveals that Phantasm OblIVion uses old footage filmed for the original. The front end is loaded with flashbacks to the much younger stars, and a showdown between a boyish Michael and a not-so-ancient Tall Man pops in as well. Though this may seem like padding, in a film that barely makes the 90 minute mark, it actually enhances the bizarre plot and adds some nuances to the character relationships. There’s also new footage that attempts to flesh out the Tall Man’s past, but I liked it better when I knew less about him. There’s also a really warped scene where a well endowed woman’s breasts turn out to be the dreaded orbs; that was outright disturbing.

I greatly appreciated the use of practical special effects instead of CG for the most part; this is old school filmmaking, even if it’s high concept. Even better was Mr. Old School himself, Angus Scrimm. Though it was a major letdown when I came across him in a hotel bathroom at a convention, and discovered he’s not nearly as tall as the IMDB claims he is, he’s one creepy figure throughout this series. Looking as if he walked straight out of the Salem witch trials, he’s a quality villain.

Anchor Bay has always been generous with providing extras to the fans, and this release is no exception. Billed as a promo, the trailer runs about a minute and a half, and reveals a bit too much. It also boasts the cool line, "Sci-fi horror… with balls." Unfortunately, the "behind-the-scenes" is the worst of its type: it’s just outtake footage of scenes being filmed. No interviews, no neat backstage stuff, no voiceover; just watching scenes from behind the camera, instead of in front of it. What a disappointment. A commentary with Coscarelli, Scrimm and Reggie Bannister, however, delivers. These three have a great familiarity with each other, which makes this a smooth chat. Mainly they discuss the myriad problems of low budget filmmaking; they also delve into such topics as KNB’s effects work on the project, and location shooting. Fortunately, they don’t engage in much happy talk or back patting. But they also don’t address many of the high concept elements that confused me so. Ultimately, if you’re a fan of the film, the commentary makes it worth watching a second time.

One last thing. I hate Roman Numerals. I don’t live in Rome, and every time I look at them, I want to buy a vowel. But I must commend Coscarelli for going with the nifty OblIVion over his original title, Phantasm Phorever.

Phantasm just isn’t my cup of tea. But objectively, I can strongly recommend this film for fans of the franchise. For those who love nonlinear plots about men both Tall and Ice Cream, you’ll eat this up. And if you happen to be a big fan of Jules and Jim or other French experimental masterpieces, give this one a whirl. And then explain to me exactly what happened. –Phil Fasso

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