Tuesday, August 2, 2011


"Seeing is easy. Understanding? That takes a little more time."
— Phantasm IV: Oblivion

Since 1979, the
Phantasm series has been both entertaining and baffling the brave few willing to follow along its bumpy path of seemingly plothole-infested mythos and bizarre imagery. The original Phantasm, released in the height of the 70s (quite arguably the last truly significant decade for the horror genre) came out of nowhere. Along with Phantasm, the decade had blessed the horror genre  with its most important additions since the Universal monsters of the 1930s: The Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, Jaws, Carrie, The Omen, Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, and Alien. There's a reason why this decade is looked upon as the greatest for horror cinema: classics were born, and eventual franchises were in their infancy. The listed films boast roughly 35 sequels and/or remakes (with several more on the way). And to list the countless "homages" (read: rip offs) that would soon follow is nearly impossible. 

However, as groundbreaking as each of the movies may have been (The Exorcist is remembered for its slow-burn of a story and its marvelous special effects; Jaws for the exact opposite—a lack of special effects that alluded to an even more terrifying monster lurking below the surface, all the while based on something quite real), each movie was linear, and told in a traditional narrative. In a scenario that would soon become paramount to the horror genre, the antagonists were clearly defined—be it flesh-and-blood monsters, the seemingly undead, or from Hell itself. Great pains were made to establish the the antagonist' back story.

Michael Myers kills his sister one Halloween night fifteen years before the main crux of the story.  He then returns home to wreak havoc.

Carrie White, a social outcast at both school and home, begins to develop telekinetic powers in conjunction with her maturing sexuality.

A family of inbred psychopaths, economically hurt by the dismantling of their only means of support—the local slaughterhouse—turn to the next most viable source of food: human flesh.

While the events of any of these films were nightmarish to our protagonists, the eventual heroes were able to piece together the mystery and defeat their respective boogeymen. Nightmarish, yes. But indicative of a nightmare? Surreal imagery and out-there concepts? Strange mechanical objects with lives of their own? Otherworldly biological entities capable of changing physical form? If you're a religious person, the events of The Exorcist or The Omen are not that unbelievable. If you're a Darwinian person, the events of Jaws or Carrie could possibly happen.
And let's face it: The Last House on the Left happens every day, in one form or another. But Phantasm was a strange journey for anyone watching, and it was unlike anything else the world had seen up to that point. Oh, sure, by this time, David Lynch's Eraserhead was already two years old and had caused the few who had seen it to murmur "what the fuck?" on their way out of the theater. But on Phantasm's surface, it was just some goofy movie about a killer mortician. Young adults were stabbed in cemeteries, sex was had, and the young hero of the story was routinely disbelieved by those around him. They were familiar tropes in familiar surroundings. Phantasm wasn't supposed to be as surreal as it was...it had no right.

But it was. And though it would go on to gross $12 million dollars  ($36 million when adjusted for inflation) on its budget of $300,000, audiences were not entirely prepared for the strange story unfurling before them.

First and foremost, it was a bizarre blending of genres: straight-up supernatural horror with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and even bits of slasher thrown in for good measure. The hero was not an older man, distinguished with a PhD; nor a Roman Catholic priest, armed with a briefcase of holy waters, religious texts, and faith. The hero was Mike Pearson, a thirteen-year-old boy, who had recently lost his parents and was living with his older brother, Jody. He was precocious to the point of recklessness. 

Second, and most important, the entire movie felt like a nightmare...because it was.

After a funeral, Mike spies the mortician—a very Tall Man—picking up the coffin himself and sliding it easily back into the hearse, even though it should be well on its way underground. Understandably, Mike is perplexed, and even disturbed. And from there on, the story mushrooms into this wonderful cacophony of late night escapades bathed in the dreamlike imagery by the masterful Don Coscarelli. Over the course of two production years, when all was said and done, director Coscarelli had completed a three hour epic tale of good versus evil. That epic was pared down over time into the 90-minute cut that lives today. And it was this paring that gives the movie its strength. Scenes aren't so much seamlessly attached with graceful fluidity as they are hastily stapled together. This juxtaposition is jarring, but more than appropriate for the story that is being told. Random characters, such as Jody's friend, Toby, or Myrtle, the Pearsons' house keeper, are introduced, never to be seen again. A heavy theme of "show no fear" is introduced during the movie, showing that Mike can fight off the Tall Man's advances with his mind...but that never really comes back into play for the duration of the movie. Phantasm itself is flawed, but it's these same imperfections that make the movie perfect.

As the story progresses and Mike comes face-to-face with the Tall Man, strange revelations are discovered: the Tall Man might very well be an alien or demon from another planet or dimension. The dwarves often seen scurrying around his marble-walled/floored mortuary, clad in brown robes and hoods, are his pint-sized slaves. And something that would soon become synonymous with the Phantasm series—the silver sphere which contains several deadly implements—patrols the halls of the mortuary with a silent hum...and seems to have a mind of its own. 

Immediately following the alleged resolution of the story—in which the Tall Man falls into a deep abandoned mine with a multitude of heavy boulders just behind him—the movie ends with a revelation that would soon become a cliche in other movies and television shows: it was all just a dream.

For a brief moment, Mike and family friend, Reggie, sit by the fireplace as Mike talks of his dream - how scary it was, and how realistic it seemed. Reggie, who we all witnessed killed (or at the very least attacked) in the climax of the film, is not only alive and well, but refuses to recognize the Tall Man as anything other than a figment of Mike's imagination. Mike fervently believes the Tall Man was real, but with Reggie being there when he otherwise shouldn't, audiences exhale and settle back in their seats. 

It must've been a dream, after all.

Reggie suggests the two blow town for a while, and so Mike runs up to his room to pack a bag. It is there he sees the Tall Man, along with his army of Ewok-like dwarf slaves. The Tall Man, it seems, is real after all. But to what extent? How is it that the Tall Man can truly exist, yet nothing we had previously witnessed in the movie seemed to have happened? How can Mike know who or what the Tall Man is if the previous 85 minutes were a dream? Did anything we see actually take place? There is no time to decipher the enigmatic revelation of the Tall Man's existence, as Mike is soon attacked and pulled through a mirror, screaming in the darkness beyond. And the amazing Phantasm theme—one which gives Halloween a run for its money—kicks in.

It would be easy to point fingers and call this a cop-out ending—and if it had been any other movie with that same ending, it would be right to do so. But as an ending following Phantasm's bizarre occurrences...it was fucking perfection.

Audiences' minds were blown and critics were baffled. How do you properly critique a film that could either be an artistic, dreamlike masterpiece, or a muddled mess of incoherence?
What do you do with a movie that, according to its own ending, never even happened...but at the same time...did?

Regardless, the legacy of Phantasm was born. Three sequels would eventually follow, each written and directed by Coscarelli.

Phantasm II was released in 1987, nine years after the release of the original film, and it was a whole horse of a different color. Phantasm II is the Aliens of the franchise—a no-holds-barred shoot 'em up that turns the action up to eleven. But because it was the only Phantasm film to receive a wide release from a major studio, artless suits ordered Coscarelli to cut out any of the dreamy imagery and surreal plot points that gave the original Phantasm its reputation. Coscarelli obliged. While still a great film—and cited by many as their favorite entry in the series—it feels like many of the ideas Coscarelli wanted to include were left on the cutting room floor, and that's a damn shame.

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, originally meant to immediately follow Phantasm II, wouldn't be released until 1994...and go direct-to-video after a very select release. With Coscarelli promised full artistic freedom, the dreamlike state of the series returned in full force...and brought with it a lot of strange Evil Dead 2-esque comedy. While this entry would go on to turn off a lot of longtime phans, Phantasm III would introduce a lot of important ideas that would carry forth through the next entry, and rewrite the relationship between Mike and the Tall Man as far back as the first film.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion was released in 1998, and could quite possibly signal the end of the Phantasm series. With each entry following
Phantasm II, Coscarelli was forced to work with smaller and smaller budgets, relegating him to try another tactic for this particular entry. As all phans know, over 50% of the original Phantasm cut was left on the editing room floor. Coscarelli went through that footage, finding scenes or new revelations that could add to the mythos, and weaved it into a fresh story—one which found Mike hurtling alone into the desert to attempt to escape the change happening inside him. Failed suicide attempts, memories thought lost, and a last minute deus ex machina involving Mike's brother, Jody—all allowed Coscarelli to dip into the past and unearth footage to carry his saga to its conclusion.

Oblivion would successfully return to the nightmarish elements of the first film—and even in its attempts to continue to explain the myth of the Tall Man, it ould only go on to produce more questions. Despite its ending that basically states, "this is the end of the journey," some phans would be left feeling unsatisfied, and hoping more would soon come. 

Reggie Bannister, the hot-as-love bad ass who would go on to become the face of the series—even more so than the Tall Man himself—told Fangoria on the release of Phantasm: Oblivion: "This could very well be the last one...but then again, every [Phantasm ] one could have been the last one."

And to this day, thirteen years after the release of what could be the final Phantasm, phans hope for one last battle between good and evil—and it's one Coscarelli has been diligently promising ever since Oblivion hit video.

Announcements of a pending Phantasm V have been just as frustrating and surreal as the events of the movies themselves.

Perhaps the most famous red herring was when Roger Avery, fresh off his Oscar win for his work on the Pulp Fiction screenplay, proudly announced he was going to write the be-all, end-all, kick-ass conclusion film that the Phantasm series deserved (which, at this point, would have been Phantasm IV). Originally titled Phantasm: 1999, then Phantasm: 2012 A.D.; and finally Phantasm 2013, the story was large in scope and introduced several new characters created to fight alongside Reggie, the main-man who organically inherited the role of hero throughout the Phantasm movies. In Avery's script, the majority of the US has been turned into a quarantined contaminated zone where the Tall Man thrives and continues his scheme to take over the world, with a legion of the undead under his power. While Coscarelli was enthusiastic about the story, he was unable to find a studio willing to finance the project that was admittedly quite large in scope. Coscarelli's consolation prize was to write the script that would become Phantasm IV: Oblivion, hoping to shelve Avery's script for later use.
(Personally, I feel that this is for the best. No matter how strange and unorthodox the Phantasm journey may have been—and despite all of the questions that have arisen since that first night-drenched hearse ride back in 1979—each entry has been written solely by Coscarelli. Whatever fragmented story he has been trying to tell—it belongs only to him. To hand off the mythos to another writer at this point in time seems very wrong to me. Whether Coscarelli realizes it or not, the proper conclusion to this story —as well as the meaning behind it all—is floating somewhere around his subconscious. It's up to him—and only him—to fully realize that, regardless of the quality of output that may result. Basically, I would rather have a shitty Phantasm V written/directed by Don Coscarelli than a fantastic Phantasm V written/directed by anyone else.)

Following the release of Oblivion, rumors of Phantasm V infected the Internet for years:
  • Bruce Campbell would star...alongside a monkey.
  • Phantasm V wasn't going to happen at all, but instead the series would be remade into a trilogy by New Line Cinema. (This project, while close to happening, ultimately fell apart. In a decision almost unheard-of in these Hollywood days, Coscarelli walked away from a lot of money because he feared his characters would not be properly re-envisioned.)
  • But wait! Phantasm V is happening, and it would be in 3D! Wait, no it's not.
  • Phantasm V could possibly happen in the form of webisodes (which this particular phan was not too enthused over). It was later revealed that this idea eventually just became Phantasm "what-if?" tests shot for the filmmakers themselves and not intended for public consumption.

Coscarelli occasionally came out in public to dismiss any and all rumors of an impending Phantasm V—and with each denial, phans' hopes were crushed just a bit more. But at the same time, he didn't help matters (and actually added fuel to the fire) by releasing this video, a tribute to the Alamo Drafthouse, which featured the director seemingly editing a teaser scene from a read-through of his Phantasm V script. Speculation immediately went through the roof. 

It was happening!  

Phantasm V was truly on its way!

And then...nothing happened.

In recent years, Don has begun production on John Dies at the End, with the possibility of immediately following that up with a sequel to his runaway cult hit, the Bruce Campbell-starring Bubba Ho-Tep.

Though morbid as it may sound, Angus Scrimm (the Tall Man from the Phantasm films) grows older by the day, and the possibility of a proper Phantasm V also dwindles. Coscarelli has openly stated that following his work on John Dies at the End, he "would like to get something going in the Phantasm world." He admitted to having written not just one Phantasm sequel script, but several, and stated "it would be a shame not to realize any of that." But, as has plagued the Phantasm series up to this point, financing is going to be an issue.

And quite frankly, I find that notion to be bullshit. The demand for a Phantasm V is clearly there. Search "phantasm 5" on Youtube and you will be inundated with fan-created teaser trailers and poster art. Fan fiction consisting of further Phantasm adventures can be found on message boards. Google-image "phantasm" and see what members of Deviant Art create in ode to their favorite villainous mortician. And I'm sure Anchor Bay and Universal brought in a decent amount of cash with their recent issues (or re-issues) of the Phantasm movies on DVD. 

I am confident there are more people in the world fervently anticipating a Phantasm V than there are sequels to Men in Black or Alvin & The Chipmunks.

Phans have even gone so far as to offer to donate to Phantasm V's production (I myself am one of them). I highly doubt there were fans clamoring to donate to Hellraiser's eighth sequel (and the fifth to go direct-to-video).

The interest is there. The talent is willing. And there is money to be made off an established horror franchise.

There is more than enough room in the world for a Phantasm V.

"There WILL be more Phantasm..."
—Don Coscarelli, circa 2004.

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