Phantasm: Ravager is a cult sequel to a cult franchise made for a specific cult of fans. If you’ve never been sucked into Don Coscarelli’s do-it-yourself supernatural series, David Hartman’s fifth (and most likely final) tale of Tall-Man-terror will disappoint and frustrate. Obvious budgetary restrictions whittle down most scenes to “goofy” effects and minimal locations work, but this is everything true fans will be expecting. Hartman’s fivequel is a sentimental, fulfilling finale meant for fans who love watching airborne metallic orbs eviscerate victims, like a Coscarelli-approved bearhug that comforts through carnage.
Haters, stay away – this isn’t your movie.
Phantasm‘s latest chapter begins with Reggie (Reggie Bannister) appearing in the desert, four-barrel shotgun and all. He recalls the tragedies of his past, and reminds viewers that the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) can pretty much do whatever the hell he wants. This is the only fitting setup, because what follows is an insane concoction of alternate realities, vicious chrome attacks and constant devastation. Reggie flips between different universes (a psychiatric ward/an open desert/the Tall Man’s domain), always searching for Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) while fighting off the Tall Man’s many minions. Will Reggie find what he’s looking for?
Well, more importantly, will you – the viewer – find what you’re looking for? Snobs and mainstreamers won’t appreciate the minimalist passions of Phantasm: Ravager, and that’s with good reason. Those who have not already enveloped themselves in Coscarelli’s established Hell will certainly be lost in a matter of minutes. Time and continuity do not walk the straightest line, unless you’re already familiar with Morningside Cemetery (which is revisited) and returning faces. Reggie goes from being a senile patient to a gun-blasting hero to a victim of torture in the blink of an eye, evoking the Tall Man’s grasp over all that we perceive as reality. It’d be useless to join Reggie’s unholy journey this late, which I hope first-timers will realize since Ravager is Phantasm number five.
That said, believers in Coscarelli’s supernatural madness have a fitting – and somewhat touching – end to their beloved Phantasm franchise. Angus Scrimm unfortunately left us earlier this year, which means there will never be another Tall Man (at least portrayed by Scrimm). In Ravager, he’s given many opportunities to exchange poetics and bring upon his fiery doomsday in a more human way than before. That iconic evil-eye-ruffle is never lost, but Scrimm’s final performance brings something more than a stoic, towering gravedigger. Lines about finality are tinged with reality because of Scrimm’s absence from this world – a fitting sendoff for a horror legend.
True to form, Phantasm lovers will go apeshit over more shiny balls spewing streams of reddish blood (no matter how cheesy practical effects may look). An opening car chase between Reggie and two orbs provides a perfect lead-in to the tremendous technical constraints Hartman faced on set, which aren’t always dealt with with artistic sidestepping. A barnyard orb encounter achieves unintended laughs (well, maybe intended at this point), but also cuts between grainy lens switches and out-of-sync audio levels. Much like every Phantasm film to this point, Ravager relies on love and nostalgia to impress those who ravenously gobble up whatever the franchise has to offer in ANY state of quality – and number five is no exception.
What saves Phantasm: Ravager from a more mundane fate (for some) is that there’s never a false sense of status. Everyone knows the level of camp being created. As Reggie packs a rucksack full of weapons to battle the Tall Man’s flying steel harvesters with, you can see Hartman’s hero grab everything from nunchucks to a chainsaw (beyond practicality, how does everything fit!). Then there’s that entire scene built around Reggie thinking up an original song so he can impress a woman who takes him in (Dawn, played by Dawn Cody), because who doesn’t need a corny musical interlude between death strokes? Midget monks with demon faces appear at random, supersized orbs shoot lasers through skyscrapers and Reggie fights evil with a tremendously laid-back demeanor – Hartman’s production is indie to the core, and totally loving it.
To say Phantasm: Ravager is rough around the edges might be the understatement of the century – it’s rough, period. That said, Phantasm fans will find all the necessary charms they’re looking for. Tenacious, scrappy supernatural storytelling that deals with life, death and a fearful obsession with the unknown. Who needs “quality” filmmaking when your movie has spunk, moxie and heart? Well, unfortunately, some people won’t address said spunk, moxie or heart without something visually impressive to chew on, and in many cases, Hartman simply can’t deliver the same balance Coscarelli (sometimes barely) achieved through his franchise tenure – but dedicated followers are rewarded with the conclusion they deserve, nonetheless.
This one’s for you, Phantasm fans – cherish it, and care for it and never let go of the Tall Man.
Phantasm: Ravager gets by on the power of nostalgia and franchise completion, but is a bit rough around the edges even when compared to other Phantasm films.