Coherence has never been Phantasm’s strong suit. In fact, its disjointed dream logic and surreal imagery are key components of the series’ appeal. In a universe made up of infinite parallel dimensions, the only constraints are those of the filmmakers’ imaginations—that, and the necessity of fan service, consisting here of the twin directives that someone has to take a Sentinel sphere to the face and Angus Scrimm has to bellow “BOOOOOYYYYYY!” at some point in the movie. (A musical number from Reggie is appreciated, but not mandatory.) Since it was edited down to 89 minutes from a reportedly three-hour original cut, it’s hard to say whether the first film is deliberately impenetrable, or if it was just diced into oblivion. But even though it doesn’t make much sense, Phantasm is wildly imaginative and legitimately creepy, confronting death and mourning as part of the coming-of-age process while also delivering nutty Jawa-type critters and blood spurting out of peoples’ faces.
Perhaps predictably, J.J. Abrams is a big fan of Don Coscarelli’s strange, morbid little puzzle box of a film—so much so that his company, Bad Robot, funded a 4k restoration of the original 1979 Phantasm. After a handful of festival dates and a special showing on Art House Theater Day, that restoration hits theaters this weekend as Phantasm: Remastered. Given the deluxe treatment and projected onto a big screen, Phantasm looks fantastic, giving it new depth of color while still preserving the rough grain of the original print. The difference is especially noticeable inside the mausoleum at Morningside Cemetery, where interdimensional grave robber The Tall Man (Scrimm) collects corpses for his army of undead servants; rendered in shades of purple and gray, the scenes resonate with an eerie beauty.
Phantasm was famously made on a very low budget and shot on nights and weekends with mainly nonprofessional actors, an ethos that has carried through to the rest of the franchise. Its theme of loyalty has also translated to real life, with the same cast and crew re-appearing in five sequels filmed over the course of nearly four decades. That’s certainly the case with the fifth film in the series, Phantasm: Ravager, which was shot guerilla-style over a period of several years by a tiny crew. (Gigi Bannister, wife of series star Reggie Bannister, wears several hats as co-producer and special-effects supervisor.) This is the first Phantasm film not directed by Coscarelli, who co-wrote the film but turned over the directing reins to first-timer David Hartman, who tries his best but whose inexperience shows in the clunky exposition.
Originally conceived as a short film set in the Phantasm universe, Ravager is a loose patchwork of scenarios, held together by the main character of Reggie (Bannister) and justified by the fact that this is a Phantasm movie. There’s the sequence in the desert, the sequence at the mountain cabin, the sequence at the mental hospital, the sequence in the post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by the Tall Man—the list goes on. It’s in that last sequence that Ravager’s tiny budget becomes a detriment; dragging this movie through the mud for its lack of expensive effects would be counter to the spirit of Phantasm—and indeed, to that of horror fandom in general—but perhaps, without the money for convincing CGI, the epic, sweeping shots of city streets transformed into fiery hellscapes by the Tall Man’s minions may have been overly ambitious.
Putting all questions of budget aside, there’s one key question to be answered: Does Phantasm: Ravager live up to its promise of a satisfying end to the long-running series? Yes and no. It is heartwarming to see the old gang back together again after all these years, and viewers invested in the relationships between Mike, Jody, and Reggie will find closure there. But in terms of the core conflict of the series—the ultimate showdown between Reggie and The Tall Man—Ravager whiffs, hard. The closest we come to a reckoning for The Tall Man isn‘t much of a reckoning at all, and what we do get involves a recently introduced character instead of one of the series’ long-running heroes, robbing the scene of emotional impact. And the ending seems more like the setup for Phantasm 6 than the final chapter of anything. (And yes, Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter wasn’t the last Jason movie, so there is precedent for a sixth Phantasm. But given Scrimm’s death earlier this year, the aging cast, and the struggle just to get Ravager made, is that really the wisest course of action?)
In short, Phantasm: Ravager is heartfelt, but clumsily handled, and it’s not going to bring in any new converts. But established “phans” will go see it, regardless of its flaws, because of their affection for the franchise. (In fact, that affection is what has allowed Phantasm: Ravager a theatrical release in the first place, when it probably would have been better off going direct to VOD.) Those same people will shed a tear for Angus Scrimm, to whose memory the film is dedicated and who, by all accounts, was Ravager’s biggest cheerleader. May he—and the Phantasm series—rest in peace.