(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
Phantasm would seem to be the Platonic ideal of a movie — or a movie franchise — that was exactly the sort of borderline, off-beat, non-traditional science fiction film this site is always looking for.
And yet I have never reviewed any of the films in the series.
Until now, that is.
Don Coscarelli is one of those writer/directors for whom I have the deepest respect. All of his films are strange and quirky and nothing like what we’d expect. That is indeed admirable in our age of cookie cutter blockbuster films. I am a huge fan of John Dies at the End which is without question the funniest and most off-the-wall movies he’s ever made (not that the Phantasm film’s aren’t without their moments of comedy).
Most of the films he’s made were part of the Phantasm series and, while they easily pass Orson Scott Card’s rivet test for science fiction (thanks to the portals, glimpses of the Tall Man’s alien world on the other side, strange bits of technology, and so forth), the original film (with its layers of dreams, incompatible storylines, and elements of the fantastic and supernatural), does not fit comfortably within the realm of science fiction.
But as the series progressed, there were fewer dreams, fewer alternate time lines and the SF elements became more pronounced.
Which leads us to Ravager.
We should note here that Don did not direct Ravager, although he co-wrote and produced. Instead, it started life as what were intended to be a series of webisodes, featuring Reggie (Reggie Bannister)’s adventures after the end of Phantasm IV. They were eventually fleshed out into a feature with the help of some footage shot for would have been a big-budget remake of the original. Appearances from both Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury) were added along the way.
And Angus Scrimm returned as both the Tall Man and Jedediah Morningside, in sequences shot just before his death.
After chasing the Tall Man through the dimensional portal at the end of the last film, Reggie finds himself lost between a series of realities: in the modern world, where he recovers his Hemicuda and is pursued by Sentinels; as an invalid in a sinister nursing home, in the bed next to Jedediah Morningside, where everyone — even Mike — thinks his tales of the Tall Man are a delusion; and a post-Apocalyptic future, where he is fighting against the Tall Man’s invasion forces.
But which of these realities is real?
I believe this is the first time since Phantasm II where we are told major events never happened (and it does bring to mind Mike’s stay in a mental institution at the beginning of that film). One might expect then that Ravager would be more like the original (with its lengthy sequence where Jody is still alive, only to be dead once again at the end) and that the Science Fiction elements would be limited to just those glimpses of the invasion fleet attacking a major city, and the usual talk about portals, silver spheres, and crossing between dimensions.
Instead, we are given an explanation, one which explains all the events of the entire series in all their contradictions, dreams and multiple versions.
And, we should note, not a supernatural explanation, despite the series’ fascination with death and funerary rites, but a physics theory!
I do have to wonder, though, how many viewers will understand the full implications of “membrane theory.”
One of the major complaints about the film has been how hard to follow it has proved for some viewers, thanks to its multiple storyline structure. I had no difficulty, but then I‘ve watched a lot of serious and Art House films with non-linear structures. Ravager is nowhere near as challenging as most of these, let alone a film as complex as Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.
A lot of people have dismissed this one, claiming that only the “phans” will find it worth watching. I don’t consider myself a particular fan of the series, although I will admit it is fun to see the old crew back together again for the last time, and to see all the references, clips and returning characters from the past films. On the whole I found it a moderately enjoyable effort with a few memorable moments, a twist or two, and even a few surprises.
Yeah, TV and animation director David Hartman simply isn’t in Don Coscarelli’s league as a director; Reggie looks very old (as do Mike and Jody); some of the CGI looks quite soft, particularly in the battle between Reggie’s Hemicuda and a swarm of Sentinels.
And, yes, we really wanted to see a lot more of the Tall Man.
But I still enjoyed it.
It is a modest entry into the franchise, and definitely not as good as the classic original (not that any of the sequels have been!). However, I am definitely in favor of its complex storyline and conceptual weirdness.
In fact, my biggest complaint is that they’ve explained too much, whether Membrane theory has been the underlying reality of the series all along or not. After all, Phantasm has always thrived on the inexplicable.
But you have to admit that the scenes with the Tall Man‘s armada of spheres slicing whole buildings apart are extremely cool. They almost make you wish for a Phantasm VI, set in that same devastated world.
(Available for free on Tubi)