Monday, October 10, 2016

Review: Phantasm: Ravager

by Patrick Bromley
The ball balls is are back one last time.

I can think of few horror franchises more unlikely than Phantasm, which began as an independently-financed movie scraped together over the course of a year by a then-24-year old writer director and has now spanned five movies across almost 40 years. It is one of the only major horror franchises written and directed by the same person -- the great Don Coscarelli -- and, save for a second installment funded and released by Universal, has been done so on a shoestring. That there was not necessarily more story to tell after the first Phantasm is beside the point. This is a series that has continued because of the commitment of Coscarelli and his company of cast and crew, as well as the intense devotion of the fans, who have vocally supported one of the most eccentric and idiosyncratic series the genre has ever known.

Like so many other horror fans, I watched the trailer for Phantasm: Ravager when it first appeared and revealed that a fifth (and final) Phantasm film had been shot almost entirely in secret. And, like so many other horror fans, I was left underwhelmed. Not only was Don Coscarelli not directing -- and what's a Phantasm movie without Coscarelli calling the shots? -- but the whole endeavor looked, for lack of a better word, cheap. It was clear that there was ambition and a larger scope than the series had ever seen before, but it all had that After Effects-driven look of a SyFy production. The term I used most often (and I don't think I'm the only one) was that Ravager looked a lot like a Phantasm fan phan film, and it wasn't a classification I was making in a positive way.
Having seen Phantasm: Ravager, I can now say that it is basically a fan film -- a sprawling, ambitious, affectionate fan film. That's because it's the first Phantasm film not directed by Coscarelli; directing duties for the final (?) entry fall to animator David Hartman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Coscarelli. And yes, it even feels like a fan film because of the way it was cobbled together over a couple of years and uses a whole lot of DIY visual effects and makes sure to bring back everyone from the series if even for a small role. But as I watched the movie thinking it seemed like a fan film, I was struck by the feeling that if it had been released as a real fan film, we would all be calling it the greatest fan film ever made. And at that point, doesn't it just become a good movie? Do we need to make those distinctions? A good movie is a good movie is a good movie.

This is beside the point, of course, because Phantasm: Ravager is not a fan film -- not in the traditional sense.  It is a canonical entry in what might be the longest-running single-story franchise in horror (its competition has all been remade or rebooted by now). It is made with a ton of love and affection for the series and very, very smart about the way that it goes about telling a story that stopped making sense many years ago. Rather than just trying to expand the universe further (which the movie does) or bring closure to the plot (which it also does...sort of), the screenplay by Hartman and Coscarelli seeks to bring closure to the characters -- chiefly Reggie Bannister, who has become the de facto hero of the series over the course of five movies. The result is a film that's as much about alternate dimensions and murderous flying balls as it is about aging and the passage of time. It's one of the few years-later sequels that bothers to justify its existence by acknowledging where these people have been, and, ultimately, where they are going. Where we all are.
Ravager is told in a fractured style that recalls Slaughterhouse Five and 12 Monkeys as Reggie jumps around between realities, including post-apocalyptic dimensions ruled over by Angus Scrimm's Tall Man (RIP) and a nursing home where he's been diagnosed with dementia. It's such a clever approach in that it a) allows for the filmmakers to scale back the really big, effects-driven sequences and pour the money and resources into the ones that do make the film; b) spend more time catching up with the characters and building them up, as that's the aspect of the movie we care about after 40 years and c) connect our own head-scratching reality to the dreamlike fantasy that has been the defining characteristic of the Phantasm series since it began. The movies have always depended on uncertainty of what is real and what is a nightmare. In the original Phantasm, the nightmare stuff was used as a metaphor for accepting the death of a loved one. Over the course of the sequels, though, it became more literal text -- the movies turned into adventures through dark dimensions meant to be taken at face value. Ravager brings it back to the place it began back in 1979, where the fantastic elements can once again be taken literally or viewed as an expression of facing death. Only this time, it's our own.
Yes, the movie is clunky. So are most of the Phantasm films. No, many of the special effects don't quite stand up to scrutiny. It's a scrappy movie, succeeding more in its heart and in its ideas than in technical precision. Truth be told, I didn't need the movie to be great. I just needed it to do right by the series, which it more than does. It's fun to see all the actors come together one more time. It's fun to see Angus Scrimm put on the Tall Man's suit for his final film appearance. It's great to see Reggie Bannister alternate between Army of Darkness-period Ash-like  hero posturing and regular guy sitting on a bench, questioning whether or not he's losing his mind and doing the best acting I've ever seen him do. It is entertaining and surprisingly moving. It's a great big love letter to the Phantasm franchise with more on its mind than just fan service. I couldn't have asked for much else.


  1. Totally agree and couldn't have said it better. It was a ton of fun and I felt like they we're going balls out (I know, kill me) for this one.

  2. To be fair, when you put a ton of balls in your movie, your gonna get some balls jokes. We are only humans...with balls. It's probably the third best movie in the series. Balls.

    1. One of those yours is supposed you're. I apologize to any of you who are assholes.

  3. I am close to Patrick I think here, I am not really the biggest fan of these films, I do have an affection for part 1 but mainly my connection is to Don, Bubbahotep and John dies at the end, a Phantasm movie without Don is a tough sell, thanks for your review

  4. I ended up seeing this at midnight over the weekend with Don Coscarelli in attendance (pictured here on the right, with original "Phantasm" crew member Roberto Quezada on the left) for what turned out the be longest, most drawn-out introduction to a movie ever (almost 35 min.). Patrick nailed it, this is basically a well-made fan film that is purely propelled by its creators and fans' love of its characters and convoluted-as-heck story. Whatever it takes to get Reggie driving that '71 Barracuda all over again, I guess. I should have watched "Phantasm II-IV" before seeing this (or the original 35mm screening of "Tenebre" I wanted to see), but the crowd of fans who packed the midnight screening ate it up and seemed to love it. And this film is made for them, so if you're in that select group of folks then this one is just for you... literally.