Saturday 2 September 2017

Shadows of Sphere - a look back at the the films of the Phantasm franchise

With the release last year of the fifth and possibly final movie in the Phantasm film sequence, Ravager, I thought it was time to revisit cinema's oddest franchise.

Phantasm (USA 1979: Dir Don Coscarelli) Coscarelli was 23 when he made Phantasm. The director was a big fan of horror, fantasy and science fiction films, and although his previous works (both from 1976 - drama Jim, the World's Greatest, and comedy Kenny & Company) hadn't shown any traces of these influences, they dealt with the subject of childhood, a theme which was central to his 1979 movie.

Watched today, Phantasm still feels like it was beamed down from another planet - possibly the world from which The Tall Man originates. It's a weird, confused, slightly empty film (although these aren't necessarily criticisms) reduced from a much longer (reportedly three hour) first cut to the skewed and odd ninety minutes of the released version (although some of that footage would resurface in the fourth instalment). Phantasm introduces us to Jody (Bill Thornbury), his younger brother Mike (A.Michael Baldwin), and guitar picking ice cream salesman Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Jody has returned to the town of Morningside, putting his rock and roll career on hold to look after his younger sibling following the untimely death of their parents. The audience doesn't really see any of this town, beyond a local bar/diner, a funeral home and the cemetery, the three  locations in which all the action takes place.

Mike's inadvertent sighting of a strange cadaverous figure turns out to be The Tall Man, played convincingly by the late Angus Scrimm (real name Lawrence Guy, who also had another career as a writer of liner notes for record albums). He's first seen impressively manoeuvring a large coffin into a waiting hearse single handed, and it's one of the great introductions in modern horror films (apparently Coscarelli hit on the idea of the character while watching Scrimm clowning around with a young boy, making scary faces at him). The discovery leads Mike to investigate the local funeral parlour, leading to the discovery of some small, brown robed dwarves and later a murderous flying sphere (designed by Willard Green). It turns out that The Tall Man is from another planet, harvesting the bodies of the dead from the cemetery, reducing them in size (the dwarfs) and exporting them back to his planet via a portal. Young Mike and friends Reggie and Jody (who are both musicians in real life and manage to fit in a quick jam before the action starts) must try and thwart The Tall Man's plans before he can clean out the whole of Morningside cemetery.

Phantasm was cheaply made with a budget of around $800,000 (Coscarelli's mother was on make up duties) but boasts great atmosphere and a superb analogue soundtrack by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave (sampled by DJ Shadow on his landmark album Endtroducing). As a film it's aged remarkably well; it's perhaps not supposed to make sense, but is filled with interesting details and the cast play it very straight, with great camaraderie between the three leads.

Phantasm II (USA 1988: Dir Don Coscarelli) At the end of Phantasm, things don't look good - Jody has died in a car accident caused by The Tall Man, and Mike has been pulled through a mirror, presumably to meet his death. Phantasm II, made nearly ten years after the original movie, reprises the closing scene but lets Mike survive. Now grown up, and played by a different actor (the original Mike - A. Michael Baldwin - auditioned but didn't get the part, which was given instead to James LeGros, although apparently it was a role for which Brad Pitt originally screen tested!), he has been released from a psychiatric hospital where he's been staying, convincing the powers that be that his recent experiences are all in his mind, although we know different. Mike seems to have developed a psychic ability to communicate with old flame Liz - in his visions she's linked to The Tall Man. Hooking up with Reggie, who also survived the first movie, the two old friends take a car and track the lofty alien across the US, finally cornering him in a town called Perigord in a fight to the death. But whose?

Coscarelli had never intended to make a sequel to Phantasm. After the first movie he'd spent some time directing and then recovering from the critical backlash arising from his 1982 film The Beastmaster, a film received so poorly that author Andre Norton, on whose book the film was based, had her name removed from the credits. However when Tom Pollock became Chairman of Universal Pictures in 1986, as a lifelong horror movie fan he was keen to pump some fresh blood into movie franchises that had run aground, like the Evil Dead and Childs Play films. Offered a substantial budget (the highest for any Phantasm film but peanuts by Universal's standards) Phantasm II was born.

Reggie Yates and Angus Scrimm both reprised their roles as Reggie and The Tall Man respectively, the former looking more advanced in years befitting the time gap between movies; Scrimm, 52 at the age of filming but made to look older, is his enigmatic self - there's a scene towards the end where an entire house in front of which he's standing bursts into flames (courtesy of a Vietnam special forces team drafted in for the detonation) and does not bat an eyelid - that's acting. Coscarelli had clearly been paying attention to trends in films between 1979 and 1988, as Phantasm II is chock full of influences from other movies: the obsession with weaponry from Aliens (1986); tooled up brothers in arms buddy movies like Lethal Weapon (1986); and America photographed at 'magic hour' (Top Gun and Stand By Me - 1986).

The director was also able to spend some decent money on special effects, with 1980s wunderkind Mark Shostrom doing some great things with latex; even the spheres have multiplied (all designed and operated this time by Steve Patino, although his credit in the film was significantly reduced following run ins with the producer), becoming more aggressive and flying more convincingly. But unlike many sequels the additional budget doesn't ruin Phantasm II - it's a different film from the first one, more confident in its directorial choices and with better set pieces; I liked the path of destruction that Reggie and Mike witness as they pass through towns previously visited by The Tall Man where he has literally sucked the life from them. Credit for the improved look of the film is down to cinematographer Daryn Okada, an early credit for someone who went on to be DoP for movies like Lake Placid (1999) and Just Like Heaven (2005). But there's also a certain reservedness about the movie, perhaps caused by the constant presence at the shoot of the Universal 'men in suits.' Bannister commented in an interview that "...they were always kind of hanging around to make sure the movie turned out the way they wanted it, and that made for a different kind of vibe on the set.We didn't feel as much like rebels out on the edge."

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (USA 1994: Dir Don Coscarelli) Fans would have to wait a further six years for the next instalment in the franchise, the first of the films designed more for the home market than a theatrical release. Coscarelli has commented that as the numbers of the Phantasm films rose, so the budgets fell ($2.5 million for this one) but the director surprises with new levels of inventiveness and even some comedy (which divided some of the franchise's hardcore audience at the time), creating a dreamlike chain of events more reminiscent of films from the latter end of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

Following a pattern set up by the last movie, we're dumped straight back where II left off: Mike (A. Michael Baldwin, the original Mike, now returning to the fold, but seamlessly picking up the reins from James Le Gros, albeit making the part less gung ho than his youthful version) and Reggie (Bannister) survive a hearse crash, although Liz doesn't make it; The Tall Man carrying her severed head around makes that pretty clear. Mike ends up in hospital where he has visions of his dead brother Jody (a returning Bill Thornbury) whose brain and soul resides in one of the spheres (III considerably expands the spheres' features - as well as being a repository for the brains of the cowled zombies, Jody sphere also acts as a laser tool and primitive GPS). Defying an attack from a zombified nurse, Mike and Reggie flee the hospital, guided by Jody who morphs between sphere and 'human' forms with amazing regularity. Along the way they pick up 11 year old Tim (Kevin Connors), whose parents were killed by The Tall Man but who is more than able to look after himself, Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a gun and nunchaku toting gal that somehow manages to resist all attempts by Reggie to jump her bones, and three lowlifes who are quickly despatched but who turn up later as gurning zombies in the service of Scrimm's character.

Meanwhile Mike has been abducted by The Tall Man and the rest of the crew all end up in a huge mausoleum, where Mike is being held, and which is the scene for the final battle - well the final battle in this film anyway. The Tall Man is defeated but his indestructibility is now legendary, and the team are possibly too late to save Mike, who remains alive...but with a sphere implanted in his head. And what's going to happen to Timmy, snatched through a mirror just like Mike at the end of the first movie?

"Don't believe everything you see. Seeing's easy...understanding takes a little more time," advises the spectral and newly gnomic Jody at one point in the film. And Phantasm III pretty much lives up to that line - it's a hoot from start to finish. Quite happy to tack on any bits of exposition that work at the time, its freewheeling spirit is a triumph of ingenuity over budget. There are several staggering set pieces including some great car stunts courtesy of stuntman Bob Ivy, while the retention of many of the actors from the first movie makes it feel like a family business, although Angus Scrimm plays The Tall Man even more intensely here - and gets more to do as well. Mark Shostrom's quirky effects always deliver, and the mausoleum setting is terrific - the Compton location in Los Angeles was apparently discovered by Bannister, and his prize for securing the facility for the three week shoot was to put Reggie centre stage in the movie, a gamble which pays off as it's this film where Bannister really comes into his own as a character. Too bad that we don't see Tim again after this one, and Rocky got to drive off into the sunset (until the end of Ravager), but at least they both survived to tell the tale.

Phantasm IV - Oblivion (USA  1998: Dir Don Coscarelli) Interviewed on set at the time of making Phantasm III, Coscarelli said, of the possibility of a sequel, "I'll be honest with you - I don't have a fourth or fifth one in mind, so if you ever interview me on the set of Phantasm IV or V, I'll tell you I concocted the story for strictly commercial reasons." Four years later the director was in a slightly more accommodating frame of mind: "My plan is to answer all the questions that have been left unanswered for so long about the Phantasm world," he declared, deciding to "pretty much finish off the story arc of Phantasm" and promising that "the basic core story of Mike, Reggie and The Tall Man is all going to come to a head in this one." Well thank goodness for that. However...

The movie started off life as Phantasm: 1999, co-scripted by Roger (Pulp Fiction) Avery, and budgeted at about $8 million. This proved unworkable, so Coscarelli re-worked the story with a much lower budget in mind - around $650,000, achieved through Japanese , German and Spanish financing. He had to make some hard decisions about how he was going to achieve those aims while making, as he termed it, "A love letter to the fans." The first was to reunite the original cast again, so nearly twenty years after the first film, Thornbury, Baldwin, Bannister and Scrimm are back in their respective roles. The second was to depart from the linear narrative of the last two films and attempt to achieve the dream state approach of the original movie. For much of Oblivion the audience isn't sure what if anything is real. Coscarelli compounds this by the inclusion of unused scenes from the first film slotted in to emphasise the time travelling storyline, in which Mike moves back and forth in time, using the portal established in the first Phantasm, to discover the Civil War origins of The Tall Man and in so doing eradicate him before his transformation from kindly old mortician - Jebediah Morningside - to the crazed body shrinking alien that we all know and love. One of the previously unused scenes features The Tall Man being lynched, the inclusion of which would have been pleasing to Scrimm because of the severe discomfort he experienced being fitted with a body brace to allow the sequence to be filmed. As III was Reggie's movie, IV is largely Mike's and to some extent The Tall Man's - Mike's still a bit of a puppet but at least he fights back a bit in this one, despite his cranial addition. It's fascinating comparing footage from the 1979 film - the Phantasm movies have all been concerned with the American way of death and the process of ageing, and the retention of the original cast gives us a strong visual reminder of that process at work.

We left Phantasm III with Mike reeling from the effects of having one of the spheres surgically inserted into his cranium, and in IV it is clear that not only is this a device used by The Tall Man to control him, but that Scrimm's character wants to use the sphere to show Mike visions of different timescales and dimensions.

Phantasm IV is, like its two predecessors, a great road movie, deploying its Death Valley locations (reportedly making it a very tough shoot, particularly for Scrimm) to great effect, and there's a return to the imposing Compton CA mausoleum utilised in III.  It's lighter on set pieces, although stunt man Bob Ivy returns with some spectacular vehicular explosions and a great fight in a moving car involving Reggie and a demonic cop. Scrimm once again is his old imposing self, clearly relishing the chance to play good and bad roles (incidentally the shop where Scrimm was fitted for his outfit, the Western Costume Co, was the same place that provided him with the clothes for his first film role in 1951 as Abraham Lincoln, for Encyclopaedia Britannica). The effects are more sparingly used, although with the budget Coscarelli was lucky to have the use of Mark Shostrom and KNB crew from II, who helped out on this more from a sense of loyalty than for the paycheck.

Phantasm Ravager (USA 2016: Dir David Hartman) "Unless we can someday get Phantasm 1999 funded, I'm convinced this is going to be it for the franchise," said Coscarelli while putting Oblivion to bed. Sound familiar? Talk of a sequel to Oblivion had been reported since 2004, and the film was actually completed in 2014, but had to wait two years for a distributor. In terms of making the movie, although by all accounts guided at every step of the way by 62 year old director of the previous four films, and although he produced the first draft of the screenplay, Coscarelli handed over the reins of the fifth instalment to David Hartman, whose CV had previously largely comprised animated kids' TV shows, and who he met while making the brilliant Bubba Ho-Tep in 2002.

Phantasm Ravager (the 'V' in the title is of course the roman numeral for '5' like the 'IV' in Oblivion and the 'III' in...OK it doesn't always work) in keeping with the previous sequels kicks off where Oblivion finished - albeit 18 years later, ten of which were used to make the thing in between other projects - and plot-wise unless you've seen at least III and Oblivion, you're going to be scratching your head for much of the time. Even more abstract than the previous film, Ravager is more like a meditation on death and fate than anything else, tinged with sadness both cinematically and in real life - Angus Scrimm died very shortly after the completion of shooting at the age of 89, and the family-close cast and crew of the film lost a true friend.

As Ravager opens we meet Reggie, still searching for Mike and trying to avoid The Tall Man, the aggressive brown dwarves and the ubiquitous flying spheres, with whom he does battle almost immediately. But we can't trust what we see; Ravager sets up the possibility that everything we've witnessed before might have been in Reggie's mind, for in the next scene he is sitting in a wheelchair in the grounds of a hospital, with Mike at his side, breaking the news that Reggie has been diagnosed with early stage dementia. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Slaughterhouse-Five, Reggie time travels back and forth: we see him in a hospital bed, next to an old, seemingly near to death Jebediah Morningside (indicating that he's back in the nineteenth century) who tells him prophetically "this body is almost finished"; we also get glimpses of a red tinted future age where the Tall Man has decimated America, now ruled by huge silver spheres which patrol the sky. When Reggie is finally captured by The Tall Man a group of rebels frees him - they include Mike and later Jody, who together wage war against the spheres and their lanky master; meanwhile back at the hospital Reggie seems to be dying, with Jody (apparently no longer dead) and Mike at his side.

Watching Ravager, with scenes from all the previous movies spliced almost randomly into each other, is a bewildering experience. I like the critic from Variety magazine who described it as  "like an Alan Resnais film, only with zombie dwarves." Despite Coscarelli taking a backseat on directorial duties, this is still very much a Phantasm film, albeit a sadder one - the sight of a much older Thornbury and Baldwin presiding over a similarly aged Bannister is very poignant. There are some concessions to modernity: the 18 years since Oblivion have seen the almost obligatory deployment of the hand held camera, here used quite liberally; and the spheres are now largely CGI generated (and because of the slim budget, none too convincingly).

And if you want to know whether there's going to be a sequel, watch Ravager's closing credits. Initially I thought I was watching scenes from the movie replayed, but it turns out that they are new shots that offer the possibility of further adventures with the gang, regardless of whether they're living or dead. And with it being Phantasm, the only thing that can be guaranteed is that Angus Scrimm won't be in the cast. Or will he?

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