What once was will be again. What will be has already passed. God will see and has seen all of it, and will bring every deed to judgment.
- Ecclesiastes 3:15
“For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”
- Albert Einstein
You think when you die, you go to heaven? You… come… to... us!
- Lawrence Rory Guy
In 1979, Don Coscarelli’s imaginative, audacious, desultory, and beloved Phantasm floated eerily into a genre that was only just starting to be reshaped by the classic Halloween. Far from the conventional stalk-and-slash films conceived in the wake of John Carpenter’s landmark film, Phantasm was so twisted and “out there” that many of the day’s critics had no idea what to make of it. Some were quite unkind.
Others though, steeped as they were in the history of the genre – of the moody, dreamlike works of producer Val Lewton… of the fractured nightmare logic of Dario Argento’s strange shockers – delighted in a film that offered flamboyant flourishes, reality-breaking twists, and no easy answers.
Over nearly forty years, and in between his helming a few other great cult films (The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep, and John Dies at the End spring immediately to mind), Coscarelli has returned to his signature series (in collaboration with director and visual effects artist David Hartman) to further its strange mythos – and further frustrate its fans with the demented details of the Tall Man’s sinister endgame.
In the past, the filmmaker has toyed with other worlds and dimensional doors, and with this latest, final (?) Phantasm film – RaVager – Coscarelli drags string theory into his metaphysical mélange, showing us what might be different realities unfolding at the same time – or maybe they’re just the delusions of our old friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister)?
We rejoin Reggie, eighteen years after Phantasm: Oblivion, wandering in the desert, lost and confused – but as the tale unfolds, we also find him suffering from dementia in a mental health facility, at death’s door in an old hospital, on the hunt for his buddy Mike, and being dragged into a apocalyptic war against his old nemesis the Tall Man (once again portrayed by the inimitable Angus Scrimm). We leap back and forth between these…timelines (?) – meeting allies with destinies reshaped by each reality. In one truth, Mike is the subject of Reggie’s search. In another, he’s the John Connor-esque leader of a dwindling army of humans fighting against an invasion from the Tall Man’s world. In still another, he’s a tweed-sportcoat-and-spectacles sporting milquetoast, half-heartedly comforting a Reggie he’s certain has lost his mind. Are any of these timelines real? Will they/can they intersect? Are they happening on top of one another, or have some of these moments come and gone? RaVager is playful in this regard, and in the end, it knows exactly which one the viewer wants… I think?
Seeing the original Phantasm on home video as a kid, there was something of a charge to be had from the fact that the film’s protagonist was a young boy. Coping as he was with loss and abandonment – terrors writ creepish and cosmic as Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man closed in on what was left of his family and friends – Michael Baldwin’s Mike was a great genre audience surrogate, and his tale had the feel of a far-fetched story crafted to cope with feelings he’d rather not confront.
There’s a similar charge to be had seeing him as a grown man in RaVager, as audience members of a certain age grew up with him – and here, as then, Baldwin’s character labors to avoid a somber truth. If the first Phantasm can be viewed as a film about a fractured family processing the grief of unexpected loss, then RaVager can be viewed as a film about that same family trying and failing to process the inevitable loss that comes with the ravages of time. This becomes explicit in an unexpectedly affecting scene in which Bannister’s Reggie finds himself occupying a hospital room with Jebediah Morningside – the kindly, inquisitive man of science who accidentally discovered the Tall Man’s world/dimension/reality and returned to our world/dimension/reality as host to the malevolent entity. When Reggie says he’s going to try to leave the dreary hospital, Scrimm tells him that it’s unlikely. These two men are old and frail and alone. He says that they’re in a place for those who’ve outlived their utility – a place where people go to die.
As sad as it might seem to contemplate, it’s entirely possible that Coscarelli and his crew understood that, at nearly ninety years old, Scrimm was running out of time – and so it seemed the right moment to gather his old friends together for one more run, and it’s tough to deny that seeing all of them together again is Phantasm: RaVager’s raison d'être – which means that a general audience’s mileage may vary. Those unaware of Phantasm’s lore – and without an affinity for its amiable cast – may not remotely comprehend what’s going on here.
The Phantasm films were almost always low budget affairs, but they had a charmingly handmade quality. RaVager is often nicely-shot, and the digital video usually looks very film-like, but despite Hartman’s obvious ability and ambition, undercooked CG often hinders the picture. There are a few well-rendered moments of epic scale and scope – and since the series’ killer spheres are much easier to do as CG creations, we can now follow them around as they engage Reggie in an energetic and hilarious car chase – but overall, the film’s digital trickery could have used another pass.
While some might say that’s equally true of the script (the film’s disjointed narrative is said to be a consequence of a fractured shooting schedule and its apparent genesis as a series of short films), RaVager’s disjointed narrative is in many ways keeping with the off-kilter nature of the Phantasm films; more than any of the previous entries, this one endeavors to keep its audience wondering how much of what they’re seeing is real. Phans should really feel right at home. Like the other films, RaVager asks questions it doesn’t answer and leaves us with yet another insuperable cliffhanger – but there is also a poignant sense of finality in its last moments as the timelines we’ve been shown reach their often conclusions. Hartman and Coscarelli have used their goofy little B-movie as a platform to ponder the infinite – and the takeaway seems to be “Spend as much time as you can with the people you love, and never stop fighting the good fight.” It’s not a bad lesson as lessons go.
Phantasm: RaVager is by no means a flawless film. It’s hampered by its budget and some less-than-stellar CGI, but it’s inventive and weird and funny in that off-kilter Phantasm Phashion – and it’s undeniably great to see the band back together with their balls in the air one last time.
RaVager and the rest of the Phantasm franchise – including the newly-restored original – are currently available digitally on-demand via the platform of your choice from Well Go USA.