Reviewed by: Richard Dean
A black hearse slowly cruises amongst the tombstones of a darkened, mist-enshrouded cemetery.
A familiar figure is seated behind the wheel of the hearse. It is Mike Pearson; a thin trickle of yellow blood visible high upon his forehead. He is clearly battered and exhausted from his most recent encounter with the Tall Man, but still bears a look of grim determination upon his visage. Through his thoughts, we hear his reminiscences of his last “perfect day” of youthful innocence (the day before the arrival of the Tall Man) and of the nightmarish horrors suffered by his brother, his best friend and himself in the twenty years that have followed.
Mike soon discovers that the hearse he occupies has not delivered him from the evil destiny planned for him by the Tall Man. It is delivering him to it. Under the control of the unearthly undertaker, the hearse spirits Mike into the desolate heart of Death Valley. Here, Mike begins a journey of both discovery and self-discovery, learning of the origins of the Tall Man and developing his own unearthly abilities bestowed upon him by the mortician.
Mike’s nightmarish journey is nearing completion, his fate caught in a brutal tug-of-war between the Tall Man’s relentless desire to claim the young man’s soul and Mike’s equally dogged desire to retain his humanity. This is the essence of the latest entry in the PHANTASM film series, the eagerly anticipated PHANTASM: OBLIVION.
OBLIVION once again reunites director/producer/screenwriter Don Coscarelli with original PHANTASM cast members A. Michael Baldwin (“Mike”), Reggie Bannister (“Reggie”) and Bill Thornbury (“Jody”). PHANTASM: OBLIVION is not the film many fans of the series expected to see when word of a new PHANTASM film got out in mid-1997. This newest film began life as a script written by Roger Avary (“PULP FICTION”) entitled PHANTASM 1999. This script allegedly would have presented viewers with a bleak vision of an apocalyptic future, created by the evil-doings of the Tall Man. Presumably, several factors prohibited the development of this script -budgetary concerns probably being a major factor. This led to the development of PHANTASM: OBLIVION, a film which was made, reportedly, at a budget comparable to that of the original PHANTASM film almost twenty years earlier. This is an amazing concept, especially when you bear in mind that the original film was considered to be “low-budget” even back in 1979! OBLIVION was an independently financed feature which found distribution only after its completion when MGM (and its subsidiary Orion) picked it up.
One of the most interesting elements of the PHANTASM series is the unique “feel” of each of the films. The original PHANTASM was a dizzying, surrealistic nightmare, chock full of bizarre and disturbing visuals and scenarios.
PHANTASM II opted for a more straightforward, action-oriented approach, while still maintaining many of the original’s more horrific elements.
PHANTASM III injected a decidedly more comedic element into the grisly proceedings. This proved to be a direction that many fans of the earlier film(s) disapproved of. Those whorejected P3 cried out for a return to the elements that made the original film the classic it is now recognized as being. Don Coscarelli listened to the fans and, with these individuals in mind, penned PHANTASM: OBLIVION; his “love letter” to the fans, as he put it in a recent interview with FANGORIA magazine.
There is definitely a sentimental “feel” about PHANTASM: OBLIVION, and it is a heartfelt effort by Coscarelli to bring his film series full circle. It is both a progression of the events seen in PHANTASM II and III, and a return to the waking nightmare that tormented the youthful Mike in the original PHANTASM.
Without question, Mike is the centerpiece of OBLIVION. From the very beginning of the film series, Mike has been the focus of the Tall Man’s evil quest. Why, we do not know, and OBLIVION offers hints, but no additional insight, into this element of the PHANTASM saga. The only new development in this new film is the apparent “conditioning” of Mike to fill the Tall Man’s shoes for some unknown reason. The undertaker’s their-apparent, if you will. This bond between good and evil remains one of PHANTASM’s great mysteries, and likely will remain that way. These mysteries are at the heart of the PHANTASM series, endearing it to many and frustrating probably equally as many. Those seeking neat and tidy resolutions to the puzzles presented in the earlier films may very well be further baffled by OBLIVION, because this film poses more mysteries than any other in the series. For example, in OBLIVION, the spacegates are a recurring plot element, their chromium poles a far more frequently appearing PHANTASM icon than the trademark silver spheres. Here, the spacegates are revealed to be not only tools for interdimensional travel, but time travel as well. Three times during the film, Mike uses the spacegates to travel time, each time leaving the viewer wishing for more precious information.
The first example of this is when Mike emerges from an antique set of spacegate poles into a 19th century laboratory belonging to the kindly undertaker/inventor Jebediah Morningside (a dual role for Angus Scrimm).
Later in the film, in another time travel sequence, Mike watches Jebediah enter his spacegate invention, only to return as the evil Tall Man. We, the audience, long to see what happens to the gentle Jebediah on the other side of the gate that causes his transition from good to evil, but do not. These 19th century scenes involving Mike and Jebediah, while excellent, are too brief, missing potentially intriguing possibilites for interaction between the two men and, perhaps more importantly, additional insights into the history of Jebediah/the Tall Man.
Still later, Mike passes through a spacegate into a desolate, modern urban environment where Jody warns him of the “risk of infection.” Could this be a hint of the film Roger Avary had scripted? Again, an intriguing concept which entices, but does not necessarily enlighten the viewer. This sequence is beautifully shot, eerily reminiscent of the scene where the Tall Man stalks down the small town street in the original PHANTASM.
I find these mysteries in the PHANTASM series to be exhilarating. They give the films an exciting character like no others in the genre. While somewhat underdeveloped, the new plot turns in OBLIVION add nicely to the mythos established by the previous films. One plot turn I did find disappointing, however, was Jody’s unexpected turn towards evil. After reintroducing his character in PHANTASM III as a trusted ally of Mike and Reggie, it does not seem plausible that he would lash out at Mike in OBLIVION. He could have easily put both Mike and Reggie within the Tall Man’s grasp in P3 during the scene where Jody and Reggie liberate Mike from a crypt.
Though it is a dramatic scene in OBLIVION, it ends up paying the price in redibility, not to mention hindering Bill Thornbury’s chances of appearing in any future PHANTASM installments, should there be any. Some of the great pleasures offered in PHANTASM: OBLIVION are the references to, and in some cases clips from, the original PHANTASM. Coscarelli deftly pays homage to his original horror classic by seamlessly integrating into OBLIVION clips of previously unused PHANTASM footage from 1979. The absolutely pristine quality of these clips is amazing given their age. Some have stated their opinion that PHANTASM: OBLIVION owes its existence to this previously unseen footage; that the film serves only as a vehicle for displaying these clips. I strongly disagree with this assessment in that these clips are used only to augment elements of Coscarelli’s OBLIVION screenplay. They do not drive the film itself. Besides, if all Coscarelli wanted to do was put this footage on display, why wouldn’t he simply incorporate it into the recently re-released PHANTASM videocassette?
Probably the most critical piece of this twenty year old footage is the sequence where Mike and Jody hang the Tall Man (and his subsequent freeing by Mike). This sequence ties in directly to Mike’s attempted suicide by hanging in OBLIVION, and the Tall Man cutting him free. This scene serves to further establish the mysterious bond between the two men, and creates an almost fatherly demeanor for the Tall Man.
The other clips on display in OBLIVION are not as pivotal, serving as flashbacks to further reinforce Coscarelli’s attempt to bring his characters (and the audience) full circle; back to the beginning of a nightmare that was never real, or one that never ends. Coscarelli has added some nice touches to the OBLIVION screenplay that also harken back to the original, such as Mike’s resourcefulness (witness his own sphere creation constructed from pieces of the disabled hearse’s engine), Reggie’s return to his ice cream vendor duds (a nice connection to the film’s heartbreaking and, at the same time, magical final scenes) and the discovery of the potential for Reggie’s guitar tuning fork to be used as a weapon.
The performances in PHANTASM: OBLIVION are uniformly fine, but standing out is an exceptionally good performance by A. Michael Baldwin as Mike. He seems far more relaxed with his role here than he did in PHANTASM III. As mentioned before, the character of Mike is at the center of OBLIVION, and Baldwin carries that load nicely. As always, Reggie Bannister wields his four-barreled shotgun and delivers the film’s key punchlines with his usual amounts of flair. Sadly, Bill Thornbury is underutilized for the most part in OBLIVION. However, his “I died in the car wreck” line near the end is one of the film’s moist poignant and chilling moments. Also somewhat underutilized is newcomer Heidi Marnhout as Jennifer, the latest temptress in Reggie’s life. Small as her role is, the scene involving her sphere “implants” is certainly one of OBLIVION’s standouts.
And, of course, what would a PHANTASM movie be without Angus Scrimm’s portrayal of the menacing Tall Man? Scrimm really shines in OBLIVION, infusing many nice subtleties into the role. As mentioned before, there are times in OBLIVION when the Tall Man displays an almost benevolent demeanor towards Mike, and seeing Scrimm as the gentle Jebediah is certainly disorienting. Scrimm also delivers one of the film’s funniest lines. As he pulls Mike’s sphere creation from the back of his head, he examines it and, in a cutesy, grandfatherly way, calls it “a toy.”
PHANTASM: OBLIVION does have a few shortcomings. It is relatively low on scares and special effects compared to the slam-bang horror and pyrotechnics of P2 and P3. However, this is probably partially by design as OBLIVION is intended to be a far more reflective film than its last two predecessors. OBLIVION is not nearly as dark as the other PHANTASM films. Much of the film is shot in daytime settings, which does little for setting a mood of despair, but does effectively show off many of the film’s impressive outdoor locales. The only major flaw in PHANTASM: OBLIVION is the total lack of mention of the “Tim” character from PHANTASM III. After bonding with the boy throughout the last film, it would seem unlikely that the dedicated Reggie would simply take off without any concern for the young man’s fate. Even a brief sequence at the beginning of the new film showing Reggie searching for the boy and finding him transformed into a demon (or already dead) would have sufficed, and would have further established Reggie as a caring, sympathetic character.
These relatively small criticisms aside, PHANTASM: OBLIVION is yet another outstanding entry in an outstanding film series. Don Coscarelli is to be commended for going against the odds and having the perseverance to create this film without studio backing. His skills as a director are clearly evident again and I eagerly look forward to seeing what he has up his sleeve next. Rumor has it that OBLIVION will conclude the PHANTASM series. If this is to be the case, then it is a fitting, poetic finale.
Needless to say, I truly hope this is not the end. As the Tall Man says, “It’s never over.”