It was the late ‘70s and a young filmmaker named Don Coscarelli was struggling to get noticed. His first two low-budget films, Jim, The World’s Greatest and Kenny and Company, both flopped, because the drive-in world was not interested in coming of age dramas about young children. However, he was struck by the fact that a sequence in Jim, in which the young characters are watching a horror movie, could have such a visceral impact on audiences. And thus born his classic Phantasm: enlisting frequent co-stars Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, and the tall and imposing Angus Scrimm, he filtered his affinity for coming of age stories into a surrealistic supernatural world and ended up accidentally creating one of the most beloved and iconic horror films of its era.
Phantasm doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that’s okay; it’s become one of those movies that define the term “dream-like.” It’s the story of Mike (Baldwin), a normal 12-year-old who one day spies the local mortician, the “Tall Man” (Scrimm), hoist a coffin out of a hearse one-handed. He tries to convince his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Jody’s horndog, guitar-strumming friend Reggie (Bannister) and they humor his assertions, thinking it’s just his way of working through the trauma of being orphaned. But when the Tall Man attacks, the three of them are plunged into a ceaseless nightmare, attacked by killer, hooded dwarves and a flying silver sphere with an assortment of blades and drills inside.
Phantasm was a hit that, nearly a decade later, inspired an unusual franchise: Universal tried to make a bigger budgeted Hollywood sequel that continued the adventures of Mike and Reggie, but it flopped. However, it did manage to be successful enough to inspire a return to its scrappier indie roots, with a pair of sequels that went the direct to video route in 1994 and 1998. Since then, though, it’s been all quiet on the Phantasm front, with rumors of a sequel popping up now and then, but nothing concrete coming of it. Until one fateful day in 2014, when Coscarelli let slip that work was nearly complete on the fifth and final film in the franchise, directed by newcomer David Hartman — the only one not helmed by Coscarelli, who did remain on as producer and co-writer. Two years later, after many stop and start attempts at finishing the film, Phantasm: Ravager has finally arrived.
And it’s a giant slap in the face of anyone who calls themselves a Phantasm fan, as this writer is.
It’s no small thing to state that Ravager is garbage. Straight, undiluted garbage. It’s easily the worst of the franchise, and even one of the worst sequels in any major horror film franchise. It’s incompetent, low rent, and can only be called a movie in the most charitable sense, in that it is 90 minutes of images unspooling over a screen. It’s Hartman’s glorified YouTube fan fic video stretched to feature-length – made with all the pizazz and style and grace of a bunch of people making a film for fun in their backyard and then augmenting it with a cheap AfterEffects knockoff. It’s bargain bin filmmaking at its most unwatchable.
The movie picks up where the last one left off — the Tall Man had been blown up by Mike and Reggie, but a silver sphere began to birth from Mike’s skull while Reggie enters into the otherworldly dimension where the Tall Man resides. Reggie is seen wandering the desert, into pursuit of both Mike and his beloved ‘71 Barracuda, both of which went missing while he was away.
In true Phantasm fashion, Ravager cuts between three different timelines, sometimes making what is going on incomprehensible. But what felt like surrealistic atmosphere building in the original just feels like cluttered confusion here — and a betrayal to Phans. None of the timelines are particularly engaging but two are egregious in very different ways: Reggie wakes up in a hospital in a future world where the Tall Man has successfully taken over, his ramblings in the desert an image projected in his mind. The world is left in apocalyptic ruin, Mike now a leader of a commando team, but the way Hartman depicts the apocalypse is with CGI imagery so unbearably shoddy it looks like cut scene from a video game in 1992. It’s cheap, untextured and ugly, much like all the CG in this film — even the blood squibs and muzzle flare utilize the worst of the worst in outdated computer tech.
But it’s the third timeline that’s the real sucker punch, and I can’t discuss it without wading into seriously spoilery territory. So keep this as your warning. MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!!! THESE ARE NOT MINOR SPOILERS THESE GIVE AWAY THE WHOLE END OF THE FILM AND THE FRANCHISE!!! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!
After 37 years, after four films — and most of a fifth thing that calls itself a film — Hartmann decides to St. Elsewhere it. That’s right, everything that ever happened and is ever going to happen was a dream. Specifically, the addled imaginings of an aged Reggie, dying of dementia. The third timeline keeps cutting back to Reggie in a hospital, visited by Mike, who claims no knowledge of the Tall Man, the killer dwarves, or those silver balls. Reggie tries to convince Mike that the hospital is all an illusion, and for a while you think it could be — until the end. The climax is literally Reggie dying, surrounded by Mike and Jody. It’s meant to be a melancholy, bittersweet send-off for the franchise, of which this is meant to be the end of (though that doesn’t stop Hartmann from contriving a sequel setup epilogue), the gang together one last time to say goodbye, but it fails — the shoddy production values are compounded by the film’s insulting reveal, and the result instead pisses all over the goodwill fans of the franchise have built up over the years.
Honestly, there’s no reason and no excuse for why something like this even exists. The obviously low-budget is no reason — hell the movie Tangerine was shot on a goddamn iPhone and still looks great. The fact that this is made by a first timer is also no excuse, because there are two films here at Fantastic Fest that are debuts and are still among the best of the festival. No, this is lazily assembled footage made by people who no longer care as a way of throwing a bone to both the fans who have been clamoring for a fifth installment for years, and to the dearly departed Scrimm, who was ailing, aging and eager to produce one last film before he passes on. You can tell Coscarelli’s heart is no longer in this, tossing off whatever and handing the reins over to someone else with little attention to quality control. Bannister is a delight, as always, but Baldwin looks bored and Scrimm is too little seen to make much impact. For anyone hoping that the Phantasm franchise was going to go out on an epic final high note, Ravager ends up being less entertaining than a silver ball to the head.