Between healthy obsessions with cagefighting, gaming and baking (yes, really), it’s hard to keep up with all the ’80s movies we’ve missed. So sometimes you need to set aside some time to catch up and on Sunday, that’s what we did.
We’d see Phantasm before, most recently just a few years back, but have been keen to check out the sequels. Only one of them is actually an ’80s movie but you can hardly just write about the second film in a quadrilogy, can you?
So, we decided to refresh our memories of the 1979 original and see what happened next.
The original movie, like so many of films of that era, starts with a sex scene. It’s in a graveyard. Just for good measure. Once the couple in question are done, the lady stabs the man before her face turns into that of Angus Scrimm who plays ‘the Tall Man’ who graces the poster for the movie.
The story follows Michael, a young boy who has lost his parents and is being looked after by Jody, his older brother (complete with leather jacket because he’s the older brother). Jody is attending the funeral of the man who was stabbed and Michael is following him and watching with his binoculars.
As things progress, Michael spies the undertaker (the Tall Man) as he lifts up a coffin (with dead chap inside) all by himself. Aside from being freakishly strong, the Tall Man is also aided by hooded dwarves who run around and growl a lot while attacking people. It’s all a bit odd.
Anyway, rather than leave well alone. Michael decides to go and investigate (by kicking his way into the funeral home via a window). It’s here that he has his first encounter with the metal sphere that became a series trademark. Michael is grabbed by the cemetary caretaker as a sphere flies towards him. He ducks and the sphere uses two metal spikes to embed itself into the caretaker’s face. Before drilling into his forehead and spurting blood EVERYWHERE.
The Tall Man appears and chases Michael, who slams a door on him, trapping the Tall Man’s hand. Michael cuts off his fingers, discovering that the Tall Man has worryingly orange blood. Smartly, and remember that smart decisions are rare in horror films, Michael takes a finger home and shows it to his brother. It’s still wiggling around in it’s orange blood and soon transforms into a weird wasp creature, just to sell Michael’s version of events.
This leads to Michael, Jody and Reggie – a friend of the family who sells ice-cream and has a ponytail/mostly bald head combination going on – to investigate the cemetary (rather than calling the police or anything). They find their friend from the film’s opening scene has been turned into a maniacal dwarf as well as another killer sphere (that Jody blasts with a shotgun).
If this all sounds ridiculous, well strap in, because they then find a white room with two metal poles. It turns out this is a portal to an alien world. You see, the Tall Man is an alien and he kills people and then shrinks their corpses, reanimates them and sends them to the alien world to be slaves. The shrinking is something to do with the gravity on the planet.
As Michael and Jody go to find the Tall Man, Reggie stays behind and shuts down the portal before escaping and running into the lady from the opening scene. She stabs him to death and the funeral home explodes as a result of the closing portal.
Back home, Michael and Jody are distraught and decide to set a trap out in the dangerous mining area outside their house. They lure the Tall Man into a hole and fill it with rocks. However, Michael then wakes up. Reggie (who is now alive) explains it was all a dream and that this is all a big mental reaction that Michael is having because Jody died in a car crash.
This seems fair enough until Michael spots the Tall Man (who is rocking the scene with some fab eyebrow work, even though all he says is ‘BOYYY’) and is dragged through a mirror by one of the evil space midgets. Film ends, credits roll, you remember to breathe again. BLOODY HELL.
Summary: A fairly unusual horror film that ends up being a bit more sci-fi than you were expecting. Played for scares, rather than laughs and full of good special FX moments.
Best bit: The first appearance of the spheres is a gloriously gory moment.
Phantasm II (1988)
Released nine years after Phantasm but mostly set six years after, the series picks up exactly where the original left off. As Mike is dragged into the mirror by the Tall Man’s midgety minion (now called Lurkers), Reggie hears the noise and investigates with his shotgun. After getting cornered by a kitchen full of Lurkers (now complete with ’80s prosthetic make up), he snuffs out the gas, rescues Mike, dives out the window and blows up the house.
Make no mistake, Reggie is now a bad ass.
However, this is all being seen by Liz who is linked mentally to Mike somehow and she needs his help. She’s aware of the Tall Man and she knows her grandfather is about to die and doesn’t want him to get the shrinky murderer slave treatment. The problem is, Mike’s been put in a mental institution as the story is back to saying it’s all a dream again.
Mike isn’t convinced and puts on his best ‘I’m not crazy’ face and gets released. He then goes back to the cemetary and starts digging up graves. Reggie finds him there and when Mike points out that all the graves are empty, Reggie agrees to help. They head back to Reggie’s at which point Mike has a vision that the house is going to blow up. He warns Reggie but it’s too late. It blows, taking Reggie’s wife and kid with it.
Mike and Reggie break into a hardware store and go FULL MACGYVER there. The chainsaw and flamethrower are pretty good but when Reggie welds together two shotguns, you know the shit is about to go down.
They hit the road, encountering one abandoned town after another. It turns out the Tall Man’s MO is to hit a town, make everyone dead, make all the dead midgety, make all the midgets into murder slaves and then clear out. He’s working his way east but thankfully, Mike has a vision that suggests the next act of the film might be playing out in Perigord.
While they head there, picking up the charismatic but a bit too much-like-the-dead-girl-in-Mike’s-latest-visions Alchemy (yep, that’s her name), Liz is at the funeral of her now-dead grandfather. Father Meyers is clearly having issues with the Tall Man’s management of the place and stabs up the corpse, trying to stop the later Lurkerfication of him.
That night, the grandfather makes a quick zombie stop at Father Meyers’ house to give him a quick scare and then jumps into bed with his widowy wife. Liz checks her nan’s bedroom the next morning and sees a funeral pin there while also getting a telepathic message from the Tall Man saying he has her nan. Bad times!
Rather unwisely, she goes to check it all out at the local cemetary. She runs into Father Meyers who tries to help her out before getting a sphere right to the face. Liz then finds her grandmother (in full murder midget mode) and the Tall Man before initiating Operation: Save Ass and running like a motherfucker. She finds Mike outside (who, remember, she’s been having visions of for years) and they go back to meet Reggie and Alchemy who have broken into a local bed and breakfast place.
After pairing up into couples, because apparently being targeted by a death-crazy alien supervillian isn’t enough to put you off, they try to relax a bit but when Reggie’s front door boobytrap (basically a grenade tied to the door) explodes, Tall Man takes advantage of the chaos and sneaks in to grab Liz.
Liz wakes up to find herself on a cremation conveyor belt being examined by one of the Tall Man’s creepy assistants. She catches him off guard though and manages to wrestle him right into the furnace. Meanwhile, Reggie finds a bit vat of that orange gloop that Tall Man seems to use for blood – apparently a reanimation agent – and pours a load of hydrochloric acid into it, for good measure.
Meanwhile, Liz and Mike have reunited and are having to deal with another mortician who thankfully gets pinned to a wall by an errant sphere. Cutting off his own hand to escape, he then gets caught by a gold laser-equipped one which sends him flying into a wall before travelling through his back, up towards his head and out of his mouth. Brutal.
All that remains is to try to destroy this funeral home’s portal but when the gang get to it, the Tall Man surprises them. As Mike falls in, hanging on by ankles, Reggie rescues him but Liz ends up on the enbalming table, about to be injected with the now-acidic orange gloop. Oh no! Luckily, the boys turn up and in the melee, Liz injects the acid into Tall Man who melts. They set fire to everything and get the hell out of there.
Alchemy is outside, in the hearse, and drives them out of there. In the car, Reggie can’t help flirting with her and she reciprocates before pulling away at some of her hair and revealing the flesh beneath. Yep, she’s been converted and as Mike and Liz tell each other this is just a dream, Tall Man appears. “No, it’s not!” before the couple are dragged out through the back window of the hearse.
Summary: With all the humour and action ramped up, this is to Phantasm what Evil Dead 2 was to Evil Dead. Reggie becomes the star of the show and the gory set-pieces are as disturbing as they are impressive.
Best bit: When the second mortician buys it at the hands of a sphere that drills through him. Amazing practical effects work.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)
Uh-oh, we’re into colon/sub-title territory with this third outing for the series. Arriving six years after the previous film, this one also continues straight after it but this time reunites Reggie Bannister (Reggie) with A. Michael Baldwin (Mike) and Bill Thornbury (Jody) who were the stars of the original Phantasm.
So, picking up where the previous film left off, we see the hearse explode, Reggie has survived the attack from Alchemy and goes to save Mike and Liz (who is dead by now). A new Tall Man enters via a portal and tries to stop him. Reggie goes kill-crazy with his quad shotgun until the Tall Man gets the better of him but produces a grenade, threatening to blow up him and the unconscious Mike as well. Tall Man needs Mike in one piece and leaves (with Liz’s head).
Two years later, Mike is in hospital still comatose from the events of Phantasm II. About to pass away, he sees his brother in his thoughts who tells him it isn’t his time yet and tells him to stay away from the light. Mike tries to ignore him but is blocked by Tall Man which wakes him up.
As he wakes up, his nurse has gone full killer-zombie and is trying to kill him. He fights her off, which causes as sphere to dig its way out of her skull and fly off.
Battles ensue with Reg, Mike and Jody (who is apparently a friendly sphere now) fighting Tall Man and it doesn’t go well. Mike, who despite being the original actor, is next to useless and gets taken through the portal by the Tall Man and the Jodysphere ends up charred and malfuctioning.
As ever it is up to Reg to rescue Mike and he heads out East as per usual, to find the next town that the Tall Man has destroyed. On his way there, he is kidnapped by three looters and bundled into the trunk of a car. He is however freed by a kid in full Home Alone mode. Tim, despite being nine or something, is really good with a gun and kills the three looters.
The looters aren’t the only trouble he runs into. When he gets to the next mausoleum, Reg is attacked by Tanesha and Rocky, two young ladies who take literally no shit. Unfortunately, a sphere takes out Tanesha. Rocky attempts to destroy it with her nunchukas but fails. Luckily, Tim turns up again and shoots it out of the air.
Moving further East, the trio find the next town and the next mausoleum. They camp outdoors and the film goes into another dream sequence. At this point it all gets a bit weird and, unfortunately, this is where the series as a whole starts playing a bit too fast and loose with reality.
Dream Jody takes Dream Reggie to the Tall Man’s base. They rescue Mike from a cell and as the Tall Man appears, Reg wakes up. Non-dream Jody (who is sometimes a sphere) opens a portal and Mike comes through it. The Tall Man tries to follow but Reg shuts the gate on him, slicing off his hands for good measure. The hands turn into mad little creatures, of course.
As Mike and Reg move on, they get into a road battle with the three looters from before (now zombies) which is a fun scene. They get away and finally emerge at the next mortuary. However, an almost totally meaningless scene from the first movie is replayed, appearing to show that the Tall Man doesn’t like the cold.
At this point Reggie, Tim and Rocky are all attacked by the zombie looters again while Mike and Jody discuss the Tall Man. They go into another dream and you start seeing the Tall Man taking the brains out of the dead and putting them in spheres. The Tall Man appears, now armed with dozens of spheres. Mike wakes up to find himself strapped down by the Tall Man. They’ve also captured Tim.
Rocky and Reg are in full fighting mode though and manage to fight off the looters yet again before turning up to rescue Mike. Rocky stabs the Tall Man with some liquid nitrogen and shove him into a freezer which appears to work before he turns into a golden sphere and crashes out. After a brief chase sequence they manage to bundle the sphere into a tank of liquid nitrogen.
Unfortunately, at the point Mike realises he’s got a sphere IN HIS HEAD. He now also has metal eyes. He runs away leaving Reggie and Tim to dismantle the Tall Man’s operations in this mortuary. Rocky decides that this all a bit too much and leaves.
The film ends with Reggie pinned to the wall by multiple spheres and Tim taking a backwards dive through a window by the Tall Man, now a series trademark, before we hear him getting ripped apart.
Summary: The humour and violence continues but the story gets more and more hopeless with the Tall Man continually shrugging off death. The dream sequences start to get a little annoying too but overall, it’s a solid sequel.
Best bit: Rocky trying to take on a sphere with her nunchukas is a sure sign that Phantasm III isn’t looking to make the series any more sensible.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
When you’re three films into the quadrilogy and you’ve not gotten up for the best part of six hours, it’s easy to want to do something else but with the end in sight, I had to finish things off and so it was onto Phantasm IV: Oblivion.
Now the odd thing about this film was that they used some unseen footage from the first movie. It’s a really nice touch and given that the film still featured the original Reg, Mike and Jody actors, it’s about as authentic as you can get in terms of flashbacks.
The film opens much like the others, scrambling around for a reason why Reggie isn’t dead and for this one we just have to accept that the Tall Man wanted to let him go. Cool. Meanwhile, Mike has driven off – metal eyes and brain and all – in the hearse and the Jodysphere has to convince Reggie to go after him.
The fun starts pretty quickly as Reggie gets pulled over by a policeman who turns out to be another demon. After taking him out with a shotgun, and an exploding police car, Reggie keeps going. Eventually, finding a lady called Jennifer. Reggie wants to sleep with her (he’s kind of a perve at this point) but she rejects him.
After the first of frankly too many dream sequences, Reggie has a dream about Mike and then wakes up and continues to perve on Jennifer – seemingly a bit undeterred when her body starts moving weirdly. He undoes her shirt and ARGH! Spheres for boobs. The spheres fly out and attack him. Reggie smashes one with a sledgehammer but the other one gets the jump on him and pushes him against a wall. The only thing to hand is a guitar tuning fork. He hits the sphere with it and the vibration makes the sphere explode.
At this point, Jennifer (with two big holes in her chest) attacks him and gets a sledgehammer to the head. Thing is, that whole bit wasn’t a dream. And there’s the problem. Exactly why did Jen have spheres for boobs? If the Tall Man can do that remotely, why can’t he just do that to Reggie?
In the meantime, Mike heads off to Death Valley and starts dicking around with portals or something. He ends up in another dimension and meets Jebediah Morningside. A nice enough chap who happens to be the Tall Man before he went evil. His wife is there too, she’s the fortune teller from the first film. Instead of talking to him properly (I mean, after all Mike did make the effort to go there), Mike freaks out and leaves.
At this point Mike can move things with his mind and is trying to build something out of his car engine (remember, Mike has a sphere for a brain and occasionally has metal eyes). It all goes a bit weird. The film from this point is just Mike going in and out of portals, trying to do something or other (apparently he wants to stop Jebediah from becoming evil but that chance has long since gone).
Eventually Reggie turns up, kills a bunch of evil midgets, and is in the right place when Mike and Jody appear through a portal. Mike doesn’t trust Jody at all and Reggie gives Mike the tuning fork. Mike and Jody go back through a portal. Confused? Fuck. So was I.
The brothers are back at Jebediah’s house. Jeb is working on the first portal. He goes through but out steps the Tall Man who has taken over his body. Mike goes through a portal and then gets attacked by Jody in a cemetary. Whatever. He wakes up on a mortuary slab but escapes when he uses his tuning fork which freezes Jody and the Tall Man. Mike uses a sphere to kill Jody but the Tall Man wakes up and uses psychic abilities to take the tuning fork. Mike goes through yet another gate, back to Death Valley, as the Tall Man chases him.
On the other side, Reggie tries to shoot the Tall Man but when that doesn’t work, Mike summons a sphere from his car engine and flings it into the Tall Man’s neck who is utterly unimpressed. He crushes the sphere. Bad times.
However, Mike had a plan all along. His car is the real weapon here. He’s turned it into a powerful bomb. It explodes and kills the Tall Man. This is great and all but the Phantasm films are a bit like Friday the 13th and Halloween. The bad guy is never dead for long. A new Tall Man comes through another gate. It turns out there are lots of them.
As the Tall Man removes the sphere from Mike’s head (almost killing him), Reggie grabs his super shotgun and enters a gate looking to finish the fight for once and for all. In the meantime, Mike lies dying in the dirt and has a memory of riding in Reggie’s ice cream truck (actual unused footage from the first film).
Summary: Too many dreams, too many portals. The plot is as confused as it is confusing and it feels low budget compared to the other films (that were hardly high budget affairs).
Best bit: As weird and disturbing as it was, Reggie’s battle with the boob-spheres is probably the one part of the film that isn’t dull although it was good to get a bit of origin story on the Tall Man.
Overall, as exhausting as it was, I was glad to get all four films watched. Not many stories can sustain themselves over four iterations and Phantasm is no exception but the first film is just a great classic horror film. The sequel is a brilliant action/comedy horror. It’s great (and it’s pure ’80s).
The series after that is a bit confused. It paints itself into a corner because the Tall Man really is unbeatable at this point and seems to have limitless powers. The extra characters in the third film add something though. Tim and Rocky add a bit of interest and the zombie looters are great fun but the story at this point is trash and the fourth film is at least three rewrites away from being good.
Phantasm V: Ravager is due out this year having been filmed before the untimely death of Angus Scrimm (the Tall Man) and so it’s worth getting through the quadrilogy in order to be ready for that and even when it’s bad, Phantasm is still one of the best horror series made. Other series (such as The Howling) managed to get way worse but it’s a shame that they never kept the quality up. Especially when the same people were involved in making all of them.
Phew. Four films in one day. Next up? Critters probably. Eeek!