Walking down the aisles of a ’90s video store, a horror bound kid would invariably see a few things. First, there were a number of big-boxed VHS tapes that would warrant a look, a laugh, and a return to the shelf. Second, Jason and Freddy would be present in cardboard cutout form, standing silent over their domain. Finally, there was that one tape that would stop the kid in his tracks. The cover featured a silver ball with jagged blades protruding from its smooth surface, surrounding it was B-movie insanity: a creepy undertaker, a coffin, a floating kid, and some Jawa-esque creatures. It was a barrage of imagery. What did all these elements have to do with one another and how could a filmmaker fit them together?
The film is Phantasm and to answer the previous question: Who knows? Director Don Coscarelli made the film on weekends over the course of two years with a minuscule budget. In the finished film, narrative consistency and logic are nonexistent, but it works. Watching it for the first time or the 100th, the sincerity and heart of Coscarelli bleeds from the screen. It’s a testament to true patience and a can-do attitude. Now, 38 years later, and a hefty 18 years since the last sequel (see: 1998’s Phantasm: Oblivion), comes Phantasm: Ravager, a love letter to the series and a film that captures the heart, if not the quality, of the previous four outings.
Set 18 years after the events of Phantasm: Oblivion, the film finds Reggie (Reggie Bannister) aged and confused, sitting in a rest home. His doctors, nurses, and even his best friend, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), don’t believe his wild stories about flying silver balls, reanimated corpses, and the malevolent Tall Man (the late, great Angus Scrimm). Still, Mike listens as Reggie insists this is not dementia and begins to tell his story, again, from the beginning.
The first section of Ravager plays out as a series of Reggie vignettes, tied together by voice-over narration. Director David Hartman and Coscarelli, who produced the feature, confess that the film began as a series of shorts and only became a feature film after the two realized they had enough footage for one. This is quite apparent after watching the first 30 minutes of the film; the scenes are narratively unrelated and visually inconsistent. For fans of the series, it’s undoubtedly thrilling to see Reggie back to his old tricks — ahem, hitting on women out of his league and fighting the undead — but for the new Phantasm initiate, this will be quite the jarring viewing experience.
Once the film gets going, any patience is rewarded with some horror mayhem. The remainder of the film continues to bounce between realities, but the majority of the action takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where the Tall Man has destroyed civilization as we know it. Giant versions of the silver balls (eh, sentinels in Phantasm speak) float above the demolished cityscapes and the remaining humans square off against the Tall Man’s minions.
But it’s during these more sci-fi sequences that the film really shines. Baldwin is imposing and ultimately a badass as a future freedom-fighter version of Mike and the rag-tag group of rebels facing off against monsters and flying spheres is genre goodness through and through. Naturally, these scenes are also where one can clearly see the budget constraints, but it’s genuinely disappointing when we leave this exciting setting for more mundane randomness.
(Ranking: Every Horror Movie Sequel From Worst to Best)
Even when Ravager is at its best, though, the film’s cheap production is impossible to ignore. The cinematography is flat and appears to have been shot on a consumer HD camera. The special effects are achieved primarily with low-grade CGI that’s laughable at times. And many of the scenes between Reggie and the Tall Man play out in front of obvious green screen — all too often, the actors appear to be floating in space.
Now, is it fair to hold Ravager up to a higher standard than the original Phantasm? After all, the 1979 original also featured cheesy special effects, cheap film stock, and an incoherent narrative. Today, fans argue these glaring flubs are ingratiating and it’s hard to argue with them; after all, there’s something charming in how the fishing wire held up the plastic bug or how the mausoleum was clearly made out of cardboard walls. Who knows, perhaps future audiences will similarly look back on Ravager‘s effects with rose-tinted lenses, but it’s doubtful anyone will be wistful about the film’s low-budget wizardry.
All formal complaints aside, Ravager is successful in its attempt to capture the spirit of the series. Phantasm has always been about family, the love between brothers and friends, and seeing Reggie and Mike together again, we can only feel the sincerity of their relationship. Which is why the sequel may only please diehard fans of the series — and the film’s self-aware of this idea. At one point, the Tall Man asks Reggie, “Why are you so obsessed with these friends?” Reggie spits back, “It’s called loyalty.” Phantasm: Ravager will disappoint the uninitiated, but those who are loyal will find enough to love.