Cut it some slack.
In his autobiography True Indie, Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli relates how, in 2009, David Hartman approached him with an idea of shooting some experimental short films set in the Phantasm universe. Coscarelli, who knew Hartman from his visual effects work on Coscarelli’s film Bubba Ho-Tep, agreed and brought Reggie Bannister onboard. Hartman assembled a six-person crew of family and friends and shot on weekends when schedules permitted.
These shorts were based on disjointed scenarios and ideas, like “Reggie [meets] a young woman hitchhiking,” and “Reggie encounters the Lady in Lavender,” not an overarching script.
When complete, they totaled about twenty minutes of footage. Coscarelli and Hartman discussed ideas for how to weave these into a feature. They collaborated on a script that became Phantasm: Ravager, and Hartman set out to finish the film with Coscarelli serving as a producer.
Working with half the first film’s budget meant shooting on video instead of film and necessitated a skeleton crew that saw Hartman also double as a camera operator and visual effects artist. Hartman kept his day job—an animation director at Disney and later Hasbro—and shot on weekends. Over five years, he completed the film.
It opens with Reggie emerging from the desert, his clothes in tatters, after an indeterminate amount of time chasing the Tall Man through other worlds or dimensions. Finding his car—the Hemicuda—missing, he hoofs it down the highway.
A honking alerts Reggie to a car behind him. It’s a Hemicuda. Reggie asks for a lift. The driver wants fifty bucks. Reggie agrees, climbs in, verifies it’s his car, and soon reclaims it, leaving the stranger stranded and naked. I suspect this was one of the earliest scenes filmed. The flat digital photography and the thief’s stiff performance lend an amateur sheen.
Said sheen continues as the Tall Man’s spheres appear and chase the Hemicuda down the road. The spheres look animated, proffering the sense Reggie is fleeing a cartoon. This undermines the emotional stakes. Rather than an exciting car chase, it plays like a car commercial—with the Hemicuda accelerating forward and backward, slamming the brakes, and whipping from reverse into drive—augmented with some cheap CGI graphics.
Indeed, I was worried here, but the film surprised me by cutting to a scene with a wheelchair-bound Reggie, replete with white hair and liver spots, in a nursing home. Disoriented, Reggie looks up to find Mike, who explains that Reggie’s suffering from early-onset dementia. The seamless makeup and Bannister’s convincing performance shine.
Then Reggie’s back in the Hemicuda, picking up an attractive stranded motorist named Dawn. He drives her back to her farm and crashes there for the night. He dreams of the Tall Man conjoined with the Lady in Lavender from the first film. The next morning, he discovers Dawn has fallen victim to the spheres, which chase Reggie around the farm before Reggie jumps back to the hospital with Mike.
Reggie continues jumping between these realities until the film introduces a third, where Reggie never escaped the mortuary at the end of part three. Instead, the Tall Man has held him prisoner there for over a decade in a device designed to plumb his mind for information. Mike rescues him, and Reggie’s thrilled to be reunited with his friend, only to realize that, in this reality, the Tall Man has conquered the world, rendering Earth a hellscape.
This reality subsumes the initial reality as the primary alternate, and Reggie jumps between this hellscape and the nursing home until the finale sees the realities bleed into one another. Reggie embraces the hellscape reality as he dies in the nursing home one.
It’s a fast-paced eighty-five minutes that relies on the viewer’s familiarity with the characters and their history. Some early exposition recaps the series’ prior films, but this won’t substitute for having seen them. The film builds upon the prior films’ themes. Reggie’s jumps between realities evoke the first film’s nightmare logic, now from an aging adult’s point of view, fearing his mind has betrayed him.
Like the first film, this one remains open for interpretation. Hartman and Coscarelli plumb the franchise’s narrative inconsistencies for plot points, such as the Lady in Lavender appearing to kill Reggie in the first film and Reggie’s oft-forgotten wife and child introduced in the second.
This invites an intriguing possibility. Consider when the Tall Man says, “None of you ever listen. When the time comes, they don’t die. They come to me.” Could Reggie have died in the first film, entered the Tall Man’s hellish world, and existed there for the four films that followed?
Perhaps. I like the series beginning from a child’s point of view as Mike struggles with the death of his parents and older brother, and ending with Reggie’s point of view, struggling with his own mortality. Shifting the focus from Mike to Reggie works, as Mike’s connection to the Tall Man would cloud his perspective. It also reframes the series from being about Mike—or even Reggie—to being about the Tall Man and the inescapable death he represents.
But this entry adds a new mystery. The Tall Man offers Reggie a deal: Reggie’s wife and daughter back in exchange for Reggie staying out of the Tall Man’s way. Why? Later in the film Mike and Reggie ask the Tall Man the obvious question: “If you’re so strong and powerful, why haven’t you killed us yet?”
“You were my subject,” The Tall Man says to Mike. Then, turning to Reggie, “and you, well, every Tall Man deserves an amusement.”
In keeping with the Phantasm brand, this contradicts the earlier scene. But I think the most telling line comes prior, just after the Tall Man makes his offer to Reggie.
“Have you considered my offer?” the Tall Man asks.
“Yeah,” says Reggie. “Go back to hell.”
“Yours or mine?” replies the Tall Man. “One might say we’re in it together.”
That’s a pregnant line full of possibilities to ponder, provided you can look past the film’s uneven execution. Coscarelli had a knack for concealing his shoestring budgets. He also had two features to hone said knack before directing the first Phantasm. Hartman’s learning on the job, and it shows. At its worst, such as the aforementioned opening car sequence, the film looks downright amateurish, but at times, Hartman transcends his budget and proffers a hint of his vision.
One such scene comes when Reggie ventures into a cave and encounters several Lurkers that he fends off with an Uzi. Then the Tall Man appears, and the cave falls away, leaving a floating island suspended in space in a nightmarish red world.
Though this scene works, most fall short. Hartman aims to show Earth as a hellscape following the Tall Man’s conquest, with giant spheres leveling buildings and streets swarming with Lurkers, but these scenes never convince. They resemble animated storyboards. Not as cringe-worthy as the opening sequence, but they break the suspension of disbelief and betray the budgetary constraints.
Still, for franchise fans, Phantasm: Ravager is worth watching. It won’t win over any new converts, but new viewers shouldn’t start with this entry. Seeing Reggie assume the lead may alienate some fans at first, but the script’s thematic consistency should win them back. Hartman may lack Coscarelli’s directorial gifts, but he brings a fan’s reverence for the source material and coaxes an impressive performance from Bannister. As an end to the franchise, it leaves us with more questions than answers, but for Phantasm, I’d say that’s fitting.