Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-10-07 02:23

Written by: Don Coscarelli, David Hartman
Directed by: David Hartman
Starring: Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, and Angus Scrimm

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The final game now begins.

Vague spoilers ahead; as you might imagine, it's difficult to discuss the latest Phantasm without referencing specifics.

Appropriately enough, Phantasm: Ravager opens with a shot of a vast, arid desert; metaphorically speaking, it’s not unlike where Phantasm fans (aka Phans) have felt as though they’ve been stranded ever since the 1998 release of Oblivion, Don Coscarelli’s shoestring sequel. Cobbled together from newly-shot footage and deleted material from the original film, this (now penultimate) chapter has remained both a tantalizing tease and a confounding conclusion all at once: at a certain point, we resigned ourselves to this being it, and perhaps that was fitting. Maybe Phantasm shouldn’t have a definitive end, no more than dreams should. Maybe Phans were destined to wander in the desert, lost, fumbling for the meaning behind the weird final moments in Oblivion.

But now Don Coscarelli—after several rumors, whispers, and false starts—has returned bearing a most surprising gift in Phantasm: Ravager. Shot covertly over the course of a few years (in keeping with the guerilla production of the original), Ravager began life as a web series before evolving into a full-blown feature that seemingly heralds the end of this 37 year epic. However, don’t mistake that for a conclusion: while it seems highly unlikely that Phantasm will linger on in the wake of Angus Scrimm’s death, it seems just as unlikely that this franchise will ever find a cohesive ending—and that’s okay. Dreams don’t end so much as they linger on, perpetually rattling at the corners of your brain, forever defying logic. So it will be for Phantasm.

Picking up quite impossibly from the very moment Coscarelli left of eighteen years ago, Ravager finds Reggie (Reggie Bannister) emerging from his last encounter with The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). He’s still roaming that desert in search of Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and his Hemicuda, which has been swiped from its hiding spot. After a quick, humorous reunion between man and car, Reggie’s back on the road, once again chased by the Tall Man’s spheres and army of undead ghouls. Suddenly, we’re ripped from this story and plopped onto the grounds of nursing home, where Mike informs a now-elderly Reggie that he’s been diagnosed with dementia.

His ravings about The Tall Man are nothing but the product of a decaying mind, though Mike doesn’t mind hearing the tales recounted once again, so viewers are plunged back into the loopy, screwy dream logic that has Reggie bouncing between time, space, and dimensions as the war with The Tall Man escalates to a full-on post-apocalyptic battle. Reality has never felt more tenuous, nor has Phantasm felt so big before—after unfolding for decades, it’s bloated into this huge event. Unfortunately, this is somewhat perilous on a couple of levels, the most obvious being that this biggest Phantasm also feels like the absolute cheapest.

Getting past its lo-fi aesthetic is difficult because it’s sometimes an unpleasant film to look at. Sure, Phantasm has always been scrappy and relatively low-budget, but it’s always stayed within its means, something Ravager can’t even feign at doing. Unsightly CGI is the most obvious eyesore, plaguing every scene with distracting effects: by the time we see the earth ravaged by The Tall Man, it might as well be a cartoon. Simply put: the resources just aren’t adequate enough to realize the grand vision of Coscarelli and director David Hartman, who have attempted to conjure the ultimate Phantasm film out of thin air. I wish I could say it repeats the success of the similarly scrappy Oblivion, but Ravager never quite looks right: the harsh digital aesthetic is too jarring and lucid for a franchise that’s otherwise unfolded under an unreal, filmic haze.

There’s also the question of whether or not Phantasm should ever even go this big. Personally, I’ve found the franchise to be at its most effective when it’s low-key and intimate: while the second and third entries are terrific romps, the original and Oblivion feel like the purest, most haunting expressions of what Phantasm should be. Only occasionally does Ravager seem to be interested in replicating the somber, melancholy mood that floats over you like a dream. For the most part, this is the first Phantasm that seems perhaps a bit too pleased with its mind-warping, nonlinear brand of illogic. You expect this franchise to be obtuse, but this one blurs so many lines of time and space that it begins to feel like an episode of Freddy’s Nightmares (which, to be fair, isn’t the worst criticism considering my weird fondness for that series).

It becomes a bit exasperating, particularly since there are glimpses of what could have been a completely satisfying entry. There can be no doubt that all of the character stuff works. Catching up with old friends you’ve been hanging with for years tends to have that effect: part of it is fan-service and nostalgia, but it’s hardly pandering when the attachment is this genuine. Like Curse of Chucky before it, this sequel isn’t at all interested in disregarding what came before it; in fact, it’s even less accessible than Chucky’s last outing because this has always been a strange, idiosyncratic franchise, and it isn’t about to stop with the fifth entry. Long-time Phans will recognize its speed and acclimate well, though even they will likely be left scratching their heads at times.

We’re used to that, too, of course, and it helps that the same familiar faces are around for one last ride into this illogical abyss. If Oblivion captured what it must feel like to be trapped in a decades-long nightmare of melancholy and regret, then Ravager draws from a similar well: you begin to feel the immense weight and toll this 37-year battle has taken on the participants. Bannister is terrific as two different iterations of Reggie: one’s broken-down, on the verge of death, the other still a rip-roaring badass blowing away sentient spheres during the apocalypse. Both are ultimately one in the same—the only question is which is “real” and which isn’t.

It’s a tremendously convenient hand-wave to chalk all of the mind-fucking to The Tall Man’s omnipotent abilities, yet I’m not sure that’s really what Phantasm has ever been about. Regardless of the relative “reality” of it all, the fundamental truth is that each Reggie we see here represents the extreme projections of his id: the post-apocalyptic freedom fighter is perhaps his best self, while the broken, bed-ridden elderly man reflects the anxieties of growing older. Actually taking the nursing home sequences at face value (and thus dismissing the entire franchise as the deluded nightmares of a damaged brain) would be an absurd cop-out. More reasonable is that it’s a logical extension of the Tall Man’s efforts to make Reggie tap out from this decade-long battle, and what better way to do so than create a reality where Reggie is feeble and near death, his trusty four-barrel shotgun nothing more than the insane rantings of a dementia patient?

That this has firmly become Reggie’s story feels apt, as Ravager plays like a bookend to the original. What began as a child’s first warped encounter with death has become an older man’s reckoning with the same thing; where Reggie once pledged to look out for Mike, the roles have reversed in Ravager. I can’t pretend to have a firm grasp on the various layers of reality and the sometimes obscure motivations of The Tall Man, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to see Ravager as an attempt to wrestle with old age and impending death. Even the haziest of logic can’t smother the overwhelming of valediction and camaraderie on display here. Everyone dies, and we can only hope to do so in the company of friends, whether they’re at your hospice bedside or riding shotgun with you into an apocalyptic hellscape. Aesthetic warts be damned: I was genuinely moved by Ravager in a way few horror movies would ever be able to pull off.

Perhaps this is because there’s no other franchise like Phantasm, a sprawling, decades-long saga involving the same cast and crew during the entire span. Nothing can get its hooks (or sentient sphere) into you quite like it: in a genre where returns are not only diminishing but also constantly shifting, Phantasm has remained consistent despite an erratic release pattern. At no point has this franchise ever not been about its characters; while no one can reasonably argue that Ravager doesn’t feel miles removed from the original, it at least remains committed to its characters—including those you may not have expected to see again. Towards the end, Ravager feels less like a movie and more like a family reunion.

The most prominent familiar face here Scrimm’s: while age has softened his scowling, Satanic features a bit, it only serves to disarm viewers. There’s a moment when Scrimm seems to be taking on the kinder, gentler Jebediah Morningside persona, only to quickly reassume that same menacing presence that’s induced shudders since 1979. Until the end, The Tall Man remains an omnipotent, evil bastard: I love that Coscarelli and company have resisted the temptation to turn him into some kind of antihero in the vein of his slasher contemporaries. Some obvious sorrow surrounds Scrimm’s passing, but it doesn’t shade the film’s treatment of The Tall Man, who remains the scourge of our heroes. (I’d be lying if I didn’t at least crack a smile at Scrimm bellowing out one more gutteral “booooy,” though.)

Phantasm: Ravager has those sorts of moments. Admittedly, they’re peppered into a less-than-stellar production, one that leaves you wishing Coscarelli had opted for a more intimate, reasonable scope and scale. But then again, he’s been imagining this endgame for nearly two decades now, ever since he and Roger Avary imagined Phantasm’s End; perhaps sensing that this one his last shot, he decided to take it, limited resources and all. There’s something admirable about realizing that vision, and Phantasm: Ravager challenges your limits when it comes to having something rather than absolutely nothing. In this case, I am firmly in the former camp: whatever issues the film has aesthetically, it makes up for with character moments and thematic resonance.

Perhaps most importantly, the franchise ends in a steadfast refusal to make complete sense. It almost feels like finding the long-lost final piece to a puzzle you gave up on years ago, only to find that it’s jagged and doesn’t quite fit correctly. I don’t think I’d have it any other way with Phantasm.

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