PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016) review
written by: Don Coscarelli and David Hartman
produced by Don Coscarelli
directed by: David Hartman
runtime: 85 min.
U.S. release date: October 7, 2016 (limited & iTunes, Amazon & VOD)
I’m probably the wrong person to make any kind of comment on the “Phantasm” horror flicks as a whole since I only recently watched the 1979 cult classic, “Phantasm” for the first time. But having finally seen a new remastered version (with a 4K restoration) of that first movie by writer/producer/director Don Coscarelli as well as the latest, fifth (and final?) film in the series “Phantasm: Ravager”, I come to this world of flying metallic spheres and zombie dwarves with a fresh take on the series. This may be the first “Phantasm” movie that Coscarelli hasn’t directed, but he did co-write “Ravager” with director David Hartman and serve as producer and it still has his imaginative stamp of portals to different worlds, time jumps and surreal imagery. It may have its genre heart in the right place, but taking “Ravager” on its own, apart from the knowledge that fans have of the four previous movies, finds this movie not quite worthy of the limited theatrical release it’s getting.
The main protagonist in “Ravager” is Reggie (Reggie Bannister) the balding, guitar-strumming ice cream man pal from the original, who served as a comical supporting character who has now been in all five movies. This storytelling approach is apparently something different for the series. We meet a disheveled Reggie walking in the desert with nothing but the tattered clothes on his back and an assault rifle of some sort. Not necessarily someone you’d offer a ride out in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t take long for Reggie to recount the horrific and outlandish activities of the previous movies for virgin viewers (like me) with a montage that runs concurrent with his voice over reflections. It serves as a reminder for some, while catching others up to speed.
Reggie is still obsessed with finding and taking out the creepy, superhuman Tall Man (the late Angus Scrimm) – the looming antagonist of all the “Phantasm” movies – once and for all, since the portal-jumping mortician is responsible for the deaths of Reggie’s family and the disappearance of his friends, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin, who’s starred in all of the movies except the first sequel) and older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury). He may be traumatized by the body-snatching Tall Man’s piercing, skull-sucking spheres and his diminutive Jawa-like minions, but he’s determined and quite possibly obsessed with preventing the Tall Man of potential world dominion. Why does he crave world domination and how will be do it? I couldn’t tell you.
Like the original, this movie isn’t concerned with being a straight-up sci-fi horror flick. There are some solid comic beats and some humorously written characters, that make up for the low-budget special effects which make this feel like a basic cable production. Seeing how Reggie retrieves his car from a thief (Daniel Schweiger) is funny as is the car chase with two flying spheres. It’s also humorous to see Reggie interact with and assist an attractive red-head, Dawn (Dawn Cody), whose vehicle has broken down in the desert and who accepts a ride from Reggie back to her cabin on a farm, so he can break out his acoustic and strum her a sweet ditty (a nice call back to the first movie).
Soon enough though, we wonder if this is the real Reggie though or is he the really this old Reggie we find waking up in an inpatient hospital. It’s here where the weary Reggie is reunited with Mike (no longer the boy from the first movie) who pays Reggie a visit to tell he’s being treated for dementia. Reggie is excited to see the friend he had sworn to protect, but is having a hard time figuring out what’s what – is his confusion all part of the Tall Man’s plan to continue to toy with him?
Reggie is indeed confused and the three timelines that Coscarelli and Hartman present viewers are equally disorienting. My hunch is, even if you’ve well-versed in the “Phantasm” universe, it’s a challenge to figure out which of Reggie’s timelines we should really concern ourselves with. The Tall Man is a threat in all of them, as are his yellow-blooded acolytes (he no longer just has hooded henchmen at his side), even finding Scrimm deliver his character’s trademark bellow, “BOOOOYYYY!!”, but it’s hard to determine if we should be invested in a futuristic post-apocalyptic landscape where enormous spheres float above cities, obliterating buildings with lasers, a place where Mike is a rag-tag freedom fighter, aligned with a resourceful midget named Chunk (Stephan Jutras) and a Judy, who reminds Reggie of Dawn (both are played by Cody), confusing him even more. Personally, I prefer the older, worn-out-yet-indignant Reggie, which makes him more of an interesting character to follow.
Bannister is great in “Ravager” with an easy-going, commanding presence, managing to navigate Coscarelli’s universe with ease. He’s used to it by now, after all. Baldwin is fine, except it feels like he came out of retirement for this appearance. Once Thornbury pops in with his Jody cameo, there’s sort of a “band back together” moment, but that’s about all his part amounts to. Speaking of cameos, there’s an odd and funny one from Daniel Roebuck (“The Fugitive”, “Lost”), who plays Dawn’s farm hand, Dmiter, in a role that’s basically the requisite side character who has to get his offed by a flying sphere. If you’re aware of typically game Roebuck, you’ll appreciate this bit part.
As for the presence of Scrimm, who died this past January, he certainly doesn’t come across as imposing as he originally did and he certainly has less to do here. His villainy is limp her, with both the storytellers and the actor relying on his imposing presence from the previous movies to carry on into this movie. It doesn’t. Still, it’s cool that the grimacing actor and the actor’s who played the original heroic trio are back and it also must be noted that the Tall Man’s alluring Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester), returns once the movie takes us back to where it all began, in the mausoleum at Morningside cemetery. Even having only seen the first movie for the first time, I acknowledge the geek factor in seeing everyone back together.
After seeing the first movie, “Ravager” would’ve benefited from Coscarelli helming one last movie. Coscarelli has a solid knack for build-up and tight editing, whereas Hartman’s framing is either quite standard or overly reliant on Dutch angles. The first movie has a certain nostalgic quality to it, but this one exudes a certain late night flick from the 90s aura. “Ravager” may have a committed cast, but its screenplay is too scattered to really stick overall, plus the unconvincing CGI is quite distracting – especially the wide shots of cityscapes getting wasted by the Tall Man’s floating orbs. It looks cheesy and a scene that is way too commonplace in this genre.
Ultimately, “Phantasm: Ravager” is for the fans (or, are they Phans?), there’s just no getting around that obvious conclusion. Such ardent viewers should be mindful of a mid-credit scene at the end of “Ravager” that is kind of unnecessary, but also eludes to this not being the end. That’s too bad.