Studio: Anchor Bay
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writer: Don Coscarelli
Producer: Don Coscarelli
Stars: A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy, Angus Scrimm
While Reggie returns to the road in search of Mike, Jody guides Mike through multiple time portals to uncover the mysteries of the Tall Man.
To appreciate “Phantasm IV: Oblivion,” or “Phantasm: OblIVion” if you insist, you first have to forgive all of the corners cut by writer/director Don Coscarelli in putting the film together. This of course includes the usual “that didn’t actually happen” approach to smoothing out no longer convenient continuity bumps. And instead of a purposeful, delineated storytelling intent motivating creativity, a fair portion of “Phantasm IV” comes from Coscarelli asking the question, “how can I put that unused footage from 1979 to good use?”
Caught with a character that had outlived her usefulness, “Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” (review here) began with an unceremonious sendoff for Mike’s telepathic sweetheart Liz from “Phantasm II” (review here). Burning to death before being decapitated by a dwarf within the first minute of that movie was a hero’s sendoff compared to how “Phantasm IV” treats poor little Tim from “Phantasm III.”
Reggie’s pint-sized partner, last seen being pulled through glass by a pair of disfigured hands, doesn’t even earn so much as a mention when “Oblivion” opens. Reggie, last seen surrounded by a silver sphere swarm, is literally let off his levitation hook by the Tall Man, who simply dismisses the balls, says “meh,” and allows Reggie to immediately attend to the pressing matter of fixing his Hemicuda’s front tires. It’s not like Reggie need be concerned about that boy who was just attacked by interdimensional zombies, after all.
After a montage of miscellaneous “Phantasm” series clips that look good as a highlight reel of the best action bits, but don’t compose any sort of sensible “Previously On…” recap, Mike drives away in search of answers about the Tall Man’s origin. It takes some uncharacteristic coaxing from a vision of Mike’s dead brother Jody, but Reggie soon sets off after Mike.
For much of the movie, the two storylines play out separately, with neither of the main men on a noticeably intersecting arc until late in the last act. Reggie’s thread follows a path of random encounters with a mutant state trooper and attractive blonde bystander. Meanwhile, Mike experiences random visions and dreams, some of which are built by forcing the square peg of deleted “Phantasm” (review here) scenes into the round hole of a new storyline. One wonders what “Phantasm IV” would have done for filler had it been made after home video special features became standard, when all of that previously unseen flashback footage would have already been a “Phantasm” Blu-ray bonus.
Nearly twenty years separates “Phantasm IV” from the original film, yet only seven or eight years has actually passed in the story’s timeline, as “Phantasm II,” “Lord of the Dead,” and “Oblivion” all take place one right after another. There are a number of reasons why the “Phantasm” sequels don’t make for the best back-to-back-to-back viewing experience. One of them is how much older everyone looks, even between “Lord of the Dead” and “Oblivion,” which filmed just four years apart.
Another reason why “Oblivion” has a harder time fitting in with the other sequels is because it has a more casual, less frenetic spirit about it. The pace advances comparatively slower than previous films and the distinctively different storylines for Mike and Reggie have “Phantasm IV” feeling even more like a patchwork of loosely-connected vignettes. Other than the clever way the ending uses the flashback footage, every other use of discarded “Phantasm” scenes shows its hand as a shoehorned insertion, rarely reading as an essential inclusion for the current movie.
It is still fun for fans to finally see some of those fabled shots of the Tall Man’s hanging or Jody’s alternate fate from the first film. Though that partially explains why “Phantasm IV” is a film for the dedicated franchise base, and not necessarily casual viewers eager for cohesive, standalone horror entertainment.
Teasing the Tall Man’s origin as tinkering undertaker Jebediah Morningside is a terrific stroke, and possibly the first meaningful movement in the franchise’s mythology in quite some time. As unmatched as he is at it, horror icon Angus Scrimm rarely has much to do as the Tall Man aside from scowling, opening one eye, and strutting menacingly in slow-motion. “Phantasm IV” affords Scrimm the opportunity to truly act, briefly, in a kindly gentleman role no less, and it is a treat to see the switch in his usual onscreen demeanor.
Those familiar with the series know what to expect from the rest of “Phantasm IV.” Tongue-in-cheek humor inspiring chuckles or eye rolls (e.g. Jennifer with the silver sphere breasts), fan service at the expense of logic (why in the world would Reggie have his old ice cream uniform with him?), and a whole mess of things making even less sense than that. “Oblivion” has a lot of the characteristics that make it distinctly “Phantasm,” but the tired energy powering proceedings makes the movie the weakest entry in the series.
Review Score: 65