Studio: Well Go USA
Director: David Hartman
Writer: Don Coscarelli, David Hartman
Producer: Don Coscarelli
Stars: Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Kat Lester, Gloria Lynne Henry, Dawn Cody, Stephen Jutras, Daniel Roebuck, Daniel Schweiger, Angus Scrimm
Reggie’s search for Mike brings him face-to-face with the Tall Man across multiple timelines in parallel realities.
The “Phantasm” series is cherished by fans, myself included, and their passion for these movies is matched only by the ongoing enthusiasm of those who made them. Spend one minute with anyone from the cast or crew and you will be among some of the warmest, most sincere personalities in genre entertainment. Few horror properties feel this much like family, with filmmakers, actors, and audiences collectively contributing to an inclusive sense of community.
As far as “Phantasm: Ravager” is concerned, every ounce of the affection described above is required to forgive the flick for its fan film feel. Because what you end up getting out of “Phantasm: Ravager” is proportionately related to how much nostalgia you have for the franchise.
Not unlike the 1979 original, “Phantasm: Ravager” emerged from an exercise in determination and experimentation, filmed here and there over weekends spanning multiple years. A passion project for animator-turned-director David Hartman pursued in collaboration with “Phantasm” mastermind Don Coscarelli, “Ravager” was initially conceived as a short film lark that expanded to an idea for online webisodes before finally being reshaped into a full “Phantasm” film. If you’ve already seen “Ravager” and are learning those two sentences of background information for the first time, you likely just exclaimed, “that explains a lot.”
“Ravager” opens with Reggie slow-motion wandering a desert in search of Mike. He is apparently back from his trip through the space gate at the conclusion of “Phantasm IV: Oblivion” (review here) with only vague narration alluding to whatever happened between then and now. Reggie’s chance meeting with a thief quickly leads to recovering his signature 1971 Hemicuda. Soon he returns to old tricks of evading silver spheres and coming to the aid of an attractive redhead stranded on a remote road.
I’d wager dollars to dwarves this was the first sequence filmed. A bumpy handheld camera, natural exterior lighting, and wide lens pushed in far for close-ups are trademarks of an uncertain novice pointing and shooting first, figuring out standard cinematography tenets later.
I am pleased to say that the style settles down and improves from this point forward. Although for several early minutes, flashbacks to “Star Trek: Renegades” (review here) and “Star Trek: Of Gods and Men” (review here) had me fearful of a DIY effort that happens to star original actors. “Phantasm” has always been highlighted by its scrappy independent aesthetics, but portions of “Ravager” are homemade to the point of barely passing for professional.
In a clever creative conceit to work fluctuating actors’ ages into the “story,” a term used loosely with “Phantasm” but even more so for “Ravager,” Reggie jumps between alternate timelines in parallel dimensions. One of those timelines features a war-torn future where an invasion from the Tall Man’s world has ravaged Earth. Resistance fighters struggle against an alien virus while battling dwarves and gravers on the ground as giant spheres fire lasers from the sky. In another timeline, an aged Reggie finds himself confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home. Mike is at his side, attempting to convince Reggie that his tales of the Tall Man are mere fantasies brought on by dementia.
After five films of a “make it up as we go” mentality, the fractured fiction of “Ravager” doesn’t benefit from the same serendipitous magic as its predecessors. “Phantasm” (review here) relied on dream logic to justify its fluid continuity, yet it still had a narrative. From its start, “Phantasm” followed a theme of a young boy afraid of losing his brother, and in the end, he does. The plot gets mixed up in severed fingers morphing into insects, dwarf slaves made from corpses, and tuning fork gates to a red-sky planet, but it is still “about” something.
“Ravager” doesn’t even have a fixed setting. Other than a frenzy of fan service to fit familiar faces into non-sequitur scenes, it’s difficult to see much meaning in the movie.
Released in the same year as Angus Scrimm’s death, “Phantasm: Ravager” fills another function as a bittersweet sendoff for the beloved actor, as well as his iconic horror villain, the Tall Man. The Tall Man’s inclusion is among the film’s clunkier bits, however. Scrimm gets a few choice monologues to be memorably menacing, but the actor’s age clearly limited how much he could physically do. By no means is Scrimm underwhelming, but the Tall Man’s role isn’t exactly a high point.
“Ravager” is really a showcase for Reggie. The terrific thing about the action-oriented timelines versus quieter nursing home interludes is that we see the full range of Reggie between bad-ass and beaten-down. Reggie Bannister makes the most of his bountiful screen time by turning in not only his best performance in the series, but probably the best performance of his career.
Bannister’s bits as a broken old man frail and frustrated are heart-wrenching. Moments with more tongue-in-cheekness then deliver dialogue in line with Reggie’s amusing hippie charm. (“Dude, I’ve got some bad news about your horse.”)
Bannister’s performance might be the only element of “Ravager” that is evenly balanced. As far as the cast goes, Scrimm is of course reliable, though others are overtuned, undertuned, or too inconsequential to register a rating.
Daniel Roebuck goes so far over Mt. Everest to sell his death, you’d think he was in a Monty Python skit. Stephen Jutras as Chunk plays the only character written to have a personality, but with such poor dialogue (how many times does he call Reggie “grandpa” or “baldy?”) that his flavor is flat. Characters like Rocky from “Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” (review here) and even Jody are only jammed in so viewers can cheer, “oh hey, it’s him/her!” for a few seconds, even though they don’t flow smoothly into the film at all.
“Ravager” crashes into a semi-abrupt end. I didn’t expect the “Directed by” card to cut in when it did. Still, I shrugged that at least the goodbye given to the core trio felt somewhat fitting for a finale, never mind that virtually zero longstanding questions are advanced, answered, or resolved.
Then “Phantasm: Ravager” confusingly concludes on a mid-credits coda erasing that emotion with an uncharacteristically goofy mood. It highlights an overindulgence of filmmakers having fun for themselves with cute winks undercutting the immersion of escapist horror entertainment. “Phantasm” endures for 40 years only to leave this comic moment between two side characters as the last taste on the tongue?
“Phantasm” has niche appeal to begin with. The series caters pretty much exclusively to its devotees, so there may be no real reason for “Ravager” to be anything other than what it is.
Fans can apply personal preferences and choose to see inconsistent effects, awkward pacing, and rough-edged showmanship as either filmmaking faults or part of that fans-first appeal. Either way, if you lift up rose-tinted lenses and wipe away misty-melancholy over this being the series’ last hurrah, objectivity might reveal that this fifth film has its work cut out to remain relevant in the long run.
Review Score: 60