Written and Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, and Angus Scrimm
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Where do you think you're going boy? Death is no escape from me."
Of all the major horror franchises of the past 30 years, the Phantasm series has arguably had the most unique release pattern. Unlike its more famous contemporaries, which saw new entries on an almost yearly basis, Phantasm has had only 4 entries over a span of 19 years. The original arrived in 1979 and went on to become a cult classic. Nearly a decade later, the series was revived with Phantasm II, a more conventional and cinematic film than its predecessor. Five years later, Phantasm III continued the exploits of Reggie, Mike, and the Tall Man. Like the previous film, Phantasm III was a more straight-forward, conventional narrative that abandoned the psychological approach of the first film. Not unlike its predecessor, however, that film ended with a bit of a cliffhanger that would have to be resolved. Five years later, Phantasm IV: Oblivion attempted to do just this and also do what the three previous films hadn't done over the course of fifteen years: reveal the mysteries surrounding the Tall Man.
Set literally seconds after the end of Phantasm III, Oblivion finds Reggie at the mercy of the Tall Man, who ominously warns him to "take great care in how he plays" as "the end approaches." Meanwhile, after the last film's somewhat bewildering ending, Mike has somehow hit the road in search of the Tall Man's secrets. It soon becomes apparent that Mike isn't fully in control, however, as the Tall Man seems to be guiding Mike to the Funeral Mountains in Death Valley. Here, Mike will journey through time and dimensions to uncover some truths about the Tall Man. Reggie, on the other hand, is in the road in hot pursuit, where he once again encounters some minions of the Tall Man. Thus, the film is essentially split between the two characters' narratives before culminating in another bewildering encounter with the Tall Man.
After the middle two entries in the franchise showed a marked turn towards a more traditional and cinematic style, Phantasm IV returns the series to its psychological roots. Like the first film, everything here is very dream-like and illusory in its presentation. The narrative contains several flashbacks to the events in the first film, and even employs outtake footage from the original to propel the narrative forward. Perhaps the best way to describe Oblivion is to consider it a sort of requiem for the series, as it reflects back on the characters and the paths they took (and even reveals what might have been in a more perfect world). Along with these flashbacks comes some wonderfully gothic imagery, and the tone here is one of desolation and despair, which gives the proceedings a more palpable sense of impending doom. This is not to say that the film doesn't have its share of fun moments like the middle two films because there are still some fun scenes with Reggie. However, I'll put it this way: when you see Reggie opt to hit the road in search of Mike instead of hitting on an unsuspecting broad, you know the film means business (of course, you can hardly blame Reggie when fate intervenes and he crosses paths with his mystery woman a second time).
As someone who rarely cares when a major franchise shifts tones throughout the course of a series, the fact that Oblivion returns to the style of the first film isn't a huge deal because it works really well. In fact, the film does a good job in essentially blending the style of the first film with the style of the middle two, and it really makes for an extremely well done film. The aforementioned flashbacks are integrated seamlessly, and the scenes featuring a young Mike really brings an emotional core to the film. You really get the sense that this guy has been put through hell ever since the Tall Man has entered his life, and the juxtaposition between the somewhat jaded and embittered Mike with his younger, more innocent counterpart works well. Though I love the ancillary characters in the third film, I appreciate that Coscarelli sticks with Mike, Reggie, Jody, and the Tall Man for this entry, as it is essentially their story.
That said, as tightly focused and realized as Oblivion is, it opens a lot of doors that remain closed by the end of the film. While the ending certainly lends itself to one interpretation, it's still very ambiguous and would be a somewhat frustrating end to the series if Oblivion stands as the end. I'm not one to demand that the answers are spelled out for me on the screen, but the fourth film is another unresolved entry in the franchise. Furthermore, we finally get a glimpse of the Tall Man's past, but there are still more questions than answers there. I have no problem with that and wouldn't mind if he were always a mystery, but we still don't have a very good indication of what his intentions with Mike are at the end of the film.
Phantasm V is supposedly in production. If it is ever released, it will have been at least a decade since the release of Oblivion, which is keeping in line with the series staggered release pattern. Unfortunately, Phantasm V will most likely not be the Roger Avary-penned Phantasm's End, a script that was, by all accounts, epic. However, Coscarelli has been unable to afford the funding for such an ambitious project, so it is yet to be seen what form Phantasm V will take. Regardless, Oblivion's legacy could be affected because, like its predecessors, it keeps us hanging. However, unlike those films, it doesn't seem as self-contained, as if it almost needs another entry to finish what is begun here.
Oblivion could possibly benefit from what the fifth film does for the series. As of now, it's a well done film that feels incomplete or a setup for something that simply hasn't happened yet. For me personally, it ranks as the second best entry in the franchise behind the original. At any rate, since Phantasm is such an important horror franchise, no fan should go without seeing it, and that's the bottom line. The MGM DVD that's out there now features an adequate audio and video presentation with no extras; however, Anchor Bay is set to release a new DVD later this year that will no doubt be laden with extras. My advice to new viewers would be to run out and rent the MGM DVD now, and definitely pick up the Anchor Bay release later this year because Phantasm IV is a very strong entry in a strong series. Buy it!
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