In 1978, John Carpenter's "Halloween" upended the movie industry, sending Hollywood studios and independent producers scrambling to find more stories about masked slashers. Don Coscarelli's "Phantasm" was not one of those films. An independently produced supernatural thriller with no obvious hook, the 1979 cult classic never really fit in among the likes of "Friday the 13th" and "Terror Train."
Yet "Phantasm" has gone on to become one of the most beloved horror movies of its era, precisely because it's so different. Never a huge hit even on home video, the film has sustained a small but devoted fan base through four sequels, and has given the quirky Coscarelli the cachet to make equally strange genre exercises like "Bubba Ho-Tep" and "John Dies at the End."
The fifth chapter in the series, "Phantasm: Ravager," has just been released, a full 18 years after "Phantasm IV: Oblivion." Directed and co-written by David Hartman (and produced and co-written by Coscarelli), the new movie retains all the offbeat humor and casual surrealism that has kept this franchise afloat for over three decades.
The "Phantasm" saga follows the ongoing trials of Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) and his closest friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), who've been stalked and haunted across time and dimensions by a ghoulish undertaker called the Tall Man (played in every film by Angus Scrimm, who died after completing "Ravager"). With his army of zombie dwarfs and his arsenal of spiky flying metal spheres, the Tall Man carries out his mysterious world-domination plot, at the expense of Mike and Reggie's loved ones.
It's not absolutely necessary to have seen the previous four "Phantasms" to enjoy "Ravager." It opens with a summary of the series so far; and it's a lively picture in and of itself, with exciting chases, strange trips to a spooky netherworlds, and an energetic performance by Bannister, who through the five films has gone from comic relief to a goofy-but-gallant Bruce Campbell-type hero.
But for those who do want to go back to where it all began, Coscarelli is simultaneously releasing "Phantasm: Remastered," a cleaned-up 4K restoration of the first film, partially funded by famous "Phantasm" fan J.J. Abrams. While holding onto the handmade charm of the original, the 4K version makes the image less murky and the seams less visible, giving the picture back the vividly nightmarish quality of its original theatrical run.
"Phantasm: Remastered" looks so fantastic that it may help settle a longstanding debate in horror fandom: Is "Phantasm" an incomprehensible, amateurish spook show that's beloved solely for its DIY gumption, or is it a work of true vision?
The 4K version's polish brings "Phantasm" back in line with its original influences: trippy "head movies" like "The Holy Mountain" and "The Saragossa Manuscript," and funky micro-budget genre pieces like "Carnival of Souls." Coscarelli always meant his film to have the quality of a dream — in part to excuse its rough edges and discontinuities, and in part because it's a film about two grief-stricken individuals, clouded in misfortune and struggling to think straight.
More than any of the sequels, "Ravager" upholds the mind-bending originality and emotional depth of the first "Phantasm." From the surprise cameos by old characters to the constant twisting of dreams and reality, it's suffused with the feeling of people trying to regain control of their lives, to get back what they've lost.
That sense of yearning — coupled with Coscarelli's whimsical wit and the occasional eruption of shocking sphere-on-human violence — is what makes this series special. Plenty of classic horror films have been released since the late '70s, but there's still never been anything quite like "Phantasm" — aside from all the other movies that share its name.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes