Director Don Cocarelli's 1979 film Phantasm easily ranks as one of the better horror movies of the last thirty years. Coscarelli returned to the world of Phantasm with a sequel in 1988. While not as good as the original, Phantasm II was still an effective horror film, and helped to turn what could have been a one-of-a-kind movie into a franchise. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, released in 1994, was an equally solid entry in the series with a "to-be-continued" ending that hinted at something great just around the corner. With Phantasm III it was apparent that either Coscarelli was a genius that had been planning an elaborate epic for many years, or he was simply making it all up as he went along. Sadly, by the time Phantasm IV: Oblivion was released in 1998; it was obvious that Coscarelli was in fact just making it up as he went along.
When we last left our heroes Michael (A. Michael Baldwin) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) in Phantasm III, they were still battling the sinister Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the mysterious, dimension-traveling funeral director with a penchant for stealing souls. There was much revealed in Phantasm III, including the fact the Michael had one of the deadly spheres in his head, and that his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) was now a being that could transform himself into a sphere. Honestly, none of it made a much sense, but the third film was entertaining enough, and it seemed like Coscarelli actually had a plan, so diehard fans of the series--or "phans" as they call themselves--were willing to overlook quite a bit. And the reason they were willing to overlook the fact that Coscarelli raised more questions in Phantasm III than he answered was the undying hope that he would at least make some semblance of an effort to explain things in the next movie.
The fact that there were so many unanswered questions in the third film, and that none of those questions are answered with any degree of satisfaction, is part of what makes Phantasm IV such a frustrating disappointment. As the film starts off, Michael is on the run, either fleeing the Tall Man, or chasing after him, or maybe both. Who knows? Reggie, who was last seen in the clutches of the Tall Man finds himself released, as the nefarious sucker of souls tells him that even though he is doomed, it is not yet his time to die. So, Reggie hops in his Hemicuda, and takes off after Michael, who is hanging out in the desert, either hiding from the Tall Man, waiting for the Tall Man, or just trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this convoluted story. It seems that Michael is somehow developing powers of his own.
Meanwhile, Jody reappears, but it isn't certain if it is Jody, or some evil agent of the Tall Man, of just some poorly thought out plot device to keep the audience totally confused. And while the confusion builds, Michael figures out how to travel through time--or is he traveling through dimensions?--where he encounters the Tall Man during the Civil War, before he became evil. Apparently, before he became the embodiment of villainy, the Tall Man was Jebediah Morningside, a kind-hearted mortician in the 1800s obsessed with inter-dimensional travel. At least that's the implication. What matters most is that after Michael encounters a non-evil Tall Man that offers him a glass of lemonade, he comes up with a plan to stop the Tall Man before he becomes the Tall Man, which only becomes even more confusing.
There's really no getting around the fact that Phantasm IV: Oblivion really isn't that good. There, I said it.
While I may not be the most diehard of phans, I certainly enjoyed the first three films in the series quite a bit. But the first time I watched Phantasm IV, the only thing I felt was profound disappointment and confusion. I had no idea exactly what was going on and, most important, the film wasn't compelling enough that I was willing to watch it a second time to try and figure it all out. Watching it for the second time, nearly a decade later, it was still disappointing, confusing, and there was simply no denying that it wasn't even that effective as a horror film.
In the first three movies, Coscarelli effectively translated nightmares on to film, creating a world where the conventional rules of reality did not apply. These three films were all effectively entertaining in their own way, creating a surreal mix of pure creepiness with outright scares. But the same can't be said for Phantasm IV, which wanders aimlessly, meandering more often than not in a way that is seldom engaging, frequently boring and sadly deficient of scares.
More than anything, Phantasm IV is simply frustrating. It is not frustrating because Coscarelli is simply rehashing the same old stuff the way other horror franchises do, because he certainly is trying to keep things original. In fact, to his credit Coscarelli appears to have made a film that is meant to be open to interpretation by the fans. But there is such a thing as being too open to interpretation, so much so in fact that no one really knows what's going on. And what's worse, the film itself doesn't seem to know what's going on.
The best part of Phantasm IV--aside from the crowd-pleasing performances by Bannister and Scrimm, who are always fun to watch--is the way it makes use of footage that was shot for the original Phantasm film thirty years ago, but was never used. This serves as a great way of linking the two films, at least from a visual standpoint, unfortunately it never fully comes together in terms of story. The whole thing plays out as if Coscarelli wrote Phantasm IV around the existing footage from the first film, but never really stopped to consider if the movie he was writing made any sense. The end result is a film that looks like less of a cohesive story, and more like a bunch of scenes thrown together, culminating in a nonlinear horror film that never makes sense, raises even more questions, and leaves the audience feeling unsatisfied when it is all over.