As a franchise, Phantasm is a unique and bizarre beast. Following the exploits of Mike (A. Michael Baldwin...mostly), Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and Jody (Bill Thornbury) in a battle with the evil Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) across the country, through various time periods, and even into other dimensions, the films are a unique blend of horror, science fiction, and fantasy that constantly reinvents its own dreamlike mythology with each new chapter.
The original Phantasm, made in 1979, is the most authentically surreal, clearly the work of an independent filmmaker more interested in exploring his imagination than traditional technique or the audience's taste. Even without knowing that Coscarelli's initial cut came in over three hours long, it's clear that much of Phantasm's eerie, unstuck vibe comes from his dreamlike editing choices, including jumps in time and logic. The downside to this is that, coupled with Coscarelli's relative inexperience, Phantasm's pacing does drag a bit, but the film introduces several elements that will become key to the series, including the menacing silver ball drones that guard the halls of the local mausoleum, the blinding white gateway to another dimension marked by two silver poles (and the goblin-like creatures who live on the other side), and Scrimm's other-worldly Tall Man, whose confident stride and piercing sneer are iconic the moment he appears on screen.
Phantasm is not a movie that calls out for a sequel -- in fact, none of them are, necessarily -- but nine years later, the stars aligned for Coscarelli to do a new Phantasm film with a major studio behind it (a curious hobby for Universal, who also bankrolled Army of Darkness). That big budget means Phantasm II is the least surreal of the series, but it makes up for that in sheer entertainment value. This is a guns-blazing, high-energy, action-packed sequel that balances playtime in the Phantasm universe while also offering more conventional pleasures (such as Reggie wielding a quadruple-barreled shotgun). It'd be easy to imagine fans being divided over it: on one hand, Coscarelli makes great use of the additional resources in essentially re-staging many of the ideas from the original with additional polish; on the other, it is very broad in comparison. There is also the fact that the studio forced Coscarelli to recast the Mike role, although James LeGros fills in nicely. The plot involves Mike and a loner girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) being drawn to the same place by visions in their dreams. Irvine and LeGros have good chemistry, and the mind-link aspect is fun, as is the post-apocalypse that Mike and Reggie find themselves driving through in search of The Tall Man.
As a fan of Liz, the unceremonious dismissal of her character at the beginning of Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead is as expected as it is frustrating; a rare ugly note for the series. Thankfully, the rest of Phantasm III is a bizarre delight, finding a decent compromise between the tone of the first and second movies. More to the point, III introduces the character of Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a badass black woman with nunchakus and serious kung-fu skills, and who lives up to every ounce of the greatness of that description. Coscarelli pulls a second feat out of his bag of tricks too, introducing a kid named Tim (Kevin Connors) that isn't instantly annoying. The film is the first of the sequels to really focus on deepening the mythology of the franchise, introducing communication from the great beyond from Jody and revealing more details of the Tall Man's evil plan. As the film's threads converge, Coscarelli has some trouble smoothly bringing everything together, but it's possible that Lord of the Dead is the best entry in the series.
After Phantasm III, Coscarelli said he was out of ideas for more movies, but four years later he returned to the franchise with a particularly surreal entry, Phantasm: Oblivion. The only of the other movies to fully embrace the original's more dream-like qualities, Coscarelli has a neat hook for his final outing in the director's chair: Oblivion repurposes a handful of deleted scenes from the original as new material, a form of time travel that allows the actors to de-age. The film finds Mike on a spiritual sort of journey out in the desert, and has the most ambitious ideas for expanding the history of the Tall Man and his evil schemes, not to mention providing Scrimm an opportunity to step out of the Tall Man persona in one of the film's most unusual encounters. Compared to the bonkers action of II and the nearly perfect synthesis of III, Oblivion is a bit of a letdown, but it's admirable in its desire to do something different so late in the series.
After Oblivion, it seemed like the series might actually be over. A script by Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary made waves, but nothing ever came of it. In 2012, rumors that filming was about to begin spread online, and two years later, those rumors were proven true: Coscarelli and collaborator David Hartman had made a concluding chapter in the series, with Hartman taking over directing duties. Although the announcement came with a trailer, it would be two more years before Phantasm: Ravager was finally released (during which Scrimm passed away).
The very element that makes it interesting to watch the Phantasm series develop is also its greatest weakness: Coscarelli and company are clearly making each chapter up as the series goes along. Ravager is plagued by a number of issues: it's the cheapest-looking Phantasm film, with weightless, unconvincing digital effects throughout (even though the scope of some of the shots is impressive for a homebrew effort), and it's a bit choppy -- some of the footage was apparently filmed for a webseries before it became a movie, and as a result, the film has a somewhat episodic feel even beyond its story, which finds Reggie drifting in and out of two realities. On the other hand, Ravager is about as coherent as one can expect as it attempts to find a conclusion for a series that made a tradition out of ending each sequel with an ellipsis. It's also sort of easy to forgive the film on the basis of its "one last ride" attitude toward the old gang, who have aged nearly 40 years since the original came out. It's fair to say that Ravager probably isn't the epic that Phans might've been hoping for for almost 20 years, but in its best moments, there's a certain independent warmth to Ravager that echoes the scrappy, low-budget original.
The Video and Audio
The disc included for Phantasm II is the DVD released by Shout! Factory, right down to the label.
Phantasm includes an audio commentary by Coscarelli, Baldwin, Scrimm, and Thornbury, an episode of "Graveyard Carz", 1979 interviews with Coscarelli and Scrimm, deleted scenes, and trailers. Phantasm II is Shout! Factory's disc and contains the same extras as their DVD release. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead offers an audio commentary with Coscarelli and editor Norman Buckley, the featurette "Balls of Steel: Bob Ivy's Stunt for the Ages", and a theatrical trailer. Phantasm: Oblivion offers an audio commentary by Coscarelli, Bannister, and Scrimm, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a theatrical trailer. Finally, Phantasm: Ravager includes an audio commentary by Hartman and Coscarelli, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, bloopers and outtakes, and a final theatrical trailer.