Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead

4 out of 5

Directed by: Don Coscarelli

The Evil Dead 2 of the Phantasm series.  With the original Phantasm a surreal and creepy piece of horror art, and Phantasm II an 80s-fied babes and bullets attempt at kicking off a theater-going franchise – a bid that failed, at least in part, due to stiff competition opening at the same time – the DTV Phantasm III is Coscarelli embracing the full-on camp potential of the series, which, it turns out, was the best decision for moving the vague Tall Man / killer spheres / slave dwarves plot forward.  Lord of the Dead is a hoot, gracefully (via some clever edits) shifting back to the original Michael casting of A. Michael Baldwin and featuring a returning Bill Thornbury as his brother Jody, plus, of course, the emergent everyman star of the franchise: Reggie Bannister as Reggie.  We again pick up straight from the end of the previous flick, a hearse escape gone awry, and the shift in tone is pretty clear from the get-go: Mike and Reggie surrounded by the diminutive baddies, they start to take to the trees, until Reggie blasts the four-barrel shotgun concoction skyward and the dwarves – no where near the shot, mind you – start to fall, dead, from the sky, plop plop plop and pause for a comedic beat.  It’s a genius bit, and the movie just kicks into that mode going forward, with added doses of comedic gore that should be familiar to Raimi / Jackson fans.  Coscarelli remains confident and inventive with his camera use, applying some Raimi-zaniness when it makes sense to be face-first in the antics, but remembering to pay service to the flick’s iconic Tall Man shots and well-done action sequences at the same time.

The more liberal flair of the film – which includes a killer kid (he’s on the side of the good guys, don’t worry) and Tall Man-tasked zombies – allows the mythology to expand appropriately, delving wonderfully weirdly into the spheres and the Tall Man’s aims.  Which aren’t all that complex beyond “do evil and conquer worlds,” but it’s nice that the Phantasm series attempts to expand its scope film to film instead of strictly repeating a formula, a la NOES or the Jason movies.  The down side of diving blindly into camp is that it brings in tropes that are either charming or annoyingly dated, depending on your POV.  For example: the requisite boob-shot.  I’m not sure where to stand on these things from an ‘appropriate’ perspective, but while Reggie’s attempts to woo the female they pick up for their Tall Man hunt (Gloria Lynne Henry) are amusing, the extended dream sex sequence that eventually follows is eye-rollingly unnecessary, and the script has to hack its way back to the plot to work around it.  This is partnered with a few other small detours that pad the runtime to 90 minutes and sort of slow down the “chase” aspect of the film.  But in part III, we’re never too far from a creative and fun addition to the Phantasm world, so these scenes are easy to excuse, and indeed, can be seen as part of the movie’s extreme B-movie charm.