4 out of 5
Directed by: David Hartman
Not too many reviews ago, I wrote (with my usual verbosity) about how you can sometimes just tell when a movie is going South early on; that sometimes it will bounce back and average out, with the rare edge case actually managing the full reroute to become something much better than you could’ve expected. Best case? That exceeded expectation ends up warming your opinion on whatever initially negatively caught you out.
Phantasm: Ravager – the fifth in the series, coming almost two decades after the previous entry – is one of those best cases. However, there is a giant caveat that comes with that: If there’s any indication of the types of feelings the series evokes, consider that it’s the only horror franchise to be able to claim as many entries as it has, over the duration its lasted (since 1978) with the same cast (with one studio-mandated exception in II), same writer, and same director (excepting this film, though main man Coscarelli was still heavily involved), all without having been rebooted and telling a semi-linear plot throughout; that is to say: Phantasm means dedication, and my opinion on Ravager is likely influenced by my positive opinion on all the previous movies. That being said, if you’ve an open mind for low budget fare and are only a casual viewer of the series, or this is (for some wild and crazy reason) the Phantasm you’ve decided to sample first, I still think the sentiments that have inspired such devotion become clear over the course of the film. You might not fall in love with it, but I imagine there’s enough energy and weirdness to keep you invested for the 90 minutes the movie asks of you. And if none of those categories / attributes apply, you’ll likely think it’s shit, and I wouldn’t debate you on it. The effects are pretty cheeseball, the digital shooting style looks cheap, and David Hartman’s SyFy home-movie editing makes this the first Phantasm to actually look like a B-Movie. Those are big roadblocks to enjoying the scope of the weirdness, or digging into the dialogue that has these roles defined as full characters and not trope plug-ins.
And then there’s the plot: Ex-ice cream man Reggie travels across the wasteland in his souped-up ‘Cuda, toting his duck-taped 4-barrel shotgun, shooting flying, killer metal spheres out of the sky – tasked by the otherwordly Tall Man – while searching for his sphere-possessed friend Michael. …Or is he actually a crazy old man, dying with dementia in the hospital, while Michael listens to his wild rants on the above? …Or has he just been awoken from his own sphere mind-prison into a Tall Man-ruled ruin in which Michael and other past Phantasm faces are the rebels against giant, building-toppling spheres? It’s ambitious, it’s weird, it’s open-ended, it’s equally silly and serious and spooky, and all of those things are inherently Phantasm-y, but to the uninitiated (or, if I may be judgemental, those whom have simply watched the first one to fill a horror quota), it likely seems like a spasmodic, fan-filmed mess. This is where the film’s scope vs. its visual aesthetic is jarring: Hartman’s directorial eye is not Coscarelli’s, and the jumpy, non-held shots are continual proof of that. But he knows the lore, and he knows the world, and once you get used to how the above narratives are lapping, dreamlike, over one another, it becomes clearer how close, spiritually, Ravager is to the original. …When the Phantasm 1999 references kick in – a massive, unmade Phantasm sequel scripted by Roger Avary – not to mention all the series tropes’ (e.g. Reggie’s failed but honest boning attempt) all the visual zealousness starts to become infectious instead of grating. And while it’s outside of the film itself and so shouldn’t affect the review, taking into account Hartman’s all-in-one approach (he shot it, edited it, and did the effects – including building some fully CG shots), it doubles down on that infectiousness because that’s so similar to how Coscarelli did things from a practicality / cost perspective, that – especially with Don so involved in the making of Ravager – it stops feeling like such a jarring shake-up and more like what should be expected of how a low-budget B-movie-gone-surreally-complex grows up into the modern age. …Not to mention that the big ideas executed here wouldn’t have even been possible without the CG (for that, we have Phantasm IV).
Yes, admittedly, I’d take Coscarelli back in a heartbeat. I do prefer his cinematic POV over Hartman’s overall, and the uphill battle to appreciate the flick is definitely the docking of a star. But once you’re over that hump, the man’s appreciation of the Phantasm world just radiates and sucks you in, marking this is a close to perfect (for now) bookend to a landmark series.