Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)


After Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, Don Coscarelli made it clear if there was ever another Phantasm film then it would be strictly to earn money.  To his credit he never pretended there was some great story arc behind the films.  The first was made as a make-or-break film to determine if he would continue pursuing his dreams of making movies, second was funded by Universal and the third was to take advantage of the Angeles Abbey in Compton, California as a shooting location.  The fourth was no different, in this case getting everyone back together after the discovery of lost footage from the original Phantasm.  

Being a fan of the series I had rented this when it first came out.  Unlike the previous sequel it didn't even get a limited theatrical or roadshow release, but went straight to video.  I expected it to be quite low budget, but my memories of the film were little current story and a lot of flashbacks using the footage from Phantasm.  In many ways I thought of it as being similar to Hellraiser IV: Bloodline, in which a decent third sequel led into a messy fourth.  This may have been because at the time I didn't understand that the Phantasm films were more like a hobby for Coscarelli and his friends, and not some sort of serious epic premise. 

We start at the end of the third film, with Michael (A. Michael Baldwin) discovering he now has yellow blood like the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and a gold sphere inside of his head.  Whatever the Tall Man has planned for him is left a mystery, but Michael commandeers a hearse and drives south toward the desert in an attempt to put distance between him and his nemesis.  Reggie (Reggie Bannister), meanwhile, has been left pinned to a wall by a number of the silver spheres.  The Tall Man, amused by Reggie rather than threatened by him, lets him down, and both go in pursuit of Michael.

Jody (Bill Thornbury) is also back, this time in the form of a black sphere, and continues to try to aid both Reggie and his brother.  The hearse Michael is driving is taken over by the Tall Man and guided into Death Valley, while Reggie soon finds out that a good portion of the small towns in southern California are now deserted.  Eventually he reaches Michael in time to have a showdown with the Tall Man, but their final battle does not go as expected. 

The original cut of Phantasm was over two hours long and Don Coscarelli, to his credit, never considered releasing it in that form.  It does appear that the plot would have made much more sense and that there was a lot more time spent building the relationship between Mike, Jody and Reggie as well as establishing the Tall Man as a villain.  Much of it was cut due to pacing and also the goal of Phantasm to be a series of quick-paced scares.  It is still interesting to see because, this late in the game, it makes things a bit clearer.  It also shows a scene at the end that looks like it was an alternate ending filmed for the original which provides a satisfying, if downbeat, ending to the series if it had not been revisited with Phantasm: Ravager.  Unlike what I thought upon first viewing it was also not overloaded with these scenes, but has just the right amount to flesh out the plot of Oblivion .

While I find myself now liking this fourth installment almost as much as the second and third it does have its problems, and most of those are with Reggie's part of the story.  Once again he is traveling through various desolate towns in search of Michael, and it is starting to feel as if Coscarelli either has no other ideas about what to do with Reggie between action scenes or that that the Tall Man himself has put him in a never-ending loop.  It's still pretty much worth the detour as there is an encounter with a demon cop (Bob Ivy) that provides some nice action and some gross-out scenes.  As usual Reggie comes across a beautiful woman, this time a blonde named Jennifer (Heidi Marnhout).  Reggie's attempts at romance once again fail, and this time in both an hilarious and memorable fashion involving another of the Tall Man's traps.  The problem is, unlike before, these incidents seem episodic and removed from the rest of the movie rather than forwarding it.

The best part is Michael's journey of discovery, as he is more the focus this time around.  He attempts to reconcile his abandonment issues regarding Jody as well as discover the origins of the Tall Man and why he came to our world and what his final goals are.  We see some of the latter with an effective shot of an abandoned Wilshire Boulevard with the Tall Man striding through the empty street.  Michael also finds out more about how his enemy came to our world, while starting to develop many of the Tall Man's powers himself.  While the inevitable final battle is lots of fun as well it is nice to see a return of the subtle scares present in much of the original.  It also has Angus Scrimm in it much more than any of the others, but some of that is the older footage, and it's used in a way that doesn't completely spoil the mystery of what he is.

I would warn against going into this thinking everything will be answered.  Some things are, and unlike I remembered there is a solid ending to where this could, and probably should, have been the last one.  Despite the fact that it is a pretty good movie, especially considering the budget was less than half of the third one, it's still disappointing that Phantasm Ends never got made.  However, many fans made it quite clear after Lord of the Dead that they were tired of both the comedy and the action movie tropes and wanted something much more like the original.  In this case they got their wish. 

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
Time: 90 minutes
Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm, Heidi Marnhout
Director: Don Coscarelli

 

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