The early-to-mid 1990’s were a rough time for the horror genre. The big names in horror (Freddy, Jason, and Michael) were struggling with their installments. Leatherface was attempting a serious comeback, while Chucky and Candyman were establishing their own franchises to mixed results. The more critically acclaimed horror films, such as Misery and Silence of the Lambs, were classified as “thrillers” rather than “horror” to maintain some sort of class. Until the revival that Scream started in late 1996, the genre was in rough shape.
Don Coscarelli was feeling the blow from this rough period. The 1970s allowed Phantasm to be this arthouse, surreal, low-budget horror film that fit right in what was going on at the time, making it a success. The 1980s switched the surrealism into a more fun, action-packed film for Phantasm II that fit the MTV generation. Phantasm II, while not a big hit for Universal Studios, still managed to double its budget. Still desperate for a horror franchise, Universal was willing to fund another Phantasm film if Coscarelli was still involved in a major way. Coscarelli, feeling somewhat slighted by the control the film studio had over Phantasm II, would only do it if he had more of a say on the project. Universal granted him that. Coscarelli decided right away to bring back the man who helped forge the Mike character, A. Michael Baldwin, even though he appreciated James LeGros as the replacement in II. He also decided to bring back Bill Thornbury as Jody, who was killed in the first film. Universal still wanted a Phantasm film that matched the tone of the second film, so Coscarelli continued the action-oriented feel of the sequel. However with his principal cast all returning and wanting to connect the new film more with the first movie, Coscarelli decided to add the more dreamy and surreal atmosphere that some fans were craving in Phantasm II.
This led to some disputes between Coscarelli and Universal, to the point where nothing was settled – leading Universal to wash their hands off of the project and refusing to distribute what would be known as Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead. Luckily due to the small successes of the first two films, he was able to find a distributor that was willing to release the film directly to video in 1994. According to the Los Angeles Times in 1996, Phantasm III was one of the top 100 highest selling direct-to-video titles, making the film a success. It also allowed enough faith in Coscarelli to make a fourth film. But we’ll get to that one shortly.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead is a film I didn’t remember much about when I re-watched it for this retrospective. I had remembered it being pretty average, while a lot of my peers consider it “meh”. Watching it again was like watching it for the first time, finding these recognizable characters on a new adventure I had no recollection of. And while Phantasm III is flawed in many ways, it also manages to be somewhat entertaining and interesting. The first two films may be better, but Phantasm III isn’t a slouch either.
Phantasm III begins where Phantasm II left off. Reggie (Reggie Bannister) saves Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) from The Tall Man and his minions when the hearse crashes during a struggle with Alchemy (Samantha Phillips). Unfortunately, Liz (Paula Irvine) is murdered in the crash and taken by the Tall Man. Mike is in a temporary coma, waking up to a nurse who has been corrupted by the Tall Man, killing her as Reggie goes to visit him. The two try to find some sanctuary, but are visited by a flying sphere. Instead of killing them, the sphere transforms into Mike’s older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), whose brain has been placed inside to control the sentinel. Before Jody can explain what’s really going on, the Tall Man kidnaps Mike and punishes Jody by keeping him inside of the sphere.
Reggie takes the sphere, driving down roads to find Mike and the Tall Man. Along the way, he meets a young boy named Tim (Keith Connors), whose parents were murdered and taken by The Tall Man. He also encounters a tough female warrior in Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), who knows karate and can handle nunchucks. Fighting through zombies, dwarves, spheres, and even redneck thugs, the three are guided by Jody via dreams and telepathy towards Mike’s location. They soon learn that Mike is the Tall Man’s special project, wanting him for an evil purpose none were expecting.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, while admirable, struggles with the amalgamation of bringing back the surreal nature that made the first film a classic, while keeping the fan-favorite action tone of the second film. Coscarelli probably felt he had the best of both worlds now once Universal backed out of the project. This allowed Coscarelli to go crazy in terms of narrative ideas – some that answer established questions and others that create new ones.
The explanations of certain story elements that have been present since the start are refreshing, especially since Phantasm II was more focused on action and special effects, rather than telling us what’s really going on. We finally learn what the spheres are – human brains shrunk down that have been brainwashed by the Tall Man to control his flying sentinels. We learn the loyal dwarves are really transformed corpses that the Tall Man has kidnapped from their graves. We also get hints that the Tall Man is actually a malevolent alien wanting to take over Earth by using corpses as his soldiers to complete his evil invasion. That explains the ghost towns the characters drive through in each film. And the biggest revelation of all involves the true relationship between Mike and The Tall Man. I won’t spoil it here, but the two characters are related in a way that no one would have seen coming in the first film. It does explain The Tall Man’s obsession with Mike though, and why Mike was having nightmares about The Tall Man and experiencing psychic connections with people. It’s nice these things have finally been addressed because it finally feels that the story is moving forward to its end goal in Phantasm V: Ravager.
It’s also great that A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury have returned to their classic roles. It makes having flashbacks to the first film feel natural with the original actors, even though A. Michael Baldwin’s replacing James LeGros in the Phantasm II flashbacks feel a bit odd but necessary. I’m not sure why Jodi has aged significantly in the afterlife, but his addition to the narrative as Mike and Reggie’s guide helps move the story along and lets us in on information we needed to know by this third installment. LeGros is a better actor than Baldwin, but Baldwin brings back the much needed cast chemistry missing in the second film. And Thornbury seems to be having fun back in the role, especially with his new powers and messing around with Reggie Bannister. With these two actors returning, it feels like a Phantasm film again.
Unfortunately, the lack of screen time both Baldwin and Thornbury receive in Phantasm III makes me wonder what was the point in bringing them back. The film focuses more on the Reggie character, as he has officially become Evil Dead’s Ash Williams – just with a 4-barrel shotgun and no chainsaw hand. Honestly, Reggie is the most interesting protagonist in this series due to Reggie Bannister’s charisma and charming line delivery, so it makes sense Coscarelli would want to focus on the guy. He ends up connecting to the two new characters that are introduced in different ways. Tim, a young kid who believes is auditioning for a new Home Alone film with his booby-trapped home, ends up filling the role Mike had in the original film. With his own parents taken as victims of the Tall Man, Reggie treats him as a pseudo son or little brother, mentoring him in order to survive this invasion. The other character, Rocky, is the love child of Grace Jones and Blade-era Wesley Snipes – a bad ass, nunchuck-wielding tough lady who is the object of Reggie’s lust, but never truly gives in to his charm. It creates a new trio dynamic, one that kind of works in Phantasm III when it comes to the more action-oriented sequences.
However, these three characters also bring the film down a bit. Reggie’s humor and dialogue is hit-and-miss unfortunately. At times, the dialogue is a bit too on the nose and tries seriously to be funny, when the film doesn’t really call for it. It seemed like Coscarelli wanted to add more comedy in Phantasm III to make it stand out from the two films before it. But it never clicks completely, making you wish he had stuck with just one tone instead of many. The Rocky character, while a nice addition to the franchise, never feels fully fleshed out. She’s tough. She’s strong. She’s super intelligent, especially when it comes to a major decision during the final act. But it feels she’s there because the film needed a female protagonist to be the love interest of Reggie, sort of like Alchemy was in the second film. Rocky is the kind of character that needed to be fleshed out more, and that would have happened if Tim wasn’t in the story. She just feels like a third wheel. Gloria Lynne Henry isn’t the greatest actress either, but she looks the part and makes you wish she got more to do.
Tim, on the other hand, is a much better character because he has genuine motivations in his actions and sort of acts as a refresh in terms of a younger character being messed with the Tall Man. He’s intelligent enough to booby trap his house and murder a trio of thieves that break into his home. He’s capable of using weapons, probably better than any of the other characters. He’s intuitive and pro-active. And the best part about Tim? He’s not your typical annoying child actor who overdoes it to be cute and precocious. Kevin Connors is great in the role, almost portraying Tim as more of an adult that ends up matching well with the older actors. I really liked him the role.
As for Angus Scrimm, he gets more screen time in this film than in Phantasm II. But sometimes it just feels like he’s in these films for the sake of having a villain. He just walks around and yells “BOY!” every chance he gets. His scenes with A. Michael Baldwin are the best because he actually gets to play off Baldwin and develop his evil character more. But for a third installment, he ought to be more of a physical focus. But Scrimm is still charismatic and creepy at times.
Unfortunately we get a lot of questions. We only see the dwarves in the first few minutes of the film, with the Tall Man turning certain corpses into living zombies instead. Why didn’t he do this in the other films? Also, how did Jody go through Reggie’s dream to save Mike in the real world while still inside the dream? I don’t mind messing with the time-and-space continuum, but at least give us an explanation how Jody can even do this? Even Freddy Krueger has trouble with this stuff. The ending is also bizarre. We learn what Mike’s deal really is, which just feels like a retcon that was needed as an excuse for another sequel. And the ending is similar to the original film’s ending, only with Tim this time. But Tim wasn’t really a target of the Tall Man, so the homage feels hollow.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead is also a tough film to get into unless you have already watched the first two Phantasm movies. It never feels like its own film, but rather a continuation of a story that has already started. It definitely feels like a middle chapter of a book – explaining some things that have been established, but creating new questions for the next few chapters to answer. Yes, this is a sequel. But sequels ought to feel welcoming to new viewers, offering enough new concepts to make it understandable without having to watch anything before it. Phantasm III is a fan-service kind of film, possibly turning off anyone who hasn’t seen a Phantasm movie.
The special effects in Phantasm III are more-than-decent, considering the much lower budget the film had at its disposal compared to Phantasm II. The spheres still look pretty great, doing their usual thing of spying on people with their one eye and drilling people in the head. Unfortunately, the spheres don’t get to do as many cool things that they did in Phantasm II due to budget reasons, but they still manage to be a nice presence. We also get zombie make-up that looks okay, reminding me of the zombies of Return of the Living Dead Part II. The zombie characters end up being a bit too comedic though, never coming across as scary. But they look alright. There’s also a sentient hand that attacks people. It looks a bit like a puppet, but I still liked the practical effects of this murderous hand.
Coscarelli doesn’t fully capture the balance of filming surrealistic moments with more ground action-oriented scenes. But Phantasm III looks good, capturing more of the look of Phantasm II than Phantasm. The action scenes are handled well, and the more dialogue heavy moments are watchable. It’s unfortunate that Coscarelli had so many ideas he wanted to present in a 90-minute moment, never fully giving these elements enough time to develop. Still, it’s a confident effort and you can tell Coscarelli knew where he wanted the story to go both visually and textually.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead isn’t as average as I had remembered it to be, but it still has issues that can’t be overlooked. It’s nice seeing the old cast return, and I liked the new protagonists introduced. The special effects are stronger than they should be, and Coscarelli still directs with confidence. But a lot of the story elements aren’t fully developed, or just don’t mesh well with what has already been established. Phantasm III tries, but it never manages to capture the surreal atmosphere of the first film. And it’s never as fun as the second film. Still, Phantasm III is more than watchable and worth a look for anyone that’s a Phantasm fan.