You have to respect the Phantasm franchise for thriving as long as it has, especially when you consider the sporadic nature the installments have been released to the public. The first Phantasm was released in 1979, right before the slasher boon kicked off with 1980’s Friday the 13th, allowing the film to carve its own niche and find an audience. 1988’s Phantasm II was released during a time when the boon started to show its age, sticking out due to its more action-oriented nature and energy that a lot of horror films didn’t have at the time. 1994’s Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead was released during a time where the horror genre was barely a blip on the mainstream audience’s radar, settling for the direct-to-video market to much success. At the end of Phantasm III, fans knew another installment was necessary. So many questions were left unanswered, solidifying that another sequel had to be in the works.
1998 must have been a weird time for Don Coscarelli and Phantasm. The last film was released when horror was on life support. Now thanks to 1996’s Scream, the horror genre was alive and well. The genre created new monsters and extended the lives of our old favorites. Phantasm was ripe for a release during this period because it would gained some sort of audience looking for scary things to watch. However, Coscarelli didn’t have much of a budget to work with. He didn’t have major studio backing anymore to fund his projects. There was no Kickstarter or GoFundMe back then, so fans couldn’t really chip in and help him out. Coscarelli probably wanted to continue the more action-oriented stuff since they were a hit with audiences, but how can you do that without money? So Coscarelli did just the opposite – go back to his roots and present Phantasm IV: Oblivion as a much quieter, arthouse, surreal type of film that would answer questions that needed to be addressed. Sound familiar?
Another direct-to-video feature, Phantasm IV was a sequel that definitely divided its fanbase. While fans of the surreal aspects were excited to see that kind of narrative return, fans of the more action sequences were probably disappointed to learn that Phantasm IV was a slower, more science-fiction type of film that relied more on brains than on the eyes. Even today, fans either think Oblivion is the best of the sequels or the worst of the sequels. After having not seen this film for over a decade, I can honestly say that I probably wouldn’t have appreciated Phantasm IV all that much when I was seventeen years old. But as a thirty-five year old who has watched these Phantasm films in a row, I respect Coscarelli for making a film like this in 1998 that was unlike the mainstream horror that was being released at the time. It may not be the best sequel in the franchise, in my opinion, but it’s a sequel that needed to exist for the franchise to gain back what it may have lost in II and III.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion takes place just moments after the end of Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead. Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), suffering from the effects of the Tall Man’s (Angus Scrimm) experimentations on him, escapes and hits the road – remembering the days before and after The Tall Man’s arrival. He senses The Tall Man at Death Valley, tired of the cat-and-mouse chase. Trying to end his life, Mike is unsuccessful due to the Tall Man – wanting Mike to travel through dimensions and learn some truths about the Tall Man. Meanwhile, Reggie (Reggie Bannister) escapes the clutches of the Tall Man, doing whatever he can to locate Mike and stop the Tall Man once and for all.
Phantasm IV steers away from the fast-paced, fun narratives of Phantasm II and Phantasm III, instead settling for a more psychological feel that deals with memories, dreams, and traveling through space-and-time to answer questions. While there are some action moments, the film’s $650,000 budget didn’t allow Coscarelli to reach the levels he reached with the previous two sequels. This forced Coscarelli to focus more on the characters and answering questions presented in the first film, believing Phantasm IV would be the franchise’s end (this year’s Ravager would prove that wrong, but we’ll get to that one soon). While this sequel isn’t the most exciting nor the most inviting to new fans who want to get into the franchise, it’s a necessary sequel that focuses on much needed character arcs. Unfortunately, it still leaves us with questions that won’t be resolved for 18 years.
The narrative is the tale of two stories merging together. Reggie, who was the lead character for the last two films, takes a back seat in Oblivion. He doesn’t get much to do in this film really, sticking to the road trip deal and looking for Mike. He ends up being let go by The Tall Man for whatever reason, looking for Mike before getting distracted by a beautiful blonde named Jennifer. Reggie does his typical “I need to bang the new girl” thing he’s known for, only getting rejected again. Then he deals with spheres coming out of her breasts, before finding Mike and dealing with dwarves at Death Valley.
While mainly a side character in this one, Reggie gets the more iconic moments. He battles a zombie trooper in the first act, which is probably the most action-oriented sequence in the entire film. It’s a very good, and well shot, scene that shows how tough Reggie is. Reggie also deals with the spheres in this film, which aren’t many unfortunately. But the tuning fork is at play here and a nice throwback to the first film. And when he faces the dwarves in the desert, Reggie uses his switchblade and four-barrel shotgun to take them out – sometimes not even looking at his target while doing it, like a total bad ass. Reggie Bannister can play this role in his sleep at this point, maintaining his charisma and appeal twenty years after the first film.
The problem is that Reggie doesn’t really get to do a whole lot other than that. Yes, his scenes are the most memorable because they’re similar to the fan-friendly scenes from II and III. But he’s barely in the film, maybe 20 percent tops, and it’s just the same old same old. His meeting up with Mike at the end feels a bit too on the nose as well. I believe fans who dislike this film cite this as the reason. Reggie is pretty much the star of this franchise next to The Tall Man, so seeing him in a more supporting role similar to the first film probably throws people off.
The majority of the narrative focuses on Mike and The Tall Man. Getting the shaft in the last installment, A. Michael Baldwin gets a beefier role to spotlight on how much he has changed since the first film, and he does a very good job portraying the conflict between good and evil. In a lot of ways, Mike’s relationship with The Tall Man seems inspired by the Star Wars franchise. The desert is Tattooine. Mike, all dressed in black here with telekinesis, resembles Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. He’s corrupted by The Tall Man, who plays his Darth Vader, wanting Mike to join the Dark Side and possibly replace him as The Tall Man. He’s guided by a spiritual figure in Jody, who is a hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. The dwarves are Jawas. And Reggie is the bad ass Han Solo character. It’s an interesting shift from what was established before, making Phantasm IV feel fresher than the last sequel.
Throughout the film, Mike struggles with the growing change within him – the sphere implanted in his skull by The Tall Man controlling him and making him see things that may, or may not, be true. It makes him colder. It makes him distrust his own brother, feeling like Reggie is the only true family he has. It’s an evolution of a character that didn’t really get much focus since the first film, and it’s nice to see that he has a purpose now. The Tall Man is obsessed with him, seeing him as an equal of sorts. Who knew the little kid from the first film could possibly be the villain’s successor against his will?
Mike also travels across different dimensions, allowing him to find out the truth about the Tall Man. We learn the Tall Man is from the Civil War era – a man named Jebediah Morningside who was a mortician who became obsessed with death during the war. Wanting to research a possible connection between the living world and the afterlife, he created a machine that could transport him between time and space. After the first attempt, he became corrupted with power and turned into The Tall Man. It’s a question that took many films to answer and it was done at the right time. While we knew what his intentions were, we now understand what his motivations are. Mike tries to stop The Tall Man on multiple occasions from becoming the evil being that he evolves into, but is always unsuccessful. It’s as if time and space always manage to come back to its destination, no matter how many times you take a detour. The Tall Man’s evil was always going to happen sooner or later. There was nothing anyone could do to stop it. It’s a strong and cliche message that evil never dies, and Coscarelli expresses it in an interesting way.
Angus Scrimm gets his meatiest role in Oblivion, playing multiple versions of himself. He’s still a chilling presence as the evil Tall Man, manipulating our heroes with a smile on his face. But he’s quite the opposite as Jebediah Morningside, portraying the role in a sweeter, almost humble way that makes you wonder how a good man could turn so vicious. It’s nice to see The Tall Man get more to do in one of these films. This film belongs to both Baldwin and Scrimm, giving their characters much needed depth and hinting us on what’s been going on between these two.
The narrative does have its issues. For one, the other characters I didn’t mention don’t get much to do. Bill Thornbury is back as Jody, but doesn’t really do a whole lot. The Jody character does explain what really happened to him in the first Phantasm and displays a different side of himself for a bit, but not much else. And Heidi Marnhart’s Jennifer is easy on the eyes, but that’s about it. At least Alchemy got more to do in Phantasm II. Jennifer only existed for Reggie to lust after her, before the tables got turned on him. I get it’s a Phantasm trope, but it felt hollow.
The film also doesn’t really have a lot to say other than the scenes I mentioned. It’s a very slow narrative that has many lulls where characters drive around, walk around, or just stare at things that seem important. Sure, we get some fight scenes and inter-dimensional scenes where Mike is learning about the Tall Man. Even though it feels like a lot, Phantasm IV doesn’t really say a lot or move the story forward all that much. I’m surprised many fans thought this was intended to be the final film at the time because this sequel feels like a prologue for something bigger in a possible next installment. Nothing is really resolved.
In fact while it’s great to learn about the Tall Man, his origin doesn’t really change anything. Not much is done with this part of the narrative, as we’re just given some clues to who he was before turning evil but never really exploring his life prior to becoming The Tall Man. It would have been kind of cool to see more of a look on Jebediah’s world and slowly witness the change. But we get like two or three short scenes and that’s about it. It almost feels as if Mike’s journey is for nothing, which is a shame.
Also, what the hell happened to Tim from Phantasm III? No explanation. Not one mention about the damn kid. Supposedly in the script, Reggie had seen Tim eaten by zombies or something. But Coscarelli didn’t have the money to shoot the scene, so he doesn’t bother mentioning him. It’s a head scratcher, seeing how big of a role he had in the previous movie.
I think the best thing about Phantasm IV is Don Coscarelli’s direction. The photography in this sequel is stunning. The locations, such as the desert, the ghost towns, the ocean, and the flashback stuff with Tall Man, all look fantastic. I also believe Coscarelli using unused footage from the first film was absolutely brilliant. Apparently, Coscarelli had shot additional scenes and multiple endings back in 1978 and 1979 because he had no idea how he really wanted to end Phantasm. Using these scenes to mold Oblivion, it ties this sequel to the first film in an extremely believable way. Watching a young Mike interact with Reggie on his ice cream truck, or help Jodi trap the Tall Man by hanging him to a tree, really add to the narrative and the continuity of the franchise in a stronger way than the last two sequels. The integration seems flawless. Like I mentioned, the film is slower and more atmospheric and surreal than the last two films due to its budget. But visually, the film looks pretty great. Sure, some of the special effects look cheap and Coscarelli doesn’t really present an invitingly fun picture. But I think it’s Coscarelli’s best Phantasm film as a director since the first film. With less at his disposal, he tried to infuse more story and cool visual moments to make Oblivion watchable and memorable. I have a lot of respect for that.
Phantasm IV: Oblivion is a film I can understand the dislike for. It’s slow. It’s confusing at times. Ideas are presented, but it feels not much happens or changes within the narrative. But it’s a very interesting installment that ties the story believably back to the first film due to the use of unused footage from Phantasm, and an honest attempt to give us some insight on the relationship between Tall Man and Mike. It’s not my favorite Phantasm sequel, but it’s one I feel needed to be made to tie up some loose ends, while opening new doors for Ravager. New fans should start from the beginning before dipping their toes into this movie. But Phantasm fans who may have missed out on this one (especially fans of the original) will probably find something to enjoy with Oblivion.