Brothers To The End: The Phantasm Series (Part Five)
A teenage boy, Mike has lost his older brother, the only family he had left. It happened in the nightmarish battle against The Tall Man, a force of interdimensional evil. Reggie, a friend of Mike's brother, promises to help Mike, to stick with him. A bond is formed between them, a new brotherhood. For the next three decades, Mike and Reggie would fight against The Tall Man and his forces, pitting their frail human strength against an indestructible enemy. But could it be that none of this truly happened?
The concusion of any franchise is cursed with nearly impossible expectations. Viewers hold varying preferences as to which elements should be given attention, and the filmmaker must construct a work that follows logically from what was previously established while still pulling out all of the stops to achieve closure, itself an inherently contrived concept. They must be true to the nature of their characters, but also contort them in service of the checklist matrix of a finale. To fulfill one requirement on the way to a satisfying ending necessarily leaves another unaddressed. Open one door, and another closes. You can open only one at each juncture of creative choice, and the finished route will be your film. And there's no turning back.
Phantasm RaVager, despite trailing the weight of some three decades of cinematic predecessors, somewhat sidesteps these overpowering requirements in two ways. First, the film is so humbly produced that it immediately erases in the viewer any visions of grand closure that might have been present at the outset. Secondly, it utilizes the Phantasm series' trademark conceit of unreality, or mutable reality, to construct a film that functions as a definitive conclusion in only one of its branching, potential alternate worlds.
These potentialities originate in the fractured psyche of Reggie Bannister. As the film opens, we find him wandering the desert in search of Mike, clad in the now worn and tattered version of his ice cream vendor uniform. Amazingly, this is a direct, linear continuation of the scenario in which Reggie was left near the end of Phantasm Oblivion some 18 years ago. But after a vehicular showdown witha pair of silver spheres, Reggie starts awake in an unfamiliar place. He is seated in a wheelchair, on the quiet green lawn of a rest home, where a sympathetic Mike explains that he was found wandering the desert, exhibiting signs of dimentia. Reggie is convinced that this must be one of The Tall Man's tricks, but Mike has no memory of their mutual, lifelong enemy, nor of otherwise related events. Soon Reggie will begin to drift back and forth between this and other realities, including the familiar one where he battles the forces of evil in an Earth now largely conquered by The Tall Man's forces. He even visits Jebediah Morningside as a fellow patient in 19th century America.
If the original 1978 Phantasm was a horror genre metaphor of the tortured imaginings of a teenager's struggle with familial loss, then Phantasm RaVager is a representation of the fevered psychological turmoil of someone facing the end of their own life. It is a truly brilliant conceit, an unexpectely clever but thematically symmetrical bookend to the series.
Possessing its share of faults, the film's primary obstacle to complete success is the constant, distracting presence of low budget computer animation. We can still divine from this digital ghost the epic that director David Hartman wanted to make, if not for such limited means. But Phantasm RaVager manages to maintain focus on what really matters, namely its characters and their relationship to one another. What few horror films bother to do at all, this one values. Reggie's search for Mike, his fight to remain in a reality where he has purpose, instead of one where he will waste away in a hospital room, actually carries weight.
There is a small moment of reunion in Phantasm Ravager, during a restful beat in an action sequence, that I found very affecting. It is a crystallization of what works in the movie: its affection for these fictional people and for what they mean to us as viewers. It cares about their fates, and respects that we care.
I don't know if RaVager was always intended to be the last Phantasm film, and I don't know if it will remain so. What is clear, however, is that a film series unlike any other in the long history of horror, perhaps even unique to cinema history in general, has retained its individuality and daring spirit here at the end, all the way through the final pair of silver posts, and beyond reality itself.