Phantasm IV: Oblivion

Year 1998

Reggie Bannister   as  Reggie
Michael Baldwin as Mike
Bill Thornbury as Jody
Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man   
Director   - Don Coscarelli
Screenwriter - Don Coscarelli   

The Phantasm franchise is one of those oddball little efforts that manages to be effective in spite of itself. Effective at what? Well, how about creating a spooky, creepy atmosphere. If you haven't seen the original Phantasm, this paragraph contains spoilers. The basic Phantasm premise is that there's a gentleman uprooting corpses, shrinking them, re-animating them, and then putting them to work on either a different planet or in a different dimension (I'm not sure which). Cheap, profitable labor is the motive. What are these things working at? I dunno.

The series is all about moods. Maybe it was the because of a movie budget somewhere around $300,000 for the first movie in 1979. Not a small budget, but not a big one either. For comparison, that same year Salem's Lot, a made for TV movie got a $4 million budget For the Stephen King adaptation, that meant a lot of cool effects. For the original Phantasm, that meant that meant limited special effects and a cast of not even a baker's dozen. Skip forward to 1998 and the budget for Phantasm IV: Oblivion. Even though it had a budget of over twice the original, in 1998 dollars, it was losing ground. So, fortunately for the viewer, with the same low budget comes the same need to count on mood instead of flash to be creepy.

It is creepy. There are maybe a half dozen people who are seen, much less given speaking parts in Phantasm IV: Oblivion. This would give the false impression that all events take place indoors. They don't. Sometimes, things happen on abandoned state roads, in empty desert cols, etc. that are anything but indoors. But, everything is empty. As the viewer, you sense the desolation and isolation. You feel all alone, just like the characters in the movie. This feeling is a series trademark.

Another trademark is the silver ball. The little, intelligent, flying death that pursues until either it or its victim is dead.

The actors' names are used for their character names, that's how seemingly unimaginative this project is. The plot is hackneyed as well. The Tall Man wants Mike as his protégé, so he abducts Mike. Reggie, the reluctant rescuer, trails after Mike to save him. Throughout, there are flashbacks, encounters, and one or two revelations.

First the bad stuff. Some of the props really are cheesy. For example, the Tall Man's machine has a wheel that's not attached to anything, sort of like a steering wheel on child's stroller, but turning it unbelievably results in an effect. There are a couple of WTF moments, like the "love interest" not realizing that the country is deserted. Not enough of the Phantasm universe is revealed. There are still many questions unanswered. The worst movie offense is that sometimes the characters do things that no individual with a modicum of pride would ever do in real life.

But there are three things that not only save, but actually escalate this movie to the not shabby category. The first is the sense of apocalypse. Not a post-nuclear Armageddon, but more along the lines of a "not with a bang but a whimper" T.S. Eliot sense of entropy.

The second thing is that a little more information about the Phantasm world is dished out. In this instance, it's how the whole saga started. Seeing Angus Scrimm portray a nice, grandfatherly character before he becomes the Tall Man makes you realize how talented the actor is. You can immediately contrast the warmth of the "Would you like a glass of lemonade?" Angus Scrimm with the Angus Scrimm who squints and commands, "Boy!" and makes your blood run cold.

Third, there's the irrepressible, thick, uncultured Reggie. An ex-ice cream truck driver, Reggie feels the need to protect Mike, his best friend's younger brother. Reggie is basically a coward who wants to be a comic book hero, but blows every chance at livin' the dream when he has time to think about what might happen to him if he fails. Reggie is a survivor, not a planner and is most effective when he doesn't all...about anything.

Despite his earnest desire to run away, Reggie always conquers his fears and plunges on like a gale force of naure. Well, maybe more like current of air in a drafty hallway or perhaps a constant drip that eventually erodes a dirt clod.

His attempts at seduction are painful to the point where he embarrasses the entire male gender. Yet, his dull but single minded purpose of protecting Mike regardless of the dangers endears him to the audience. Losing Reggie from the series would be like losing the Tall Man.

Reggie is also a point of continuity through the series with his balding pate but ever present ponytail, his hemi 'Cuda, his flashbacks of driving the ice cream truck, and his wielding of his special shotgun.

I liked Phantasm. It stuck with me. Phantasm IV: Oblivion does the same. In fact, it unkindly influenced my wife's dreams. The seemingly chaotic scene jumbles that reject reality, (Wasn't someone just in that coffin? Are there lit candles in a hearse that don't burn the headliner? Where the heck did he get the parts to build that?) don't take you out of the movie as much as they make the movie surreal. It all fits, it all makes sense within the fictional universe, no explanation required.

No nudity, some blasphemy, lots of blood that looks more like "bug juice" than hemoglobin, flying metal balls, sunshine yellow embalming fluid, and Reggie all make for a haunting experience.

There's one knock against this movie that's valid – this isn't a stand-alone movie. You really need to see at least the first Phantasm for this one to make any sense at all. Phantasm II and Phantasm III are optional. Also, after seeing this, you can't say, "Well, that's a nice wrap-up!" In fact, like all of the other movies in the series, at the end you think, "Nice episode of the bigger picture. When's the next installment?"

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