The Phantasm series spans 5 movies from 1979-2016. This review will cover all films as a collective. So, grab your four-barreled shotgun, your guitar, and grow a ponytail, because this review is hitting the road.
For horror fans, Phantasm is a known trademark. The dead-stealing, time-jumping Tall-Man is unescapable and relentless. Whether through his seemingly endless powers or his flying orb sentinels of death, our heroes are always in danger.
Ice-cream vendor Reggie, his friend Jody, and Jody’s kid-brother Mike find themselves entangled in the Tall-Man’s plot to take over the world. While Phantasm 1 and 2 seem to indicate Mike as the main character, by the series’ end, it is clearly Reggie. In time, our former ice-cream vendor becomes a hardened soldier in a war against an army of zombies while he searches for a way to stop the end of the world.
Above is the most coherent of a synopsis I can give this series. The Phantasm films gleefully disrupt their own time and storylines, as reality itself is never a certainty. Throughout the latter half of the series, viewers may be uncertain which moments are real, dreams, madness, or some sort of trap. Whether the Tall-Man is an alien, demon, or visitor from another dimension is not entirely clear. However, the series gives preference to the theory of alternate universes in the final film.
The question remains: are the films any good? The short answer is yes. The films by themselves are fun, campy, and gory horror-comedy treats for the viewer. The balance between horror/comedy mostly works; Phantasm 3 and the epilogue of 5 being minor exceptions. The films work as a whole, as those in them are clearly having fun, and in turn the audience has fun, too. Even if the audience is asked to accept some cheese.
The long answer to the question of if the films are any good is also yes, but with the recognition that they are built for a niche audience.. A recent trend is to embrace practical special effects. Viewers seem interested in seeing technical tricks rather than technological wizardry. If you are one of these people, it doesn’t get much lower budget than the Phantasm series. Puppetry, camera-tricks, costuming, and re-use of sets are some of the tools Phantasm deploys. Aside from these practical effects, viewers are asked to suspend disbelief. For example, in the pre-remastered version of the first film, you can see paper clips holding props in place.
The Phantasm series might be the latest running series that embraces the idea of having fun. You can talk over these movies, laugh at them, and enjoy them at the same time. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense at points. Even after 5 films, there are more questions than answers as to what is actually going on in this universe. The lack of awareness on the part of the viewer was not a detraction for me. I did not mind not knowing, and if a Phantasm 6 ever released, I would not mind if that film was inconclusive.
I am going to focus on the aspect of what is real vs. what isn’t, as this is likely going to be the dividing point for a lot of viewers. The films don’t answer all the questions, but they also don’t pat themselves on the back for how clever they are, which I think is a more annoying trait in film. Phantasm asks you to come along for the ride, have fun, appreciate the dialogue so bad it is good, and watch people get their brains sucked out.
Viewers wanting more than great campy fun will be drawn to the peripheral questions the series asks in the latter films. Ideals of self, reality, morality, duty, friendship, and our place in the world are all present, but not focused on. The final film is the least cheesy for many parts, and it digs itself into these ideas as we watch an aging Reggie try to determine if any of it was real, or if he is going insane. Oddly, the final film is the most harrowing, as it gives an interesting look at how terrifying dementia could be. As the concept of reality slips away from Reggie, the viewer is forced to watch his misery and fear as he tries to make sense of the world.
While all of the films show the friendship between the main characters, it is the latter films that really show this. We have watched Mike grow up (literally) in this series. The fourth and fifth iterations of the story seemed like revisiting old friends rather than watching an artistic creation. The series pulls on adventure tropes heavily, and this is a good thing. Each narrative has its own adventure while building toward a larger plot.
Are there problems with these movies? Absolutely. Your tolerance to cheesy dialogue alone will be tested. Whether you will like them or not will depend highly on if you have grown up with them or not, and how you feel about horror/comedy as a genre. Some of the scenes are simply ridiculous (a Frisbee with razor-blades—that is all I will say on that), but the movies are a great time.
My rating: Phantastically phun philms. If you enjoy campy adventures and horror, these films will be for you. They are not all consistently equal, but they are all enjoyable.