Phantasm IV: Oblivion
Medium: film
Year: 1998
Writer/director: Don Coscarelli
Keywords: horror, SF
Country: USA
Actor: A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy, Angus Scrimm
Format: 90 minutes
Series: << Phantasm
Website category: Horror modern
Review date: 17 June 2002
Assuming Don Coscarelli never gets around to making Phantasm's End, this is where the series will conclude... and to my surprise, I think it's a fitting capstone. It's the weakest of the four movies, but that doesn't make it worthless. On the contrary, there's a lot I really liked here.
Let's start by addressing a misconception. Phantasm IV is not a confusing mess. It ain't straightforward, but it begins with a massive info-dump and recap sequence that if anything errs on the side of too much information. It's a clunky beginning, but no one who's been paying attention can pretend they haven't been told all they need to know.
Alas, the clunkiness doesn't end there. No way around it, the first half of this movie feels pretty bad. Reggie does his usual thing in a completely disconnected subplot while Mike experiences weirdness in an anything-goes fantasy reality. Okay, weirdness is par for the course in a Phantasm movie. However this is so random and pointless that you lose interest, since it goes nowhere and means nothing (or so you think at the time). Mike isn't even in any danger, with the Tall Man having become positively avuncular. At times Angus Scrimm is almost sweet. Having taken Mike under his wing, he just pops up from time to time like Yoda to offer friendly words of advice.
Reggie's subplot feels odd, too. All the previous Phantasms felt straight from the seventies, with even the third one having gun-toting blaxploitation chicks and Mad Max road raiders despite being released in 1994. However here we have cops, phone booths, modern cars and a blonde who can act! Suddenly it feels as if Reggie's been caught in a timewarp, scooped from his usual apocalyptic world and dropped into the present day. I can't emphasise enough how disconcerting it was to find a good actress in a Phantasm movie. Bad acting had become almost the house style, but despite being female and blonde Heidi Marnhout's character seems like a real person - she's sympathetic, has bags of screen presence and is darned cute when wearing not very much. You like her. This isn't just the best female character in a Phantasm movie, but pretty much the only one. Okay, maybe Gloria Lynne Henry wasn't bad in III. I wanted more Heidi!
But this sense of temporal dislocation soon becomes a good thing. You see, this is a time travel movie. We skip from the seventies Phantasm universe to the present day (Reggie) to 19th century civil war times (Mike). We even see a modern city! Okay, it's a deserted dream-city, but it's still a city.
What's more, Phantasm IV includes previously unseen footage filmed back in 1978. Lengthy deleted sequences crop up, awkwardly shoehorned in but still interesting. This isn't just part of the time-travelling theme, but it helps give a sense of completeness to the saga. Phantasm IV is busting a gut to be a fitting conclusion to the series, down to referencing tiny details (the moving photo) and dressing Reggie in his original outfit. With hindsight, even Jody's "what the hell?" offscreen death in the first movie has become foreshadowing, setting up a major puzzle and plot thread in these later films.
But boy, does everyone look older! It's almost twenty years since the original Phantasm and it looks it too. As I've said elsewhere, I think this is a wonderful feature of the series. In a story about mortality, we see Mike go from boyhood to middle age as Jody gets chunky and Reggie gets just plain old. Oh, and the Tall Man looks *ancient*. Cool!
Like I said, the first half meanders - but things pick up thereafter. Mike himself becomes the scariest thing in the film, which (like III) is basically one big character piece. He goes through changes! Has our hero turned to the dark side? I didn't know, but his ball-eyes sure looked freaky. I hadn't a clue where this was heading and I thought it was great. (It's even possible that Oblivion's first half might grow on me with repeat viewings as I start reading subtleties into Mike's earlier random surrealnesses.)
We see the Tall Man before he turned evil, i.e. Jebediah Morningside. This should have sucked mightily, but to my surprise it turned out to be one of the film's best bits. It's oddly moving, concluding as it does with our reflections on the fate of Jebediah himself.
And that, right there, is what really chimed for me in Phantasm IV. Well, apart from the way-cool moment where the Tall Man whisks a tuning fork out of Mike's hand telekinetically and pops it into his pocket. Heh heh. Horror movies aren't about death, but killing. We see really nasty things happen to people, but what happens afterwards isn't really of interest... except in Phantasm. We've seen just about everything that can happen to your mortal remains - and here, at the end of the series, we get to consider death divorced from the actual killing. It's merely the horror of ceasing to be, which for me is far more chilling and resonant than some blood and guts. Here we consider the deaths of Jody and the Tall Man himself ("Jebediah Morningside never does come back") not as the usual bloody murders but as the removal of a person from this world. That really worked for me.
Then there's what happens to Mike at the end. Admittedly it's left open for the sequel, but personally I think he's dead. I nearly laughed at Reggie's line: "Mike, Mike, you're still alive!"
I was waiting throughout for the Tall Man to do a Vader and tell Mike, "I am your father." Somehow it would have felt right, though also incredibly corny and I'm glad it didn't happen. But the parallels between Mike and the Tall Man go right back to the mirror-walking scene in the first Phantasm. Viewed on its own, there's a lot wrong with this film. It's wilfully convoluted, without much plot or reason behind its events. I still don't know what exactly the Tall Man wanted with Mike. But if watched as part of the Phantasm series, one after another, I think it works as a conclusion. It's the weakest of the four, but it's nowhere near the churned-out travesty I'd half-expected. This certainly ain't hackwork. It's an odd little piece with its own disjointed vibe and a fair amount of integrity. I rather liked it.