Call me crazy, but I preferred this to number two.
One thing I really appreciate about the Phantasm series is that by writing and directing every instalment, Don Coscarelli has kept it all faithful and respectful. Too often sequel-makers get too big for their boots, dismiss all previous movies as shit and just go about doing their own funky thang with the bare minimum of continuity with what went before. Admittedly often they're right. Few tears were shed when Halloween H20 failed to pick up where Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers left off. However the Phantasm series really hangs together as a series. You can watch 'em in succession and get the sense of one big unfolding story in a way you can't with, well, just about anything else. Phantasm III doesn't just nod to the past; it's part of it.
For the first time we see the car wreck in which Jody mysteriously died in Part One. We start with the usual "previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer"-a-like recap of the earlier movies. I even ended up liking the return of Michael Baldwin, who's far less cool than James le Gros but brings an "old gang together again" feel to proceedings. This is a goofier Mike. You can't imagine him kicking arse as in part two, but by the time the movie's ended one realises that this isn't a bad thing. This Mike isn't an action hero. He's a little boy lost, whose most important relationship isn't with his flamethrower but with his dead brother (Bill Thornbury, also back from the original).
In any other movie series, this would be continuity overload. Here, with Don Coscarelli's hand unswervingly on the tiller, it feels right.
A lot of my niggling problems with the previous film are fixed. The Tall Man can now beat people up telekinetically, which was a great decision. With Angus Scrimm not getting any younger, there comes a time when you just want to stand there, look menacing and leave the wham-bang to other actors. Angus can do that. The Tall Man's minions still aren't scary, but to compensate for this we get an edge of rather good deliberate gross comedy. And most importantly, Phantasm III (unlike II) isn't just another yee-haw "shoot 'em up pardner" action flick.
Instead it's a road movie.
We have various random encounters, connected only by quest-style plotting. We have colourful characters met on the road. We have scenery. We have motel scenes! Forget any preconceived expectations of horror, action or anything else - just enjoy Phantasm III for what it is. There's something vaguely Stephen King-ish (The Stand, perhaps?) about the endless trek through bleak landscape, dead towns and only a very few strange, hostile natives. The Phantasm world keeps developing; while the previous film showed us the Tall Man murdering successive towns, this one gives us an America that's almost post-apocalyptic. Everywhere we go, he's been. Everyone we meet is a survivor (such as a makeshift home for orphans) or living in fear. There's no authority or signs of civilisation, just anarchy and fear.
The death theme continues, with near-death experiences and cryogenics (those folks need help). Our heroes haven't stopped piling on the years, with Reggie at times looking downright old. Occasional clips from the first Phantasm only emphasise that.
There's an annoying kid... but eventually I rather warmed to him. (The fact that I recently tried to watch The Mummy Returns might have a bearing on this - ouch ouch!) Phantasm II's heroes were Reggie, Mike and a couple of blonde chicks, none of whom showed much characterisation worth mentioning. Here we've got a horny old geezer, a gun-toting killer child and a black female ex-soldier with attitude. Individually I can't say they were anything special, but together they formed a far more interesting and distinctive team than that of the previous film. Road movies need characterisation and interaction in a way that action movies (like Phantasm II) don't.
I particularly enjoyed the creepy house where the three looters die. Originality returned to the Phantasms, as for the first time since part one I felt I didn't know what the hell might happen next. That unpredictability, for me, is the lifeblood of this series. There's an authentically dreamlike dream sequence (I liked that) and the return of part two's Gas Mask Zombies. That was cool. And if you ask me, the climactic action sequence is better than part two's.
I'll admit that the kid is a problem, but he's actually not without charisma when just being an ordinary boy (as opposed to a gun-toting wise-cracking Movie Kid, which isn't the actor's fault). But I'd forgive this movie a lot for the really horrible thing that happens to Mike near the end. Wow, that's a headfuck and a half. (Er.) Basically, Phantasm III develops the four central characters (Mike, Reggie, Jody and the Tall Man) and takes their stories down some strange and unexpected paths. Unusually for a horror series, it's heavily character-based and might seem inconsequential if you're uninterested in its heroes. Had I never seen its predecessors, I might have hated this - but as a development of the Phantasm story, I ended up really enjoying it. Roll on IV: Oblivion!