Following a dalliance with major-studio funding and distribution courtesy of Universal for Phantasm II, Coscarelli returned to independent financing and a smaller canvas for his second sequel which arrived six years later. With Phantasm III, horror’s weirdest franchise becomes even more of a whacked out funhouse.
The first time I saw Lord of the Dead it felt like the franchise was on the wane (I probably mistook the step-down in budget as a lack of interest) but watching it again with more affection for Coscarelli’s world and a clearer sense of his ambitions, I found it to go down much easier. Sure, the appearance of a sassy kid with a Home Alone-like knack for booby traps might make you think Coscarelli was entering his late-John Hughes period, but the fact the kid goes further than Kevin McCallister’s PG rating would allow by actually killing off a bunch of invaders, the cutesiness is pretty well balanced out. Coscarelli also makes the point of calling back to final moments of the first Phantasm – an orphaned child sat in front of a fireplace – by somewhat repeating it. The fact this new kid comes complete with denim jacket and checkered shirt (a Reggie trademark) rams the point home even harder. History is repeating itself.
Even though this loses some of the furious pace of Phantasm II, it makes up for it with a larger emphasis on mood and strange ideas. Without a major studio to satisfy, Coscarelli was free to go back to the more dreamy and cerebral language of the first film and lean harder on the abstract. The images of the Tall Man here are some of the best of the series. I’m talking about that opening shot of him surrounded by candles or the low-shot of him beneath a ceiling swarming with killer spheres. That stuff is downright ICONIC and beautifully otherworldly. It’s great to have Mike Baldwin back as Mike too and the refit in the continuity makes so many moments land harder emotionally. When Baldwin and Angus Scrimm come face to face, you can feel the history between them that wasn’t there with James LeGros in the previous movie. The road-movie structure of Phantasm II continues here but is more serrated. We branch off with Reggie as he tries to navigate the desolate highways and deserted towns in the Tall Man’s wake and meets a bunch of colourful new characters. Gloria Lynne Henry’s Rocky is an inspired addition to this universe and is surely this instalment’s MVP.
The thing I adore about the Phantasm movies is how each subsequent instalment takes the series in a slightly new direction. Coscarelli never simply repeats himself. Whether that means shifting the focus of his protagonists (from Mike and Jody in the first film to Reggie in the first two sequels then back to Mike) or turning the mythology on its head, it always feels fresh and new. Coscarelli’s decreasing budgets only made him more inventive. Instead of going bigger and sillier each time, he had to be more pragmatic and selective. Therefore, the franchise is always progressing and evolving. It is at once slowly closing in on itself by using psyche as a primary canvas, while also becoming more epic and unnerving because of the escalating apocalypse happening increasingly off-screen. In fact, Phantasm might be the only horror franchise that actually reveals more about its villains without diluting any of the threat or mystique. That’s the benefit of building a horror series on such a unique and weird framework. When one of the silver spheres opens up in Phantasm III and reveals a tiny pulsating brain inside, you aren’t disappointed. When Coscarelli brings back Jody and transforms him into an ambiguous golden sphere, you don’t feel like the series is jumping the shark. In a world defined by madness, the eternal strange and the unexplained, things not making sense is exactly how you want it to be. That’s why I love these movies; they teach you to accept the weird.
Watched Arrow blu-ray