Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

Oblivion is the most unusual entry in the Phantasm series and it’s an easy one to write off. Faced with increasingly limited budgets and an uphill struggle to get an epic Roger Avary-penned sequel (Phantasm’s End/Phantasm 1999) financed, Coacarelli decided to scramble together a fourth entry by any means necessary in the hope of both keeping his fans happy and re-igniting interest in the series for financiers. 

The finished product is at once disappointing and ingenious. Putting a halt to the relentless forward momentum established in the previous two entires, Oblivion slows things down and acts as something of a prelude to the planned epic Avary entry. It’s more of a cinematic stream-of-conciousness; a dream stupor of a film that unfolds like an endless montage of imagery built from new footage as well as unused odds and ends from the cutting room floor of the original Phantasm. We jump forwards and backwards in time, in and out of memory or alternative timelines while also checking in on Reggie and Mike – separated – as they inch closer to their ultimate showdown with the Tall Man. While it doesn’t necessarily amount to anything substantial, it does deepen the mythology and stubbornly indulges in the series’ strongest elements: atmospherics and dream logic.

I didn’t think much to Phantasm IV the first time around but upon rewatch, as a legit die-hard phan, I thought it was surprisingly satisfying and fascinating. Once again Coscarelli utilises creative solutions to budgetary limitations and turns a potentially cheap gimmick – re-using old footage – into something far more rewarding by placing it in a very cerebral and surrealistic cinematic framework. There’s very little dialogue in this movie and the limited locations – death valley, mausoleums – are pillaged for maximum impact. Like the first Phantasm, Coscarelli cuts the film for emotional response, for feelings and moods over continuity or plotting. The Reggie subplot is in the vein of the more humorous II and III (sphere tits is a series highlight) but it’s the Mike sequences that really stick with me in this one. The scenes of him sat in the hearse studying his memories for clues of his future are so simple but also so Phantasm.

It brings things full-circle somewhat too. The mysterious fortune teller from the first movie shows up, the Tall Man’s backstory is finally filled in and Mike’s ultimate fate – to become the new Tall Man – slowly comes into focus. Not all of these things are heavily sign-posted though, Coscarelli makes you work hard to decipher a lot of the mystery and meaning which is probably why a lot of casual horror fans might see this entry as load of old nonsense. Coscarelli forces you to question things that go back to the beginning of the series. The old footage doesn’t feel like resurrected scraps but new pieces of the jigsaw that were somehow shot with the cast looking twenty years younger. Magic!

For a movie mostly set in cars and using dreams and memories as plot-momentum – I’m impressed with how experimental and existential this film feels. It’s very internal and claustrophobic. More psychological than fantastic but still emotionally resonant. One of the things I like about the Phantasm movies is how the films become increasingly minimal and by this entry the series is almost completely paired down to only its key components – Mike, Reggie, The Tall Man and the skeleton of America. There’s some brand new truly iconic Phantasm moments too like the Tall Man slowly walking towards camera in a huge desert vista, or him marching through a deserted, post-apocalyptic LA. I really dig this one and it’s tragic we never got to see Avary’s script come to life to really take a lot of the loose-ends over the finish line.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray

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