The Hell Plaza Oktober-Minifest 2017: Phantasm Ravager

For eight years, from 2007 to 2014, I ran an annual October review-a-thon for The Digital Bits called the Hell Plaza Oktoberfest. As you probably already know (or can figure out if you have any idea what holiday is most closely associated with October), the premise was that I would review a horror (or horror-adjacent) DVD every day for the entire month. This doesn’t sound like it should be too hard. Social media is chock-a-block with posts about horror-movie-a-day challenges. Plenty of people even write up their reviews on blogs, Facebook, Letterboxd and anywhere else words can be posted online. It’s really not that big a deal.

The thing is, I wasn’t exactly doing that. I wasn’t reviewing a movie a day. I was reviewing a DVD or Blu-ray release a day and that frequently meant multiple movies, plus hours of bonus content. For every bare-bones movie-only DVD I reviewed, there’d be something like Scream Factory’s 6-movie Vincent Price Collection or the Masters Of Horror television series. What I’m trying to say is these things took time.

Anyway, I began to get a little burned out after 8 years and decided it was time to pull the plug on Oktoberfest. I thought eight installments was a respectable run for a horror franchise. Most don’t make it that far and if they do, they’ve usually started to truly suck. That’s right around the time where the word “reboot” starts getting tossed around.

This year, I’ve been doing my own personal Oktoberfest at home, trying to watch a horror movie a day. I haven’t been as religious about it as I would if I was still writing for the Bits, missing a day here and there. But that’s just helped remind me why I enjoyed doing it in the first place. So I figured, why not reboot Oktoberfest? Now that I’m not in the DVD review business anymore, all I’d have to worry about is the movie itself, which was always the most fun part about those reviews anyway. I felt that I did a halfway decent job reviewing bonus content and other technical aspects of the discs I covered but I always tried to make it clear that if you were just reading my reviews for analysis of bit-rates and 7.1 remixes, you were in the wrong place. Here at the Electric Theatre, I don’t even have to pretend to care about that stuff.

There were only two problems with Oktoberfest 2.0. One, I wasn’t sure if anyone would really care. Two, I didn’t even think about doing it until October was already halfway over. Fortunately, the outstanding community over at the J.E.T. Facebook page assured me that they did care and helped me pick out a few movies for a Mini-Fest. So let’s give it a shot. If this goes well, you can expect a complete Oktoberfest next year. Until then, what better way to kick off a new installment of a long-running franchise than with a look at another new installment of a long-running franchise?

And say what you will about the Phantasm series, nobody involved with these films can be accused of rushing things to capitalize on their popularity. The first movie came out back in 1979. Since then, Don Coscarelli and friends have gone one to make four more, including last year’s Phantasm: Ravager (or RaVager, depending on how clever you’re feeling with Roman numerals).

First things first: it is nothing short of miraculous that these movies are still being made by essentially the same group of people who made the first one almost 40 years ago. Despite getting briefly sucked into the studio system with Phantasm II, Don Coscarelli has somehow managed to retain control of his cult classic creation. Sure, he handed the directorial reins of Part 5 over to David Hartman but he still co-wrote the script and produced. Offhand, I can’t think of another series whose creators have maintained that kind of focus and autonomy. Even Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have broadened the Evil Dead tent well beyond the scope of their original effort. Coscarelli and crew just seem to keep plugging along in their own little corner of the universe, away from anyone who might try to interfere with or dilute their vision.

That’s pretty cool but Phantasm: Ravager is the first movie in the series where that sense of isolationism starts to work against it. There’s no question that this movie was made exclusively for Phantasm Phans. And that’s fine. I consider myself a fan. But this is a movie made for people who have seen all four Phantasms multiple times and rewatch them on a regular basis. I like ‘em myself but it’s been almost 20 years since the last one came out. Ravager picks up as if it’s been six months. I have never seen a movie sequel make so little effort toward attracting new fans as this one.

For better or worse, Phantasm: Ravager is essentially The Reggie Show, throwing the spotlight on the guitar-playing ice cream man turned sphere-hunter played by Reggie Bannister. Reggie returns from the events of Phantasm IV alone, wandering the desert and looking for Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). Reunited with his iconic ’71 ‘Cuda, Reggie gets back on the road, still pursued by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and his silver spheres. Or maybe not. In another timeline, Reggie is wheelchair-bound and suffering from early onset dementia, reciting his insane-sounding stories to Mike, who is alive and well and has no memory of any of this. Again, or maybe not because Reggie soon finds himself in yet another alternate timeline, this one a post-apocalyptic hellscape ruled by the Tall Man where Mike leads a ragtag group of Mad Max-inspired rebels like Chunk (Stephen Jutras) and Jane (Dawn Cody, who also turns up as…aw, forget it…it doesn’t really matter).

Believe it or not, this is both more and less confusing on screen than it is on paper. Narrative clarity has never been the strong suit of the Phantasm franchise. It tracks in dream logic that sorta kinda makes sense while you’re watching it. It’s never unclear what timeline you’re in or what’s happening within each one. But what it all’s supposed to mean is another thing. I give Coscarelli and Hartman a lot of credit both for getting the band back together (there are plenty of other surprising callbacks and pop-up cameos here) and for trying to do something kind of ambitious that doesn’t ignore the cast’s advancing age. There’s certainly no reason for the Tall Man to be calling Mike “boy” anymore. But let’s be honest. None of these guys are really strong enough actors to pull off something truly meaningful or emotional. The degree to which this material moves you depends entirely on your own emotional connection to these movies.

Ravager ends up being a tribute to Reggie Bannister, which is fine. He’s certainly earned his day in the sun. But it probably should have been a swan song for Angus Scrimm, who passed away shortly before the movie premiered. You might say, “Sure, it’s easy to say that in retrospect,” considering this movie’s lengthy production time but come on. Scrimm was 89 when he died, so you can’t say it was a shock. I have no doubt they used him as much as they could given his age and that rumble of a voice still carries menace. But it seems to me that if you’re going to make another Phantasm movie and you’re pretty sure it’ll be the last one, at least with Angus Scrimm’s involvement, wouldn’t you do everything you can to highlight his presence? Reggie’s timelines are so scrambled that the Tall Man barely figures in to much of it and eventually, he goes out with a whimper. It’s not what you want from an iconic movie villain’s final appearance.

For all the obvious care and enthusiasm that went into the making of Ravager, the movie is a step backward for the Phantasm series. With its low-grade digital video look and often chintzy effects, it’s clear that they simply did not have the resources to pull off some of the more ambitious sequences. The reveal of Earth as remade in the Tall Man’s image particularly falls flat. The movie feels more like a Kickstarter-backed piece of fan fiction than a professionally produced film. If this is indeed the end of the road for the Tall Man (and with Scrimm’s death, it certainly should be), it’s a well-intentioned but rather ignoble conclusion to the series. For all its faults and quirks, the Phantasm series had more ups than downs. Ravager, unfortunately, lands squarely on the negative side of the balance sheet.