Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Thoughts on…
Phantasm III

Inevitably, the challenge of weaving the murky sub-texts of death, bereavement and mental illness that underpin the ‘Phantasm’ mythos into the fabric of some fairly light-hearted, good-times horror movies creates a friction that persists throughout the series.

In the case of 1994’s ‘Phantasm III’ (sometimes sub-titled as ‘Lord of the Dead’), more-so even than Phantasm II, Don Coscarelli seems to have chosen to deal with this tension by pushing that uncomfortable baggage so far under the carpet that he seems to be pretty much denying its existence altogether – but all to no avail. The imagery and characters he created for the first film back in 1979 continue to resonate, not only through his writing on each subsequent film, but through the thematic logic upon which the whole Phantasm universe has been constructed.

For some reason, ‘Phantasm III’ often seems to emerge as the least popular entry in the series amongst fans – a reputation I feel is thoroughly undeserved. If the film has a fault, it is that it swings just a little *too* close to hitting the same plot beats as its predecessor, but it nonetheless throws in enough unique material along the way to arguably emerge as an even more enjoyable thrill-ride than the all-singing, all-dancing Part II.

As well as reshuffling the by-now-familiar series elements, III adds a surprisingly likeable ‘Home Alone’-style survivalist orphan kid and a nunchuck-wielding black female vigilante to the ranks of the good guys, and evens out the odds by pitting them against an adorably vile trio of early ‘90s styled zombie sleazebags in a pink Cadillac (venerable character actor John Chandler amongst them) – all of which results in what is by some distance the breeziest and conventionally ‘fun’ of all the Phantasm movies.

Despite working with a significantly lower budget this time around, Coscarelli and his collaborators somehow manage to incorporate an even more impressive array of practical make up effects and fight choreography, some great location shooting (most notably a breathtaking Moorish/gothic mausoleum) and many of the series’ most inspired sphere attacks and show-downs.

In tone in fact, ‘Phantasm III’ puts me in mind of a slightly slicker and more ambitious version of the kind of movie Stuart Gordon might have made for Charles Band in the late 1980s – and long-time readers will realise that, when I say that, I intend it as a pretty massive compliment. It’s just a really kick-ass flick, to not put too fine a point on it, and I think it deserves some recognition for that.

Happily, PIII also sees the return to the series both of Bill Thornbury in the role of Jody – his character from this point on becoming an ambiguous and rather distrustful figure, as befits one who has returned from the dead and/or the realm of The Tall Man for reasons unknown – and, more significantly, of A. Michael Baldwin as Mike.

In the fifteen years separating Phantasms I and III, Baldwin has grown into a slightly haggard and perpetually worried looking adult, but has crucially retained the big, sad eyes that helped define his performance in the first film. Doing his best no doubt to extenuate these qualities as he returns to the role of Mike, Baldwin’s ‘had a tough life’ features and weary, pain-wracked mannerisms add melancholic undertow to both this film and the subsequent sequels, with his character’s identity as a man who has grown up haunted by grief, fear and metaphysical uncertainty always hovering in the background.

Reflecting this, and establishing a pattern that would continue into Phantasm IV, part III sees its two returning heroes separated for much of the film. Carrying the bulk of the screen time, Reggie handles the crowd-pleasing, down-to-earth action stuff in his own inimitable fashion, but for Mike meanwhile, PIII becomes a rather different kind of nightmare – a painful ordeal in which he is pretty much denied any independent agency whatsoever.

As the film opens, we find Mike experiencing a near death experience as he lays in a hospital bed, encountering both The Tall Man and his brother Jody as they intrude upon his walk toward the light and drag him back to the world of the living. Soon thereafter, having been revived and rescued by Reggie, he finds himself snatched once again from what passes as the “waking world”, hopelessly entrapped in the realm of The Tall Man, where he undergoes various horrific and unknowable procedures, carried out by his enemy seemingly in order to permanently alter his body and spirit for reasons unknown.

Indeed, most of PIII’s wider plot revelations are concerned with the notion that The Tall Man places great importance in Mike, deliberately keeping him alive and trying to force him to submit to his will – not only in psychic terms, but by means of a kind of physical/technological transformation.

As ever, The Tall Man’s motivations for doing this remain pointedly undisclosed by the series, and the natural assumption of many fans has been that he is attempting to groom Mike as some kind of successor/inheritor of his inter-dimensional legacy.

This makes a lot of sense, and can certainly be chalked up as our “most likely explanation” in linear story terms. But, in keeping with some of the ideas I have set out in my writing on the earlier films, I also find myself leaning heavily toward idea that The Tall Man is simply *playing* with both Mike and Reggie (note should be made here of his repeated references to their struggle as a “game”). Could he not be keeping them both alive, suffering and struggling, simply because he is aware of the fact that their violent opposition not only feeds him, but actually allows him his continued existence?

As an externalised bogeyman created from the fear and anguish of an adolescent boy, The Tall Man cannot allow those fears to be snuffed out by either maturity or death, and, by taking direct control of Mike – by removing him from the “real world” in which he has the power to change the path of his own life, or end it altogether - he realises that he can continue farming these negative emotions, keeping the “boy” in torment and thus keeping himself in business forevermore.

Needless to say, Mike’s travails, and the speculations that arise from them, serve to add a very dark undercurrent to what is otherwise a straight-forwardly enjoyable horror shoot ‘em up, laying the groundwork for what would emerge a few years later as the most challenging and introspective instalment of the ‘Phantasm’ series.


RayRay said...

Very much enjoying these write-ups. It's been quite a while since I've watched any of them other than the original. You're inspiring me to revisit the series sometime soon (maybe this Halloween?). Thanks!

Ben said...

Thanks Ray - I'm so glad to hear you're enjoying the reviews.

And yes, Phantasm marathon over Halloween definitely sounds like a good idea. If you can get one of the recently released blu-ray sets for a decent price, they are a massive upgrade from the ropey old DVDs that I've sadly had to use to take the screenshots for these posts, and helped give me a far greater appreciation of the movies' excellent art design, special effects etc.