Don Coscarelli, 1998
Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Bill Thornbury
This fourth film in the Phantasm series opens the same way as all other sequels – exactly where the previous film left off. Mike, with a sphere planted inside his head, is running from the mortuary and the Tall Man. Reggie is trapped by the Tall Man and his lethal spheres, but is inexplicably released to fight another day. This review already makes no sense to anyone new to the series. The rest of this very confusing film is split between Mike and Reggie. Mike is trying to find out about the Tall Man’s origins, which involve time and dimensional travel. Reggie is searching for Mike and hoping to find a way to finally defeat the Tall Man.
Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm are always fun to watch, and it’s even nice to see Scrimm in a different sort of role (as the kind old man in an alternate dimensional version of the Tall Man). The best thing about the film is the melancholic, dreamlike insertion of extra footage from Phantasm, made up of random shots of young Mike bonding with Reggie, often in the ice cream truck. His palpable sense of loneliness is a reminder of why Phantasm was so great – and serves to link us directly back to that film – but also stresses what Phantasm IV tries to achieve and clearly lacks. The use of this footage is pleasing, but could have been magical if it was more streamlined with the script and made more sense.
That’s the main issue with Phantasm IV – there is no clear storyline. It attempts to go back into the past of Phantasm as well as forward into a future world that Coscarelli simply couldn’t afford to portray on screen. Coscarelli asks even more questions than he did in Phantasm III, but fails to answer any of them, only occasionally offering suggestions. There is so much potential that just fails utterly. It’s deeply disappointing.
Phantasm IV was initially intended to be a big budget final entry in the series, costarring Bruce Campbell and based around a massive, final war with the Tall Man set on his planet in another dimension. When Coscarelli failed to raise that budget, he wrote a new script adapted to the tiny budget he had to work with (smaller than Phantasm II or III) and loosely organized around unused footage from the earlier films. Simply put, it’s a mess. Michael Baldwin is not a strong enough actor to lead the film on his own and it’s a major detriment that he and Reggie Bannister are split up for almost the entire film. Their camaraderie was a strong point in the first two films and somewhat in the third.
Slowly paced, non-linear, and utterly confused, Phantasm IV could have felt like Phantasm by way of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but instead, it’s just a disaster. This entry isn’t even really a horror film – lacking scares or gory set pieces – and focuses more on an exploration of how the Tall Man came to be and how Mike can save himself. While there is a fittingly dark, subdued, and depressing tone set against a beautiful desert landscape, there is just not enough about the film that works.
There is a lengthy scene where Mike attempts suicide by hanging in the desert, but the Tall Man ultimately prevents this. Why? Who knows. There is yet another scene where he begins to develop powers of his own. Why? My theory is that this happens because he begins regularly practicing dimensional travel, but it’s never really explained. Jody, Mike’s dead brother, also appears in this film both as a spirit possessing a sphere and as a helpful (sometimes harmful) specter. Why? I have no idea why he turns from good to bad. Tim, the little boy in Phantasm III is disposed of and ignored without further explanation. The Tall Man allows Reggie to live for no apparent reason, but then spends the rest of the film trying to kill him in all sorts of absurd ways (including via a zombie cop who comes from out of nowhere).
Phantasm IV was clearly a misguided labor of love. I would have preferred no fourth film than a flawed effort that clearly wasn’t what the director initially intended. The budget scraped the bottom of the barrel so much that devout fans made some of the digital effects for free and KNB EFX contributed some, apparently out of love for Coscarelli. I don’t understand why he didn’t try to wait and possibly raise more money, maybe piggybacking on John Dies at the End’s success, but that’s just crying over spilt milk. I can’t recommend the film, but it is sort of fascinatingly, thought-provokingly bad and should be seen by all Phantasm series completists. It’s available on DVD, but proceed with caution.