Tuesday, October 4, 2016

An Alternate Reality #13: Trippin' with Phantasm V...

Don Coscarelli's "Phantasm" series is one of the richest in horror-film history, combining thrilling, traditional genre elements with ongoing hip, surrealistic twists. The original film is an indisputable classic (one of the best of '79...hell, of the entire '70s), and its sequels are pretty damn enthralling, to boot. 

Alas, the guns-a-blazin' "Phantasm II" didn't fare as well as Universal Studios had anticipated, leaving its follow-ups, "Lord of the Dead" and "Oblivion", down the direct-for-home-viewing route. However, that doesn't make those sequels any less significant among fans (i.e., open for more), and thanks to Coscarelli's tenacity, they now have their "final chapter", which this time expands the series' inherent alternate-reality components to a whole new level.

Despite its elevation in weirdness, "Phantasm V: Ravager" (directed by David Hartman, who co-wrote with producer Coscarelli) remains a traditional, family affair: made, that is, by the lifelong bond of Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister and the late Angus Scrimm. That Coscarelli's performers and their related characters still resonate is as important to this ambitious chapter as are its warped, zigzagging avenues. 

Our beloved, ice-cream-man-turned-hero, Reggie, for example, continues as the series' central hero. He's comparable to "Evil Dead'"s Ash, skipping through time (and the possible membrane-theory consequences of it) to track down his beloved Mike (Baldwin) and battle the shape-shifting, zombie-dwarf-making Tall Man (Scrimm)'s invasion. 

More than in prior chapters, that invasion bounces frequently from past, present and Mad Maxian future. As the "Slaughterhouse Five" complexities deepen, Reggie even finds himself diagnosed with dementia in various hospitalized segments, accompanied not only by visiting Mike, but in one instance by a sickly chap who resembles none other than the Jebediah Morningside: the Tall Man's original form. Such sanity-questioning interludes give "Ravager" its strange, sentimental allure.

Despite its many trippy transitions, Reggie somehow finds the mettle to battle on, sometimes in two places at once and even as the Tall Man dispatches both small and large silver spheres (otherworldly drones, if you will) to track and slay the opposition. This makes the odds of success for our 'Cuda-drivin' everyman slim, but that's what we want. Gloom and doom, after all, distinguishes the "Phantasm" universe.

To help Reggie tackle his mind-bending obstacles, folks from his past, like Mike and Jody (Thornbury), meet him at the intersections, with the former rising to the occasion, just as he did in the original. This makes the movie markedly nostalgic, but then so does Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave's symphonic reprise (rekindled by Christopher Stone), as well as an inviting reappearance by the Tall Man's seductive disguise, the Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester), and a cool, extended cameo by "Lord of the Dead'"s no-nonsense Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry). 

Though there are ample, old personas to please, this sequel isn't without new ones. There's the attractive Dawn (Dawn Cody), who for a time acts as a potential romantic interest, but of course, can romance ever prevail in a "Phantasm" film? Incidentally, Daniel Roebuck fans will be pleased to catch him as Dawn's Bulgarian farmhand, Demeter, and Stephen Jutras offers memorable, comedic spunk as the ass-kicking Chunk.

"Ravager" also gives the saga an cohesion of sorts to its dream-within-a-dream scenarios, though at the same time, like Chris Nolan's "Inception", leaves the door open for further speculation: a trait that (like its shimmering spheres; dimensional, vibration rods; and haunting music) has typified the series. 

As a continuation (and a possible last hurrah), "Ravager" should resonate among fans as much as "Force Awakens" in its mythological extrapolation. Though it may have sidestepped wide distribution, that this low-budget entry even exists is a celebratory wonder. Like its previous chapters, "Ravager" saturates the soul with its strange splendor: an uncommon triumph when so many current horror movies tend to be either arrogantly overblown or (as with many "lost footage" flicks) painfully dull. "Ravager" at least proves, when it comes to stirring a sturdy atmosphere, old friends remain the best choice. 

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