Sunday, December 7, 2008
PHASTASM IV: OBLIVION (1998) d. Don Coscarelli
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Lengthy, involved film franchises that span many years and claim more than one generation of fans have a very tough “row to hoe” as it were. How do you continue to invent/reinvent the story ideas that made your first motion picture a hit and yet will keep succeeding sequels fresh and interesting, while at the same time maintaining the loyalty of your original fan base while in the same stoke luring new fans? It might be said that such a task is truly impossible. While George Lucas was able to achieve some degree of success with his Star Wars prequels, some would argue that he alienated just as many fans as he enticed and did just as much harm to his cosmology as he did good. One thing that helps any prospective storyteller trying to spin a yarn across as many as twenty years is that you’ve got to have a far-out set of screenplay notions and you’ve got to twist the threads of your tale into some wild, knotty complexities. It doesn’t hurt to have an iconic figure or two in your film and to have a sizable following of rabid fans that may be willing to forgive some changes/alterations to the original mythos. Such is the PHANTASM film franchise, which began in 1979 with the original PHANTASM, the moved on in 1988 with PHANTASM II. Next followed PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD in 1994 and for now, the most recent addition is PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION released back in 1998. Each film has tried to build on the ideas of the original and maintain its connection to the primary premise and characters, while simultaneously breaking new ground. Anchor Bay Entertainment’s re-release of PHANTASM IV on the 10th anniversary of its original release gives old fans and new a chance to bask in the celebrated imagery of what has become more than a cult phenomenon, PHANTASM has become its own brand of cinematic legend.
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION is the continued story of Michael Pearson, his brother Jody, their friend Reggie and their struggles with the nefarious “Tall Man” and his armies of murderous dwarfs. Michael, Jody and Reggie are all dodging the Tall Man’s attempts to finish his dastardly plans as they relate to the world of the living, the dead and Michael in particular, but a reckoning can’t be put off forever. Passing through portal after portal leading to different dimensions and different times and places, as well as eluding the ever-present silvery spheres, Michael discovers a gateway to the Tall Man’s past before he was evil and before he walked down the Dark Path of Destruction. Michael takes on the challenge of forcing a showdown, with his life and soul as the prize for the winner.
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION is not as strong an addition to this franchise as some of the other films, but there is much to like about it. It seems to follow a bifurcated pattern where part of the “story” summons the elements of the first movie and centers them on Michael. That part of the narrative has a complex, semi-convoluted but otherworldly and thought-provoking aura. While sometimes raising just as many questions as it answers, the Michael Pearson side of the story has a very good vibe, blends science fiction and horror effectively and trades on the strengths of a mythos that is both comforting and recognizable to loyal fans and immediately evocative to those uninitiated to the PHANTASM universe. The “Reggie” side of the story seems to want to call up the strengths of PHANTASM II and focus more on a mix of action, shocks and occasional humor. The benefit of this is that it keeps the plot from becoming too mind-bending, too heavy and too slow. There are times when the pace of the film begins to drag a bit, but then a “Reggie” segment arises to help jumpstart the tempo. Of course, the weakness of having a two-sided story (albeit heavy on the Michael side) and with the character of Jody bouncing around between each side, is that the plot feels more episodic than chronological for much of its duration, giving the movie a feel that it is a series of spooky situations stitched together. I guess the best analogy would be that PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION is much like an impressive buffet. There isn’t really a fully unifying structure to it, but you get so absorbed in the individual parts that the overall experience is still pleasant.
One of the greatest strengths of PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION is its visual elements. While one might be able to say that it lacks some of the essential timing and atmosphere of the original, but this is still a very attractively shot and composed flick. PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION is replete with striking architecture old and new, threatening and seemingly innocent and slick as well as dilapidated. In addition, Don Coscarelli has an eye for sinister shadows, blazing colors and harsh yet compelling vistas. Better special effects combined with Mr. Coscarelli’s unerring sense of comforting and unsettling imagery help to make PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION a movie that is reasonably dynamic when it comes to it mood and mentality. While none of the principal actors were never overly gifted thespians, they react well to their surroundings and each other, and it doesn’t hurt that probably most of the people viewing this film are fans that are happier to have mediocre actors playing characters we love as opposed to irritating “pretty people” spouting lines in useless melodramas we can’t stomach. Lastly, it is always worthwhile listening to the music in any Don Coscarelli film, for the strains penned by the man himself or Reggie Bannister always go a long way to weaving a more intricate atmosphere than most motion pictures would have and so it is the case with PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION.
While not overflowing with cinematic treasures, the extras menu on PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION has an audio commentary with Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister that is certainly worth your time. There is a 9 minute “Behind the Scenes of PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION” that is truly a “behind the scenes” mini-feature where you get to see how special effects segments were filmed and created. There is a 1 ½ minute “promo” that is included as well. One of the most surprising additions to this disc was the auto-play trailers that came up before the main menu. Leaving out the middle trailer (that miserable piece of excrement JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER), the first two trailers were for PHANTASM and PHANTASM III and the last two trailers were for Dario Argento’s PHENOMENA and TENEBRE. It isn’t often that auto-play trailers do such a good job of getting you in the mood for a film as these do. Normally I chapter-forward through such fare, but once I saw what I was about to partake of, I waited breathlessly for communion.
While not the Silver Screen nirvana that was the original PHASTASM or the wonderfully ludicrous action/horror mayhem of PHANTASM II, PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION is a step sideways into a parallel universe that I still cherish and still enjoy visiting every now and then. I have enjoyed my forays into other Don Coscarelli alternate realities like KENNY & COMPANY as well as BUBBA HO-TEP too. Mr. Coscarelli is willing to take chances with his storytelling, he knows how to shoot scenes like directors use to and still should and his characters are folks that I like, even when they are baddies like “the Tall Man”. I hear tell that there will be a PHANTASM V coming out in 2009. While I can sometimes be a bit hard on sequels and I hate to see the well run dry on any story spring I like, I am certainly willing to give it a chance. If you never gave PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION a chance, do so. If you haven’t seen it in a while, what are you waiting for?