Don Coscarelli Review – Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

Phantasm 4.jpg

1998 rolled on, and Don Coscarelli delivered to the Phans another Phantasm sequel in order to to continue the Phantasm continuity after the cliff-hanger ending of Phantasm 3. Phantasm 4 brings back all four of the original cast members back once again – A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm and Bill Thornberry – to deliver the intended final instalment into a franchise nearly 20 years in the making. What’s interesting to note about Phantasm 4 is the fact that it was originally going to be based on a post-apocalyptic screenplay written by acclaimed filmmaker Roger Avary called ‘Phantasm 1999 A.D’, and it was going to co-star Bruce Campbell alongside the familiar cast. Unfortunately, Don Coscarelli couldn’t get the financial backing needed to make Phantasm 1999 A.D, or ‘Phantasm’s End’ as he renamed it, a reality. Phantasm 4 was then proposed as a precursor to ‘Phantasm’s End’, but financial difficulties prevented Don Coscarelli from realising Phantasm’s End. Thus, Phantasm 4: Oblivion was created on a budget of $650,000: less than half the budget of Phantasm 2 and Phantasm 3, and double the budget of the original Phantasm. It was released straight to video and I personally remember seeing this movie all over store shelves, although it seemed to pass by a lot of review outlets as I can only find 8 professional reviews overall.

Firstly, although the project was changed from the original ‘Phantasm’s End’ idea, Phantasm 4 still feels very much like a post-apocalyptic movie. The lack of characters, extras, indoor sets and an abundance of desert sequences enforces this idea, even though I predict that the main reason behind these style choices was because of the heavily reduced budget. Although I can see why the series decided to go in a post-apocalyptic direction after seeing how the previous instalments progressed the story – The Tall Man massacring town after town across America. However, to see this sequel, and indeed this whole franchise introduce Post-Apocalyptic elements into the canon feels quite bizarre. Nothing in the previous movies directly referenced that this was where the genre was moving to, so to see it handled here so bluntly is far different to where I was expecting the Phantasm series to evolve into. It’s not wholly unwelcome, as looking back I can clearly see how this developed, but this large shift in tone from comedy/horror to a serious post-apocalyptic styling is quite a jarring juxtaposition from the previous movies. However, then again, it could just be a remnant from the failed ‘Phantasm’s End’ idea that Don Coscarelli liked so much, but my point is that these elements doesn’t fit really well with the overall tone of the established canon.

That aside, the plot of Phantasm 4 still has many, many issues. It’s an odd sequel. Now, in my previous review, I said how Phantasm 3 was an odd sequel because of its tonal shift into ridiculous horror/comedy, but Phantasm 4 is an odd sequel because it’s just bizarre. In Phantasm 4, there was an attempt to weave a multi-character narrative as the film switches between Mike, as he finds himself in a bizarre, otherworldly setting in the middle of the desert brought about by the influence of The Tall Man, and Reggie, as he drives after Mike in order to save him at the request of the still dead Jody. Whilst this idea seems quite clever on paper, as it combines the road trip elements of Phantasm 2 and the dreamlike, almost surreal qualities of the original Phantasm, the plot threads don’t really work well in the finished film. Firstly, Reggie’s story doesn’t lead anywhere, and it isn’t really crucial to the main themes of the movie. A lot of scenes and plot-threads that occur in Reggie’s story simply appear quickly and are fully resolved again not long after, usually in a graphic fashion, leaving absolutely no bearing on the overall plot. Thus, Reggie’s plotline feels more like filler for time than part of the actual plot. Reggie himself has improved as a character, though. The perverted antics that marred his personality in Phantasm 3 are vastly downplayed in Phantasm 3, but he’s been written with more of a bitter, brooding personality. This is a hard juxtaposition from the previous films where he had more of an enjoyable personality. Although this change is fairly understandable considering what he’s been through throughout the past films, and it especially fits the ‘post-apocalyptic’ feel that Phantasm 4 has, it would have been much better if this change in personality was transitional, and didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

Mike’s story is definitely the main focus of the film, as he shares an interesting dynamic with The Tall Man throughout his plot-line. However, the interesting and strange progression of Mike’s story is marred by having a large chunk of the film play out in unused footage either from the original Phantasm movie, or footage that was filmed around that same time. Whilst I’m not wholly against the idea of using old footage and putting it into a new context in order to drive a connection between two films, the footage used from the original Phantasm didn’t come the original movie, and thus it changes the progressive canon of the franchise. Apparently, according to Phantasm 4, Mike struck a bargain with The Tall Man after he hanged him from a tree, Jody had a scene where he was taken by The Tall Man, and the friendship between Reggie and Mike was way stronger than what was implied in the original Phantasm; it wasn’t a friendship that progressed over the course of the franchise. Although this idea of introducing elements that deliberately change the canon could have worked with more context and explanation, the truth is Phantasm 4 gives very little context or explanation and thus enforces the idea that ‘these scenes actually happened’, even though, as a viewer, I had never seen them before in the previous movie. Ergo, witnessing those scenes in this movie feels more out of place than artistic or clever, and it does nothing for the film’s plot overall. I could tell that Phantasm 4 wanted to be thought provoking and reflective on the series as a whole, and the film supports this by exchanging its staple horror atmosphere for more of a strange and artistic style. However, in the end, Phantasm 4 doesn’t deliver the impact needed to pull off an artistic approach, and it ends up feeling like a very misguided movie.

In terms of technicality, Phantasm 4 definitely feels like a low-budget film. The sets are barren, underwhelming, and usually outdoors with no clever or creative lighting that made the previous films stand out so well. Also, the film’s effects are very hit and miss. For example: there’s a CGI sequence with Silver Spheres at the beginning of the film which is downright laughable, but thankfully it’s the only CGI sequence of the whole movie. However, the makeup and gore effects for the monstrous creatures are still top notch. Nonetheless, I’m always fully aware of the film’s very tight budget because of how shoddy some of the production elements are such as the sets and the cinematography, and the film suffers because of it. That’s not to say that low budget movies can’t be great or create great sets and cinematography, as the original Phantasm was made for half the budget and it was great with fantastic sets and lighting. However, I’m thinking that the budget for Phantasm 4 wasn’t utilized wisely. I understand wanting exploding cars, great looking gore and cool looking monsters, but by spending a lot of the budget on those sequences instead of spreading the budget out across the whole production, cutting corners where you need to like how Don Coscarelli did with the original Phantasm, the whole movie suffers because of it.

My main thought on Phantasm 4 is that it could have been so much better. Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm have become very good actors throughout the progression of the Phantasm series (Bill Thornberry is still terrible), and the idea of exploring The Tall Man’s past and Mike’s future through very dreamlike, almost surreal sequences could have worked so well. However, Phantasm 4 did not display the writing, production or artistic integrity needed in order for the film to become a memorable experience. Arguably, Phantasm 4 did have a few good scenes that stood out amongst the faults, but the film’s glaring missteps overshadow the good elements that come through from time to time. Phantasm 4 was just a disappointment to me. It could have been so much better, but it sadly didn’t deliver. Maybe ‘Phantasm’s End’ could have been the best send off for the series, but sadly, I’m afraid we’ll never find out.

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