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Break on through to the other side
A region 2 DVD review of PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD by Slarek
 

Note: This review does assume you have seen Phantasm and Phantasm II – if you haven't, then you might like to do so before proceeding.

 

When a cult film has multiple sequels, we usually reach a point, somewhere around number 3 or 4 (sorry, III or IV), where it feels almost appropriate to add a label that says 'for fans of the series only'. It seems unlikely that too many newcomers are going to start with III and work backwards, but with every film you also run the risk of losing a portion of your original core audience who just don't like where you're taking something they once loved. It can happen to the best of films and film-makers – witness the general reaction to the much maligned The Godfather, Part III (and I'm definitely with the crowd on that one). There is also the perceived cheapening effect of multiple sequels, with overlong film franchises being the butt of many a movie joke, the general opinion being that if you get to VII or VIII then you really are in trouble. If you want to keep credibility for yourself and your series, get out while you're ahead. And yeah, I'm including Star Wars in that.

For Don Coscarelli's Phantasm films, III marked the point where all but the hardy seem to have deserted the series. This was not an issue of content or even execution. Few viewers frankly even got that far. For UK viewers at least, the very idea of a third film in such a horror series had a straight-to-video air, an audience perception formed by a weariness of tawdry sequels to 70s and 80s classics like Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. Thus it's nice to have the opportunity to properly evaluate the third and fourth Phantasm films, packaged together so nicely as they are by Anchor Bay.

As with Phantasm II, Phantasm III picks up the story where the previous film concluded. Once again this requires a couple of minor cheats of the sort found in 'to be continued' movie serials of years past, where you saw the lead character plunging to his death at the end of one episode and a week later watch him jumping clear of the car before it made its fatal, over-the-cliff dive, and you just KNOW he was in that bloody vehicle when it plunged to earth the week before. The Phantasm series have never been so explicit, but at the end of each film the clear suggestion is that although the characters believe they have defeated the Tall Man and escaped with their lives, he always comes back in the final seconds and gets them. Yet come the next film it turns out he didn't completely get them and they are able to struggle to their feet, break free of their captor and continue the fight.

Which is what happens here. Reggie wasn't killed, just bashed about a bit, and Mike is OK because the car he was yanked through the rear window of mysteriously explodes just up the road, throwing him some distance but leaving him dazed and essentially undamaged. Telepathic girlfriend Liz is not quite so fortunate and has her face eaten off by a gaggle of dangerous dwarfs. When Reggie arrives on the scene he quickly recovers his treasured four-barrel shotgun (which he threw away in the previous film but which has made its way back to further delight the fans) and starts sorting the creatures out (including an amusing shoot-in-the-air gag), but soon finds himself surrounded by more, plus a newly restored Tall Man, whom he forces to retreat by threatening to blow himself and Mike up.

The expansion of ideas and action movie structure that distinguished Phantasm II clearly signaled that Coscarelli intends to give each film its own specific feel, and the first clues regarding where Phantasm III will head are supplied right here. We've been led to believe up to this point in the series that although The Tall Man (who has really beefed up the telekinetic powers he discovered in part II) enjoys what he calls "the game," his only real interest in Mike is in killing him. Now it seems that it's not so simple – he wants him alive. Uh-oh. This set off warning bells for me, as someone who actually screams when in a sequel it is revealed that X is actually the son of Y or the brother of Z, and that everything that has happened up until now is the result not of chance but destiny. I'll never forgive Lucas for starting the trend for that crap. Thus this implication, however slight, of a special relationship between Mike and his Tall nemesis got me twitching. Never mind, store that for later and move on.

Then we get to my second issue, Mike's brother Jody. Yep, we know Jody is dead, and although there is no twist that claims he survived the fatal car crash and has actually been in hiding for all these years, having him appear in almost spiritual form as a sort of guardian angel is actually worse, moving us further from the science fiction of the first film and towards a more religious reading, something we caught an early whiff of in Phantasm II. For many fans this did not appear to pose a serious problem, the view being that it built on the strong relationship between Mike and Jody that was at the centre of the first story. But for this more cynical viewer, this narrative shift from the physical to the metaphysical can't help but dilute the threat by abstracting it further from the real world.

As with Phantasm II, Coscarelli switches pace on us and throws a few curve balls along the way. Having Michael Baldwin (now A. Michael Baldwin) return as Mike must have whetted fan appetites, but he's not conscious for too long before he's kidnapped by The Tall Man and effectively drops out of the story for some time, leaving Reggie, at last, to take centre stage. His cross-countryside hunt for Mike moves at a surprisingly unhurried pace, interrupted by a series of encounters with others on the way. These include three murderous looters, who kidnap him but are then slaughtered in a dark flipside of Home Alone's improvised house defence rigged by young Tim, a kind of Rambo-ised replacement for the first film's younger Mike but without his charisma, nervous energy or screen presence. Completing the ramshackle team is Rocky, a black female ex-army girl with a fondness for nunchakus who expands the film's potential demographic and provides a new object of lust for Reggie's loins. At the same time, though, she kicks against generic expectations by being tougher than all the guys and never giving in to Reggie's pestering – the only way he can get intimate with her is in a Nightmare on Elm Street and Dreamscape influenced unconscious world, where he is interrupted by Jody and more pressing tasks.

Characterisations aside, there are plenty of familiar touchstones here, some coming across almost as obligatory ingredients, as with the sphere that drills a forehead or the car chase that ends in a flip and explosion (it is a good one, though). Inevitably there is further expansion of themes and ideas, with a peek into the the inside of the spheres suggesting that they are miniature flying Daleks, a brain encased in a fighting machine (a similarity emphasised by the eye-on-a-stalk appendage on some of them), a concept that is reversed for murderous drones that have golden spheres embedded in their heads.

Whether it all works is a matter of taste, of course, but for my money Phantasm III misses as often as it hits. But it does intermittently hit, and sometimes with considerable style. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that just for once the low budget starts to show in a really negative way – the corridor to a white light Heaven has too clearly been constructed from draped sheeting (you can see the creases), and the vast army of spheres that turn up later, a potentially terrifying concept, is rendered almost silly by their resemblance to a case-load of Christmas baubles wobbling in the wind.

sound and vision

Anamorphic 1.85:1, the third of the series should logically look even better than its predecessor by way of being younger, but is in fact the weakest transfer so far. It's still pretty good, with sharpness, colour and contrast respectable, but the black levels tend to wander a bit, and darker scenes lack the punch they had in the first film.

Similarly, the soundtracks – Dolby 2.0, 5.1 and DTS, though perfectly good, lack the bowel-trembling wallop of those on parts I and II. They're good, but not outstanding.

extra features

As with all of the disks in this set we get a Commentary Track, this time from returning actor A. Michael Baldwin and a very tall Angus Scrimm. It's a quite lively, anecdote-peppered chat, though Baldwin does come across as a tad cynical and takes the piss in places, though is also occasionally critical of his own performance – "I sound like William Shatner on a bad day," he says of one scene. Scrimm appears to know the name of every actor who has ever appeared in even the smallest part in a Phantasm film, and we do learn that he's a huge fan of zombie movies.

The Theatrical Trailer (1:11) is 4:3 and has a rather peculiar stereo mix with Trailer Voice Man emerging from the left speaker only, a little disconcerting if your speakers are widely spaced.

Photo Gallery consists of 10 iffy quality frame grabs and 3 stills of marketing artwork.

The usual Biographies pretty much repeat those found on the disk for the first film, plus Chris Chontyn.

summary

It's not great but it's not bad – the shift in pace is interesting but the metaphysical drift doesn't work so well for me. Fans will probably argue over this one more than they did number II (though not as much as they did over part IV), while non-fans will probably find little to convert the here. The disk does the job without showing off in any way, the main plus being the commentary which, though also not one of the series' best, has its moments. And so to Phantasm IV...

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead

USA 1994
86 mins
director
Don Coscarelli
starring
Angus Scrimm
Reggie Banister
A. Michael Baldwin
Gloria Lynne Henry
Kevin Connors
Irene Roseen

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
A. Michael Baldwin and Angus Scrimm commentary
Trailer
Photo gallery
Biographies
distributor
Anchor Bay UK
review posted
10 November 2005

The Phantasm Sphere Limited Edition Box Set
Phantasm
Phantasm II
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead
Phantasm IV: Oblivion

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