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All in the mind
A region 2 DVD review of PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION by Slarek

Note: This review does assume you have seen Phantasm, Phantasm II and Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead – if you haven't, then it's worth doing so before proceeding, as there are spoilers for those films ahead and discussion on characters and plot points established there.


"Careful what you look for. You just might find it."
The Tall Man to Mike


The fourth entry in Don Coscarelli's Phantasm series was nearly a very different film. Friend to the director and series fan Roger Avary, the co-writer of Pulp Fiction and director of Killing Zoe and The Rules of Attraction, had written a script that was going to be, in Coscarelli's words "the epic, end all, kick-ass Phantasm sequel." But despite the series' cult following and Avery's Oscar win for Pulp Fiction, the pair were unable to secure the necessary funding for what would have been the most expensive Phantasm of them all.* In fact, raising money for any sort of fourth Phantasm film appears to have been a job and a half. Made in 1998, when the average Hollywood budget was reckoned to be something like $53 million, Phantasm IV: Oblivion had a budget of just $650,000. That's less than a fifth of what Coscarelli had to work with ten years earlier for Phantasm II. This budget issue marks one of the key differences between what Avary had envisioned and what Coscarelli finally delivered. Whereas Avary's version required a specific budget to realise, the structure and even narrative of Coscarelli's film was governed in part by the money that was available. Where the Avary film was designed to be large scale, action-packed and violent, Phantasm IV is low key and driven largely by talk and atmosphere.

The story picks up where Phantasm III left off, and in commoen with its predecessors, we are asked to take a couple of things with a pinch of salt. The prime one here is that the Tall Man, who had Reggie pinned to the ceiling with spheres at the end of the previous film, decides to let him go so that the game can continue, whatever the game actually is. As Mike pursues his destiny, Reggie decides he's had enough and goes his own way, despite protestations from the spiritual Jodie. Yep, he's still hanging around. Mike is led to Death Valley by the Tall Man, while Reggie has his mind changed by an encounter with a demonic highway patrol cop and heads off in pursuit of his friend.

If you weren't keen on the metaphysical turn taken by Phantasm III then you're really going to have problems with Oblivion. Action has been seriously whittled down, which would not be an issue if what remained was not largely familiar stuff – a car flip and rescue, two exploding vehicles, some aggressive jumping dwarfs, and a silver-sphere attack, this one occuring after the inevitable attempt by Reggie to get off with the equally inevitable girl picked up en route.

In terms of atmosphere and suggestion, Phantasm IV scores rather well, however, with Mike's in-car visions and Reggie's initial encounter with the phantom patrolman proving genuinely creepy (though the latter ends in too familiar fashion and a really hokey line of dialogue). Equally effective is the money-saving but sometimes nicely done incorporation of outtake footage from the first Phantasm film as flashbacks, alternate reality visions and memories, presenting us with Mike as both a child and an adult, both of whom are unmistakably played by the same actor. And just about every Phantasm fan will thrill at the sight of Angus Scrimm playing Jebediah Morningside, sitting on his porch and offering the visiting Mike a glass of home-made lemonade.

The real problem lies in Coscarelli's refusal to explain anything, and I do mean anything. He clearly wanted viewers to have their own interpretation, but in the process provides little in the way of narrative progression, in a manner that suggests that even he isn't sure what it's all about. As a result, by the film's end I was not much wiser than I was at the start, the relationship between Mike and the Tall Man no clearer to me than it was in the early stages of Phantasm III. Mike's time-travelling encounter with Jebediah, supposedly the origins of the Tall Man's dimensional power and tyranny, offers no answers – since the two have only fleeting contact and no paradoxical cause and effect takes place, it remains hard to see why Mike is so important to his game playing nemesis. There's even the suggestion at the end that the events of all four films could have been just a dream, which in my book is one of the biggest no-nos of all. Once again, however, this is just one possible reading of a scene that nonetheless has an enigmatically conclusive feel, no matter how you choose to take it.

It certainly has its moments, but for my money Phantasm IV is definitely the weakest of the series. Despite the intriguing and effective integration of unused footage from the first film and some nifty location work, it remains too unfocussed, and the repackaging of the more familiar elements now plays as fan lip-service rather than integral to the narrative. It does feel like the concluding episode, but there's still room for a film that finally clears up the small mountain of unanswered questions this one leaves. Anyone taking bets on Phantasm V?

sound and vision

As with Phantasm III, the transfer here is good but a little way short of the standards set by the remastered print of the first film, with contrast and black levels a little weak in some darker scenes. The daytime exteriors look better, but the picture never quite has the punch it should have. The is framed at 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.

The soundtrack, as with the other three disks, is available as Dolby 2,0 stereo, 5.1 surround and DTS, with DTS once again scoring highest in clarity, volume and bass response.

extra features

The main extra once again is a commentary, this time with director Coscarelli and actors Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm. The usual easy banter between the three delivers an engaging mixture of the anecdotal and the technical, including an almost expected story about stuntman Bob Ivy's almost suicidal commitment to his art.

There are also biographies for Coscarelli, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Fred Myrow, Chris Chontyn and Heidi Marnhout.


Despite my gripes, successive viewings have seen Phantasm IV grow on me, though not to the extent that I'd rate it above or even as high as the other films in the Phantasm series. Whether it's worth buying as a stand-alone disk is a matter for personal taste, but I'm happy to see it included as part of the Sphere box set, and for Phantasm fans it's pretty much required viewing.

* Avary remains connected with the film in the shape of a cameo appearance as a corpse in the Civil War flahback/vision sequence.

The Phantasm Sphere Limited Edition Box Set

Phantasm IV: Oblivion
USA 1998
86 mins
Don Coscarelli
A. Michael Baldwin
Reggie Banister
Bill Thornbury
Heidi Marnhout
Bob Ivy
Angus Scrimm

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
English for the hearing impaired
Don Coscarelli, Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrim commentary

Anchor Bay UK
review posted
28 November 2005

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

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