Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998) — Hang time with the Tall Man

“Where do you think you’re going, boy? Death is no escape from me.”

Justin’s rating: This movie taught me that sleeping in hearses is pretty comfy

Justin’s review: The painful lesson that we’ve learned from watching J.J. Abrams projects over the decades is that if you can’t deliver a satisfying answer and conclusions in the end, then all of the intriguing mystery and setup in the world won’t be enough to sustain your story. Going through the Phantasm series, I’m starting to suspect that it may be a pre-Abrams example of this faulty “mystery box” setup.

I mean, after three movies, what do we even know about the Tall Man? Incredibly little. He’s some sort of mortician-themed alien (maybe) from another world/dimension who is harvesting our dead to remake into dwarf slaves and killer floating spheres. Why? Tacitly for the purpose of conquest, but other than wiping out a string of very small towns, it doesn’t seem like he’s making much headway in this regard. Then, in Phantasm III, it’s implied that he’s got a plan for Mike that involves shoving some of those balls into his noggin.

As we turn into the fourth film of this series, I’ve got to say that my patience is really growing thin. Trippy visuals, four-barreled shotguns, and can’t-say-die protagonists AND villains aren’t enough to cover up the lack of forward plot momentum and informative developments. So this movie better deliver the goods, is all I’m saying, otherwise I’m calling “phony” on this whole enterprise.

With many U.S. small towns becoming abandoned — told, not shown — due to the Tall Man’s nebulous influence, Mike heads on another road trip with the mental meddling of his nemesis in his noggin. Reggie, advised by Mike’s dead brother Jody (transformed into a black alien sphere), heads after him for yet another rescue… but this time it won’t be as easy as nunchucking or freezing things to victory.

So we’ve got two meandering road trips destined to intersect before the end credits. Reggie’s is pretty typical from the second and third movies: encounters with creepy people and multi-dimensional places that need a bit of violent sorting out. Mike’s journey, on the other hand, is ostensibly an origin story of the Tall Man mixed in with a whole lot of leftover footage from the original movie. Director Don Coscarelli wanted to take the series back to the dark dreamlike state of the first film, so I suppose he thought that using that footage would save some cash and tie in with this vision. Does it? No, not really. It’s pretty obvious what’s being done here and feels like a waste of our time.

About the only really notable development here is seeing the (I guess?) time traveling origin story for the Tall Man back when he was a more jovial guy named Jebediah Mourningside during the Civil War. At least it gave Angus Scrimm something to do other than scowl and stalk.

There are a couple (but not enough!) of those trademark bizarre encounters with monsters and death spheres and the like. One thing that I appreciate from this series is that it’s not really that bloody at all. Most of the body fluids we see evoke thoughts of Nickelodeon Double Dare’s goop more than anything else. Did I just seriously date myself there? Ah well.

Legend goes that this wasn’t the sequel that Coscarelli wanted to make. There was a real drive from him and others to create this epic conclusion of the series that would take place across a post-apocalyptic America dominated by the Tall Man with gobs of action and a solid conclusion. But a vastly reduced budget meant that wasn’t going to be a possibility. Instead, we get this vague, interpret-it-your-own-way series of slow scenes, flashbacks, and non-answers.

The maddening part is that this isn’t a horrible movie; it’s just a dull one that fails in its duties to be a useful sequel. It’s kicking the narrative can down the road to the next and the next and the next movie until all our hopes hang on Phantasm V: Ravager wrapping everything up in a satisfying way. I’m not holding my breath.

Didja notice?

  • “The final game now begins” You know, until the next movie
  • This movie is really in love with its clever subtitle logo
  • “The coach will drive itself”
  • Man, Reggie is starting to look old in this film
  • The twisted guy in the cop trunk
  • The slow mo walking cop on fire is a crazy visual
  • Coffins are fun portals!
  • Ah the ol’ giant-needle-up-the-nose trick
  • When you deliberately hang yourself, don’t act surprised when it hurts
  • The Tall Man being hung is probably the only original footage that’s truly interesting here
  • Don’t hit the turtle!
  • If you’re tired, why don’t you let HER drive instead of camping in the spooky motel?
  • The Tall Man stalking down an L.A. street
  • Wait, Reggie still has his ice cream man outfit?
  • The Tall Man plays freeze tag with music!

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