Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Phantasm — following the escalating menace of the Tall Man, a supernatural undertaker from another world who steals human corpses in order to turn them into zombified dwarfs, and his battles with his greatest foe, Reggie, a bald pony-tailed guitar-playing ex-ice cream man.
The Installment: Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)
The Story: Once more we begin with a narrated prologue, as Mike (A. Michael Baldwin reclaiming the role) breezily recaps the events of the first two films. And once more we get some retcon shenanigans. Remember when Mike and Liz got pulled through the back window of the hearse and into a black void at the end of Phantasm II? Good news! Didn’t happen! Remember how last we saw Reg he was unconscious at best, dead at worst on the side of the road? Good news! He was barely even stunned! And remember how Reg foolishly discarded his sweet quadruple-barreled shotgun in the mausoleum when he ran out of ammo? Wrong! He still has it! And ammo!
Though Liz’s retcon salvation proves short lived, as she dies off camera when the hearse explodes and then has her faced unceremoniously chewed off by a Jawa. But Reg manages to save Mike from the Tall Man and get him to a hospital. In the hospital Mike is visited by his dead brother Jody, who has somehow become trapped inside one of the Tall Man’s metal spheres. Complex story short: the Tall Man fries Jody-sphere, leaving it inert but still able to give vague compass-like directions, and Mike is drawn by the Tall Man through the dimensional fork. So Reggie and the inert sphere hit the open road. During his travels Reg crosses paths with a trio of lowlifes who abduct him. Fortunately the three lowlifes are killed by a violently precocious kid, Tim (Kevin Connors). Tim then frees Reg and they join forces. Soon the two fellas rescue Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry) a badass nunchuk-loving chick who Reg repeatedly tries to have sex with. Together, with the Jody-sphere, the trio once more battle the Tall Man and his every growing army of minions, which has now expanded to include human drones controlled by spheres inside their heads and re-animated zombies. It is also discovered that the Tall Man has an aversion to the cold. Oh yeah… and it turns out that Mike has a sphere in his head! As does the Tall Man! What does it all mean????
What Works: Phantasm III is where the divergent tones of Phantasm and Phantasm II come together. Hey, you got incomprehensible madness in my post-apocalyptic ass-kicking good times!
“Keep your balls in the air, Reg.” So says Rocky during the denouement. Previously this franchise had come to us from the perspective of Mike. Not only is Reg put front and center here, but Mike is completely marginalized. This has some drawbacks, which we’ll address below, but by and large giving us more Reg can’t been seen as a problem. I love that Reg has his supergun back in this film, with zero explanation. The fact that Coscarelli gets away with this kind of shit is a true testament to the success of the series. Not only do I not care that there is no explanation, I prefer it! I love that the previous events in the series are somewhat irrelevant when marching forward. The entire series is a fever dream. Shit can just happen. And part of what makes Reg really work as a character is that he is the only character who seems as baffled by the franchise as we are. After Reg learns that Mike has a sphere in his head, and Mike wanders off into the night, Reg asks Jody what is going on. Jody gives the cryptically obnoxious answer of “Don’t believe everything you see.” To which Reg echoes our very thoughts, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” You tell ‘em Reg!
Reg also has his ponytail back in this film. I’m not sure why that is important. But it is. The skullet he rocked in II was fun and all, but I missed the bonytail. I also love that Coscarelli didn’t try to cool-up Reg now that he knew audiences loved him. That worked with Ash in Army of Darkness partially because that film is something of a reboot, and mostly because it played into Bruce Campbell’s natural talents wonderfully. Cool Reg wouldn’t work. It is great that he keeps trying so hard (somewhat creepily actually) to bed Rocky and she never gives in. The fact that Reg makes Tim sleep in their car all night so he can try (and fail) to fuck Rocky is one of the lamest things a badass genre hero has ever done. And it is solid gold! Coscarelli really knows how to handle Reg. Since he is so willing to make Reg look like a boob it would be easy to take that too far, but he finds a good balance. For example, if Reg weren’t such a competent badass most of the time I think it would have come off as a lame gag, instead of a hilarious one, that he fights the Tall Man-sphere with a plunger during the climax.
III is very episodic compared with the previous films. We have the initial Mike getting whisked off by the Tall Man section, then the Tim section, then the Rocky section, then the finale. This hurts the film’s flow, but it does allow for some interesting tangents. Say what you will about Tim (and I will), but his introduction is great. It is like a scene from an entirely different movie, as we switch perspective to the three lowlifes who have shoved Reg in their truck. Upon breaking into a house they find themselves pitted against a little kid wearing a creepy Slasher-mask who possess crazy homemade weapons and an improbable Rambo-like ability to use them. He kills one of the lowlifes with a razor blade lined Frisbee for godsake! I also like that Tim feels the need to give these assholes a proper Christian burial. Rocky’s introduction has its moments too. Though the character kind of feels like a Grace Jones knock off, I have no complaints about someone trying to fight a sphere with nunchuks.
The mythology and ongoing story of the franchise really goes bananas in this installment. The spheres come front and center. So many balls… The shot (included above) of the Tall Man menacing forward, with a horde of spheres lurking on the ceiling, is one of the most iconic images of the franchise. And working Jody back in as a sphere is a great, weird move. I really dug Jody-sphere; he makes a good addition to the team. And he certainly comes in handy, most notably when Tim is being attacked by two zombies and he jams the Jody-sphere, spike-first, into a zombie’s forehead. The Jody-sphere then spins around and around until it completely twists-off the zombie’s melon, decapitating it. This is followed by Reg philosophically saying, “If you can keep your head, while all those around you are losing theirs…” before shooting another zombie in the face. Well played Jody-sphere, well played. Jody-sphere also serves as our medium through which to see behind the curtain a bit, not that what we see makes lots of sense…
So it seems that our hero’s theory (and technically that’s all it ever was), that the Tall Man shrinks people into Jawas because of the intense gravity on his world, was way off. No, they’re shrunk down to make their brains smaller. Then the Tall Man removes their brains to put inside of spheres, leaving the bodies mindless Jawa drones. The sphere’s have brains inside. Yet they also are placed inside the skulls of other humans, creating a different kind of drone. And Mike has a sphere in his head. But he isn’t a minion. The Tall Man has a sphere in his head too. But we also learn the secret to the Tall Man’s unkillability when we see a new Tall Man dispose of the corpse of the previous Tall Man. So are there different spheres inside the heads of each Tall Man? And has Mike always had a sphere in his head? Or did it get put there when he goes off with the Tall Man? The Tall Man tells Mike, “You have lived in this flesh construct long enough.” That seems to imply that its always been there. The Tall Man’s obsession (gay obsession?) with Mike is also kicked up a notch here, interestingly so. In the film’s opening Reg prevents the Tall Man from taking Mike’s unconscious body by threatening to blow it up with the grenade. The Tall Man backs off, saying he doesn’t want Mike dead. “Take good care of him.” Of course, we don’t learn why the Tall Man wants Mike so bad. Maybe it’s… it’s… agh! My brain! Okay, I need to stop thinking about this.
There is also a great stand-alone bit following up on the finger-fly scene from the first film. Now we get entire severed hands that turn into weird little demon things. One of which climbs up Reg’s pants leg, going straight for his crotch. Rocky pulls out a knife and moves in to help a terrified Reg, who of course becomes even more terrified. “I can handle this!” he assures Rocky.
What Doesn’t Work: So A. Michael Baldwin is back as Mike. I’m all for franchise cast continuity, but the fact that they’d already replaced Baldwin with James LeGros makes returning to Baldwin feel wonky. His performance in the film isn’t great, but really that isn’t the problem. II‘s Mike felt youthful and energetic. III‘s Mike feels weary and low-energy, and he looks craggy. Mike is a buzzkill now and I was happier when he was off screen. And that’s not good for the franchise.
Let’s talk Tim. Pairing a hero with a spunky kid is one of the weirder Hollywood sequel conventions. Sometimes it works (Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom) but the vast, vast majority of the time it doesn’t and is a good tip of the iceberg indication of a turd sequel (Blues Brothers 2000, Mummy Returns). Tim has two good things going for him here: 1) Mike sucks, so I was just happy he wasn’t around, and 2) Tim is introduced throwing a tomahawk into a woman’s face. There are inevitably some dumb Sequel Kid moments, like a scene where Reg is trying to leave Tim with foster family, or scene where Tim excitedly yells “Yeeha!” in a manner far too close for comfort to a certain much-hated Sequel Kid “Yippee!” from a certain other franchise. Though all things considered, Tim is an okay character, and Kevin Connors does admirably in the part. Tim is a bigger-picture problem. Mike shouldn’t suck. He shouldn’t need to be replaced with someone of any age. Having Mike go off with the Tall Man is interesting for the story, and as I said before, putting Reg front and center is gonna be great, but it feels like Coscarelli really wants Reg to have a male partner. If that was the case, Mike shouldn’t stuck around. Beyond that, just from a structural perspective, having to introduce us to both Tim and Rocky is unnecessary time killing. I think Rocky would have been enough. Actually, I would have loved it if Rocky’s female friend hadn’t died and Reg took up with two badass black chicks, instead of one badass black chick and a spunky little boy.
Zombies. The three lowlifes that Tim kills come back as extremely hard to kill zombies. While they serve some good bits (like a weird moment where Reg wakes up to find the zombie chick blowing him) and good deaths, ultimately they also felt like a distraction. The Tall Man already has Jawas, spheres, human minions, the gas mask goons, and now the slightly demonic sphere-head goons. Zombies are just one thing too many. The fact that they were returning characters pulled attention away from the Tall Man just when the franchise was delving into his mythology more. Part of III‘s problem is that it has a kitchen sink vibe to it, which while fun at times also bogs things down in other places.
As I said last time, I think the post-apocalyptic shtick should have been saved for this film. The fact that we already got post-apoc in II makes III feel a little repetitive after the major leap the first sequel took. Objectively speaking, I think we should have moved into the Tall Man’s world here. That is the next logical big step for the franchise. We’re three films into the franchise and we’ve yet to see anything of significance beyond someone simply sticking their head through the dimensional portal.
Best Sphere Kill: The sphere inside the Tall Man’s head seems to suffer from the same problem most of the spheres do, which is a bad habit of incompetently killing bad guys while trying to kill good guys. While aiming for Rocky the Tall Man-sphere zips right through the zombie chick’s head, leaving a perfectly cut hole. As seen above.
Best Tall Man Dialogue: Ominously to Mike. “Welcome home, boy.”
Best Reggie Dialogue: After it is discovered that the inert Jody-sphere can give directions. “I sure hope that ball’s got a better sense of direction than mine do.”
Reggie Moment of Triumph: Upon seeing that the tree branches above him are crawling with Jawas, Reg fires his supergun into the air. We cut to a wide shot and the Jawas all fall, dead, one by one to the ground.
How Do Our Heroes Lose in the End: Despite cramming the Tall Man-sphere into liquid nitrogen, of course the Tall Man isn’t dead. After saying goodbye to Rocky, Reg and Mike return to the mausoleum. Tim discovers that the cryo-tank they stuff the Tall Man-sphere in has tipped over. He also discovers Reg pinned to the wall by a cluster of spheres. Tim attempts to save him, but to no end. Reg tells the boy, “Get out of here! It’s all over.” Then the Tall Man appears to correct Reg, noting, “It’s never over.” Then, as is customary, Tim is pulled through a window into a black void by a minion.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: Well, the Tall Man did say it was never over. And shit has gotten really crazy now. More!
Up Next: Phantasm IV: Oblivion