Friday, March 17, 2017

Phantasm V: Ravager

Phantasm V: Ravager (2016)
Dir. David Hartman
Written by David Hartman and Don Coscarelli
Starring muthafuckin Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm,

The PHANTASM films have been a lot of things over the years. Nightmarish indie horror classics (PHANTASM). Schlocky, outrageous gorefests (PHANTASM 2). No-budget team comic book sci-fi DTV adventures (PHANTASM 3: LORD OF THE DEAD). Whatever the hell part IV was (PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION).

PHANTASM V: RAVAGER is all these things and also a lot of other things, made for even less money. It’s sloppy and amateurish in some ways, and overstuffed and slapdash in every way. But it’s also fiercely ambitious, heartfelt, and crammed to the gills with the the absolute maximum weirdness-per-dollar that science has yet been able to produce. Which means: it’s a PHANTASM film. And for that, I have no choice but to love it.

When we last saw Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and Michael (A. Michael Baldwin), they were… uh, I think I remember Michael was a brain-ball, and they went into the past and the tall man was some kind of Amish civil war doctor? I’ll confess, it’s been a little too long. The last PHANTASM movie came out in fucking 1998. RAVAGER is the first of the series to premiere in this fucking millennium, and it has very little interest in the idea of gently bringing you up to speed. It offers a cursory summary of the insane plot so far which probably has more value as absurdist comedy than any potential as a helping hand to neophytes. But fuck the newcomers. PHANTASM V is for true believers, and that’s OK. Go back to the beginning and start from there if one character having a murderous golden orb in his brain seems surprising to you.

We open with the promise of a somewhat more normal PHANTASM film, as former ice cream man and balding-with-a-ponytailed interdimensional warrior Reggie Bannister triumphantly reclaims his classic black 1971 Plymouth Barracuda and quickly mixes it up with some of those flying silver orbs of death, albeit in an unfortunately cheesy CG way. Of course, “normal” is probably not quite the right way to describe this, except in comparison to the other movies. This part is insane but par for the course at this point in the increasingly unhinged mythos of the series; hell, it’s downright conservative compared to OBLIVION’s time-hopping outtakes-recycling BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 nonsense.

Things get unexpected when we interrupt the action to check in on Reggie in an entirely different scenario. Suddenly he’s an old man in a nursing home, battling dementia and caregivers who patronizingly brush off his claims that he’s a freedom fighter against demonic interdimensional corpse-snatchers. Even Michael doesn’t seem to have any recollection of evil alien dwarfs or brain-sucking death balls. And the Tall Man shows up, too -- not as a evil mastermind, but as another patient. Reggie is sure that all of this is the result of a diabolical plot to lull him into giving up the fight. But are we as sure as he is? Is it possible that the increasingly nonsensical adventures of Reggie and Michael in Phantasmland were really a byproduct of the deteriorating mind of an ageing ice cream vendor waiting around for death in a depressing nursing home?

This is a surprisingly sad and earnest direction for the movie to go, so it compensates by getting even weirder and more outrageous in other respects. Whether or not  this is all in Reggie’s head, the next thing we know he’s part of a rag-tag resistance in a post-apocalyptic future controlled by the Tall Man and his armies. Gigantic silver balls patrol the skies, and raze whole cities with lazer beams. Michael is now Earth’s greatest hero, and one of his fellow rebels is a woman (Dawn Cody, PLEASANTVILLE) who Reggie met back in the present, but she has a different name and doesn’t remember him, so, huh. This takes us into full-on sc-fi action movie territory (or at least SyFy Original Action Movie territory) with a bunch of futuristic machine gun battles and a extremely cheap-looking but kinda cool long camera zoom through a post-apocalyptic hellscape.

So essentially we have three separate storylines going all at once. All involve Reggie, but none are directly related to each other, at least in any kind of obvious literal way. They may be hallucinations, or alternate realities, or just multiple timelines, and the movie has very little interest in deciding which. That was sort of the case in part IV too, IIRC, because that one lost funding at the last minute and had to use outtakes and unseen footage from the original movie to fill it up to movie length, resulting in a similarly surreal patchwork of plotlines. In this case, the explanation is that apparently, this was not originally intended to be a full-length movie, but rather a series of internet shorts. It was pretty far along in production (maybe even finished? I can’t find any source to definitively say one way or another) before the “webisode” concept was scrapped and they decided to stitch the various episodic shorts into a final movie sequel. The world desperately needed a PHANTASM V -- and I say that with the exact opposite of sarcasm-- but guys, you had 16 years to plan for this. Next time, figure out what kind of movie you want to make before shooting it, huh? Fate / The Man has not smiled kindly on the PHANTASM series, but I can’t help feeling that this was something of an unforced error.

Which brings us to the most inexplicable and annoying thing here: Don Coscarelli did not direct it. Coscarelli, of course, is the B-or-lower movie king responsible for beloved cult classics like BUBBA HO-TEP, BEASTMASTER, and all the previous PHANTASM films. He hasn’t been actively directing since JOHN DIES AT THE END, which wrapped production in 2011. Why in the fuck is he not behind the camera here? True, he produced and co-wrote it, but in the director’s seat is David Hartman, a guy who seems to have spent most of his career directing animated kid’s TV shows and low budget shorts (everything from the animated Jackie Chan Adventures to Dan Harmon’s short-lived Laser Farts*). Hartman gets the essential nature of the franchise down, but there’s no getting around it, he’s not a feature film director and a lot of the film is ugly-looking and indifferently framed in a way that no Coscarelli film would ever be, no matter how low the budget. I can deal with nonsensical weirdness no problem. In fact, it’s really more of a feature than a bug at this point. But eyesore low-rent CG gore is a crime against Phantasm kind. I know the budget is low, but that’s when you ought to get creative, not just shrug and hand it off to the cheapest nerds you can find. It doesn’t look charmingly bad, like overambitious practical effects might. It just looks bad.**

So that’s the downside here, and it’s a pretty hard-to-ignore downside. But the upside is equally obvious: this is a movie with a lot of genuine affection for the characters we’ve now spent nearly 40 years with. The first film premiered in 1979. Michael was just a little kid back then, Reggie was just 34. Now Mike is 53, and Reggie is fucking 71. Mike is older today than Angus Scrimm was back when he first played the “old man.” Over the course of five films, we’ve seen them age and grow old, like a weird sequel to BOYHOOD with evil dwarfs. And I suppose we’ve grown old with them. We’ve watched our own lives get more complicated than we expected, we watched our dreams of glory and meaning fizzle out and die like an endless stream of increasingly low-budget sequels. We waited for years for the resolution to a hilariously sprawling seemingly stream-of-consciousness narrative which straddles five decades. And that may not mean much, but damn it, it means something. And its saving grace is that PHANTASM: RAVAGER knows that.

In a lot of ways, it’s a movie about failure. Reggie doesn’t really have any reasonable hope of stopping an evil interdimensional alien whatever. Hell, here we get a glimpse into a future where he’s already lost. And maybe he was never even fighting to begin with, maybe all his adventures were just the aggrandizing fantasy of a very average dying man who can’t admit that he never was anything to begin with. And in a series first, he doesn’t even get the girl! Granted, he’s still ladies’ man enough to arouse the interest of a very pretty lady who’s at least 30 years his junior, but he ends up falling asleep before he can seal the deal. And while this is played for laughs, they’re laughs with a hint of affectionate melancholy. This can’t go on forever; the guy spent his life as a badass warrior, and now that he’s winding down, what does he have to show for it? Victory, or even comprehension of the forces he faces, seems as distant as it ever was.

But it hasn’t been an entirely wasted life, either. Even if he’s never made any real progress in his fight against the Tall Man --if there ever was a Tall Man to begin with-- he’s made some real friends. There’s a genuinely touching moment in the nursing home when Mike comes in and thanks Reggie for raising him when his brother died. He doesn’t care that Reggie isn’t a badass warrior of the wastelands. He just loves him. He might never gain any ground, but he did gain a family, and, fittingly, that’s where the movie leaves us. The fight --of the delusion-- continues ever on, but by the end of RAVAGER, Reggie and Michael are back together with old friends and new, ready to keep on doing what they’ve always done. And no matter how bleak things may look, they’re together, and that’s enough. It’s a silly, ridiculous moment which is simultaneously genuinely sweet, and maybe even a little heartbreaking. Which more or less describes the movie itself -- it’s ridiculous and uneven, but undeniably heartfelt. And yes, maybe that’s enough.

*Which also, now that I look at it, featured PHANTASM V co-star Dawn Cody

**In all fairness, Coscarelli himself got into a little trouble with this in the chintzy climax for JOHN DIES AT THE END. But at least the bulk of that one looked like a real movie.

Good Kill Hunting

The Final Game Now Begins
Yes, and it continues OBLIVION’s clever gimmick of putting the roman numeral in the title. oblIVion, raVager. I guess they could just do obliVIon again for the next one.
Yes, part V, possibly the end of the series since Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm died after filming.
Oh man, uh, Sci-Fi Horror, I guess? Really, the PHANTASMs are pretty much their own subgenre.
Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister
Don’t think so
None, although a horse gets the business end of a brain-ball
None, unless you want to count the evil dwarfs, which I guess are repurposed human corpses
No, unless yes?
Tall Man’s plans are too impenetrable to know if there’s a religious element to it, or what. The dwarfs do wear robes, though.
Yeah, a surprisingly serious look at age-related brain deterioration
Nothing that I recall
Bald men are and will always be sexier than anyone wants to admit, and a ponytail never hurt either.

It probably doesn't deserve this high a rating in terms of quality, but I can't bring myself to go lower.

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