Tuesday, November 01, 2016
The Films of 2016: Phantasm Ravager (2016)
Unexpectedly, this is the most difficult review I have had to write all year long.
Sequels such as Phantasm Ravager (2016) always tend to divide my loyalties, or at least put my psyche in conflict anyway.
But still, this one is special. I grew up with the Phantasm movies, and boast a special fondness both for the first film from 1979 -- an absolute horror masterpiece -- and its effective 1988 sequel.
Here’s my issue with Ravager, in a nutshell.
On one hand, it’s great to get a fifth Phantasm film in the series after all these years. It is rewarding (and emotional, even) to see series starts Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury back in their beloved and legendary roles. I love also, the return to the universe of sentinel spheres, inter-dimensional portals, siren ladies in lavender, and dwarf minions.
On the other hand, however -- and as someone who reviews movies on a professional basis -- I would be doing readers here a grave disservice if I made the claim that this film is particularly good, or well-made.
On the contrary, once nostalgia is taken out of the artistic equation, Ravager can be seen as nothing but a massive disappointment. It’s a scare-less, cheaply-made enterprise that doesn’t move the franchise forward, or into new territory. In fact, much of the action seems to undermine the series instead of celebrating it.
I understand, of course, that Ravager is a low budget movie, but the story it decides to tell, not to mention the way that story is told, prove singularly unsatisfactory.
The Phantasm films have been on a downhill slide starting in the 1990s, and 1998’s Oblivion was the weakest of the bunch, at least until Ravager’s premiere. Alas, this film takes the crown as weakest in series, despite the fact that it features the best and most “phantasm-ish” premise since the 1979 original.
What does Ravager do so poorly?
Well, virtually everything you can think of.
The sphere murders are totally and comically overdone in the first half-hour, and wholly lacking in terror. The narrative is confusing and over-complicated, despite a slam-dunk premise.
And finally, there is no emotional catharsis at the end, just the promise of another sequel in the saga which -- frankly -- should probably be seriously reconsidered at this juncture.
This is not the review I hoped to be writing for the first new Phantasm movie in nearly two decades, but Ravager lives up to its sub-title.
We often associate the term “ravage” with time, or aging, and this sequel indeed feels like time has been unkind to the franchise, with the latest entry feeling tired, weak, confused, and diffident.
I would like to say that the movie is not even “real,” just “my bad dream,” but alas, that’s not the case.
“I can’t tell what’s real anymore, because of him.”
Reggie (Reggie Bannister) wanders alone in the desert after his latest engagement with the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). But something is amiss. Nothing exactly seems real anymore.
Reggie seems to be moving, often randomly, between dimensions. In one, he is continuing his fight, battling sentinels spheres, recovering his stolen car, and attempting to catch-up with his missing friends, brothers Michael (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury).
In another, however, Reggie is old and dying in a hospital or nursing home facility. When visited by Michael, he is informed that he has dementia, and that he is losing his mind. His battle against the Tall Man is merely a delusion.
In yet another reality, Reggie shares a hospital room with Jebediah (Scrimm), the man whose body came to be inhabited by the Tall Man. Jebediah warns him that he has come here to die.
Reggie’s dimension jumping gets worse, not better. For a time, he finds himself back in the year 1979, able to rewrite his history.
And then, he awakes in an apocalyptic world wherein the Tall Man’s invasion of Earth has begun in earnest.
“It’s really not our home anymore. It’s his.”
Phantasm (1979) remains such a classic -- and beautiful horror film -- because it functions as a kind of meaningful adolescent fantasy. Young Michael contends with the mortality he encounters in the world (the death of his parents, and Jody) by concocting a fantasy to make it palatable. In that fantasy, Jody is still alive, and death -- personified by the Tall Man -- can be vanquished. In the end, Jody wakes up, after a fashion, and realizes that mortality is unconquerable. The dead don't come back.
The films between the first 1979 masterpiece and Ravager have not managed to exist on the same level of symbolism, unfortunately. But Ravager boasts the best premise for such symbolism since 1979.
Specifically, it involves the idea of senior dementia; and Reggie’s increasing inability to discern between his reality in a hospital/nursing home, and one in which he is a bad ass, gun-toting freedom fighter.
Because of this premise, Ravager could surely have acted as the perfect end to the series, and the perfect book-end to Phantasm. If the first film concerned a child’s attempt to grapple with the concept of death, Ravager seems created to contend with an old man’s reckoning with the same “boogeyman.”
Not surprisingly, the scenes in Ravager wherein an adult Michael visits a wheel-chair bound Reggie at a home/hospital are the film’s most powerful.
Michael is there to discuss with his friend some serious end-of-life issues, and Reggie is there -- perhaps deluded, perhaps right -- insisting that the Tall Man is real. Michael thanks Reggie for being there when Jody died, and thinks he is simply seeing an old friend suffer from a physical ailment. This scene is emotionally affecting, because of the history we have with Reggie and Michael. We have known them for more than thirty five years at this point.
Unfortunately, the emotional effectiveness of this set-up is diminished by the constant dimensional and time jumps. Instead of getting two worlds to balance against each other -- dementia vs. Tall Man nightmare -- we get a Slaughterhouse Five, "unstuck" in time odyssey.
The audience is never with one world or one reality long enough to meaningfully connect to the characters there, or their specific crises. Furthermore, some of the jumps are narrative dead-ends. At one point, there is a fascinating meeting -- on an asteroid chunk, apparently -- between the fearsome Tall Man and Reggie, and they bargain for the future by rewriting the past. At this point, Reggie is offered his family back, but rejects the deal.
He then ends up in 1979, kills the Lady in Lavender, and is off to another dimension jump. It all happens so fast, if feels like cinematic whiplash.
Instead of meaningfully exploring Reggie and his dementia vs. Reggie and his phantasm, Ravager just keeps layering on these additional realities, and adding characters we don't care about (like a little-person freedom fighter). We see the (admittedly) amazing sights of the apocalyptic world, with giant spheres dissecting skyscrapers. But by this point in the film, the action feels totally disconnected from the characters.
It’s true that Michael brings up the idea of a “membrane theory” about multiple dimensions touching each other, but this excursion into quantum physics works against the dementia plot.
We are left to think that Reggie is okay -- and fighting strong! -- in other dimensions and that these Reggies are no less real than ones in any other dimension. In fact, in one dimension Reggie dies, and the death of the character carries almost no emotional impact because it is cross-cut with footage of him alive, with Jody and Michael, in another dimension.
So, one Reggie out of a million is gone, but the others are all still truckin’? What does it mean? What are we to feel? Is his death meaningful?
Phantasm Ravager doesn't offer any answers.
Ravager is confusing and confused. One actress appears as two different characters in two different realities (Dawn/Jane) just to muck things up a bit more, and some interludes, particularly one involving a farm-hand named Demeter are so badly orchestrated that they verge on parody.
And on top of it all, Angus Scrimm (1926-2016) seems diminished and weak as The Tall Man in this movie. Some scenes featuring the character appear to involve very bad, very unconvincing CGI effects.
In a case like this, it’s important to ask yourself, I suppose, what you want out of and expect from a movie like Phantasm: Ravager.
If you feel like you’ll just be delighted to see Bannister, Scrimm and the spheres again, perhaps the movie’s massive deficits won’t be a stumbling block. If so, have at it. Enjoy the film.
But if you hold the specter -- and the spirit -- of the great Phantasm close in your head and in your heart, you won’t be satisfied with the scattershot, muddle manner in which this sequel (and time itself) ravages the franchise’s legacy.