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John’s Horror Corner: Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), and more of our other-worldly mortician the Tall Man, his evil dwarves, and his deadly balls.

June 13, 2017

MY CALL:  Somehow yet more incomprehensible than its predecessors, this is the first in the series I wouldn’t recommend outside of seeing the whole series in order.  Just imagine everything you liked form parts 1-2, and now imagine that there’s less of it.  MORE MOVIES LIKE Phantasm III: Lord of the DeadThere is little out there that compares to these films, so I’ll just suggest starting with Phantasm (1979) and Phantasm II (1988)—both of which are far better—and perhaps the subsequent sequels up to part 5.

HOW DID WE GET HERE? This franchise is just plain bonkers, and the story is all over the place with no real explanations in sight.  Parts 1 and 2 ended in inexplicable nightmare-like twists a la A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), leaving us at the end of part 2 with Reggie (Reggie Bannister; Phantasm 1-5, Wishmaster) apparently dead at the side of the road, and Mike (A. Michael Baldwin; Phantasm 1-5) and Liz (Paula Irvine; Phantasm III) being driven to their doom by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm; Phantasm 1-5, Subspecies, Wishmaster), who had “melted to death” not long before.  Our part 3 opening reveals (ever so vaguely) how, indeed, the thought-to-be-dead Tall Man got to them in the end.  Then an evil dwarf eats Liz’ face, taking care of someone who apparently isn’t needed to further to plot in this next sequel.

After the car crash (with Mike, Liz and the Tall Man at the end of part 2), Reggie checks on Mike at the hospital to find an evil-sphere-possessed nurse trying to kill him!  The magical orb literally took the place of her brain, thus evolving the capabilities of these entities in the franchise.  That’s certainly new! So why not do that all the time and just assassinate the protagonists?  Mike ends up dying and, contrary to his from-the-dead brother Jody’s (Bill Thornbury; Phantasm 1-5) advice, he goes into the light.  But why would he do that? The ghost of his brother was right there telling him to do otherwise!  Parts 1-2 were admittedly weird, and a lot went unexplained.  Be prepared to be baffled.

Much to my dismay, this sequel adopts a 90s “bad movie” vibe (a la Leprechaun), complete with douchebag criminal bad guys and a tough little survivor kid with a razorblade frisbee.  Now in the form of a metal sphere, Jody’s spirit guides Reggie and the kid to the Tall Man.  I know, you’re thinking I must’ve left something out because this makes no sense for Jody to have been a ghost and then a killer sphere. Bad news. I’ve told you everything. This just doesn’t make sense.

On their journey, they join forces with the nunchuck-twirling Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry; The Devil’s Advocate, Phantasm: Ravager), Reggie somehow becomes a sleaze ball, and another silly sex scene transpires—I’m beginning to think this is a running joke between Reggie and Coscarelli.

Speaking of jokes, this sequel is doing very little service or justice to the franchise in that it is just incomprehensibly silly.  People are doing things in dreams that affect reality, the Tall Man’s severed body parts continue to become ridiculous monsters (as in part 1) for no reason, Jody keeps switching from being a sphere to a specter to a dream to a sphere, portals just seem to appear and disappear as needed, and…oh, right, the really stupid douchebag criminal zombie fights comprise much of the action. It’s become pretty campy.

Just having a chat with my brother Jody…who’s a ball now.

Despite all this silliness, we do get some answers.  We develop the Phantasm mythology by explaining how the Tall Man seems to continue returning from the dead, Mike’s strange connection to the Tall Man is elaborated, what powers the murderous spheres is revealed, some of the things done to create his evil dwarves are shown, and some additional aspects of the Tall Man’s grand plan are exposed.  We don’t really understand the ins and outs of any of this, but at least we know more.  And, despite all that isn’t answered, it felt good to learn more about what’s going on with this interdimensional graverobbing scheme to…take over the world?  Or at least, the Pacific Northwest?

Writer/director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm 1-4, The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep) continues to make sequels that hardly tie together, yet always manage to pick up right where the former ends.  Evidently, some duct tape and rewrites go a long way.  This is both admirable and a tad crazy, especially given the gaps between these movies (1979, 1988, 1994) and how he maintains the same lead cast.  Much to the film’s detriment, the Tall Man seems less menacing and less impressive here, as do his dwarves and balls.  Again, we have violently swerved into bad movie territory, so the suspense has been largely replaced by giggles as if to ask is this really serious right now?  You also may recall that psychic powers were prominent in Phantasm II (1988), and that Mike had a connection of sorts to the Tall Man. Now Jody shares other-worldly links to both Mike and the Tall Man. So, while this isn’t actually new, it’s already starting to feel old.

You can’t discuss these movies without mentioning the balls.  The effects were pretty solid, with the murderous chrome spheres flying through the air, unsheathing blades and buzz saws, impaling victims, and drilling into their heads!  The gore is decent, but more toned down from parts 1-2 (which were served better by their budgets). The balls appear markedly “more CGI” than before, when they were definitely rotoscoped in parts 1-2.  The gore overall was less satisfying than previous installments, along with most aspects of this sequel.

Of course, every movie has its trademark ball-spewing-blood scene.

Parts 1-2 worked because of the satisfyingly unusual story.  That’s gone.  The series also thrived on the relevance of the Tall Man.  That’s diminished.  It now relies on its mythology which, despite building somewhat, isn’t satisfying enough to save this movie.  It’s the first in the series I wouldn’t recommend outside of seeing the whole series in order.  Like parts 1-2, the surprise ending is pretty random and feels like Reggie, Mike and the kid are doomed.  I’m curious to see where this goes in part 4.

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