Phantasm: Ravager, the fifth instalment in Don Coscarelli’s intermittent franchise, is about as heart-warming as a no-budget horror sequel can get. It maintains the series’ logic defying, incoherent, trans-dimensional lore, twisting the story with multiple timelines for a kind of post-apocalyptic spin. Ravager nods its head so relentlessly to instalments gone by that it feels like a stampede down memory lane – nearly every character from the series’ past is shoehorned in somewhere or other, whether it makes sense or otherwise. Despite all its frantic incoherence, then, there’s something charming, even loveable about Ravager. Newcomers to the series will be hopelessly lost; long time followers should relish in the nostalgic insanity.
This time around, Coscarelli has handed the reigns over to director David Hartman. However, as is clear from Phantasm: Ravager’s dimension-hopping madness, he’s stayed on as co-writer. If there’s one thing this proves, it’s that Coscarelli can pretty much do whatever he wants with a Phantasm instalment, knowing that his dedicated fanbase will eat it up – just so long it features the series’ beloved hallmarks: Reggie, the Tall Man, killer-floating spheres, mutant dwarves, a quadruple-barrelled shotgun and a ’71 Plymouth Barracuda. Ravager delivers all that and then some and is replete with more borderline-unforgivable overacting, horrendous dialogue and clumsy editing than anything the series has previously offered.
All of this would offend even the most gore-fixated of spectators, were it not for the heaving pile of winks and nods that fortifies everything in Phantasm: Ravager. There’s something comforting in the incessant onslaught of franchise throwbacks; as the series’ likely final instalment (Perennial villain Angus Scrimm passed away earlier this year), these constant throwbacks form a kind of daft recapitulation of themes. The key to enjoying Ravager is to get lost in that madness – ignore the glaring flaws and (if you’re a fan) take it all in as a kind of ode to Phantasms gone by.
The madness begins with Reggie (Reggie Bannister) emerging from the desert, quadruple-barrel shotgun in hand. Still hunting the Tall Mann (Scrimm) and searching for his best pal Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), Reggie reclaims his signature ’71 Barracuda and engages in a highway chase with a couple of ‘sentinel’ spheres. Phantasm: Ravager ceases attempting any rational narrative logic from this point forward. Reggie wakes up in a hospital, where Mike tells him all of his past adventures have been a part of his developing dementia. He then alternates between a post-apocalyptic ‘nightmare world’ ruled by the Tall Man, a ghostly ‘dream’ world wherein he wanders haphazardly around the hospital, and the ‘real’ world – also the hospital, apparently.
All of this seems to occur across multiple timelines, accessible to one another via something called a “shifting time stream” and something else called “membrane theory.” Ravager spends about as much time explaining all this as you should spend thinking about it. Once the action starts, it fires on across a swathe of violent set pieces – the most enjoyable of which rely on good old practical gore rather than piss-poor CGI. Thankfully, amateur CGI has advanced enough in recent years to allow for even the most cheaply rendered floating silver ball to look decent. Unfortunately, when Ravager attempts grander effects, the result is routinely laughable. While one misses the classic silver-ball-on-a-string approach of previous Phantasms, the sight of an enormous Sentinel destroying a city, cutting a building in half with a laser beam, is so delightfully bizarre it makes up for the overabundance of computer-generated gore.
Overall, everything looks great for a franchise that hasn’t had a significant budget since 1994’s Phantasm III: Lord of The Dead. Rumours of another sequel had been in the air since 2004 – six years after the release of Phantasm IV: Oblivion. Similar rumours had turned heads now and again in the years since, most of which were shot down by Coscarelli. In 2014, however, it was revealed that he and Hartman had secretly been shooting Ravager over the two preceding years (the extensive filming period partly explains much of the glaring continuity errors). It’s a tragedy that we won’t get another entry in the Phantasm series (at least we shouldn’t, a sequel without Scrimm would be further tragedy). Horror franchises rarely maintain such a solid consistency throughout, even if that consistency is built on a tradition of incoherence. The Phantasm series knows exactly what it wants to be and cares not what you think of it. Skirting a line between knowing humour and morbidly reckless fantasy, Phantasm: Ravager continues and concludes the series’ legacy – a fitting end to an unapologetically weird series, unapologetically beloved by many.
– Martin Macnamara