Franchise fans should enjoy this latest installment as the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album.
It’s kinda-sorta like an Alain Resnais movie, only with zombie dwarfs. And four-barrel shotguns. And, of course, floating, blade-bedecked silver spheres. “Phantasm: Ravager” — the fifth and purportedly final installment in the cult-favorite franchise launched in 1979 with writer-director Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” — most assuredly is the surreal thing, a time-tripping, dimension-hopping whirligig that suggests “Last Year at Marienbad” (or, better still, Resnais’ “Je t’aime, je t’aime”) reconstituted as the fever dream of a horror-fantasy aficionado.
Anyone unfamiliar with its predecessors in the on-again, off-again series (which includes two direct-to-video sequels) won’t be able to make heads or tails of what transpires here. Indeed, even dedicated “Phantasm” fanatics may be hard-pressed to discern anything resembling a unifying narrative thread. But the latter group — the film’s target audience — likely will be willing to eschew coherence for the opportunity to savor this chaotic reprise of familiar characters and concepts in the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album.
The movie has something to do with the disparate exploits of Reggie (Reggie Bannister), an ice cream truck driver turned shotgun-toting demonologist with an old score to settle with the black-clad, soul-snatching mortician known as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), and something else to do with freewheeling shifts among various alternative realities (or unrealities) in which Reggie appears as everything from a guerrilla fighter in a dystopian war zone to a road-tipping vigilante in a vintage ’71 Plymouth Barracuda to a dementia-stricken patient sharing a hospital room with a fellow who’s a dead ringer for the Tall Man himself.
Here and there, Reggie hooks up with old acquaintances from previous “Phantasm” movies — including brothers Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), who may or may not be among the living, and Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a sassy woman warrior who pops up way too late in the game — while covering acres of familiar territory. Rest assured, the trips down memory lane include a return to the mausoleum where the Tall Man strides and presides, Death Valley (naturally), and assorted inhospitable alternate universes that can be reached only by passing between what look like stanchions normally employed to support velvet ropes.
David Hartman, whose previous credits include various animated TV series, has assumed the directorial duties from franchise creator Coscarelli, who remains on board as co-writer and producer. The movie reportedly was shot in fits and starts over a period of years, which could explain why “Phantasm: Ravager” often resembles a patchwork quilt of outtakes from its four predecessors. That impression is reinforced by the return of many original cast members who also reappeared in the subsequent sequels. Chief among them: Bannister, who overacts whenever called upon to display fear, confusion, or heroic resolve; and Scrimm, who does everything but wink at the camera to convey how much he enjoys his status as a horror movie icon. (Scrim passed away earlier this year, and this sequel is dedicated to his memory.)
Near the end, Hartman teases his audience with a possible “explanation” for the dream logic of the entire “Phantasm” series, during a sequence of surprising poignancy. But fans need not worry: Even though this is supposed to be the franchise finale, Hartman doubles back just in time to leave the door open for future installments.
It should be noted that the world premiere screening of “Phantasm: Ravager” at Austin’s Fantastic Fest was preceded by a jokey standalone short that covered key plot points from the earlier “Phantasm” movies. Well Go Entertainment would do well to keep that short attached to the feature during upcoming theatrical, digital, and home-video releases.