Phantasm: OblIVion (1998)

Here we go again with another installment of Phantasm Sequels Month here at B-Movie Enema.

We’re up to the fourth entry that goes by a few titles – Phantasm IV: Oblivion, Phantasm: Oblivion, or, my personal favorite, Phantasm: OblIVion. Yeah, stylize that shit! Anyway, believe it or not, after the last two entries getting budgets of something around $3 million, Oblivion would only get about $650,000. However, I should also state there is more to it than just a severely slashed budget.

You see, this movie actually began life as something else. It actually began as this epic script by Roger Avary. If that name rings a bell, that’s because he’s Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner on 1994’s Pulp Fiction. They won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for that movie. Avary is a self-professed Phantasm superfan. He wrote a sequel to Phantasm III that would have seen a major post-apocalyptic world that continued on from that previous entry and would have even brought Bruce Campbell on as a co-star – or so the story goes.

Fundraising for that project fell through.

In the midst of that trouble securing the funds for Avary’s Phatasm’s End movie, Don Coscarelli went forward making this fourth film that features unused outtakes and deleted scenes from the original film. Basically, this would serve as a precursor to Avary’s planned film. If I understand correctly, Coscarelli made this movie to help secure more funds and be able to make that dream epic. It just all fell apart.

Interestingly, a post-apocalyptic Phantasm movie is just around the corner… in this blog’s timeline at least.

Oblivion comes out only four years after Lord of the Dead. It’s the shortest time between Phantasm films. But we can catch up real quick… Phantasm featured young Mike witnessing weird stuff around Morningside Cemetery and ultimately discovers an evil plot by an inter-dimensional undertaker that was kidnapping dead bodies, and reanimating them as shrunken-down slave labor for his world. Phantasm II continued that story as Mike and family friend Reggie continues the track down, and hopefully kill, the Tall Man, the inter-dimensional undertaker. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead found that the Tall Man wants something special for Mike – to basically make him into a being like him.

Now, I know I said something about this movie that might raise a lot of concerns – it uses old footage to flesh out the story. Yet, it really is the third film that is easily my least favorite. The ending of this movie gets to me every time and it really starts to maybe connect to some of the much, much larger concept behind next week’s movie that I think really ties everything nicely together in the Phantasm Saga.

And away we go… Oblivion opens with a dark and foggy cemetery before we see the lights of a hearse as it rolls through. Then, it shifts to us moving down the corridor of a mausoleum and then back to the silhouette of the Tall Man walking briskly down that corridor. Two spheres join him and then we see that the driver of the hearse is Mike. Reggie narrates the memories of things that have happened in the series to this point. I will say I do like this opening. It feels very 1998 when we get to a fourth entry in a series. It’s relaying that there’s a whole history without needing to necessarily recap everything.

Instead, Reggie focuses specifically on the Tall Man himself, setting up what we’re going to see in this movie. He says that nobody knows where he came from. He acknowledges that he moves through towns like a plague and destroys them. He says they simply call him the Tall Man. You know, let’s talk about that for a moment. Until this movie, there was no effort whatsoever to try to figure out who the Tall Man is/was. He’s just this tall, scary dude. He was once referred to as “the new owner” of a town’s mortuary/cemetery in a previous installment.

But it’s kind of interesting because it does play to the mysteriousness of people who work at funeral homes and cemeteries and mortuaries. I have never known ANYONE who is, was, had been friends with, or any relation to a person who works in that whole death industry. The place deals with something we all fear in some regard. The people who work there are people who are very good at either being off-putting or remain unheard and unseen until called upon. It’s a great tip of the hat that, yes, this is a character, by his very nature and what we know his profession was all the way back the first time we saw him, is someone we are frightened of.

I just appreciate how this movie is giving us the thesis statement of what we’re about to watch – who is the Tall Man and where did he come from?

And now we pick up right from the end of the previous entry. Reggie is plastered to the wall by several of the Tall Man’s spheres as he approaches. The Tall Man calls off the spheres and lets Reggie down. He tells Reggie that his end is coming, but it is not today. The “final game” now begins.

I always love how almost effortlessly each sequel picks up from the previous movie’s end. It almost feels like it’s painstaking, but honestly, it’s probably just Coscarelli and the actors, you know, watching the end of the previous movie and asking them to do the same thing. It’s not that hard to keep continuity going, movie people.

Okay, so let’s tackle the elephant in the room… The flashbacks and use of old footage that’s been repurposed for this movie. I actually find it to be really, really good. There is an emotional punch this movie has because of that footage that had never been seen before in the series. Yes, this movie was about friends fighting against a monster. Yes, new friends often got picked up along the way (except for little Tim.. I’m going to go ahead and assume that he was killed in between the end of the last movie and the start of this movie).

But we go into the flashback while Mike is driving “southwest” where he finds town after town abandoned due to the plague that is the Tall Man. He is running trying to avoid ultimately becoming something like the Tall Man. He’s thinking to himself as if he’s writing a letter to Reggie. Mike asks if he remembers their old town and that last perfect day before the Tall Man came. We see unused footage of Reggie and Mike going down the main street of the town. We then see Mike with Jody with Jody teaching him how to drive and being passed by a hearse driven by the Tall Man as he came into town, running over a dog along the way. There’s a real sense of nostalgia in this movie. It’s almost 20 years later in real time. These actors have aged. A. Michael Baldwin at this point would be in his 30s. Reggie Bannister would be in his early 50s with Bill Thornbury in his 40s.

Age does real funny things to people. As I’m now in my mid-40s, I think a lot about times as a kid or a teenager or when I was in my 20s. I could go into even more detail about how I approach reflecting on my past and things in my life that could have gone differently if I made different choices or approached those moments in a different light. When this movie came out on video in October of 1998, I was in my prime. I was 21. In some ways, I was kind of at a moment in my life kind of like Reggie probably was in the original film. Watching this movie 24 years later, I’m in a different place and these movies kind of reflect that in odd ways – this one in particular.

This movie feels like these actors, even if this movie is taking place in a sort of weird nebulous timeline which probably places this movie no later than 1989 or 1990, are reflecting upon their connection to this series more than the characters truly aging properly and having that reflect their in-movie lives.

So Mike is thinking back to his youth. The last few days of normalcy before it all got upset by this inter-dimensional demon guy. He, along with us, are surprised by another figure who we hadn’t seen since the early scenes of the first movie – the creepy old fortune teller lady that told him to put his hand in a box and to not fear.

Elsewhere, Reggie is heading back to the Hemicuda, right where they left it on the side of the road with both the front tires flat, just as it was mentioned why they couldn’t take it to the final destination of that movie. Oh, and the top is missing because, yeah, it was blown off in the chase so they could deal with the zombie looters. After changing the tires, he’s also found and put the top back on too. There’s a timing-cut there that might seem weird until you realize it’s there as Reggie gets ready to take off.

Jody appears before Reggie. Reggie is kind of done with all this shit. He doesn’t want to help Jody help Mike. Besides, Mike doesn’t want help. Jody reminds him that he’s Mike’s only friend. He wishes that things would have been different. We get a little bit of an idea what life could have been like if they never faced the Tall Man. The three of them still hanging out, playing tunes and drinkin’ beers. But that’s not the reality.

Or… Or is it? More on that next week.

Back with Mike, the Tall Man appears and tells him he’s evolving. There will be changes he will experience. Mike tells him that he still has a friend and he will be coming for him. The Tall Man says he has nobody but him. He crawls into a coffin and returns to wherever it is that he came from. Mike opens the coffin to find there is some sort of portal inside that.

Meanwhile, Reggie gets pulled over by the fuzz. When the cop doesn’t return after checking his license and registration, Reggie goes to see what’s going on. What’s going on is weird shit. And probably monsters. Very likely monsters.

The cop goes missing, but Reggie hears what sounds like someone rattling around in the trunk. Reggie opens the trunk and finds the actual cop pretty much crumpled up inside and begging to be killed. Surprised, Reggie backs up into what has taken the cop’s place…

Yup… It was monsters.

The monster cop tosses Reggie around. Reggie eventually locks himself in the cop car, flips the cop off and shouts, “Fuck you!” while he laughs at his ingenuity. Unfortunately, Reggie doesn’t have the keys anymore. So he can’t drive away. The monster cop busts through the window and tries to attack, but Reggie is able to shoot him with the shotgun in the car. The monster barfs his yellow blood right into Reggie’s mouth. It’s pretty funny stuff. To get rid of monster cop and help real cop get his wish to die, Reggie puts a flare into the gas tank and blows that fucker up!

Reggie laments that some cops can be real assholes.

Mike has arrived in the desert where his hearse has now broken down. There’s pretty much nothing around him for miles. There’s kind of a wonderful Star Wars reference here. You know how those little dwarves look pretty much just like Jawas? In fact, a couple weeks ago I called them that in the Phantasm II article. Well, Phantasm was first, even though it wasn’t released until after Star Wars, and it just was happy coincidence that both Lucas and Coscarelli had the same idea. Shit happens. Anyway, as Mike walks around this narrow path in the desert checking out his surroundings, a couple of the Tall Man’s dwarves scurry behind rocks and stuff watching him. It’s pretty much a total tip of the hat to when the Jawas abducted R2-D2 and it’s just something to chuckle at.

Day passes into night and Mike decides this is the perfect time to check out that spooky coffin in the back of the hearse. What’s waiting inside is a black suit and tie similar to what the Tall Man wears. Mike decides he’s not too into this idea. He, instead, gets back into the hearse and writes his Last Will and Testament. He tells Reggie he has a plan to force him out and take him down. Outside the hearse, some of the Tall Man’s minions look in.

He dreams of the surgery that was performed on him in the previous movie, but also of a battle during the Civil War. He’s in a tent being prepped by what looks to be the Tall Man. As the Tall Man puts a big ol’ stick up his nose, he wakes up. Out in the middle of the desert, there is a set of tuning forks. Elsewhere, Reggie is at a rest stop probably there to take a dump or something. He’s looking around and feasts his eyes on something we all know Reggie likes – a hot lady. But not just a hot lady, a hot lady in distress.

He thinks about helping her out. You know Reggie. He’s super horny all the time. He thinks about it some more. Then he does the most surprising thing in the entire Phantasm series. He leaves.

Meanwhile, back in the desert, Mike tries hanging himself. He does not succeed. The Tall Man comes and tells Mike that death is no escape from him. This flashes back again to the original movie and Mike is running from the Tall Man. It’s a trap that Jody and Mike set up to try to hang the Tall Man. I think this was an alternate take on how Mike and Jody were going to get rid of the Tall Man originally, but it obviously didn’t work and they have to do the other thing where they dump him down the mine shaft.

But it’s a cool scene. Mike is haunted by the Tall Man while he sleeps so he goes back out to where they hanged him. The Tall Man is still alive and demands to be cut down. Mike refuses and tells the Tall Man that it’s because he’s killing the world. The Tall Man says if he cuts him down, he’ll go away and he’ll never come back. Now, with a face like this, how could you ever think he’d lie to you?

Mike’s like, “Really? You will?” to which the Tall Man is like, “Oh yeah… Sure!” Mike cut him down. Kids are dumb, man. In the present, the rope Mike used to hang himself breaks. The Tall Man tells Mike he’s been waiting for him for a long time and he will not allow him to take his own life. Death is the Tall Man’s domain. The Tall Man extends his hand and tells Mike they have things to do. Mike refuses it and uses the tuning forks to escape. The Tall Man tells him that he should be careful what he looks for because he might just find it.

Here’s where something really fascinating happens. Mike travels back to the 1800s. He’s in a lab that almost looks like something Tesla would use. He’s back in Morningside. More accurately, he’s at what would become the Morningside Mortuary. There, he meets Jebediah Morningside, who is a kindly old man who happens to look just like the Tall Man. Morningside is smiling and pleasant. He offers Mike lemonade and comments how he doesn’t look like he’s from around these parts.

He asks if Mike came through the dimensional fork. He had been waiting for someone like Mike for a long time. Mike is understandably freaked out by the guy who he only knows to be the Tall Man. Also on this porch is the old, blind fortune teller. Mike tries to go back through the fork, but can’t. He figures out that he needs to power the fork in order to use it to return to the desert. Upon his return, he sees many more forks set up.

I always liked this part of the movie. I know I’ve said, just one week ago, that we don’t always need clarification of everything. I don’t need to know where the the spheres come from or what the little dwarf monsters minions are. However, this was set up in the very first Phantasm. There was the part in the antique shop where Mike is staying with the two babes while Jody looked around at the cemetery. He saw the picture of Jebediah Morningside. The Tall Man had been around for some time. So, yeah, this connects the dots back to that mystery. Did we need it? Not necessarily. Is it interesting? Yes. Yes, it is. This is how you can kind of answer some of those questions that get posed that can reveal some historical character stuff without it feeling a little too much like what the last entry did. It helps us understand what might be happening to Mike. This means that someone, or something, made Morningside into the Tall Man just as the Tall Man is turning Mike into the… uh… Mike Man?

Eh.

Back to Reggie and, guess what! That babe is crossing his path once again. She sure seems to be showing up wherever Reggie is. I’m sure that’s normal. Anyway, the babe sees a turtle crossing the road and tries avoiding it. This makes her flip her car and fuck it up pretty good. Reggie saves her before her car can explode. I’m betting we’re going to see if she has nice boobs before the end of this whole thing.

In the desert, Mike begins to realize he has some telekinetic powers developing. He first uses it to kill a scorpion crawling around on him by crushing it with a rock. When he sees one of the dwarf minions watching him, he moves an even bigger rock to crush him. So he gets an idea. He starts mucking about with the engine of the hearse.

Ball Jody shows up to tell him that he won’t be able to leave with the car. Mike says he has other ideas. Mike and Jody talk about how Jody died. Jody says that it was a lie that he died in a car accident. He has some recollection of going to the funerals of Jody and their parents, but it’s a bit fuzzy. He is a little upset with Jody because if he could be there now, why hadn’t he been around like Reggie always was? Jody says he didn’t abandon his little bro, he was taken. We see the unused footage from the original movie that shows that after he helped dump the Tall Man into the mineshaft, the Tall Man was waiting for him and grabbed him then. While we learn about this, Mike sees the number of forks are multiplying in the desert. So he starts working on his plans with the car engine a little faster. What’s that he’s made with the engine? A sphere of his own that he can control.

Reggie and that hot babe, named Jennifer, find a place to stay. Reggie pulls up to an abandoned hotel where he makes the offer to camp there with sleeping bags and he can take her to the next town. He’s exhausted and he needs to sleep at least until dawn. She eventually convinces her to stay there. They break into a room that’s all smashed up, but they make the best of it.

Hey, speaking of spheres… Reggie tells Jennifer about the Tall Man, his dwarves, how they have Mike, etc. He’s sounding a little crazy. He does bring up a good point that never seems to come up. He asks her if she’s noticed that there’s NOBODY around ANYWHERE. That would be the first clue that there’s some bad shit going on if you notice that no matter where you go, you’re pretty much the only person you ever see. I’ve long questioned what exactly the end goal is or what’s going on with bigger cities. Are they also attacked by dwarves and spheres and the Tall Man?

Fuck it… Reggie’s gonna try to get laid by this very hot lady. She turns him down, tells him to go to sleep and he seemingly does, only to wake up in a graveyard very reminiscent of the Morningside cemetery. Naturally, the place is stalked by monsters and he’s grabbed on the shoulder by Mike who seems much taller and much more like the Tall Man. He wakes up and notices he’s still in bed with the very comely Jennifer.

Now, I know what we’re all thinking here… Jennifer, played by Heidi Marnhout, is very pretty. She’s got a great body. I like her choice with the bikini cut panties. Her option to sleep with mostly none of the buttons on Reggie’s shirt buttoned is swell. She’s lit in just a great, great way. Yeah. That’s all fantastic.

Now, what I wouldn’t necessarily do is what Reggie does next. He decides to roll over and get a good look at this sleeping beauty. But then, there’s a bit of a conundrum as Jennifer’s breasts seem to start to, uh, undulate? Man, this is a difficult decision. Do you just accept that this incredibly good looking lady next you is lit just perfectly, or do you open up that shirt and see why those titties are moving around like that? This is a really hard decision to make. Of course, Reggie goes right in to take a look.

Oh my god that girls’ boobs are spheres! What’s more, they launch out of her and attack. Reggie is able to make them run into each other and disorientate themselves so he can at least smash one with a sledgehammer. However, the second one stabs his hand and drills into it. He uses his trusty tuning fork he keeps around and strikes it to destroy the balls.

What about Jennifer? Did she blow up? Is her body still in bed with gaping holes in her chest? Nope! she’s kind of a monster lady who grabs Reggie by the leg and says she’s not done with him yet. Reggie smashes her with the sledgehammer.

Mike writes in a journal to Reggie saying that he has figured out how to use the tuning forks to go to places. He’s discovered in another time and another place, the Tall Man was something different. He plans to explore more, but the Tall Man also states that Mike goes where he wants him to go. The next time through a dimensional fork, he’s taken to downtown Las Angeles that is completely empty except for the Tall Man striding down the street doing his business.

There is a little bit of a call back to seeing the Tall Man striding through Morningside like this. Jody appears and tells Mike this isn’t so much a “where” as much as it is “when” but they need to go because there is a risk of infection. I don’t know what that means, but they take off. Reggie arrives in a place called Funeral Mountains and discovers this is where Mike has gone. Reggie arms himself and prepares to join the fray in this possible final battle.

Funny, he dresses himself up in his original ice cream man outfit he wore back in the first movie.

As the sun goes down, Reggie finally gets to Mike’s hearse. He looks for Mike, but Mike and Jody are elsewhere. Back in the desert, Reggie hears a whirring sound and sees finds Mike’s sphere in the car’s engine. He gets creeped up on by a dwarf but he kills it. He then kills the other two who come running for him. On a beach where Jody and Mike have gone with one of the forks, Jody tells Mike that “he’ll be coming soon” and they can also hear Reggie fighting off the dwarves in the desert. Mike and Jody come through the tuning fork and, while Reggie is excited to see his friends again, Mike tells him to not trust Jody. Reggie slips Mike the tuning fork he keeps on him that he used to blow up that babe’s ball tits before Mike tells Jody he needs to go back to where it all began with Jebediah Morningside.

Mike and Jody arrive to the night Morningside cracked the inter-dimensional stuff. As an undertaker, the more he put people in the ground, the more curious he became about what happens to life. He finally figured out the last pieces to the puzzle of his life work. Mike wants to try to kill Jebediah but he’s not able to affect him. They witness Morningside go through the forks, and re-emerge almost instantly as The Tall Man. Whatever it is he unlocked, or wherever it was he went, it changed the kindly old man into the monster we know.

In addition, even though Morningside couldn’t see Mike or Jody when they went back to witness the beginning of the Tall Man, the Tall Man can see them. It’s at that point, he realizes that Mike is his destiny.

Mike escapes to the Morningside Cemetery. He is followed by Jody who ultimately attacks Mike. Mike stabs Jody and he collapses, only for another version of Jody to grab him and take him back through another tuning fork. Mike is held down on a table where the Tall Man plans to remove Mike’s sphere from his head.

Mike uses the fork Reggie slipped him. When he strikes it, it freezes Jody and the Tall Man. It gives Mike the chance to use the saw the Tall Man is holding to kill Jody. When the Tall Man unfreezes, he takes the fork from Mike and he has to escape back to the desert where Reggie is waiting for him. The Tall Man is coming soon. He tells Reggie that the Tall Man is going to open up his skull and there’s nothing anyone can do. He thanks Reggie for standing by him all this time.

The Tall Man comes, throttles Reggie and says, “Ice cream man… It’s all in his head.” He tosses him aside and tells Mike the time as come. Mike uses his created sphere to distract the Tall Man. He then uses the hearse as a bomb to blow the Tall Man up. But… We know, we know, this isn’t the end of the Tall Man.

Mike lies on the ground, dazed and maybe even a little mortally wounded. Both he and Reggie witness another Tall Man come through the inter-dimensional fork. The Tall Man removes the sphere in Mike’s head and leaves. Reggie decides the fight isn’t over and follows as Mike lies on the ground dying.

Mike has a memory from the time frame of the original movie. In the memory, he’s riding in Reggie’s ice cream truck. We hear Mike whisper to Reggie, “I’m dying, Reg…” to which the Reggie of the past asks Mike if he heard something. Mike says it’s just the wind. The movie ends silently with the two old friends driving off into the night.

The lack of the theme during the credits and the idea that Mike is dying and Reggie, his last and only tether to the good days of the past, still fighting on is an unexpected emotional punch this series, for a long time, ended on. Remember, this was NOT the end we were supposed to get, nor what we ultimately get. This was meant to serve as a prelude of sorts to Roger Avary’s big epic Phantasm Ends.

Avary’s movie was to time jump ahead to 1999 and serve as kind of a 20 year anniversary film and conclusion. You know, like what Halloween: H20 was meant to be. Bruce Campbell was going to co-star. I suspect Reggie Bannister would have been the last remaining good guy from the series, and it would have shown more of that post-apocalyptic world that began with what we saw in deserted downtown Los Angeles. Instead, the final entry, RaVager, wouldn’t arrive for another 18 years. While that does keep in line some of that apocalyptic stuff Avary was aiming for, it does something far more that began right here in Oblivion.

Ultimately, I think this movie is about the nostalgia of innocence before something terrible happens. Something so bad that it more or less kills the you that could have been. In this case, Mike, Jody, and Reggie were on one path, but Mike and Jody’s parents die, then Jody and Reggie’s friend Tommy dies, and, suddenly, nothing that ever was supposed to be could happen. This goes back to the roots of the first movie of dealing with how life can change in an instant and you’re left to deal with the fallout.

In the original, it’s about dealing with death and the fear of loneliness of being left behind, or forsaken, by those around you. Oblivion is about realizing that there was a time that you can hearken back to that felt right, but would later be turned upside down by a catastrophic event. Instead of being fearful you are left by those closest to you, Mike comes to the realization that Reggie NEVER left him, even if his brother did, and even if his brother’s specter is now working against him.

That’s some fairly heavy shit lying just under the surface of this movie. A little deeper is a seed planted we don’t realize until RaVager plays out that was there all along. We’ll deal with that next week.

In the end, the emotion that’s present in this movie through Mike’s character and his memories of things how they used to be before the Tall Man really strikes a chord with me. Phantasm is always the gold standard for this series, as it should. Phantasm II was just an 80s style sequel in the hopes that somehow, this weird pair of movies could create a franchise. Lord of the Dead tries to explain a little too much while giving us more of the same from the second entry and really begins to feel like the series has lost the thread. Oblivion becomes something greater, by reconnecting with the heart of the series in a much deeper way than the last two installments – the love between lifelong friends and the desperate attempt to always cherish the good times where they existed.

For that reason, and maybe it’s a controversial statement here, but Oblivion is my favorite of the sequels. It wasn’t supposed to be. Remember, this movie was made in the process of trying to secure the funds and distribution for that much bigger project. But it feels personal. It’s a love letter from Coscarelli to his characters. Yeah, it’s unfortunate that we find out that Jody is not really working with his brother or friend, but also kind of makes a statement that Mike had to kind of do away with what he carried about Jody to be able to save himself.

It took me three or four times seeing this movie before I realized that there’s a deep something hiding in this movie that you can find pretty easily if you just look for it.

But, hoo boy… Next week, we have to untangle some stuff, sort out what the hell things mean, and try to figure out how to bring this entire franchise in for a landing as I turn my attention to the final act of this five-act danse macabre. When you return, we’ll take a look at Phantasm: RaVager. Now, before we do that, though, I urge you to take a look at the right side of the screen and scroll to the top where you can find all the places you can follow B-Movie Enema on social media and the various video sites you can subscribe to so you can check out the latest episodes of B-Movie Enema: The Series. Tomorrow, Nurse Disembaudee and I will find out what Some Girls Do. So join us, won’t you?

Before we go, let’s get one more good look at that amazing rack of Heidi Marnhout’s…

Gosh, that’s just neat-o.

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