Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Only now does it occur to me... PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD (1994)

Only now does it occur to me... that PHANTASM III is one of the wildest collection of happenings and imagery and disparate tones to ever inhabit a motion picture... and that, somehow, against all odds, it works.

This is the handiwork of a filmmaker who was certain this would be the last film in the series and, damn the torpedoes, intended to go down with the ship. Therefore, Don Coscarelli has assembled a true Frankenstein's monster of his favorite things: it's Buñuel's UN CHIEN ANDALOU, Cocteau's ORPHEUS, Malick's BADLANDS, Lynch's TWIN PEAKS, Golan & Globus' NINJA trilogy, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Waters' PINK FLAMINGOS, and a Lloyd Kaufman Troma flick, all shaken and stirred into the PHANTASM universe, where truth is a hallucination, and the only logic is dream logic.

The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) broods in his lair, contemplating his orb like Saruman.

A. Michael Baldwin––the original "Mike" from PHANTASM and famously replaced by James LeGros in PHANTASM II––reappears fifteen years later, having aged into "if young David Patrick Kelly were a New Wave musician."

In its David Lynch-inflected surrealist mayhem, it feels both post-TWIN PEAKS and pre-LOST HIGHWAY. The original PHANTASM's Jody (Bill Thornbury) reappears as one of the iconic spheres

in a twist (?) that presages Lynch's use of tulpa-spheres in TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, or David Bowie's steam-kettle reincarnation in that same series. 

There's something very visceral and elemental here in Coscarelli's use of electricity, contorted reflections, fabricated/unnatural objects, and liminal spaces.



I think it's because Lynch and Coscarelli have both dipped deeply into the shared imagery pool of 20th Century surrealists like Dali, Escher, Magritte, Ernst, and Miró (and Cocteau and Buñuel, of course).

But Coscarelli is not merely content to make a surrealist, arthouse-horror picture like the original. He quickly introduces a gang of criminals (Brooks Gardner, Cindy Ambuehl, and John Davis Chandler) who clearly escaped from an early John Waters flick and appear to represent the tackiest/greediest elements of late stage capitalism.

You see, Coscarelli is also endeavoring to build an apocalyptic universe where America's Main Streets have fallen victim to a combination of Reaganomics and the Tall Man, all of which feels a little tonally similar to, say, Stephen King's THE DARK TOWER or THE STAND.

These campy criminals attempt to ply their trade by robbing the house from HOUSE (1985),

and only succeed in being dismantled by Tim (Kevin Connors), a survivalist child armed with a razor frisbee.


Of all the things that any viewer of the series might have anticipated from PHANTASM III, I believe its brief transformation into an R-rated HOME ALONE qualifies as the most surprising.

Draped in only the best denims that 1994 has to offer, Tim teams up with Reggie the Ice Cream Man (slow-jammin' Reggie Bannister, of PHANTASMs 1 and 2, and the answer to the question, "What if Clint Howard were the last action hero?")

and though he is "too old for this shit,"

the quest to dismantle the Tall Man's Earth-altering influence must continue. 

They are aided in this pursuit by another new addition to the cast: funk-rock singer Gloria Lynn Henry, playing an ankh-earring-wearing, Grace-Jones-flattopped, and nunchaku-wielding army vet named "Rocky."

If you guessed that are were multiple sequences of Rocky facing off against PHANTASM spheres with nunchucks, then you are beginning to attune yourself to the PHANTASM III wavelength.

That her acting repertoire includes a lot of flat line readings and a singular look of disgust/a withering glare

is only another addition to the Plus Column. To me, this is A+ avant-garde theater. It's especially welcome in a gross scene where the Ice Cream Man attempts to mack on the out-of-his-league Rocky

and is righteously shut down (at least outside of his orb-influenced hallucinations). 

Generally speaking, Gloria Lynn Henry plays it like she dropped into the film from someone else's dream and regards her current surroundings with disbelief and disdain. This is appropriate.

She also undergoes more costume changes per capita than any other character in the film, probably ten outfits or more. Whether this is a continuity error or an illustration of PHANTASM's ever-shifting dream boundaries is up for the viewer to decide.

I have a theory that each PHANTASM film represents the same dream being slowly remembered and interpreted and misinterpreted over time, sort of like the Mark Twain quote about "History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme," and this is simply the version which happens to place a nunchaku badass in a central role. 

[In a sense, it resembles Robert Rodriguez's EL MARIACHI series, conceived by Rodriguez as a quotidian crime story (EL MARIACHI) retold as a tall tale (DESPERADO) and finally as mythology (ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO), with the storytelling itself approximating a whispered game of Telephone.]

With each variation, however, there are recurring motifs. At this point, we can decidedly say that exploding cars have, somehow, become an essential ingredient of the PHANTASM experience. 

As have STAR WARS references.

(The delivery and essence of this scene seems to rhyme with Darth Vader's "the circle is now complete" speech in the STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE.)

And the idea of ice cream eventually morphing into cryogenics perfectly encapsulates
this cycling of PHANTASM's dream logic.


And let it be said that Coscarelli does not take himself too seriously––a plunger plays an outsized role in the finale.

I do think the best way to conclude a review of PHANTASM III is to watch the footage of Rocky and Reggie's farewell:

A stilted goodbye of true comic perfection, open to a variety of interpretations and intentions, and perfectly unique to the world of PHANTASM III. 

"Enough of that!"



To be continued...


Anonymous said...

Out of all the hilarious things you've written, " if young David Patrick Kelly were a New Wave musician" may have hit me the hardest. I literally did a spit take I was laughing so hard. You're the best. Happy Halloween man.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks, and happy Halloween!