What is the urge that drives creators to over-explain their creations? The cinema landscape is littered with clunky sequels (“Matrix Revolutions”) and over-wrought prequels (hello, “Star Wars”!) that just try to expound too damn much on what starts as a simple, killer premise. Ambiguity doesn’t sit well in real life, but when it comes to fiction, it can be a filmmaker or writer’s best friend. “Phantasm IV” is a good example of the kind of nit-picky obsession that turns a graceful concept into a clumsy exercise.
I’ll be upfront: I haven’t seen either “Phantasm II” or “Phantasm IV.” But I have watched the first “Phantasm” plenty of times, and it’s a great flick. Weird and unsettling, with a surreal, hallucinatory atmosphere that keeps you off balance throughout. Is the Tall Man just a dream? Is Mike concocting this bizarre fantasy world to cope with the death of his brother? Or is the Tall Man really an extra-dimensional being with an army of blood-thirsty dwarves? Writer/director Don Coscarelli leaves you hanging at the end, and the movie is better for it.
But then there’s “Phantasm IV,” finally out on DVD a decade after release thanks to Anchor Bay. The first 10 minutes of “Phantasm IV” serve as a recap of the last three movies, an extended clip sequence that raises so many more questions than it answers (and, okay, I read the plot synopses of the second and third movies on Wikipedia—but even that was exhausting). After numerous confrontations, Mike (played once again by A. Michael Baldwin) is on the run from the Tall Man (the always enjoyable Angus Scrimm)—or maybe he’s chasing the Tall Man. It’s sort of unclear. Meanwhile, ice cream man and all-around ass-kicker Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is chasing after Mike—or maybe he’s chasing the Tall Man, too. And then there’s Mike’s brother, Jody (Bill Thornbuy), who’s been turned into one of those cool flying spheres. He’s either working for the Tall Man or trying to save Mike. Whatever is going on, the entire cast is heading out toward the desert, where the Tall Man has some final confrontation planned. Oh, and he also wants to turn everyone into those creepy dwarves, and has apparently done this to much of the southwest. Sorry, Arizona.
In short: it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, and not in the ambiguous way. There are some bits about time travel and inter-dimensional travel and intimations that the Tall Man is grooming Mike to be the next Tall Man, but the application of all this logic and weird science to what started out 30 years ago as a dreamy, atmospheric horror film is overkill. It wouldn’t be so bad if there was some action and forward motion to the movie, but much of “Phantasm IV” is recycled (or recreated) scenes from the first movie, coupled with hushed, pensive voiceovers from Baldwin. Thankfully, Reggie gets a few moments to blow shit up, first taking on some sort of demonic state trooper and later squaring off against a chick whose boobs have been replaced by the Tall Man’s spheres. But whatever excitement is to be had quickly gets lost amidst some confusing flashback or voice over.
There’s an obligatory origin scene for the Tall Man, too, and it’s fairly far-fetched, even for a movie about killer metal spheres and pan-dimensional undead dwarves. Scrimm’s wonderfully creepy, even when he’s not trying, and you can tell he’s having fun—but too much explanation takes the Tall Man from an awesomely evil, enigmatic villain to a misunderstood dude with mostly good intentions.
And while the story’s not that great, “Phantasm IV” is nonetheless a good looking film. Coscarelli can establish a mood for sure, and there are moments—especially in a scene in which Mike and Jody run down a deserted Los Angeles street with the Tall Man in pursuit—where the film gets that apocalyptic feeling it tried so hard to establish with the 10 minutes of exposition at the beginning. But the movie never keeps up that feeling of importance, especially since just a little time travel can hit the rest button on everything. Otherwise, “Phantasm IV” amounts to a few thrilling scenes jumbled together with a backstory that’s way, way too thought out. Hopefully, the inevitable Phantasm V (it’s happening, though there are conflicting reports on the progress) will have more monsters, more balls and less explanation.