Phantasm IV: Oblivion

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy
Extras: Promotional Trailer

When critics are discussing filmmakers, it’s very common for the auteur theory to be mentioned. This is especially true when genre directors are being profiled. Directors such as Romero, Argento, Bava, and Carpenter are often lauded for their dedication to the genre and their achievements in bringing their personal style to the screen. But one director that is rarely mentioned in this company is Don Coscarelli, the creator of the "Phantasm" films, and in my opinion, he is one of our greatest living horror auteurs. For two decades now, Coscarelli’s films have continued to bring an original vision and voice to horror audiences. The bottom line is that no one else makes films like Coscarelli’s. Following up with last year’s release of the "Phantasm: Special Edition", MGM Home Entertainment has now brought "Phantasm IV: Oblivion" to DVD. While the series has gotten less mainstream over the years, with this film Coscarelli proves that he still knows how to scare audiences.

Before I begin the plot sysnopsis, let me make one thing clear: If you haven’t seen the first three "Phantasm" films, then you probably aren’t going to understand most of "Phantasm IV: Oblivion". "Phantasm IV" picks up right where "Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead " ended, and Coscarelli spends little time dwelling on the back-story or the other films.

Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) has learned that he has a silver sphere in his skull and has fled into the desert in a hearse. Meanwhile, Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is being attacked by hundreds of the deadly silver spheres. However, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), whose ultimate goal is to shrink all of the corpses on Earth down to dwarf-size so that they may be slaves on his home planet, decides to let Reggie go free. After some coaxing by Mike’s dead brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), Reggie reluctantly sets out across the desert to find Mike.

Mike has reached Death Valley, where he decides that he wants to have a showdown with the Tall Man. He begins to plan his battle, while at the same time writing his will (That’s not very optimistic). During this time, Mike discovers that he can summon the Tall Man’s dimensional portals and travels through time to witness the origin of the Tall Man. However, while Mike appears to be gathering strength, it appears that the Tall Man may be controlling his actions. After meeting with some horrific obstacles and one big "booby" trap, Reggie reaches Death Valley and stands alongside Mike for a final showdown with the Tall Man.

Before I begin to share my thoughts on what is good and bad about "Phantasm IV: Oblivion", I must first relate some background information on the film. The "Phantasm IV" that we are presented with today is not the film that writer/director Don Coscarelli had originally envisioned. Coscarelli and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary had collaborated on a script entitled "Phantasm 1999", which was to be the ultimate "Phantasm" film in which the Tall Man has taken over most of North America. (For more on this film, which is now being called "Phantasm: 2012", visit this fan site here.) Unfortunately, similar to the situation that George Romero faced with "Day of the Dead", Coscarelli couldn’t secure the financing necessary for this epic apocalyptic film. However, he was offered some money to make a fourth installment in the series, so he made "Phantasm IV: Oblivion". While "Phantasm IV" is a completely new story that stands on its own, there is a reference to "Phantasm 1999" at the 1:04:08 mark in the film. At the moment, it’s unclear if "Phantasm IV" will be the final chapter in the series.

With "Phantasm IV" Coscarelli continues the mythology that began in the first film, but really didn’t begin to get technical until "Phantasm III". The plotline involving the origin of the Tall Man is very interesting and adds depth to the story. Some of these scenes are the best in the film. The most amazing thing about "Phantasm IV" is how Coscarelli has seamlessly incorporated scenes that were originally shot for "Phantasm" into this film as flashbacks. (Was "Phantasm" going to be a mini-series or something?) These scenes fit so well with the new material that one can’t help but wonder if Coscarelli had all of this in mind when he was shooting "Phantasm" back in 1978! The thing that makes the "Phantasm" series work is that Coscarelli is one of the few horror directors that understand how powerful visuals can be. "Phantasm IV" is full of images that are profoundly disturbing on a subconscious level, primarily because most of them play on our innate fear of death.

While the film has many great images, the story leaves much to be desired. Coscarelli obviously still has a wonderfully twisted imagination, but he’s not given much room to exercise it here. The bulk of the film deals with Mike driving to the desert and then waiting for the Tall Man. And the scenes with Reggie travelling into the desert are played more for laughs than scares. I mentioned before that those unfamiliar with the series would have difficulty following the film. Well, with the way that new ideas are suddenly thrust into "Phantasm IV" and then never fully explored, even a die-hard fan like me felt confused at times. It’s almost as if Coscarelli is using "Phantasm IV" to bide his time until he can make the epic film that he truly wants to see. For that, we are left with a movie that has great imagery, some neat concepts, but ultimately rings hollow.

To be honest, as "Phantasm IV: Oblivion" was a direct to video release, I wasn’t expecting much from the DVD. However, MGM Home Entertainment has put together a very nice package for us horror fans. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer that is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1, as well as a <$PS,full frame> <$OpenMatte,open matte> transfer. The image is very nicely done and the digital transfer only reveals trace defects in the source print. As much of the film takes place in the desert, during the day, these scenes show the clarity of the image, as the brown earth and blue sky meet to give the picture a real depth. In contrast, the nighttime shots gives us true blacks that add scope to the film. Interestingly the <$PS,full frame> transfer of the movie has a noticeably more muted color palette, which doesn’t create the same bold impression of the movie, so make sure to check out the <$PS,widescreen> transfer at any cost. The framing of the picture appears to be accurate, as there is no bending or warping of the frame. The DVD transfer exhibits no problems with compression or artifacting, most likely due to the small amount of material on the disc.

Even more impressive than the video transfer is the audio mix on "Phantasm IV". The audio here is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>. The sound field on this DVD is used to its full advantage, as the sounds in the surround sound speakers are perfectly synchronized with the onscreen action. How good is it, you ask? At one point, in Chapter 14, I heard a noise from down the hall and got up to check on the baby. It took me a moment to realize that the noise hadn’t been the baby, but a sound effect from the film. The sound effect had the illusion of coming from several feet behind me, mimicking what was happening to Reggie in the film. Along with "Scream 3", "Phantasm IV" shows how good surround sound can add to the experience of watching a horror film.

The only extra on the "Phantasm IV" DVD is a "promotional" trailer. (That’s what it’s called on the box.) As "Phantasm IV" was never released theatrically, it’s not surprising that there’s not a theatrical trailer. But, this "promotional" trailer is simply a random series of images from the film, accompanied by the film’s score. While the trailer is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1 and is in Dolby Digital 5.1, it still has the feeling of something that was thrown together so that there could be one extra on the DVD. I would also like to comment on the packaging. The box art for "Phantasm IV" is remarkably similar to that of the "Phantasm: Special Edition" DVD. (From a distance, it would be difficult to distinguish between the two.) The similarity makes the two DVDs resemble children’s videos, which are always packaged in identical boxes.

While "Phantasm IV: Oblivion" may not be the best entry into the series (it’s not as silly as "Phantasm III" though), it’s still an entertaining film. Don Coscarelli continues to prove that he is one of the most imaginative and innovative filmmakers working today (even if he does just make "Phantasm" movies). The "Phantasm IV" DVD offers a superior video transfer and a stunning soundtrack. Fans of the series should definitely check out this DVD, while I must urge the uninitiated to at least view "Phantasm" before tackling "Phantasm IV." Now, all MGM Home Entertainment has to do is release "Phantasm II" and "Phantasm III" on DVD and everything will be right with the world.