Review: Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #785

Number of Views: One
Release Date: May 6, 1994
Sub-Genre: Supernatural
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $2,500,000
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Don Coscarelli
Producer: Don Coscarelli
Screenplay: Don Coscarelli
Special Effects: Dean Gates, Mark Shostrom, Kevin McCarthy
Visual Effects: D. Kerry Prior
Cinematography: Chris Chomyn
Score: Fred Myrow, Christopher L. Stone
Editing: Norman Buckley
Studio: Starway International Inc.
Distributors: Universal Studios, Anchor Bay
Stars: Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Kevin Connors, Gloria Lynne Henry, Cindy Ambuehl, Brooks Gardner, John Davis Chandler, Claire Benedek, Sarah Scott Davis

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] HeadsnackPhantasm (Remix)”

[2] Captain Zorro “Phantasm”

[3] Fred Myrow & Christopher L. Stone “Phantasm III Theme”

Some folks are just better off together. Penn & Teller, Hall & Oates, Simon & Garfunkel, Cheech & Chong, Jay & Silent Bob, Mickey & Mallory, Bonnie & Clyde, Randall & Hopkirk, Tango & Cash, Murtaugh & Riggs, Taggart & Rosewood, Cagney & Lacey, Turner & Hooch, Mario & Luigi, Snoopy & Woodstock, Big Bird & Mr. Snuffleupagus – it would be inconceivable to imagine any one of the above without the other close in tow.

There are few things more disheartening than witnessing a well-oiled double act being dismantled for no good reason and that’s precisely what happened to Phantasm dream team Mike & Reggie in 1988. To be fair, the pair were very much present and correct. But while Reggie Bannister reprised his role as the middle-aged ice-cream vendor, A. Michael Baldwin was callously cast aside.

Director Don Coscarelli wasn’t best pleased by the omission and, while stand-in James Le Gros brought no shame to the game, he was desperate to restore parity. As luck would have it, Phantasm II only performed so-so theatrically, and Universal chose not to pursue a second sequel. However, they did offer distribution on the condition that Coscarelli do the legwork himself and this actually worked out best for everyone involved. No longer hamstrung with his casting decisions, he instantly hit Baldwin’s speed dial and, after almost 16 years of separation, the old team were finally back together again. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead may have bypassed the big screen, but its strong show on video rental suggested that fans of the series were similarly thrilled to have the real Mike back in the fold.

The big question mark now was whether or not Coscarelli had sufficient gas in the tank to keep the wagon rolling. The sequel had taken a lot out of him creatively and he was no longer certain which direction he should be taking. One of the reasons his 1979 original had been such an unprecedented sleeper hit was that it was heavy on the surrealism and a dreamlike atmosphere permeated the entire movie.

While Phantasm II still had an otherworldly vibe to it, there was no denying that it catered more for the MTV generation and ramped up the action accordingly. Given that his principal cast were now returning to the fray (including Bill Thornbury as Mike’s long deceased older brother Jody), it seemed a no-brainer to dial things back to the series’ roots. However, after building so much forward momentum with his enterprising second, Coscarelli opted for an amalgamation of sorts.

As a result, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead finds itself perched uncomfortably between two stalls. On one hand, if provides a dash of clarity on a number of key counts. The pint-sized terrors are now referred to as “Lurkers”, the gas mask wearing grave robbers “Gravers” and the fan favorite death spheres “Sentinels”. We are also supplied further enlightenment on the true origins of the Tall Man and reasoning for his dastardly master plan. On the other hand, each burning question answered is replaced with another poser and Coscarelli is having too much of a blast to care where his audience is positioned and his pedal seldom strays from metal for 91 thrill-seeking minutes. It may be tonally challenged and is unquestionably the most schizophrenic of all of the sequels, but it’s also a whole cavalcade of fun, and besides, it’s just great to see the boys back together again.

In typical Phantasm style, we hit the asphalt at full pelt, to the tune of one wrecked hearse, two snuffed out love interests, one comatose Mike and an ever rankled Reggie. 15 long years he’s waited patiently for Mike Mk.1 to put another shift in and, when he finally decides to show up, he’s instantly banished to oblivion. To be fair, he snaps out of his coma before the nurse can break out the rectal thermometer, and business swiftly resumes as usual. Better yet, big bro Jody has managed to temporarily escape his eternal purgatory and makes a B-line for Mike and Reggie to warn them of any incoming peril, in the form of a Noir Edition Sentinel. Before the trio can engage in one of the most uncomfortable and potentially lethal three-way group-hugs in history, the goalposts are moved once again.

Speaking of posts, our steep reaper may have been soundly bettered back at the crematorium, but his identical other has just taken a lengthy stride from between a pair of tuning-fork-shaped trans-dimensional portals and is positively gurning for swift reconvention. The rules of his endgame haven’t changed; it’s still about swatting Reggie away like an aging bottle fly and picking Mike’s brain at the first available opportunity.

He’s even been practicing his worst scowl in the nether realm and cannot wait to show it off to his old pals. Naturally, his muculent minions are only too happy to reassemble for their lord and master. And you’ll never guess what he managed to pick up a job lot of wholesale. Never let it be uttered that the Tall Man doesn’t have himself some set of balls.

It just so happens that Reggie’s got a brace of spheres on him also and is not about to let his buddy perish on his shift. However, he’s also a realist and understands that a mission as merciless as the one he’s about to undertake is far too perilous to do so solo.

Given that the barren wastelands around him are virtually devoid of raw recruits for Team Reggie and bands of unruly scavengers aren’t the best at following protocol, we’ll just have to pray that our next two young hopefuls can handle themselves in a code-red scenario. It would also be grand if one of them is female, finds balding middle-aged geezers irresistible, and makes up for what she lacks in sound judgement with being tasty with her dukes.

Alas, Reggie’s best laid plans for some three-way folly with hot Nubian warrior queens, Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry) and Tanesha (Sarah Scott Davis), seem to have gone a tad awry. It was all going so well until the latter had herself a Bullwinkle moment and got stung by the bee while mesmerized by its butterfly themed floating, so to speak. I tell you, it was like Apollo Creed all over again, and team morale appears to have hit something of a fresh low since the incident.

The upshot to all this is that every Rocky needs his Mickey and Reggie just so happens to be the kind of Mickey who might slip a roofie into his prizefighter’s soda the night before a big brawl. Sex is a spiffing warm up to any fight night and, at this point, Reggie is way past caring whether it’s meaningful. It sure beats eating lightning and crapping thunder.

Back to the unenviable task at hand. With Tanesha now consigned to the sin bin, it might be an idea to enroll yourself a fourth, don’t you think? Mike is temporarily predisposed fending off the Tall Man’s cranial ambush so we can skip on the love interest and get some more testosterone in this motherfucker. Bear in mind that male hormones don’t ordinarily kick in until they’re approaching adolescence and don’t forget to check those pubes and we should be suitably manned up for the rocky road ahead. Just to recap, that’s absolutely no minors okay? Midgets are fine as we could do with someone to fend off the Lurkers. But I don’t want to see no Little Timmies, capiche?

What the hell is this shit Reggie? Huh? I implicitly instructed you not to recruit any pipsqueaks and instead you let… sorry son, what was your name again? Tim? You’ve got to be shitting me? Never mind… you let Tim tag along even though its way past his bedtime. Now I’m not going to lie, this particular Little Timmy (Keith Connors) appears to have watched Home Alone a few times and knows how to preload a pea-shooter.

But that’s another childhood you’ve had a hand in wrecking and I’d hedge a bet he starts sobbing like a Paltrow the very moment things get even slightly hairy. At any rate, it’s done now and, I have to come clean, Tim’s not nearly as annoying as the traditional ankle-biting dick squirts who break their curfews. Fine, you can keep him but I expect him gone by Phantasm IV: Oblivion.

By now we should all be aware of how this plays out from hereon in. Time is slipping through the hourglass, the bodies are piling up, Rocky has made it abundantly clear that Reggie won’t be tasting dark chocolate any time soon, and the Tall Man is about to make Mike his bitch unless this ragtag assembly can put the pinch on him pronto.

Enter all manner of mutant Jawa, phantom-piloted hearses, spherical silver slayers and even a handful of zombies just to keep us on our toes. Coscarelli knows precisely what we hanker after and, though the route he takes this time around is markedly more hijinks oriented, the familiar scent of formaldehyde and festering flesh is never far from our flared nostrils.

While the sequel had already proved how difficult it is to catch lightning in a bottle twice, Coscarelli wasn’t ever looking to steal his own thunder, simply make it less distant and keep it current. The Phantasm universe is so positively ripe for exploration and unfettered by boundaries that nary a second spent in the void ever feels wasted.

That said, there’s a distinct tonal swing towards knockabout comedy that is a little at odds with the straight-faced flavor of the first two films in the franchise. Characters are painted far more broadly, to the point where they almost come across as caricatural, and some may find the comic strip approach alleviates Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead of the menace that helped it amass such a sturdy reputation within horror circles.

Personally, I believe Coscarelli did the very best with the tools at his disposal, and it certainly doesn’t harm that the original cast members are reunited. Baldwin slips quietly back into Mike like a pair of cozy carpet slippers, Bannister consolidates Reggie’s position as our second favorite groovy horror action hero, all newcomers serve their purpose well enough, and of course, Angus Scrimm is as devilishly delightful as ever as the iniquitous Tall Man. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead may be widely regarded as the weakest link in the chain but I would hazard a guess that it’s also one of the most frequently revisited due to its high thrill quota. Say what you will about Coscarelli but there’s no denying the guy’s got some balls.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: While the first in the series to introduce digital effects, the all-important splatter is entirely practical and there’s a fair share of slop on the platter. As per usual, the sentinels are never too far from the savagery but there’s plenty more besides including torn off limbs, slit throats, exploding bodies and some of that good old-fashioned quadruple barrel shotgun action the sequel promised but failed to come good on. Alas, it’s no can do on the skin front, as Rocky’s utter immunity to Reggie’s admittedly questionable charms means another agonizingly dry run for our ice cream man cum road warrior. Just wait until you see what they’ve got lined up for you next son. Let’s just say you may wish to rethink proclaiming yourself a breast man and set it down there, shall we?

Read Phantasm Appraisal
Read Phantasm II Appraisal
Read Phantasm IV: Oblivion Appraisal
Read John Dies At The End Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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