The Phantasm films are nothing if not consistent, which explains why, following the disappointing failure of Phantasm II (that caused Universal to drop the franchise as quickly as the studio attempted to revive it in ‘88) we still feel at home during the opening frames of Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead. Six years and a financier may have passed since Don Coscarelli’s second installment, but we naturally pick right up where we left off: stuck in the back of the Tall Man’s hearse as it careens off the road. Immediately, we notice that Michel Baldwin is back in Mike’s shoes (casting James Le Gros off into oblivion), recapping the climaxes of the first two movies for those who may have forgotten. But really, our floppy haired protag is merely a survivor amidst the apocalyptic debris the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm, chewing his beefiest bit of screen-time yet) leaves behind, as Reggie (Reggie Bannister) wards off the respawned alien grave-robber with only a grenade and a prayer.
Stripped back to independent status, Phantasm III is noticeably cheaper than its studio-backed predecessor, but Coscarelli’s weirdness hasn’t been diluted one bit. After the wreck, we experience a comatose death dream with Mike, as he walks toward the light and meets Jody (Bill Thornbury, also returning to the series after fifteen years away). His dead big bro turns him back to mortal being, saying Mike doesn’t belong with the rest of these exiting souls. Like the original, Coscarelli is revisiting the idea of young men experiencing anxiety regarding their eventual demise, not to mention the death of all they hold dear. This being a Phantasm movie, even after our lead (now in his early thirties) awakens, he’s visited again by the sibling he lost to a car crash (not to mention a yellow-blooded Demon Nurse). Only now, Jody’s soul is contained to one of the Tall Man’s soaring spheres of destruction, which the skinny-suited Reaper avatar comes to collect.
In the aftermath of this hospital showdown, Reggie becomes the film’s focus, heading off in search of his surrogate baby brother (who’s been yanked through the interdimensional tuning fork). This new Oregon adventure leads our ponytailed hero to Holtsville, where he encounters the series’ first legitimate human threats. Rufus (Brooks Gardner) and Henry (John Chandler) are two pimp-looking motherfuckers driving a pink Cadillac hearse and using Edna (Cindy Ambuehl) – their blonde, spandex-donning Girl Friday – as bait to club and rob hapless Joes. Reggie unfortunately becomes one of their dupes, as Edna pulls him in, and then her boys knock him senseless and lock him in the Hemicuda’s trunk. Yet, as hilariously dangerous as these roadside bandits appear to be, they’re nothing compared to Tim (Kevin Connors), a Kevin McCallister clone living in his own booby-trapped funhouse of pain.
Tim’s introduction further solidifies Lord of the Dead as a return to the series’ roots, following Coscarelli’s detour into utter spectacle with Phantasm II. The moppet is another little brother for Reggie to adopt, only where the Ice Cream Man’s a caretaker to Mike, Tim’s his equal in terms of self-preservation. Clothed in a mask and Don’t Look Now red sweatshirt, the kid’s hung clown-shaped snares to take down anyone who invades his family home (thus leading to the three looters being taken down in quick succession). Neither having any respective blood relatives left thanks to the Tall Man’s roving Armageddon, the two hop into Reggie’s roaring American muscle and hit the road to battle the beast. Coscarelli is again giving us two men who create their own family unit, just as Jody, Reggie and Mike did in the original. Only in each other can true safety from evil’s clutches be found, and it adds a layer of poignancy back into the proceedings that was jettisoned in Universal’s joint.
Lord of the Dead also has the pleasure of becoming the most diverse Phantasm movie by introducing Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a nunchuck-wielding, flat-topped badass who becomes Reggie and Tim’s ally against these forces of doom. Rocky is an amazing character, looking like Grace Jones’ militant cousin and ready to throw down at the drop of a hat. Of course, Reggie finds her foxy as all get out (and how couldn’t you?), but she quickly rebuffs his comedic advances with a pair of handcuffs and a wink. Phantasm III is easily the most “fun” series installment, as Coscarelli toys with inventive formulas cemented by franchises that came before. Lord of the Dead is basically the Dream Warriors of the Phantasm series, embracing a rowdy attitude and delivering a set of tormented misfits for us to root for. In turn, the mythology of the Tall Man evolves, as we see just how he’s able to control those balls, and why there are so dang many of them.
Though Lord of the Dead was scaled down slightly in terms of resources – the production budget less than a million off its Universal counterpart – that doesn’t mean Coscarelli isn’t again stretching every dollar he had available. The cinematography from Chris Chomyn (who would go on to shoot Phantasm IV: Oblivion) isn’t as sharp or lush as the first sequel’s, the jangly set ups seeming a touch rushed at times. Yet he still captures a Cadillac flipping through the blackness of night with a surrealist workman’s flair. Series composer Fred Myrow cranks his now instantly recognizable bell score to eleven, and its placed front and center in the mix over many scenes, chanting choruses and thundering brass causing the movie to often feel bigger than it is. But what truly shines is Coscarelli’s work with his “family” of actors, letting them go as broadly pulpy as they desire in order to sell this bizarre unreality to you. Reggie Bannister and Kevin Connors step up to the plate in certain moments to strike a hero’s pose, as if they’re already marquee idols in their own minds.
Coscarelli never planned on making a second Phantasm film, but with Lord of the Dead it feels as if he never intended to leave the franchise at all. When the cliffhanger ending arrives, we’re so ready for Oblivion that making us wait four years seems cruel. With Lord of the Dead, Coscarelli is leaning into the fact that he’s garnered a cult following who enjoy returning to this wasteland with these characters as much as he does. Though we lose a main player from the last picture in the first five minutes, Phantasm III never pretends to present a legitimate threat to the rest of its heroes. This is as close as we’re probably ever going to get to comic book storytelling from Coscarelli. Lord of the Dead is a middle issue in a long-form run, and the writer/director is letting us hang out and admire the details that’re being layered into the Phantasm universe. There’s something comforting about a horror director taking one on the chin and still being that confident in those who admire his work. These films have always been a “family affair” in terms of their creative team, and Coscarelli knows the audience is now part of that clan, ready to gather ‘round the fire whenever Crazy Uncle Don is ready to spin another wild legend into the wee hours of the night.