THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
“Damn it’s good to see Scrimm again.”
The Grim Reaper has been a real asshole in the first weeks of 2016. It seems like every other day another beloved actor or musician has passed on. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey were among the big names. However, we lost others too, and one of the names that didn’t get the same mass media recognition was the late great Angus Scrimm, who scared plenty of audiences during his 89 years on Earth.
Of course, horror fans know Scrimm best as The Tall Man (though he only stood about 6’ 4”…not exactly Manute Bol). Though the man had 51 credits to his name (including the forthcoming PHANTASM: RAVAGER, his final work), he’ll live on for decades as that creepy old dude in black who hangs around mortuaries with little people dressed in little robes.
While the PHANTASM series never ended up going mainstream, it found its own place in the horror world. The 1979 original and 1988 sequel get plenty of love, but PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD seems to be the black sheep of the family.
In case you haven’t followed along with the PHANTASM soap opera, allow me to summarize – briefly. The story revolves around young Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), and their bald, ponytail wearing ice cream salesman/guitar playing buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister) while they do battle with the mysterious Tall Man, who robs graves, has a flock of small demons in cloaks, and is from another time and dimension. Anyway, after Jody dies in part one and Mike is replaced by another actor in part two (along with Mike being sent to the nut house), part three sees Reggie and Mike (the original actor again) back on the hunt for the Tall Man, this time joined by creepy kid Tim (Kevin Connors) and the sexy but deadly Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry). Got all that?
With all PHANTASM movies, a viewer must prepare for the cheese and cheapness, which isn’t really a knock on the series, but just how writer/director Don Coscarelli does business. And I’m fine with that. In fact, in PHANTASM III Reggie has a lot of good/bad one-liners, but the best line goes to Rocky (played by a black actress). After Reggie tries to bang her and asks if she ever tried vanilla, she responds, “Didn’t I tell you? Dairy products give me gas.”
Now on one hand what I have always dug about PHANTASM movies comes from the epic nature of the story (without the epic budget), where on the surface we’re dealing with small town issues like people vanishing and graves being robbed, but on the other hand we have something much bigger as Mike states that the Tall Man is "amassing an army…to conquer dimensions, worlds unknown.” Well, if that’s not a big story, I don’t know what is.
At the same time, Don Coscarelli also seems to wing it quite a lot. In the first PHANTASM, we had three clear leads. By the time we arrive at LORD OF THE DEAD, he elevated Reggie to our lead and kept Mike and Jody mostly in the background. The story isn’t quite as clear and focused, but what do we expect? It’s not very interesting if it’s just the three of them chasing and attacking the Tall Man film after film. New characters, new plots are needed…even if they don’t work completely.
Beyond an overly complicated plot, a few elements just don’t work. The first is something I never dig in movies: child actors who are asked to do too much. Little badass Tim (Kevin Connors) means well and does a pretty good job in the role of a creepy survivor who throws Frisbees lined with razor blades around, but he’s just an ok actor at best (Coscarelli maybe should have gone a few years older). The second is just pure cheese in the characters of Henry and Rufus. They work fine in the movie as cheap thugs, but Rufus is especially painful with his giant gold dollar sign necklace. And he has a smoking hot girlfriend Edna, so why the hell is he running around with an old man like Henry, who’s dressed like a cheap 1940s gangster? (though actor John Davis Chandler is in one of my favorite Columbo episodes…don’t ask).
While PHANTASM III has some misses, it has gallons of the good stuff: killer gore, plenty of those flying silver balls (with solid effects, too), nudity, bizarre characters, and a strong ending. And damn it’s good to see Scrimm again. With his grey pageboy haircut, he has some great scenes and some even better lines like “It’s never over.” It’s good to see the Tall Man on the hunt once again. And he’s right, it’s never over.