Trying to sum up the mythology of the Phantasm series is a little like telling a shaggy-dog story—an extremely long-winded yarn strung together with dreamlike phantasmagoria and outlandish sight gags. The film opens right where part three left off, with former ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister) trapped in the mausoleum by the spectral undertaker the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), pinned to the wall by lethal metal spheres primed and ready to dismember our hero. Meanwhile, Reggie’s best friend Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) is cruising through the desert wasteland in a hearse recalling, in flashback, the happy memories of his small-town life before alien invaders landed and started transforming his family, neighbors and loved ones into scrunched-up dwarves as slaves for the red planet. The reckless abandon of the series to drift along on whatever whim seemed to compel writer-director Don Coscarelli at the time is part of its charm. It’s not long before Mike jumps through a portal leading him into the midst of the Civil War, where he meets the kindly scientist (Scrimm) who becomes possessed by the Tall Man, and a plot is hatched to prevent the Tall Man from ever entering our world.
The freewheeling atmosphere of dread more than make up for the incoherence, but Phantasm IV: Oblivion at times feels like an expensive, 35mm home movie made by some kids in their backyard. Only the kids are a couple of middle-aged buddies drinking a beer or two, running around in the California desert with shotguns and muscle cars, blowing shit up, splashing yellow nail polish all over everything (because that’s what alien blood looks like!), splattering mutant cops and indulging in all manner of mystical mumbo jumbo. That sense of cheapness is augmented by padding a 90-minute feature with flashbacks from the previous films and also entire sequences from the original Phantasm that never made the final cut.
That said, the new scenes of Mike’s childhood and pre-Reagan-era spectral appearances from the Tall Man are endearing. When young Mike and Reggie driving around in his beaten-up ice cream truck, fearful during a moonlit drive that the sound of the wind might portend something far more ominous, it’s both spooky and nostalgic, even whimsical. There are also wholesale sequences when our heroes try to kill off the Tall Man; when they string him up by his neck in a tree, Mike actually lets him back down when he pouts and promises to be good! If you get a kick out of the silly, blue-collar vibe of the Phantasm series, this fourth entry is a kick; but if you’re anyone else, go rent Vampyr for more highbrow surrealism.