During a panel at Fan Expo 2013, director Don Coscarelli said that he had tried very hard to explain everything clearly in the original Phantasm, but that when it came time to make the direct-to-video Phantasm 3 and 4, he figured that only fans would watch them anyway, so why bother making them understandable?
I suppose the basic premise is simple enough. A seemingly indestructible figure known as The Tall Man, who comes from another dimension (or planet) arrives on Earth through a portal and begins collecting human corpses. He converts the bodies into slaves (mostly by shrinking them down) and sends them back through the portal, where they toil away in service of The Tall Man’s people.
What makes the movies… confusing, is the disjointed way that Coscarelli chooses to tell the story. Scenes flash by so fast that you barely have time to realize what’s happening; and even if you do, you can never be sure if something you’re watching is a dream sequence or real life. And hell, at one point in Phantasm 3, a dream sequence actually effects the real world.
On top of this fractured storytelling, Coscarelli fills the movie with bizarrely cartoonish supporting characters. First there’s the little kid who’s been living on his own since The Tall Man took everyone in his town. In some ways he’s a thematic replacement for Mike, but he also has a knack for making lethal weapons, including an unbelievably accurate Frisbee with blades on it. And then there’s Rocky, the super tough ex-military woman who’s mastered the art of nunchaku. Rocky actually comments at one point on what a ridiculous team the three make.
I should pause here to talk about a very out-of-place scene set in a motel, where Reggie tries to manoeuvre Rocky into bed. It’s played with all the subtlety of a ’60s British farce, and it doesn’t really fit into the narrative arc (I mean, shouldn’t Reggie be a little more stoic at that point in the story?).
So, it’s all very confused and weird; but that’s the point. The Phantasm films are supposed to be unsettling, they’re supposed to confuse and discomfort you. That’s where this series derives its horror; not from gore or slow-building tension; but from taking away the audience’s sense of control. If you’re never quite sure what’s happening, there’s no way to predict what will happen next.
Phantasm 3 isn’t really scary, per se; I didn’t sleep with the lights on after watching it. But it is effective (whatever that effect may be), and it sticks with you. I think its fair to say that the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do; but it’s a hard movie to recommend, since it will only appeal to a very narrow and specific type of viewer. That said, if you liked the first two, this one will likely satisfy you as well.