My balls are scarier than those fucking clowns.
My balls are scarier than those fucking clowns. AVCO Embassy Pictures

Horror movie fans received an unexpected bumper crop in 1979, with the perfect Lovecraftian ickiness of Alien. Maybe just as important, though, was the release of Phantasm, a fumbling, seemingly hand-made shot of cinematic moonshine that somehow managed to hit a dream logic sweet spot. Given a spiffy new 4k remaster to coincide with the latest (and purportedly final) sequel, it retains its power to make you stay the hell away from your closet after dark.

For the uninitiated, writer/director Don Coscarelli’s film follows a young orphan (A. Michael Baldwin), who runs afoul of a cemetery-dwelling Tall Man (the late Angus Scrimm) and his army of squashed mutants and brain-seeking silver balls. Viewed today, it's hilarious how the narrative appears to have sprung straight from the head of a 70’s teenaged boy, filled chock to bursting with muscle cars, loose shotgun shells, and a cool older brother playing guitar on the front porch. (CGI in some nunchucks, and you’ve got it all, really.) What still works like gangbusters, however, is the boundless energy that makes every frame vibrate, papering over the barely-there sets and inexperienced cast with heavy doses of primal unease.

Which leads to the fifth installment, Ravager, which marks the first time that Coscarelli has handed the reins over to someone else (co-writer/director David Hartman). Focusing on Reggie Bannister’s heat-packing Ice Cream Man, the plot finds him blasting his way through multiple timelines in an attempt to shut the dimensional door for good. As with the other sequels, the attempts to explain and expand the mythology ultimately just monkeys with the seamless unreality of the original, while the obvious lack of budget puts a damper on the would-be apocalyptic ending. Still, for fans of the series, this remains essential, both for its moments of old-school inspiration—the balls have learned some new splattery tricks—and for a strangely bittersweet coda, which properly sends the remaining characters down the highway and into well-deserved B-movie legend. The horror genre may have experienced its share of ebb and flow over the decades, but The Tall Man still rules.

Phantasm screens tonight a the Grand Illusion.