Phantasm – A Look Back, A Look Forward [HCF REWIND]

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With Phantasm V – Ravager announced as having been already filmed and in the can as well as the 35th anniversary of the original Phantasm film this week. I’m going to take a look back at the Don Coscarelli scifi horror series that has garnered a cult and very loyal following.

Rather than write reviews of the films that can be found elsewhere on the net and on this site, this is more of a retrospective look back, look forward and look sideways approach to the films, this is a look at my favourite horror franchise that just makes me giddy with joy whenever I think of the films, and as I look forward to a 5th low budget instalment.

David and Ross elsewhere on the site has talked about the original and its sequel, which I will of course cover.  For me it didn’t start with the original, my way into the Phantasm films started with Phantasm II, and this was down to James LeGros.  It was 1995, and “Living in Oblivion” had just come out, and overnight I became the biggest LeGros fan on the planet and had to hunt down all of his earlier films.  There were the obvious ones like “Point Break” (amazing) and lesser known ones like “Floundering” and “My New Gun”, but in between all of this was Phantasm II.  The cover of the box just intrigued me as much as anything, and aside from that I knew nothing about it.  I was watching it purely for LeGros, so I knew nothing of the Tall Man, nothing of Reggie, nothing about the balls.  To be honest, the first time I saw it, I thought it was ok, but I wasn’t a big horror fan, I mean, I loved Waxwork 1 and 2, Nightmare on Elm Street 3 – The Dream Warriors and the Warlock films, but Phantasm II baffled me a bit, who were these characters, why was the co-lead a middle aged bald guy?  Why was the villain, The Tall Man, essentially just an old guy in a suit? I didn’t ‘get’ the story and the only bit that really stuck with me was the ending where they were pulled through the rear car window by the aforementioned Tall Man.  It was a LeGros film that I felt I probably wouldn’t return to

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Around this time, I worked at a cinema, and used to frequent the local video shops. I remember wandered around looking at all the new releases.  I remember coming across a small display of the Phantasm films (2,3 and later 4 – not the original for some reason) and chuckling to myself ‘are they still making those films?’  I moved on by, probably much to the chagrin of that ‘Phantasm’ fan that worked there, and had loving crafted this display.

Cut to a few years later, and I was sat talking to a friend and he brought up the subject of the first Phantasm film, which he had bought on the signature series laserdisc.  He was talking enthusiastically about the director Don Coscarelli, and how here was this young director guy who had made this horror film on his own terms, and that it was simply fantastic.  I scoffed, having seen Phantasm II, but was quickly put in my place, and told to watch it.

I didn’t.

He then told me, this was the director who had directed not only ‘’The Beastmaster’ (one of my favourites of 1982) but also ‘Survival Quest’ (one of my favourites of 1989, just look at the cast of that film! Whoa!) I would be a fool not to watch it.

So I watched it.

I turned off the TV at the end and sat there.  Shocked and stunned.

I then went and watched Phantasm II again.

I was hooked.

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I couldn’t believe how much I had missed with Phantasm II.   After dismissing it all those years before, I was now watching it in a new light.  I was now visiting Morningside cemetery with new eyes.  The original Phantasm felt like it was a film that was put together by guys who just wanted to make a movie, to have fun, to not take things too seriously and to do something that people would take to their hearts, to obsess over, to adore.  Here was a film with enough ideas in there to make you feel you weren’t watching the same old recycled horror, enough way out there imagination to make you sit up and take notice and something to make you think a bit.  It made me think.  Was it all a dream?  Who really was the Tall Man?  It became my favourite thing.  Phantasm II on a second viewing felt like the first time I saw Evil Dead 2.  Here we had an unconventional hero (Reggie, a bald ex ice cream seller) battling a Demon from another dimension, having a full on chainsaw fight midway through and Reggie being fashioned with a four barrel shotgun!  Here we had great sequences with the flying balls that built upon the first film.  We had more fun.  We once again saw Reggie perish.  I realised the person that saw Phantasm II in 1995 was a very silly person indeed.  These films were great fun.

But it still took me a few years to get around to watching Phantasm III and IV.  By this time, I was a filmmaker myself.  I was thinking of doing a horror film, so I immersed myself in the world of horror, something of which I had dipped in and out of during the years, and I picked up a copy of the Anchor Bay box set of the Phantasm films.  Rather than sitting down to watch the films off the bat, I sat down and watched ‘Phantasmagoria’ the retrospective doc that came with the set, and once again I fell back in love with the series.  It was great to hear Coscarelli, who I had rediscovered through ‘Bubba Ho Tep’ and ‘Kenny and Co.’ in the early 2000’s talk about the Phantasm films with such love, rather than being dismissive of them.  I loved his filmmaking ethos then, and I love it now.  He wanted to create these films on his terms, and not for a quick buck.  After watching the doc, I sat down and watched Phantasm III, which to this day is possibly my favourite Phantasm (although this seems to change back and forth on a week by week basis).  In Phantasm III – Lord of the Dead, we follow Reggie once more.  The original Mike is back in a supporting role(poor ol James LeGros, gone by the wayside) and there are sidekicks ahoy including an uber violent Kevin McAllister-alike with his homemade traps.  It once again expanded upon the mythos of the universe they were creating, and once again made the dreamlike qualities that the first two films had that bit more special.  The end of the film left Reggie once again on the brink of death.  But as we knew with Phantasm by this time, nothing is as it seems.

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Phantasm IV – Oblivion, even to fans of the other films is generally considered a letdown.  The Phantasm films, bar II, never had the biggest of budgets, but didn’t seem to care and just let ambition rule – something i’ll always be in debt of Coscarelli for.  I had heard rumours over the years of Roger Avary wanting to make a big budget Phantasm film, but aside from writing the script this never came to fruition (and after reading the script for it, it would have been a big old canvas to play on) So Coscarelli made Oblivion and used a lot of unused footage from the first film to help tell his story.  This is what I love about Oblivion.  I love seeing the young Mike, battling the Tall Man, I love the dream qualities that we witness from watching all of this footage that wasn’t ‘recreated’ to make it look old, it was old, and it just works for me.  I will never forget the final images from the film.  What makes others annoyed or baffled, or let down, made me cry – but for the right reasons.

This is where for a lot of people Phantasm ends, on a bit of a downer.  I would have loved to have seen Avary’s version.  I would love to have seen LeGros Mike as well as Baldwin’s Mike in the same film, even Bruce Campbell would have possibly been there.  But for me, Oblivion was still pretty cool and didn’t make me stop my Phantasm journey.  I started to hunt down the workprints for Phantasm II, I looked everywhere and anywhere for behind the scenes that I hadn’t seen, fan cuts of the original with the deleted scenes cut in.  I got excited hearing a book was being written on the films (Phantasm Exhumed), I found and read the original scripts for Phantasm II and Avary’s Phantasm film. I got excited for other Coscarelli films like John Dies at the End (brilliant and bonkers).  I had watched Phantasm in preparation for making my horror ‘Scrawl’.  I felt, whilst our story was totally different, we still shared some of the same DNA that Phantasm had, that want to make a film for whatever budget we could get together, and that ambition would outweigh the shoestring we were shooting on.  Without Phantasm and Coscarelli there would be no ‘Scrawl’ and as we approach the end of the journey for our film, I am in debt to Coscarelli and his Phantasm films for making my imagination not be limited by budget.

And then, the news breaks that Ravager is shot and done.  What? Wow! Exciting!  The trailer comes out (low budget, but it was never going to be anything else)but it just makes me excited for more adventures with the original cast 35 years down the line, what other series can boast that?  It may not be Coscarelli at the helm, but director David Hartman is no stranger to the film world of Coscarelli, having worked on John Dies and Bubba.  Those that don’t get this new instalment, or think it looks cheap, fine – move on.  Leave the films to us, those that love them for what they are.  These films dare to dream.  This year is the most exciting year in film for me for a long, long time. 

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I simply cannot wait.

Peter Hearn
About Peter Hearn 5 Articles
Writer/Director, sometime Editor. Currently I am working on promoting short silent horror movie 'Motto' whilst putting the finishing touches to feature horror 'Scrawl'. I love movies, watching and making them. Check us out at www.scrawlfilm.com or follow us on fb at www.facebook.com/scrawlmovie

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