ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 25th April, from ARROW VIDEO in the PHANTASM LIMITED EDITION COLLECTION BOXSET
RUNNING TIME: 88 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
13 year old Mike Pearson hasn’t long lost his parents and is being raised by his 24 year old brother Mike in a small Oregon town. Spying on the funeral of a family friend, Mike sees The Tall Man, who runs the funeral home, pick up the casket by himself. Worried that Jody will abandon him, Mike begins to follow his brother around, at the same time starting to have nightmares about the Tall Man and even glimpses of his hooded, dwarf-like minions. He follows Jody and a woman he’s picked up to the Morningside Cemetery but is scared from his hiding place when a small figure wearing a brown robe jumps out at him. Jody, alerted by Mike’s scream, finds him and angrily tells him to go home, but when he returns to the make out spot, the woman is also gone….
Phantasm is a film that has already been the subject of two previous reviews on Horror Cult Films from Ross Hughes [along with the second film] and David Gillespie, plus we’ve also had an overview of the first four films from Peter Hearn. While I’ve resisted the temptation to re-read their pieces as preparation for my own review, I do recall that all three of them loved Phantasm – and to have even two of us on Horror Cult Films agree exactly on a film is quite unusual, let alone four, as our opinions tend to be so diverse. It’s a film that is the very definition of the words “horror”and “cult” so I think you’ll agree that there’s nothing wrong with having yet anothe review of it. Now if you read my review of House as part of my go-through of Arrow Video’s box set of the House series, you may have been startled by the fact that I admitted that I hadn’t seen any of the films in that franchise prior to receiving my screener discs from Arrow. You may now be even more astounded to hear that I’d seen Phantasm once many many years ago on Channel 4 late at night but barely remembered any of it, which even if you don’t find Phantasm to your taste is bizarre because it’s hardly a film you’d forget in a hurry. Maybe I slept through most of it? Or maybe I found it so scary that my mind blocked it out? Who knows? I can now state though that Don Coscarelli’s picture is totally worth its reputation, a frightening, original and often downright strange nightmare of a film that comes across as the result of what may have happened if something like Fright Night had ended up being directed by Lucio Fulci. And it also happens to be one of the horror genre’s best and – in a way – deepest looks at grief, the whole thing coming across as the dream of a mourning 13 year old boy transferred onto film. And all for $300,000.
Coscarelli originally wanted to film Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but discovered that the licence had already been sold to Disney [who, perhaps surprisingly, made a very good film of it in 1983]. He then recalled a dream he once had where he fled down endlessly long marble corridors, pursued by a chrome sphere intent on penetrating his skull with a needle. Funding for Phantasm came mostly from his father and local doctors and lawyers, his mother designed most of the special effects, costumes, and make-up, and the cast and crew were composed mainly of friends and people he’d worked with before. Angus Scrimm was cast as The Tall Man because Coscarelli was frightened by him on the set of a previous film. Coscarelli couldn’t afford an editor or cinematographer so did these duties himself. Filming was done on weekends on often 20-hour days for over a year, Coscarelli renting all of the filming equipment always on Fridays so he could use it all weekend and return it on Mondays, all the while only actually having to pay one day’s rental on the equipment. The script was rewritten several times during filming, and several endings shot. The first cut was nearly three hour long and was extensively edited down after a disastrous preview, in particular losing a subplot involving working Jody in the family bank after he’d inherited the job from his father. Some of the deleted footage, one of the un-used endings, and part of another one later turned up in Phantasm 4: Oblivion. After much to-ing and fro-ing with the MPAA who wanted the sphere death cut but in the end relented, Phantasm was a substantial hit.
Soon after the opening scene of a couple making out in a cemetery and, in a twist, the woman killing the man, it really struck me how much Phantasm is about death and mourning, and how Mike’s visions, however frightening they may be, could be his way of dealing with the loss of his parents. Without going into too much detail, it’s quite possible that I noticed this so much as I’ve personally be going through a journey which isn’t entirely dissimilar to Mike’s, but I think that this is as good an example of how horror films, because of their very nature, can deal with issues like this – things which we will all have to deal with or have already dealt with – better than more obviously ‘dramatic’ or ‘realistic’ movies. Though told not to attend his friend’s funeral, Mike still watches it through binoculars from a distance behind some bushes, and he first half-glimpses black figures going behind tombstones, then sees The Tall Man lift the coffin on his own. The Tall Man immediately represents not just childhood fear of adults and adulthood, but also death itself, and therefore one can understand why Mike is drawn to the mysterious funeral home and the increasingly scary goings-ons in and around it. He even has to hide in a coffin at one point. I don’t want to make Phantasm, which probably also speaks to anyone who feels or felt lonely as a teenager, sound too heavy going for any newcomer to this franchise who just wants to watch a good horror movie, but I think that this film, whether intended so by its creator or not [I’m not going to listen to his audio commentary until I’ve finished this review], has some real depth to it, while doing what many of the best horror films do – get us to confront certain fears we all have, and what’s more fearful than death?
And “Boy!” does it also work well as a horror film. Scrimm, though not actually onscreen very often, is immediately an extremely unsettling presence – small wonder The Tall Man immediately became a horror icon. The only slightly seen cloaked dwarves [most tend to think of Jawas but I was reminded of Don’t Look Now’s truly nightmare-inducing red-coated apparition] with their unsettling voices provide plenty of shivers and when you do finally see the face of one it’s genuinely freaky looking. Coscarelli only sometimes resorts to scares of the cheap kind – early on we get the hand on shoulder gag – instead going for the genuine feel of a nightmare [and I’m sure beyond doubt that a certain Wes Craven was influenced by this film]. Mike gets to put his hand in a special box straight out of Dune, eventually stops following his brother around and breaks into the mortuary where we get probably the film’s most iconic scene – a flying sphere bloodily drilling its way into a caretaker’s forehead – though even more startling is when Mike, fleeing The Tall Man, traps his hand in a door and the hand still moves around. Jody and Reggie the ice cream man only believe what he’s been saying when a severed finger turns into a wasp-like thing, and the three investigate further and discover that – well, just in case you don’t already know, I’m not going to reveal the premise behind everything – but it’s pretty ‘out there’ , if also actually rather appropriate in a film like Phantasm. And yet Coscarelli also gives us a scene where two characters sit down for a few minutes with their guitars and sing a song together.
Phantasm had an undeniable ramshackle feel about it. It doesn’t seem so much put together as thrown together. Editing is sometimes very disjointed. And yet this generally works extremely because of the overall dreamlike vibe. A murderous woman hangs around the cemetery and may or may not also be The Tall Man. The Tall Man is seen in a photograph which is several centuries old driving a horse-drawn hearse. The characters enter a White Room straight out of Twin Peaks [it’s possible David Lynch may have been inspired by Phantasm too – honestly, as I was watching it, I was almost constantly noticing bits and pieces which inspired things in later films from a diverse array of filmmakers]. So much is unexplained, and that’s fine, because we could be inside a 13 year old boy’s head, a boy suffering from considerable grief and trauma. And just a bit of humour creeps in here and there, from Mike’s “Ummm, oh shit”! when he sees the Tall Man [such a brilliant moment because you both chuckle and feel scared at the same time], to Reggie’s van playing Three Blind Mice, to a POV shot from the sphere! I don’t think that the special effects are that bad for the time and for such a cheap movie, and, while much of the film looks a bit flat when it’s taking place during the day, Coscarelli does give us some vivid nightime film noir-ish shots of backlit characters and shadows falling across faces – and re-uses the Psycho swinging lamp.
Acting-wise Bill Thornbury’s rather lacklustre performance as Jody is made up by A. Michael Baldwin who really is very believable a troubled kid, and Reggie Banister. And then there’s the music score from Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, sounding like a cross between John Carpenter and Fabio Frizzi, and something which automatically dates the film but which also seems to fit it like a glove. So incredibly influential yet still really rather unique, Phantasm holds up extremely well and only really slips a bit in its final act, with a climax that is perfectly fine but a slight let down considering what’s gone before, a cheap ”it’s all a dream” ending, and then an equally cheap shock ending gag [which a certain filmmaker I’ve already mentioned probably borrowed], though such endings weren’t so common back then so I guess it can be forgiven a little. For the most part though, it really puts many of the bland genre efforts that we get on our cinema screens today to shame. It’s frightening, it’s fun, and despite it’s randomness is also rather intelligent in its exploration of desolation, bereavement and that five letter thing we don’t want to think about but which will come to us all.
Phantasm’s restoration is just astounding and you won’t believe how good it looks. I was especially impressed by the many nocturnal scenes – quite often blacks tend to look a little crushed in older films but it’s certainly not the case here. While I’m not really a fan of his work, kudos to J. J. Abrams for masterminded this restoration. You can watch it with an intro by Angus Scrimm which was on the last two DVD releases. It’s not really much and poorly lit to boot, but I like it anyway. After viewing the film, I went straight to the audio options section to watch some bits of it with the restoration premier soundtrack. You hear clapping when the title comes up, a wolf whistle during the opening scene, and clapping during the globe death – the latter of which may sound a bit ‘off’, but us horror fans tend to do that. I once attended a screening of The Beyond and people clapped and even cheered during the extensive gore scenes. We are what we are. The audio commentary also has to be accessed from the audio option menu. It’s actually from the laserdisc [anyone remember them?] and has turned up on most of the DVDs, but I certainly enjoyed hearing it for the first time. Coscarelli, Baldwin, Thornbury and Scrimm, who’s louder than the others [maybe he was closest to the mic] provide a nice mixture of insight, information [there’s an effect taken from the Star Trek TV series – Trek fans see if you can spot it], and personal reminiscences. It’s quite laid back, but it’s so interesting hearing special effects explained for an old film – as opposed to “this” and “this” was done on a computer.
So onto the special features section which begin with Reflections of Fear: Realising Phantasm, where Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Bannister, Lester [who still looks very fine I must say] and Phantasm: Ravager director David Hartman tell stories about the film. A good example of the often random way the script was developed was Lester auditioning for the part of a murder victim and then the part being turned into that of The Lavender Lady because Coscarelli thought her look to be unique. Next we have two Q&A panels., and you really hear some fascinating things, like the guy who did the dwarf sounds also voicing Pete’s Dragon. I didn’t realise that the restoration erased things like visible wires, but it’s the kind of tinkering which I think is justified. They even removed a bucket that wasn’t intended to be seen! Then there’s a hilarious story about Lester’s mother’s reaction to the breasts of her double popping up onscreen. And Baldwin’s encounter with a scary fan who walks right into his house. There’s surprisingly little some repetition, though the Austin Premiere is much quieter and in a much smaller cinema. Phantasm: Actors Having A Ball is from the DVD Globe Boxset and offers a few new nuggets. The Behind the Scenes Footage is 4:3 super-8 footage of the shoot, and wobbles a little, but is invaluable stuff, showing how scenes were filmed and including a few nice off-the-cuff moments. And finally we have the deleted scenes which are mainly rather weakly performed character scenes, but there’s a bizarre comical fight in Reggie’s shop and the Tall Man exploding because of a fire extinguisher! A very comprehensive series of special features complementing a new release of a 1979 film which now almost looks it was shot yesterday.
*Original Mono and 5.1 Surround Audio Options
*The Los Angeles Premiere Experience – join the audience of die-hard phans as they experience the restored classic for the first time! Watch the entire feature with a 5.1 Surround audience track recorded at the 2016 Los Angeles premiere
*Audio commentary with director/writer Don Coscarelli and actors A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury and Angus Scrimm
*Archive Introduction by “Tall Man” Angus Scrimm
*Reflections of Fear: Realising Phantasm – In this brand new pheaturette, experience new stories about the people and personal inspiration behind Phantasm, and learn how the film’s success has impacted on the actors and filmmakers’ lives. Features interviews with Don Coscarelli, actors A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester and Ravager director David Hartman
*Q&A panel from the 2016 Austin Premiere of Phantasm: Remastered
*Q&A panel from the 2016 Los Angeles Premiere of Phantasm: Remastered
*1979 TV interview with Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm
*Behind-the-Scenes with optional audio commentary by Don Coscarelli and Reggie Bannister
*Phantasm: Actors Having a Ball – Phantasm cast and crew offer up various recollections from the making of the film
*Original Trailer, TV and Radio Spots
*All 5 Phantasm movies together on Blu-ray for the first time!
*Limited Edition Bonus Disc featuring Exclusive Features
*English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for all films
*Exclusive 152-page book with new writing on the Phantasm universe from Kim Newman and Bill Ackerman alongside a wealth of archive material, all fully illustrated with original stills and posters
*Replica Phantasm Sphere
*Limited Edition Packaging with newly-commissioned artwork from Gary Pullin
Check out David Gillespie’s review of Phantasm here: https://horrorcultfilms.co.uk/2010/10/phantasm-1978/
Check out Ross Hughes’s review of Phantasm and Phantasm 2 here: https://horrorcultfilms.co.uk/2011/09/phantasm-1-2-hcf-rewind-special/
Check out Peter Hearn’s overview of the franchise up to Phantasm: Ravager here: https://horrorcultfilms.co.uk/2014/03/phantasm-a-look-back-a-look-forward-hcf-rewind/