He was there, in the audience, back in 1979 and Judge Bill Gibron wants you to know that Don Coscarelli's original frightmare is still as effective today as it was way back then.
Our review of Phantasm, published November 8th, 1999, is also available.
If this one doesn't scare you, you're already dead!
It arrived during the final phases of classic '70s horror, an era that had seen The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Halloween reestablish the genre's credibility as a cinematic art form. John Carpenter's slasher suspense story specifically reinvigorated a flagging industry interest in scary stuff, and the marketplace was preparing for a flood of finely tuned copycats. But standing out there all alone in the macabre wilderness was independent filmmaker Don Coscarelli. Having had some minor success with more family-oriented fare, the young director noticed that an inconsequential moment of fear during one of his more genial movies really gave audiences a start. Wanting to capitalize on such a crowd reaction, he parlayed a dream he once had, along with a collection of ideas and icons he had collected from years as a drive-in B-movie buff, into an experiment in terror. Labeling his final product Phantasm, he sent his monster movie out into the commercial landscape to see what would happen. The results were unexpected. One of 1979's solid hits, this fright film became the basis for a long-running franchise. With a new special edition DVD from Anchor Bay, it's time to see if the original work of weird wickedness actually holds up. Turns out it does quite well.
Facts of the Case
Something strange is happening over at the Morningside Cemetery and Funeral Home. People have been disappearing and interned bodies have gone missing. The enigmatic director of the parlor, a strange figure only known as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm, Chopping Mall), appears to stalk the small suburban California town, and this makes Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury, Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic), his little brother Michael (A. Michael Baldwin, Vice Girls), and their pal Reggie (Reggie Bannister, Last Rites) very uneasy. When a mutual friend is found dead in the local graveyard, all eyes shift to Morningside. A late-night visit inside the mausoleum reveals some stunning supernatural surprises. The paranormal follows the Pearson boys as they try to make sense of what's going on. It's not long before young Mike is seeing the Tall Man everywhere he goes. With his older sibling firmly in the madman's demonic sights, Mike knows something sinister is definitely afoot. For the trio, day-to-day living has turned into a life-or-death struggle—or maybe, it's all just a tragedy-inspired Phantasm—a twisted trick of the mind.
Phantasm was the Scream of its era, an ironic nod and wink to the formulas and familiarities of the creature feature deconstructed by a man who really understood the genre he was jeering. Since the slasher film was still a glowing glimmer in Tinseltown's tainted eye, director Don Coscarelli relied on the previous two decades of drive-in horror, a catalog of films filled with monsters, graveyards, psychotic killers, and even a smattering of science fiction, to foster his vision. They became the bricks for his new form of fear, the building blocks for a surreal narrative that sacrificed sense in order to keep the shivers alive and electrifying. While some didn't mind that the plot seemed pointless, a creative clothesline upon which various shock set pieces could be fashioned, others saw beneath the scattered surface to recognize what Coscarelli was really after. Between the tender familial drama, the clever character turns, and one glorious moment of gore, at itscore, Phantasm was and remains a movie about the nature of dread. It's an experiment in what makes us afraid. It uses any and all terror tenets—suspense, bloodletting, the unknown, the unstoppable—as gears in an ever-churning macabre machine. Perhaps the clearest indication of Coscarelli's success remains the enigmatic villain he created, the iconic Tall Man. It's rare when a movie can leave behind such a lasting impression. For Phantasm, this lumbering ghoul remains its legitimate legacy.
But there is more here than just Angus Scrimm in a badly fitting suit. For anyone who grew up with old-school horror, Phantasm felt like and continues to play like a primer. Coscarelli obviously knew what fans expected and what the average person believes to be scary or unsettling, and went with a clear kitchen sink creepy approach. From the opening which mixes sex and slaughter to the sequence where a severed finger turns into a ravenous beastie, there are no set rules in the Phantasm universe, no logic to the way terror becomes part of the real world's temporal plane. Coscarelli has often said that he was influenced by surrealism, recognizing the inherent power in particular imagery juxtaposed together. Phantasm is full of such moments: Mike's vision of the Tall Man in an antique photo; the Lady in Lavender's subtle shape shifts; the fog encased vision of Reggie's ice cream truck overturned and motionless; the menacing marble mortuary with its floating metallic "caretaker." Though they seem to have no link to each other (and let's not get started on the whole Jawa/space slave issue, okay?), and individually would appear more singular than substantive, Coscarelli manages to make them seem wholly organic to the strange circumstances we are stuck in. As a result, their inherent power to unsettle stays with us long after the final false ending has arrived.
The key to making this all work starts with solid performances from a completely complementary cast. Your performers have to play with, not against you, adding to the overall effectiveness of the terror. In this case, Coscarelli found a good friend (the excellent Reggie Bannister), a well-meaning musician (Bill Thornbury), and a precocious kid he had worked with before (A. Michael Baldwin), and forged a unique and totally authentic bond. Some may wonder about the front porch jam, Reggie and Billy banging away on some self-penned blues stomp, but the truth is, nothing establishes communion better than the sharing of something as personal as music. We immediately understand the connection and recognize the attachment both have for each other. Similarly, Billy and Michael play siblings with a love of cars (in this case, a completely bad-ass Barracuda) and tinkering, and it's a mutual experience that helps fuse them together as a family. With other standard '70s touches like dead parents, issues of abandonment, and the usual adolescent concerns of growing up and taking responsibility, Coscarelli creates a character dynamic we truly believe and support. Since we accept the relationship of the trio, we have a much easier time of falling into the fear.
Still, Phantasm remains a director's film, a highlight reel that also manages to be an effective fright flick. Coscarelli, who had made a couple of midlevel mainstream movies before diving into dread, obviously knows his way around a camera. His placement throughout this film is fascinating. He uses low angles and obscure framings to keep things uncomfortable, and applies handheld and other POV techniques to keep the audience directly involved in the action. This is particularly true of a late-night car chase between the Pearson boys and the Tall Man's driverless hearse. As Jody climbs out of the Cuda's sunroof to level a shotgun at the vile vehicle, Coscarelli's lens is right there, standing directly between the trigger and the target. There's also a sense of Hardy Boys-like adventure here, a concept of personal ingenuity and everyday invention that keeps viewers curious and connected. When Michael is locked in his room and looking for a way out, his MacGyver-like creativity results in one of the movie's most memorable stunts. Similarly, when faced with having to outsmart the villainous maniac mortician, the boys rely more on their brains than their brawn to find a shorthanded solution. It's all part of the queer contrasts at play here. Phantasm has a narrative locked in its own perplexing universe, yet its director constantly strives for some manner of realism and authenticity.
There will be some who complain about the special effects (though the movie's most memorable bit of brain-draining is still as shocking as it was three decades ago) and the often ambiguous explanation for just what is going on at the Morningside Funeral Parlor. This ties in directly to the whole 2001-inspired reveal. Without spoiling too much, one has to remember that many Me Decade films played fast and loose with all speculative genres, and the melding of sci-fi with horror had lots of potent precedent (Alien, anyone?). Still, for some viewers, this is the movie's only major misstep, a plot twist that instantly takes them out of the film and into an unintentional galaxy far, far away. There is no real explanation for how two directors could come up with the same concept for a diminutive creature, but the killer dwarves/Jawa comparisons do hurt Phantasm—and the reason is simple. For the longest time, the movie played by its own unique rules. When we see the little hooded fiends, faces obscured by fabric-draped shadows, the recognition factor fails us. We start free associating on a certain battle among the stars and, suddenly, Coscarelli appears a copycat, not an innovative artist.
Since such a situation is completely not his fault, our frightmare fashioner can be forgiven—especially when his efforts are taken in total. Phantasm remains a viable entity some 28 years after its release because it represents something unique in the post-modern world of horror. Instead of going with the growing trend introduced by Halloween, instead of following in the footsteps of brutality giants like Wes Craven, Don Coscarelli created an EC Comics concept of fear. His was a Stephen King kind of nastiness, a dread drenched in nostalgia and acknowledgement of all that came before. By mixing up all the hocus pocus possibilities of the genre into a single supernatural stew, Coscarelli both reinvigorated and set the death knell for the next two decades. As home video allowed anyone and everyone to make their own damn horror movie, originality was trumped by availability. Product was more important than innovation, and Coscarelli went on to sequelize his original while trying his hand at other cinematic categories (sword and sandal, action adventure). But Phantasm remains his best known effort, a four-film (and growing) franchise that has its basis in one fabulously fascinating movie. At the time, it literally shook the scare fanbase. Today, it's a testament to one man's amazing ability.
What many Phantasm fans would like to know is, what exactly does this new Anchor Bay DVD have to offer? The MGM release from 1999 was a nice, if non-anamorphic, presentation. It was also packed with added content. This latest release brings the 16x9 back to the film and the 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is terrific. Colors are clear, and the balance between light and dark is strong and very dynamic. On the sound side, the original Mono track is missing (shrug), but a new 5.1 DTS mix has been added. Only slightly more sonic than the standard multi-channel Dolby Digital 5.1 (also included), both versions provide the movie with a nice aural assault. We get a wonderful balance between normal and nasty, with dialogue easily discernible and background noises solid yet subtle. There are some interesting directional elements involved, and the overall use of spatial ambience is very nice. From a purely technical standpoint, this latest release is a significant digital upgrade.
But what about the bonus features, you may be asking. What's new, and what's a non-issue? Well, it's kind of tricky, but let's see if we can't straighten it all out. Absent from this version of the title and only available on the MGM release are a couple of deleted scenes (on the MGM disc, the edits clock in at approximately 10 minutes, while the Anchor Bay ends at eight) and an Australian TV spot. The new DVD also lacks the Angus Scrimm intro to the film (a nice touch in the original). New to the Anchor Bay edition is something called "Phantasmagoria" (an excellent 36-minute documentary) and something called "Phantasm Actors Having a Ball" (a selection of extended interviews). Both are exceptional in helping us understand the ongoing influence and personal pull the movie has on its cast, as well as the fanbase.
Ported over from the MGM disc is a full-length audio commentary (featuring Coscarelli, and actors Scrimm, Michael Baldwin, and Bill Thornbury), a home movie-oriented behind-the-scenes featurette (narrated by the director and his friend, actor Reggie Bannister), a TV interview from 1979 (Coscarelli and Scrimm) a 1988 Phantasm TV commercial, a 1989 Angus Scrimm Convention Appearance, and a few trailers and TV spots. Without going into a mountain of detail, it has to be said that, in many ways, what we end up with is the horror movie equivalent of a Criterion Collection presentation. The insights are voluminous, almost everyone involved participates in the supplements, and the overall feeling is one of joyful reminiscing. It makes for a solid substitute for the letterbox-only MGM offering.
With its attention to detail, its memorable movie madman, a clear concern for character and interpersonal interaction, and one amazing skull-drilling delight, Phantasm deserves its place in the public's paranormal consciousness. While other examples of the era's terrors have fallen by the wayside, victims of their limited scope and even more restrictive belief in the intelligence of the audience, Don Coscarelli remains a defining director of scares. What's even more impressive, he's gone on to create some of the more intriguing outsider films of the last few years, including the absolutely masterful (and quite brilliant) Bubba Ho-Tep. If you've never had a chance to see this stunning shocker or want to know if the dreaded double dip is actually warranted in this case, then definitely give this newest version of the tried-and-true title a try. More than any other movie from the last act of the '70s, Phantasm maintains both its sense of fear and fun. Who cares if the last 10 minutes play like a perplexing combination of the supernatural and science fiction. Forget the fake-looking "ghost bug." Ignore the moments where artistic approach countermands logic. No, simply sit back and enjoy this director's original motive for his movie. All he really wanted to do with Phantasm was cause a little dread. He succeeded magnificently.
Not guilty. Phantasm holds up as one of the genre's best and this DVD version from Anchor Bay is as close to definitive as you can get.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Full-length Audio Commentary from Director Don Coscarelli and Actors Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, and Bill Thornbury
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