Our review of Phantasm, published April 2nd, 2007, is also available.
If this one doesn't scare you, you're already dead!
Having collected DVD's for over two years now, I have seen the growth of the format from day one, and the initial release of titles in a limited number of cities. As a collective group, we waited (and still wait in some instances) with baited breath for the studios to release our favorite A-list titles. Every now and then, I get to stumble across a gem of a film that I would really like to have that in no real way can qualify as even a "good" movie. This is certainly one of those, and I have a few others waiting up my sleeve as well. We all like to refer to these as "guilty pleasures." So far, this may be my favorite guilty pleasure, as I see this disc getting some serious replay time in the coming years.
Phantasm is a little horror film conceived, written, and directed by Don Coscarelli. The film was released in 1979 and was made for around $300,000. A man who has developed a bit of a cult following over the past 20 years, Coscarelli went on to direct the three Phantasm sequels as well as The Beastmaster (another guilty pleasure). Why he has not done more work, I have no idea. Maybe he just LIKES working outside the studio system. Who knows?
The film opens with a boy having the time of his life with a lady in a lavender dress in a cemetery. After a bit of the old "in out, in out" she lets him have it in the gut with a butcher knife. An outstanding beginning to any guilty pleasure! Naturally, the townsfolk think it's a suicide. It's a bit tough to have a decent horror film with the local constabulary poking around, although it has been done before.
Jody and his friend Reggie act as pallbearers at the funeral and struggle with the heavy casket. Mike, Jody's teenage brother rides his motorcycle up to a strategic spot to watch the funeral since Jody has banned him from the moment due to his fragile nature (his parents were killed but two years ago). After the procession leaves, Mike witnesses the undertaker hefting the large, heavy casket back into the hearse by himself! It is at this point that Mike gets the sinking suspicion that something is amiss at the Morningside Mortuary.
After sneaking in through a basement window (at night, no less!) to get a look for himself, Mike is chased by the "sphere of death" through the halls. As Mike ducks, the sphere zeros in on the undertaker's assistant who was chasing him. The sphere jets out some spikes and implants itself in the man's forehead, where it promptly deploys a drilling mechanism which starts looking for oil in the man's brain. The best part is the trap door that opens in the back of the sphere and shoots the helper's blood and brain material about eight feet from where the man stands! Cool! Now Mike is faced with the undertaker (credited as the Tall Man). Mike makes a run for the basement window he broke in and slams the big door on the tall man at the last minute. But wait, the Tall Man's hand is stuck in the door and his fingers are still grabbing for Mike! Mike grabs a knife and severs a finger or two, but the Tall Man doesn't bleed blood. No sir! He bleeds some vanilla pudding, or something like that. Mike grabs the finger as evidence and heads home.
Mike shows the finger to his brother Jody, who is now convinced something is amiss at Morningside too. And who wouldn't be after seeing a severed finger still twitching in a puddle of pudding! Together they recruit Reggie for a final showdown at the Mortuary with the Tall Man, but not before checking on the remains of their beloved parents and getting into all manner of trouble along the way.
Coscarelli sets a wonderful atmosphere in Phantasm. What scarier place can one conceive of other than a mortuary and its cemetery. The marble interiors are well rendered by the director, even though shot in a garage of sorts. A lot of behind the scenes info is present here in this special edition, and they certainly enhance the viewing and ownership experience of this disc. The disc includes an audio commentary by many of the principals, ten minutes of deleted scenes, an interview with Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm who plays the Tall Man, the original theatrical trailer, television and radio spots, behind the scenes footage and a still gallery with lots of cool info including foreign lobby cards. Really a dandy disc, if I say so myself.
Best of all, Coscarelli is a director who "gets it." Allow me to reproduce his comments from the customary "MGM booklet."
Dear DVD Collector,
It was an honor and a delight for me to assist MGM in creating this very special DVD edition. You may now experience Phantasm in the format it was intended to be viewed (1.85:1), and with the keen resolution and color correction of a digital telecine transfer. We have taken the liberty of creating a Dolby Digital sound mix, including stereo music mixes and enhanced sound effects. For the purists out there, we have also included the original monophonic tracks.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to the talented cast and devoted crew of Phantasm, the majority of whom remain friends to this day. I would reserve special thanks for the investors who gambled their hard earned dollars on a young man with nothing but ideas…of spheres and a very tall man.
I hope you will invite your friends to share the Phantasm DVD experience with you. One of the great pleasures of Phantasm is the powerful response it frequently generates in the uninitiated.
When you play this disc you will see how Phantasm was made. You will also see some of the people who worked behind the scenes and made it all possible. It was a joyous experience for us all and very satisfying to know that Phantasm was so well received and remembered.
It is my hope that, as the years pass, this disc will remain an important part of your collection.
Sincerely, Don Coscarelli
The thing I like best about his comments is his mention of a collection! We love to own discs, not just rent them. And I sincerely hope the studios appreciate that fact. I think, from his writing above, that i would like Don Coscarelli. Don, if you're out there, and you read this, give me a call. We'll do lunch next time you're in Chicago.
The video of this disc leaves a bit to be desired, but it is far from unwatchable. For the most part, the movie takes place at night, and the colors are a bit dark as a result. Naturally, it is hard to render bright colors in this type atmosphere, but the MGM staff did a fine job. The image was a bit soft at times, no doubt due to the fact that the disc was not anamorphically enhanced. This is my only real gripe. The picture could have looked better and a bit sharper had more attention been paid to the release. But the picture was completely free of nicks and scratches and other elements that would show the film's age (other than the bad bell-bottoms and hairdos). It certainly makes me think the staff had a fine print to work from.
The audio is fairly well done as well. It is a bit of a stretch to call the 5.1 remix aggressive. It is far from that, but it was largely pleasing. It is not the best remix I have ever heard, but it is not the worst either. It certainly could have been much, much better. Still, the dialogue was mostly intelligible, if a bit thin, but what do you expect from a 1979 low budget beauty like this?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I really have no gripes with this disc. For a guilty pleasure, it is hard to do better. Let's just hope we get similar treatment out of the likes of Humanoids From the Deep and some other campy "B" classics from the '70s.
This classic horror guilty pleasure is one of my favorites from the '70s and definitely one of my favorite horror movies of all time. Not as scary as The Exorcist, or as tightly written and acted as Halloween, it nevertheless satisfies on many levels. Now I can't wait for the sequels!
Coscarelli is acquitted for creating such a wonderful gem of a movie. MGM gets high marks for the special edition treatment, but loses a few jury members due to the lack of anamorphic enhancement. The end result, as expected, is a hung jury.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Don Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister and Bill Thornbury
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