Director : Don Coscarelli
Screenplay : Don Coscarelli
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1979
Stars : Michael Baldwin (Mike Pearson), Bill Thornbury (Jody Pearson), Reggie Bannister (Reggie), Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man), Kathy Lester (Lady in Lavender), Terrie Kalbus (Fortuneteller’s Granddaughter), Ken Jones (Caretaker), Susan Harper (Girlfriend), Lynn Eastman (Sally), David Arntzen (Toby), Ralph Richmond (Bartender), Bill Cone (Tommy)
A modest hit in theaters in 1979, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, a clever, if slightly incoherent horror/sci-fi hybrid made on a shoestring budget, became a cult phenomenon due to the advent of home video and cable in the early 1980s. Its success on television may be because the film’s creative, but slightly hokey special effects, flat acting, and dream logic narrative actually play better on a smaller screen, where their ambitious reach doesn’t seem so stretched. The film has an undeniable low-budget charm, and at various points it is creepy-scary in the best possible ways--it makes you jump and it gets under your skin. And, while the film doesn’t always work, it seethes with energy and opportunism.
Coscarelli was in his early 20s when he wrote, edited, photographed, and directed Phantasm, although he already had two features under his belt: Jim the World’s Greatest (1976) and Kenny & Co. (1976), both of which were kid-centric films that viewed the world through the eyes of their young protagonists. Coscarelli took that same narrative approach to Phantasm by using two orphaned brothers as his main characters. The narrative’s driving force is 13-year-old Mike (Michael Baldwin), who focuses his undirected youthful energy on following his twenty-something older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) because he’s terrified that Jody will leave him (their parents died two years earlier and Jody left a promising music career to return to his small hometown to raise Mike). The dramatic core of the film is surprisingly strong, with the brotherly bond between Mike and Jody giving emotional resonance to their later descent into supernatural chaos.
The intrusion of the supernatural into their lives comes in the form of The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the exceedingly grim and appropriately named undertaker at the local Morningside Mortuary. Mike spies some unusual goings-on at the mortuary, including The Tall Man’s supernatural strength (he can pick up a loaded casket on his own) and a gaggle of hooded dwarf creatures that prowl about at night. So, what’s a kid to do but break into the mortuary and find out what’s going on? Being older, if not terribly wiser, Jody is skeptical until Mike brings home one of The Tall Man’s dismembered, but still wiggling fingers that later morphs inexplicably into a giant fly that must be dispatched in the garbage disposal (the effects here are quite cheesy, but Coscarelli seems to know this and plays the scene equally for laughs and shivers).
As many know, Phantasm is most famous for its flying sphere-drill, a baseball-sized metallic ball with retractable blades that zips around the marble halls of the mortuary protecting it from late-night intruders. Its purpose is made clear when it thumps into an unsuspecting victim’s face, drills into his forehand, and promptly empties all the blood from his head (this particular scene threatened to earn the film a dreaded X rating, but Coscarelli managed to convinced the ratings board otherwise). The sphere-drill, which is the film’s one indisputably convincing visual effect, is an ingenious horror image that burrows itself into your memory despite having relatively little screen time and only one victim.
Phantasm, like most horror movies, especially of the low-budget variety, was not exactly hailed by critics when it was first released. “Phantasm is billed as a horror movie, but that’s true only to the extent that it’s horrible,” complained one critic at The Washington Post. Vincent Canby of The New York Times was only slightly more charitable in calling it “silly and endearing” and equating it to an 8-year-old making up a ghost story. The film was also routinely lumped in with the various slasher knock-offs that followed in the wake of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) although it has virtually nothing in common with such films outside the generic designator of “horror,” and those who have seen the film through to the end should realize that such a designator is misleading, if not downright incorrect.
Part of Phantasm’s negative critical response may have been due to its rather loose narrative, which doesn’t really gel until the second half. The first half hour, in fact, is sporadic and meandering, if not downright dull. However, once the characters come into their own and we begin to learn what’s really going on in the bowels of Morningside, Phantasm attains a gripping sense of tension and a level of surrealist imagination that makes it more than worthy of its long-standing cult status.
|Phantasm Anchor Bay Collection DVD|
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||April 10, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Shocking thought it may be, this is the first time Phantasm has been made available in anamorphic widescreen on DVD. In fact, this is only the second time Phantasm has been released on DVD; the first release, which featured a nonamorphic widescreen transfer, was a Special Edition from MGM that was released back in 1999. So, needless to say, this new transfer is long overdue, and it looks excellent. Despite the film’s low budget, director Don Coscarelli gave the film a slick visual look that is well represented on this disc. The dark scenes tend to run a little too dark and look slightly grainy, but this is most likely the inherent look of the film. In fact, one of the transfer’s greatest assets is that it doesn’t try to clean up the movie too much; the image maintains a nicely filmlike appearance, including the original grain structure. The image is very clean, though, with little or no instances of dirt or wear. The soundtrack has been significantly beefed up with Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround tracks (the Dolby track came from the MGM DVD, but the DTS track is new to this edition). The film benefits greatly from the expanded soundstage, with Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s John Carpenter-esque score and the various sound effects taking on a deeper resonance. The flying sphere scenes are particularly impressive in their sonic impact and use of directionality to underscore the flying menace.|
|The supplements on this new disc are deep and wide-ranging, although Phantasm fans who have purchased this film on home video over the years will find that most of them are recycled from previous editions. The delightfully entertaining and information screen-specific audio commentary with writer/director Don Coscarelli and stars Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, and Bill Thornbury first appeared on a 1995 laser disc and also appeared on the 1999 DVD. Also from MGM’s DVD are the “Phantasm: Behind the Scenes” featurette, which is roughly 20 minutes of silent behind-the-scenes home movies shot on Super 8mm with commentary by Coscarelli and actor Reggie Bannister; video of an Angus Scrimm convention appearance in 1989; a 1979 half-hour television interview with Coscarelli and Scrimm from a Miami morning show; and a 1988 Fangoria TV commercial featuring Scrimm. The MGM DVD featured 10 minutes of deleted scenes, but the Anchor Bay DVD has only 8 minutes worth (although they are presented in anamorphic widescreen). As fans know, there is substantially more deleted footage out there, but Coscarelli has declined to make it available for various personal reasons. The most substantial new addition to this disc is “Phantasmagoria,” a well-made 36-minute retrospective featurette that features interviews with Coscarelli, coproducer Paul Pepperman, and several of the film’s actors. There are more interviews in the 5-minute “Phantasm: Actors Having a Ball” featurette, as well. All in all, then, this disc is certainly worth adding to any Phantasm Phan’s collection, although you should probably hold on to the old MGM disc, as well.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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