Released by: Well GO USA
Released on: December 6th, 2016.
Director: Don Coscarelli
Cast: Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister
Year: 1979 Purchase From Amazon
The film that started it all is still the strangest of the series thus far. When Don Coscarelli’s1979 film Phantasm begins, we see a guy named Tommy (Bill Cone) fooling around with a busty blonde woman in Morningside Cemetery. Things sure do start off well for him, but they end poorly and he’s killed. From there, we’re introduced to a down on his luck teenager named Mike (played by Michael Baldwin). He’s recently lost his mother and father and has been having issues ever since. Aside from his musically inclined older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), and their mutual friend, a guitar playing ice cream man named Reggie (played by Reggie Bannister), he’s more or less alone in the world. As such, he’s a bit of a somber kid and he’s pretty clingy with Jody, following him around even when he shouldn’t be.
It turns out the guy killed in the opening scene was a friend of Jody’s. While trolling around the local cemetery after Tommy’s funeral, Mike witnesses something rather strange. He spies a creepy looking older man, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), hauling coffins around and single handedly at that. A little more investigation on Mike’s part proves that the bodies in the nearby mausoleum and in the cemetery are going missing – they’re no longer buried where they were once put down for their eternal rest. Mike also thinks he’s being chased by some strange hooded dwarves.
It isn’t until Mike makes his way into the mausoleum that he starts to get really freaked out. Patrolling the long, marble halls of the building are some sleek silver spheres that fly through the air and lodge themselves into the foreheads of anyone who gets in their way. How they’re all connected to the Tall Man isn’t readily apparent but Mike, Jody and Reggie are in for it when they decide to try and figure it all out. They know this guy is up to something and intend to stop the Tall Man from making more of his evil dwarf minions.
While the narrative of the film is all over the place, Phantasm works. Coscarelli made the movie without any studio backing and as such it was a pretty low budget production, but he manages to create a whole lot of atmosphere with the film. Making excellent use of the mausoleum sets, the movie treads a fine line between straight horror and surrealism, managing to throw in some surprisingly effective quirky humor in spots as well. When the wild visuals are paired with a strong lead performance from Baldwin, you end up with a really decent, tripped out movie. The score, by Fred Myrow, might sound like a knock off of Tubular Bells used so well in The Exorcist but it fits the tone of Phantasm perfectly. There’s some great camera work here as well, particularly whenever the Tall Man is involved in the story of the spheres are flying around.
Mike’s a likeable enough character, it’s easy to care for him and understand his trepidation about losing his brother after so recently having lost his parents. His behavior makes sense, as it demonstrates some human emotion, but it also keeps that curiosity that make teenagers do dumb things like breaking into mausoleums firmly in check. Bannister and Thornbury are fine as the older protagonists, occasionally breaking into song and jamming by the fireplace or on the front porch, but the real star of the show is Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man. Completely mysterious and completely evil, he’s a creepy looking guy who manages to make some utterly sinister facial expressions that give his role a whole lot of ‘yikes!’ His work in the picture is genuinely iconic.
The effects in the picture hold up well. At one point the Tall Man’s fingers are chopped off, yet continue to movie, spurting yellow goo in place of red blood. From there, the finer Mike brings home to show Jody turns into a massive fly – this scene is pretty bizarre, but well shot and the physicality of the performances as the brothers try to do away with the thing is pretty convincing. The spheres also look great and have a nice fluid sense of movement to them, aided by some excellent sound effects work. Throw in a solid chase scene where a driverless hearse tries to run Jody’s Plymouth Barracuda off the road and a few scenes of interdimensional travel and, yeah, there’s a whole lot going on here. It’s all paced really well, and remains a fan favorite for very good reason – this is a unique, creative, well-made and ridiculously entertaining film.
Well Go USA brings Phantasm to Blu-ray for the first time in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer in 1.78.1 widescreen and aside from some minor compression artifacts (sadly this release is presented on a 25GB disc) it looks quite nice. Remastered in 4k from the original 35mm negative by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot productions, the image is pristine and shows virtually no print damage at all, while still showing a fairly natural looking amount of film grain. Detail is typically quite strong and there’s good texture and depth here as well. Colors look great and are reproduced very naturally while black levels are nice and solid. All in all, this is a pretty nice picture.
It should be noted that some digital cleanup was done to remove some things that Coscarelli never wanted to be visible in the frame and to adjust some of the effects shots. Most won’t notice this at all as it’s been done very subtly, but you can read a bit more about this here.
As to the audio options, we’re given a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track as well as Dolby Digital 2.0 and Mono tracks with removable subtitles provided in English only. While it would have been nice to get the original mono track in lossless, the 5.1 track is a pretty good one, particularly when the spheres start flying around the mausoleum and the surrounds kick in. Levels are nicely balanced, there are no problems with any hiss or distortion, things sound good here.
First up is a lively audio commentary with director Don Coscarrelli, and actors Angus Scrimm, Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury. This commentary is a lot of fun as the four guys obviously get along with one another very well which leads to some good natured moments of humor scattered in between the anecdotes and factual information that is delivered during the discussion. With the director and three performers on the track you get a good idea of what it was like on set in front of and behind the camera and as such, this turns out to be a pretty well rounded look at the making of the movie. This commentary is the same one that graced the laserdiscs and the domestic MGM release in North America.
Up next are nine deleted scenes that make up roughly ten minutes with their combined running time. These have been seen before, not only on the laserdisc releases but more recently on the MGM Region One release (which is now out of print) so they’ll be familiar to a lot of viewers but there are some nice moments in here, including the infamous ‘you think you go to Heaven?’ line from the Tall Man and Reggie’s food fight scene. There’s a keen outtake clip of Angus Scrimm laughing that surfaces in here as well.
The Phantasm 1979 Interview is a vintage television interview with Coscarelli and Scrimm in which they appear on a talk show and discuss the film. Scrimm gets very theatrical here and hams it up in a big way while Coscarelli plays it a little more straight as he talks about what inspired him to write the story. He talks about how he likes to build up the audience to scare them and make them scream and then how the natural response to that is laughter. It doesn't cover a lot of what isn't covered in the other documentaries or on the commentary but at twenty-nine minutes long it's quite detailed and it's interesting to see and hear the actor and director's take on the material from around the time that it was made as opposed to in retrospect. We've seen this on the MGM and AB UK discs, but it's nice to have it here.
All of those supplements are ported over from previous DVD releases. New to this disc is an episode of Graveyard Carz that runs thirteen minutes. This is basically a quick little reality show style piece where a few mechanic rebuild a Hemi Cude based on the car that Jody drives in the movie.
Outside of that we get a non-anamorphic theatrical trailer, a Phantasm Remastered trailer, menus and chapter selection. Trailers for a few unrelated Well Go USA properties play before the main menu screen loads. Additionally, as this is a combo pack release, a DVD version of the movie containing identical extra features is also included. Previous DVD versions have included quite a few additional extras features that have not been ported over to this release (the biggest omission being the Phantasmagoria documentary and the ‘home movie’ footage but there were a few other bits and pieces on that old Anchor Bay SE DVD that aren’t here).
The Final Word:
Phantasm remains a classic of seventies horror and a genuinely bizarre slice of cinematic entertainment. Well Go USA’s Blu-ray doesn’t port over all the extras from previous releases and it does have some minor compression issues, but it does otherwise provide a very nice upgrade over past DVD editions.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!