Phantasm (1979)

Don Coscarelli’s ambitious cult classic has never looked or sounded better.


In the early to mid 90's I was an expert at sneaking around my Dad’s VHS collection, it’s how I discovered so many awesome movies, many of which are still in my viewing rotation today. We would spent a lot of time amassing that collection, always making copies of rentals (that moment you realize if you put tape over copyguard, you could record anything!), and recording anything worthwhile on cable. This gave us a MASSIVE home library, with tons of titles in almost every genre. Growing up, my parents were pretty flippin’ awesome, even at a young age they’d let me watch anything, as long as I stayed out of trouble, so I’d often watch whatever title sounded crazy, or what box art sold me, usually going in blind to whatever it was.

One day I was snooping around the sea of VHS tapes (which we still have), and I came across a movie I’d never seen on our shelves before… in big block letters read the word, “PHANTASM”, and the ominous looking man on the cover immediately caught my attention. I was sold, my mind was made up, I knew what I’d be watching that night.


Phantasm

1979 d. Don Coscarelli

“If this one doesn’t scare you… you’re already dead!”

Phantasm is the story of 13-year-old Mike (Michael Baldwin), who has recently lost his parents, and is being taken care of by his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), who has come back home after the family tragedy. Mike really looks up to Jody, always following him around and with a constant worry that he’s going to move on and leave him behind. When A mutual friend mysteriously dies, Jody and his loyal friend, Reggie (a balding, ponytail wearing, guitar playing, ice cream truck driver) attend the funeral, with Mike following them to Morningside cemetery in secret.

This is where Mike’s life changes forever, when he witnesses an ominous figure, The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), an otherworldly funeral director, as he singlehandedly lifts a casket into the back of a hearse. Mike soon becomes convinced that The Tall Man may be responsible for his parents death, and the other mysterious deaths that keep turning up around town. As his speculation grows, he fears that he and his older brother might be next.

Determined to find out some answers, along with proof to convince his doubtful brother, Mike returns to Morningside cemetery under cover of darkness, and breaks into the mortuary. There, he comes face-to-face with the insidious Tall Man, his hooded dwarf minions, and the sentry style silver spheres that. patrol the ominous halls of the mortuary. After barely managing to escape, Mike makes Jody a believer, and with the loyal Reggie in tow, they set out to discover what the Tall Man has planned, and stop anyway they can!


Over the years, Phantasm has grown from a cult movie, to a horror classic, spawning 4 sequels, a highly memorable villain in the Tall Man, and a lovable hero in Reggie Bannister. Coscarelli’s writing here is so unique, and everything in this film is so dreamlike, with a plot line is so out there that I can’t think of another classic genre film from that era that can compete with its surreal strangeness. But, despite it’s almost otherworldly strangeness, Phantasm works in it’s own weird little way, fully utilizing its spooky atmosphere and creepy soundtrack.

Coscarelli and crew really achieve so much on such a small budget, from it’s freakish horde of Jawa-like hooded dwarves, to the iconic, sentry-like silver spheres that patrol Morningside’s hallways. For me, one of Phantasm’s best attributes is its characters, they are highly believable, everyday people with little thrown in moments of humanity such as Jody and Reggie jamming out on guitar. It has a lot of heart, something even budgetary constraints couldn’t mess with.


I was the perfect age to watch Phantasm, probably a couple years younger than our main character, Mike. I kept asking myself why he lived with his brother and it dawned on me that his parents were dead, and my first lesson in mortality was around the corner. My comprehensions of death up to that point were non-existent, and around this time a death in my family pinpointed the moment I realized once you’re gone, that’s it, you don’t come back. You can imagine the hefty effect that all had on me as a 10 year old. I was already a fan of movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Phantasm was different, this spooky little creepshow drove my young imagination wild with crazy thoughts of different dimensions, flying spheres of death, and balding heroes who drive ice cream trucks. What a fascinating film.


The new remastered blu was released by Well Go USA (a strange choice, but regardless, they have some great titles in their catalogue, namely foreign cinema) and it looks amazing, many of us have waited years for a pristine HD presentation and now we finally have it. J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot oversaw a 4K restoration of this cult classic, and the results are almost sure to please anyone who is a fan. Although the disc is light on special features, the amazing transfer and packaging (the new artwork is INCREDIBLE) more than makes up for it.

Extras include:

  • Director/Cast commentary
  • Graveyard Carz Episode vignette with Don Coscarelli and A. Michael Baldwin.
  • Interviews from 1979 television appearances with Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm.
  • Deleted Scenes

A worthy addition to any collection!

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