BLU-RAY REVIEW: PHANTASM: REMASTERED (1979)
In my mind, when I first popped in director Don Coscarelli’s horror film PHANTASM, there were three very distinct yet vastly different aspects of this film that truly stuck out to me. The film, now having attained a
cult-like appeal and status after sticking around in the heads of horror fans worldwide and possibly responsible for many vivid nightmares, was getting the remastering treatment and being re-released in 1080p on blu-ray from Well Go USA with an all new look, sound, and probably feel to it. This film has, for the past 37 years or so, continuously been creeping around in my subconscious with the utmost subtlety at first but eventually leaving the most indelible mark on my psyche, as an impressionable young teen who grew up in the late ’80s. Suffering puberty in the latter half to nearly last third of the video store “shelf life” proved to be a lifesaver for a teen plagued with acne and who had a love for the macabre and creepier things in life. I sadly, had watched PHANTASM II before the original (if I can recall correctly) because my video store did not have the film for rental (some lucky punk got to it before me that Friday night) and the lurid artwork on the cover of the film had been catching my eye ever since I first caught a glimpse of it.
At the time, the two distinct eye-popping features of the cover that told me that I must see this horror film were the ever-so-sinister looking Tall Man (portrayed by Angus Scrimm (PHANTASM I-V, SUBSPECIES)(whose actual name sounds like a villain’s character already in a movie) and the silver ball that looked like a damn Christmas ornament with two sharp blades sticking out from it, ready to cut, slice, or stab any piece of supple flesh in its way. Little did I know at the time, that the single most disturbing part of the movie that still has haunted me to this stinking day is the ominous score by Fred Myrow (SOYLENT GREEN) and Malcolm Seagrave who created the underlying theme song that is prevalent throughout the entire film.
Suffice to say, never had the cover of a horror film’s artwork have my curiosity so piqued as did the first two installments of PHANTASM. Fortunately, I was happy to see that the Tall Man was on the cover of the original PHANTASM, as well as the sequel. The menacing silver balls with their knives were also prevalent on both boxes’ art. At least I knew the creepiest old man in cinema was back up to his old tricks again in the sequel. Stupidly, I rented the sequel first and now will forever wait until I watch any films of a series in chronological order.
The plot of PHANTASM revolves around Mike (A. Michael Baldwin (PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD, PHANTASM: RAVAGER)–the A. stands for nothing), a 13-year old kid coping with the loss of both his parents and now being raised by his much older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS) who came back home for the funeral of his parents (as well as his recent buddy’s death) and to take care of his younger brother, although he sorta had plans to dump him off on some other relatives so he could live his life free of burden. The problems for the two brothers and everyone else connected to them start when Mike witnesses a funeral director single-handedly picking up a freaking 500+ lb. coffin by himself and toss it into a funeral car. It also must be clarified that Mike has some sort of abandonment issues and is ALWAYS creeping around and spying on his older brother, whenever he leaves the house, sometimes running down the street in a vain effort to watch Jody’s every move. This also involves Mike peeping on Jody when he is getting some action in the nearby cemetery (from actress Kathy Lester otherwise known as The Lady in Lavender ) where his own parents were kept in the mausoleum-like funeral parlor and church. Kinda kinky and morbid, huh? Getting it on in a cemetery on top of corpses buried 6 feet beneath one. I also won’t tell readers who have not seen this film yet the significance of Lester’s character other than her giving an erotic performance on screen with some nudity (those are stunt breasts for the record) and sexuality.
After an early on-screen kill and the same sultry character in a very similar position all too familiar involved, viewers get a sense that some weird shit is going on and everything is not as it seems. Coscarelli’s decision to replace conventional character development, fluid scenes, and generally cohesive dialogue with compelling atmosphere, goth-like scenery and extremely dynamic camerawork and shot selection generally driven to scare the viewers out of their seats, brings to the forefront the distinct style and creativity that sets PHANTASM far apart from many of slasher films and straight horror movies that rarely delve into some of the fantastic elements of fantasy that this film at times alludes to. I think Coscarelli’s artistic fortitude in how he crafts a simplistic story of a boy coping with the death of his parents, abandonment issues with his older brother, and being a young teenager meld brilliantly with the dark realm of a dealer in death whose goal it seems is to be stealing the corpses of the dead for unknown and nefarious purposes. The little bit of plot that each scene gives us, morsel by morsel, keeps viewers hungry for more as tiny pieces are dropped scene by scene. I really feel that less is so much more in PHANTASM and the handful of lines that Angus Scrimm deliver with an unmistakable flair in his low, deep voice for authority and malevolence really packed a wallop with this viewer.
The level of blood is not necessarily spraying through the roof, but the scenes that do have a bit of red in them will please any gore fans with their creativity and ingenuity. Silver balls whizzing through the air, making a mechanical whirring noise of sorts that almost reminded me of a cross between a fan belt of a large automobile’s engine spinning feverishly and a whistling of air whizzing by. Harder to describe than witness, the scenes of the balls zipping by through the air aiming for their intended target brought a surge of adrenaline and panic within me because the scene throws the viewer in the shoes of Mike (and anyone else) being hunted down by the metallic Christmas ornament of death. The concept of this ball stabbing its sharp blades into the forehead of its intended (and at times unintended) victim with a small drill popping out to drill a hole into the head and drain the blood out in a glorious spray of crimson showers is as beautiful as it is savage. I devilishly grinned as I watched this scene and I am pretty sure I was almost gleefully laughing out loud upon watching it as a young teenager many years after it came out in theaters and was available for home video rental on vhs.
The plot of the film felt completely original to me. It had a small dose of female nudity, a large dose of suspense, quick scares, and graphic violence. Add into this all the combination of the Tall Man and his Jawa-like little people minions, grunting like rabid animals on the prowl for food every time they grace the screen made for untold amounts of tense viewing. I watched the film six times while prepping this review, and each time I noticed some scene or aspect to the film that really punched home the cult-like status of it. I wholeheartedly agree with the fans’ appeal and proclamation of said “cult” label. It has the memorable character within the Tall Guy and a performance by Angus Scrimm that just screams “cult”. PHANTASM has the ingenious gadgetry and technology of the silver balls zipping around and creating most of the glorious bloodshed. It has one of the more memorable soundtracks of the horror genre, almost feeling like the music be put in the same category as JAWS and THE EXORCIST. I like the music that much and think it has that much lasting value to be remembered years and years down the line as one of the classic horror soundtracks. Not to be forgotten is that distinct automobile in so many scenes, as if the 1971 Plymouth Barracuda was a character within the film itself. It certainly was showcased enough times. I also can’t forget the best friend of Jody (Thornbury), the “hardest working man in horror” and none other than actor Reggie Bannister (PHANTASM I-V) portraying “Reggie”, the ice cream truck driver of the town. The three of them end up going head to head with the Tall Man and his posse of mini-zombies inept at speaking any sort of human language. The battle of good versus evil is pretty much the base nature of the film’s plot. It is a plot that never gets old and is used time and time again.
The dvd/blu-ray combo is two discs, of which I am going to focus on the 1080p high-definition blu-ray disc which has been newly remastered and out for the very first time on dvd and blu-ray. The disc comes in a 16:9 aspect ratio with the optional original mono mix, the stereo mix, and brand new 5.1 HD Surround Sound mix, or DTS HD Master Audio. The upgrade in the sound, as well as the quality of the remastered picture, is truly amazing. I really cranked the sound system while I watched it and I recommend having some subwoofers hooked up because quite a few scenes really utilize that really deep low bass and increases the tension immensely in a few scenes that I am sure Coscarelli created with that in mind.
The blu-ray has a decent amount of extra goodies on it including an Audio Commentary with Director & Writer Don Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, and Bill Thornbury that really goes into great depth exploring so many aspects of the film that I had not heard before. I also loved just hearing actor Angus Scrimm’s voice saying anything at all. He has such a memorable and distinct voice. Quite pleasant when he is not in character.
There is a “Graveyard Carz” episode in which Coscarelli and Baldwin are guests of the show as the guys rebuild a car that pays homage to the Plymouth in the movie. I found this to be fairly amusing, but for car enthusiasts it may be somewhat more interesting than the average automobile novice as myself.
The 1979 Interviews with Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm are really the prize footage archived on this disc because it is a talk show interviewing the boys the year the movie came out. I always love nostalgic footage. The video and audio quality is pretty decent as well for how old it is. In addition to the timewarp footage there is a slew of deleted scenes one can peruse through and watch. Not much exciting I felt, but for the fanatics, it may prove to be much more of a perk in the extras department. Added are some trailers from upcoming features out on Well Go USA, many of which are in the horror genre.
PHANTASM finally has a pristine looking and incredible sounding print out in high definition from Well Go USA and the movie deserves it undoubtedly. The movie is an incredible beginning to a series that spawned four more films and the latest entry is also coming out on blu-ray from Well Go USA. I can’t recommend picking up this superbly crafted edition of the film with the remastered look, sound, and feel along with a worth commentary and some cool bonus features. If one is a fan of the film already, this release does it some serious justice and if one has never seen PHANTASM before, pick up this damn release and see why the hell J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions took such painstaking effort to clean this film up and give it a new life in high-definition.