The Phantasm movies are weird, even by horror movie standards. There's just such a strange air of, well, weirdness to them that despite plenty of moments of black humor and quirky comedy, give the four films in the series so far a feeling of uneasiness and dread. Maybe it's the Tall Man, maybe it's the bizarre undead dwarfs that do his bidding, maybe it's the sphere or maybe it's Reggie 'Balls In The Air, Dude!' Bannister – it's really hard to put your finger on it – but something about the four films in the series is just kind of creepy. The film that started it all is still the strangest of the series thus far. When the film starts, we're introduced to a down on his luck teenager named Mike (played by Michael Baldwin) who has recently lost his mother and father. 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 and as such, he's a bit of a somber kid.
While trolling around the local cemetery one day, Mike witnesses something rather strange. He spies a creepy looking older man, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm in the role he would become famous for), hauling coffins around and single handedly at that. A little more investigation on Mike's part proves that the bodies are going missing – they're no longer buried where they were once put down for their eternal rest.
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 and 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 and 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.
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 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, 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!'
While you'd probably expect this region one release to be a PAL to NTSC conversion of the semi-recent re-mastered transfer used in Anchor Bay UK's special edition release of the film from a few years back, it's not. This is a brand new transfer that looks a little bit better than what we offered in that set and which is miles above when compared to the previous Region 1 release from MGM (which simply recycled the laserdisc transfer and was non-anamorphic). The colors on this new release look slightly more natural and the 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen picture is sharp and detailed. Black levels are strong and deep and there are no problems with print damage. A bit of grain is present but there aren't any compression artifacts nor is there any heavy edge enhancement. There's no doubt that this transfer is better than the AB UK disc, it's cleaner, the colors look better and the image is just stronger in pretty much every way possible. At the same time, the picture doesn't feel overly digitized, it's very film like and natural looking.
Phantasm is presented with three audio options – a 2.0 Stereo track, a newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, and a newly created DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mix. The movie also includes English subtitles that are clean, clear, and easy to read and free of any typographical errors. Purists will lament the fact that the original mono mix is missing in action (it is included on the old MGM disc) but surround sound enthusiasts ought to get a kick out of the added rear channel activity, especially during the scenes where the spheres kick into action (your subwoofer will get a bit of a work out during these scenes, especially if you opt for DTS playback). Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion and there aren't any problems with tininess in the high end. The lower end is strong and powerful and the bass will provide plenty of rumble during the action scenes or the car scenes. Those who own the Anchor Bay UK boxed set release will notice that the sound mixes on this Region 1 DVD are pretty much the same as those created for that excellent set.
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 as well as the AB UK release.
Also included here is a re-edited version of the Phantasmagoria documentary that Nucleus Films made for the Anchor Bay UK boxed set. Chopped down to thirty-five minutes (from it's original ninety-eight minutes running time) so that it covers only the making of the first movie, it's still an interesting and comprehensive look at how the picture was put together and what everyone's part in making that happen was. It would have been nice to see the entire full length documentary included here, but it isn't.
Phantasm Actors Having A Ball starts off with an anecdote from Kathy Lester who talks about the lavender dress, then features little stories from Michael Baldwin, a singing Bill Thornbury, and of course, Coscarelli himself who speaks about the Dwarves and how they differ from the Jawas. It's just short of five minutes and it uses material from the full length cut of the Phantasmagoria documentary.
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.
Scrimm is also the star of a Fangoria TV Commercial (0:44) in character as the Tall Man. Watch in terror as he pulls a stack of Fangoria magazines out of a coffin in his mausoleum! The Angus Scrimm 1989 Convention Appearance is an amusing document of his induction into the Fangoria Hall of Fame. At roughly ten minutes it's a lengthy document of Scrimm interacting with his fans as he talks about his relationship with The Tall Man, switching in and out of character at will and amusing them many fans who have shown up to pay tribute to the actor. Again, both of these we've seen before, they're not new, but it's good that they're here.
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 disc and the AB UK release 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.
One of the coolest extras on this disc is the home movie footage. Almost twenty minutes in total, this is 8mm material that was shot on the set while the movie was being made. It plays here with some narration from Coscarelli who explains to us what it is we're watching and gives us some nice background information on what we see in this material. This was also present on the MGM release in North America and the AB UK disc. Some of the footage is in pretty rough shape but it's interesting to check it out nonetheless.
Rounding out the extra features are a couple of television spots, the film's original theatrical trailer, the theatrical trailer for Phantasm III, trailers for other Anchor Bay DVD releases, animated menus and chapter stops.
Missing from this release and keeping it from getting a five star rating in the extras department are the Angus Scrimm introduction that was on the other two releases, and the two musical bits that were included on the MGM disc.
If you don't already own the Region 2 boxed set from Anchor Bay UK, consider this disc a must own and even if you do already have that set in your collection, this new release is still worth a look. The transfer is fantastic and the audio is great. The extras are plentiful and interesting and really leave no stone unturned when it comes to documenting the making of the movie. Phantasm itself still holds up remarkably well – it's just as creepy as it was when it was made years ago and time hasn't hurt the film in the least (fashions not withstanding!). Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.