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Phantasm (1979)

Well Go USA
Blu-ray Disc Released: 12/6/2016

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/2/2016

In the mid-1970s, horror films were in an unusual state. Overall, scary movies were very popular, thanks to huge hits such as The Exorcist and The Omen -- so horror had permeated popular culture. Yet, there was no dominating genre. The previously mentioned films had made supernatural movies, especially those dealing with religion, popular, but many Hammer-esque "old dark house" movies were being made. The impact of movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre could be felt in an increasing brutality in horror. And of course, the world was on the eve of the premiere of a little movie called Halloween. During this time, a young filmmaker named Don Coscarelli created a movie which was a culmination of all of these influences, and yet, played like nothing else which had come before. That movie was called Phantasm.

As Phantasm opens, a man is murdered in a graveyard. We then cut to the man's funeral, which is being attended by friends Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Jody's little brother Mike follow them to the funeral, and notices some peculiar things, such as a Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who lifts a casket by himself. Mike tries to convince Jody that something strange is happening at the mortuary, but Jody is skeptical. Mike decides to investigate the mortuary himself and a deviant mystery begins to unravel. As Mike, and eventually Jody and Reggie, begin to dig deeper, they find zombie dwarves, flying death machines, a portal to another world, and a Tall Man who commands them all. Can a 12-year old defeat a supernatural mastermind?

The word "classic" is thrown around way too much, but for my money, Phantasm is a classic and a must-see for any horror fan. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I saw the movie when I was far too young to be seeing it, but it's had a lasting effect on me and I admire the movie to this day. (I was able to share the story of my initial viewing of the film with Don Coscarelli and he loved it.)

Borrowing bits and pieces from horror films, science-fiction, surrealism, and for lack of a better terms, nightmares, Coscarelli crafted an original movie that feels familiar and absolutely new at the same time. Admittedly, the story is a bit muddy at times, but Phantasm succeeds in other ways. The film does an exemplary job of combining creepy ideas and disturbing images. In many ways, Phantasm is a very episodic film, thusly, the movie plays as a series of memorable scenes. Fans (or "Phans") can probably list the classic pieces in the movie -- the hearse chase, the attack on the Volkswagen, the "don't fear" box, and of course, the sphere. Say what you will about the movie, but Don Coscarelli deserves kudos (or a straight-jacket) for the concept of a flying metal sphere which drills the blood out of its victims. Today, the ball is well-known, but when the film premiered, it was original, freaky, and down-right disturbing.

The movie also deserves praise for what is able to accomplish on such a limited budget. Shot for just $300,000, the movie is filled with multiple locations, special effects and stunts. The mausoleum set looks fantastic and it's shocking to learn that it was built in a warehouse. Some of the special effects may look hokey today (especially that bug thing in Mike's hair), but most are still effective. (By way of comparison, Halloween, which was made around the same time, was shot for about the same amount of money and features only real-world locales and no special effects.)

I've read some comments on-line from people (who I can only assume are 20 or younger) who don't like or appreciate Phantasm. I really have trouble understanding this. Sure, the movie has a dated feel (Jody's bowler hat doesn't help), and again, some of the effects look cheesy, but the film is still filled wall-to-wall with dynamic visuals, creepy ideas, and a great score. In short, the balls-out craziness of Phantasm has clearly influenced many movies which have come in its wake. Nearly 40 years later, the movie still stands as a landmark of horror.

Phantasm did not need a musical interlude on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Well Go USA. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 24 Mbps. This features the newly restored ("Remastered") version of the film which was overseen by J.J. Abrams. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain, not even against the white backgrounds of the mausoleum. There are no notable defects from the source materials either. Phantasm is known for being a little dark in spots, but they've fixed that here. The colors look fine and natural. The level of detail is good and the depth is what one would expect from a movie of this age. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.4 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. We get good stereo effects here, but I didn't detect much in the way of surround sound. However, the scenes in the white room provide a nice, deep rumbling bass.

The Phantasm Blu-ray Disc features a small batch of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Don Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm, Michael Baldwin, and Bill Thornbury. This originally appeared on New Line's laserdisc release of the film in the early 90s and has been recycled several times since. Having said that, it is a very good commentary, as this quartet share many memories of the making of the movie. "Interviews from 1979 with Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm" (28 minutes) offers a spot from a local TV show in Miami, where we get to hear more about the making of the movie. The Disc contains six DELETED SCENES which run about 8 minutes. We get more of that damn bowler hat and a useless comedy scene. But, we also get an alternate ending and an allusion to another alternate ending. We have the original 1979 TRAILER for the film and a new "Remastered" TRAILER. The only truly new extra here is "Graveyard Carz Episode" (11 minutes) is a segment from what I presume to be a TV series where a crew build their own version of the Cuda car from the film.

Review Copyright 2016 by Mike Long