The Phantasm series rocks! Ever since a very young and talented Dario Argento obsessed filmmaker and horror fan called Don Coscarelli, first managed to persuade his father to invest some money in his self-conceived screenplay of a story about a very tall inter-dimensional alien grave robber, mutant killer dwarfs and a lethal, head-drilling silver sphere, more and more horror fans have come to marvel at one of the most surreal and deranged horror fantasy franchises ever to be cooked up by a single, apparently sane, mind! Over the course of four movies, filmed over a period of twenty years with many of the same cast, the deceptively mild-mannered Coscarelli has somehow managed to create something completely unique; a series of films that appear unconstrained by any need to stick to preconceived notions about what can and can't be done in horror. Fans (or "Phans") will doubtless have differing views concerning which is the best Phantasm flick, but the series as a whole embodies just about everything worth praising and cherishing about an often looked-down-upon genre. If, after suffering through numerous formulaic slashers and the like, you're ever left feeling slightly jaded about the horror genre's prospects, then simply bang on a Phantasm movie and you will be instantly transported and reminded of just what it can (and should) be all about. "Phantasm", in all its incarnations, never stops being surprising, wondrous, mystifying and ultimately completely terrifying. Most of all, this imaginative series of films has always been thoroughly entertaining!
My personal favourite is (and probably always will be) the original "Phantasm", released back in 1979. The strange dreamlike atmosphere, the film's placing in a tranquil, small town normality and the unfathomable juxtaposition of a macabre world of horror and science-fiction hidden behind the silent, marble walls of the local Morningside Mausoleum, somehow resonate much more in this original film - despite its low budget and the guerilla film-making techniques used to complete it. The film has the sense to spend time with its protagonists and develops believable relationships between them that became the very heart of the franchise as the sequels began to appear.
"Phantasm" introduces us to young preteen, Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin): an orphan, living with his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) after their parents were both killed in a car accident. When Tommy, one of the close friends of Jody and his best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), dies in mysterious circumstances, strange events begin to occur in and around the local mausoleum where both Tommy and Mike's parents are interred. Mike breaks in to the place at night and finds it inhabited by weird, scurrying, hooded creatures! The eerie marble corridors are patrolled by a high-tech silver sphere that attempts to drill through his head! The weird, menacing figure of the mausoleum's dark-suited (and very tall) mortician, pursues him through the dark, hidden recesses of the building and, after slamming The Tall Man's (Angus Scrimm) fingers in a steel door and chopping them off, Mike is horrified to see that he has yellow blood ... and that the fingers continue to wiggle on the floor! Soon, Mike Jody and Reggie find themselves thrust into a world where reality and dream are indistinguishable -- their encounters with the Tall Man will change the direction of all their lives forever.
The surreal, genre-defying nature of the events and the slightly off-centre feel of the film came years before US television drama was revitalised by David Lynch's use of similar elements in "Twin Peaks". Coscarelli throws in seemingly innocuous little pieces of business such as the Spaghetti Western-style stand-off between young Mike and the series' evocative villain, The Tall Man (one of the most vivid creations in modern horror) that add that extra sense of oddness but which also indicate the director's love of a wide range of genre material. The film displays the arthouse sensibility of European horror films of the time such as "Suspiria", that dispense with the need for logical story progression and revel instead in visual opulence and an exuberance of the imagination. The stylish visual appearance of the film's mausoleum set plays a big role in this European aesthetic -- it's amazing that such a fantastic set was created on such a low budget and, to my mind, the sequels never recaptured quite the same strange and offbeat atmosphere that it lends to this first film.
Another factor that greatly contributes to this European feel of the film is the fantastic prog rock influenced, synth-based score by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrove which went on to become an iconic marker for the series. There is also a clear love of cheesy drive-in movies and old science fiction flicks mixed in with these arthouse stylings though! Coscarelli lets the blood run freely in this film -- and that head-drilling scene....well ... it still makes me winch! The final third of the movie suddenly turns into a science fiction film with the Tall Man (sort of) revealed as some kind of alien who ships crushed-down human bodies back to a mysterious red planet to work as dwarf slaves!
For those who have never seen the film before, there is so much to discover and ponder in it (the Lady in Lavender, the blind fortune-teller, the "tuning fork" space gates) that it is best to refrain from more detailed discussion. But there is one element we cannot avoid (since it is important with regard to the sequels) and that is the film's audacious and perplexing ending. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to be made aware of any spoilers but this is where things really get weird -- for, not only do we discover, in the movie's closing minutes, that a character who seemed to have been killed-off by the Tall Man is still alive (Reggie), but we are also matter-of-factly informed that Jody had died years ago in the car accident that also killed Mike's parents! The old "it was all a dream" trick often seems like a cheap cop-out, and it, at first, appears that it is only a red herring in this film anyway, for - sure enough - Mike goes up to his bedroom and is immediately snatched away through his bedroom mirror by the Tall Man and his Dwarf minions! If there had never been a second chapter to the series that would have been that but, ten years later, Coscarelli made "Phantasm 2" which takes up the tale seconds after Part One leaves off -- with Reggie rushing upstairs to try and save Mike. Reggie Bannister now becomes pretty much the lead protagonist for the rest of the series ... except, didn't we see him brutally stabbed to death by the Tall Man back in Episode One! What is going on?
This 'hall of mirrors' narrative device turned out to be Coscarelli's cleverest sleight of hand. From here-on-in the series now delights, not just in dreamlike atmosphere, but in full-on surrealist techniques: time distortion, dream-within-dream-within-dream progressions, dissolving of identity -- these are all methods of undermining linear "common sense" notions of reality used by Bunuel and Dali in their earliest ventures into surrealist film-making like "Un Chien Andalou" and "L'Age D'Or". For instance, the second film appears to suggest that the previous chapter, with all its dream within dream trickery, might well have been a dream of a completely different character, Liz (Paula Irvine), who is seen jotting down the events of Part One in her journal -- perhaps she has a psychic link with Mike (as is claimed) except she later enters the narrative herself only to be viscously killed-off at the start of Part Three -- and, of course, the Tall Man seems all too real again by this point! But if all this makes "Phantasm" sound like a dry exercise in surrealist film making then nothing could be further from the truth! The effect is that one can never take anything for granted in these films ... and literally anything can happen at any time!
Although, ironically, Part Two" is the most linear of all the "Phantasm" films! With backing from a major Hollywood studio and a fairly large (by "Phantasm" standards) budget of $3000.000 this follow-up to the original is a bigger and brassier version of what came before: the original small-scale score has been rearranged for a big orchestra; the Tall Man's new mausoleum set is bigger and more traditionally "Gothic" in its architecture; the comedy elements in the film are slightly more obvious and the story features more recognisable archetypes such as the fallen priest and the love interest for Mike, etc. But, although many of the quirks have been ironed out, this sequel more than makes up for it with its continual inventiveness and non-stop relentless action -- as well as some of the biggest scares of any film in the series.
The film is a kind of road movie, with Mike (now played by James LeGros) and Reggie travelling the scenic highways of the American Midwest in search of the Tall Man who is now laying waste to a succession of small towns in his continuing quest to harvest humanity for serfdom on another world. Now, as well as ugly Dwarfs, he also has the help of two zombie-like mortuary attendants and a workforce of Grave diggers ("Gravers"). With its great and gory special make-up effects and an even more commanding performance by Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man, this follow-up is still the favourite entry in the series of many Phans and it is not difficult to see why!
"Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead" often gets a bad rap from some Phans who dislike its greater emphasis on comedy. Actually though, there is a rather dark edge to the film concerning the fate of Mike and the Tall Man's mysterious plans for him, which often gets overlooked because of the more slapstick elements that predominate. In retrospect, viewing the film as part of an ongoing series, it can be seen that bringing in comedy was just one more way of surprising the audience and keeping the franchise fresh. Like the first sequel, the film takes up where the preceding chapter leaves off with Mike and Liz being abducted in the back of the Tall Man's hearse while Reggie lies at the roadside. Eventually, Reggie catches up with the wreckage of the car which has overturned and burst into flames. Mike has been thrown clear but Liz meets an unpleasant end by having her face eaten by a dwarf and her head decapitated by the Tall Man! Incidentally, Mike, who was recast and played by James LeGros in Part Two, has now morphed back into A. Michael Baldwin, who played him in the original film when he was only thirteen years old! The genius of "Phantasm" is that Coscarelli can get away with this kind of thing without explanation, because just about everything that happens in the series is unfathomable anyway!
Mike ends up in hospital (tended by the Lady in Lavender from Part One eagle-eyed viewers!) and has to be rescued by Reggie since the Tall Man comes looking for him in the form of a sphere hidden in the head of a nurse. The two hide out in a hotel for a while, but then Mike's dead brother Jody turns up and changes into a black sphere! The Tall Man "locks on" to Jody's sphere and appears in the hotel room to spirit Mike away! Reggie now sets out, with his iconic, customised four-barrel shotgun and the occasional change of lumberjack shirt, to rescue his surrogate son. He meets up with a spirited preteen (Kevin Conners) living alone in a zombie inhabited town, and a sassy, kickboxing chick called Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), and the three set out to rid the world of the Tall Man's evil once and for all!
Part Three is an action and comedy epic and it also cements Reggie Bannister's cult status (Angus Scrimm's was already in place of course) as the likeable, loyal Everyman who still finds time to worry about getting laid in-between dealing with all manner of macabre terrors! The three zombie stooges who pursue our heroes for most of the movie are born in a bizarre "Home Alone" sequence that sees the young Tim slaying three criminals in a series of incredibly inventive and gruesome ways when they try to take over his house. There are car chases and spectacular crashes galore, as well as a healthy dose of gore and a dab of outright silliness in the form of a sphere that extends an eyeball on the end of a stalk! But behind the action-packed spectacle there is the central relationship between brothers Mike and Jodie (reigned after Bill Thornbury's, and the character Jody's, absence from Part Two) and their unexpectedly complex developing relationship with their nemesis, The Tall Man. Despite the undeniably comic content of much of the film, it actually ends up on a curiously downbeat note with Reggie incapacitated and Mike seemingly transformed by the Tall Man's painful experiments.
Mostly set in the Nevada desert, "Phantasm 4: ObIVion" is a much more reflective and almost elegiac entry in the series that partly recaptures the dreamlike atmosphere of the original film. Apart from a very suspenseful, night-time sequence on a deserted highway at the beginning, where Reggie is menaced by a ghoulish traffic cop, the film has few of the big, outrageous horror set-pieces of the other two sequels. Instead, Coscarelli fashioned this low budget fourth film by writing the screenplay around some unused footage leftover from the first film, including the infamous "Hanging Tree" sequence, which was one of several unused alternative endings for the original. It's a weird feeling to see the characters again as their younger selves -- in footage that hasn't been seen before; the way it is incorporated into the newer material is clever and creates a very evocative atmosphere. The relationship between Mike and Jody now takes a much darker turn and the terrible and inscrutable fate that the Tall Man has hatched for Mike (with a golden sphere now buried in his head!) is both mysterious and horrific. If anything, it is even harder to work out exactly what is going on and what the Tall Man's ultimate plans are in this entry -- the film seems to have a lot of the macabre inscrutability of later David Lynch works such as "Lost Highway" and "Mulholland Drive". There is at least one question answered about the Tall Man's origins though -- although even this raises more questions. The film ends on a haunting and mysterious note that sort of wraps up the story by bringing it full-circle, though the way is still left open for future installments in one of the most wildly inventive and enjoyable series of horror fantasy films ever created.
The first thing to note about this much anticipated release by Anchor Bay UK is, of course, the packaging! I've not seen the Limited Edition "Silver Sphere" casing, but if you've got the shelf space and are a die-hard "Phan", then I would guess this item is going to be pretty difficult to resist! For the rest of us, well ... we're not doing too badly either, since even the cheaper digi-pack version looks very, very niffty: the fold-out silver disc holder -- which also houses a full-colour, eight page booklet of liner notes for each film -- comes packaged in a silver cardboard box (mirrorboard, they call it in the press release!) the front of which features an attractive, holographic-style lenticular image of the Tall Man holding a sentinel sphere - with the words "Phantasm" imprinted in red above his head! Very nice indeed!
But what's inside?
Well, first up, all four films in the set receive anamorphic widescreen transfers personally supervised by Don Coscarelli. The packaging claims Part Two has an aspect ratio of 2:35.1 but this is a misprint, and (like all the other films) it is displayed in the correct 1:85.1 aspect ratio. The original "Phantasm" looks lovely; vibrant colours and a sharp image make it appear almost new. Only a small amount of print damage, which shows up every now and again throughout the feature, gives the game away. Out of all the transfers included here, Part Two is by far the best: another vivid and colourful print with hardly any discernible damage. For the most part, Part Four in the series is almost its equal, although a few of the darker night-time scenes appear slightly fuzzy. The weakest of the bunch is Part Three; this looks a bit softer and the colours are far less vibrant than in any of the other transfers; the image quality varies quite a bit throughout. Most of the time this is not such a big deal - it still looks good - but very occasionally the film can look distractingly soft. When you compare the image quality with the same scenes from part 3 when they reoccur as flashbacks in Part Four, the difference in image sharpness is inescapable.
The Phantasm series has suffered from censorship problems over the years, particularly Parts Two and Three. For some time, Phans have wanted all of the gore footage removed from Part Two by the MPAA before its initial release to be reinstated, but, apart from some ninth generation bootlegged work prints, this footage now appears to be lost, and so the print included in the set could only be the one we have been familiar with since the film was released! Part Three, meanwhile, was only available cut in the UK for many years but, happily, the version featured here is the full-length one - complete with axe in the head and Frisbee throat-slitting scenes!
Anchor Bay's set scores most highly when it comes to the huge amount of "Phantasm" extras specially commissioned for it. The meat of them are to be found on the bonus disc, but a smattering of other goodies can also be found spread across the other four. Disc 1 features most of the extras found on MGM's R1 disc which include: an introduction by Angus Scrimm; deleted footage; behind the scenes footage (with commentary by Reggie Bannister and Don Coscarelli) and the original theatrical trailer. Disc 2 includes a talk by Angus Scrimm delivered at a Fangoria convention (this is also a port from the MGM disc), theatrical trailer and one of those pointless photo gallery thingies. Disc 3 gives us just a trailer and a photo gallery but Disc 4 can't even muster one of those! All discs feature extensive biographies of the cast and crew from each film, and optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also included on all films. The main audio option for all the films is a decent Dolby 2.0 Stereo track though 5.1 Surround sound (with DTS option) tracks are also provided.
There are also, of course, commentary tracks for every film in the set. Once again, the track included for the original "Phantasm" has already appeared on the previous MGM release and was originally recorded for Laser Disc; it features Coscarelli and all of the lead actors including Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury in a light hearted get-together that brings home the independent spirit behind the original movie.
Coscarelli is joined by Reggie and Angus for the commentary track for Part Two. It's clear the three have become great friends over the course of many years spent colluding in the creation of the bizarre world of "Phantasm", and the track is a pleasant laid-back mix of information and anecdote which starts with Angus in character as the Tall Man!
Part Three's commentary features the duo of Angus Scrimm and A. Michael Baldwin and it is very much a comedy act with Scrimm as the straight (Tall) man; a very animated Baldwin provides some amusement by continually goading an ever patient and accommodating Scrimm into trying to explain in detail what is actually going on in the film!
Part Four brings Bannister, Scrimm and Coscarelli back together to explain how they came to make this low budget installment of the series. As ever, Coscarelli is reluctant to elucidate too much about what is really going on in this ultra-cryptic chapter, but there is a nice balance of anecdote and banter among the three participants throughout the feature.
Once you've delved into this lot, there is still a whole disc-full of special features to be perused. The main attraction is a full-length, ninety-seven-minute documentary entitled "Phantasmagoria", featuring filmed interviews with just about anybody who is anybody in the "Phantasm" universe -- with a few notable exceptions such as James LeGros who played grown-up Mike in Part Two. Just about everything to do with the production of all four films from the casting to the creation of the score, is explored in-depth and the documentary features much previously unseen behind the scenes footage. Produced by Nucleus Films (filmmaker, Jake West and Marc Morris), this alone is worth getting the set for; everyone has obviously put a lot of time and effort into making a very professionally put together love letter to the Phantasm series.
Accompanying this film on the bonus disc are a series of featurettes, all of which run at about twenty-minutes each in length. "Phantasmagorical Mystery Tour" sees Reggie Bannister going back to many of the locations from all four films -- including the location used for the Red Planet scenes where he meets up with Don Coscarelli once more.
"Phantasm: Genesis" is a featurette produced by Blue Underground which mostly consists of behind the scenes footage from "Phantasm 3" as well as more specially filmed interviews with Coscarelli and cast.
"The Gory Days" is an interview with Greg Nicotero, who oversaw much of the special effects work on "Phantasm 2" and has since gone on to work in a large number of important horror movies, most recently "Land of the Dead". Here we also get to see more behind-the-scenes footage relating to the creation of some of the memorable special effects that have appeared in the films.
"Phandom" is an interesting featurette on the subject of fandom and the various responses of the cast and director to it. Interestingly, a number of fans of the original film have gone on to be employed by Coscarelli behind the scenes of the subsequent Phantasm sequels! There are touching interviews with several of them included in this featurette -- as well as interviews with the cast who display quite different attitudes to the obsessive nature of some of the fans they've encountered during the making of the series.
Finally, a hidden Easter egg provides the viewer with twenty-five minutes of camcorder footage shot at Angus Scrimm's induction into the Fangoria Hall of Horror and a Coscarelli Q & A session shot at a screening of "Phantasm 3" at a Fangoria convention.
It's a no-brainer of course, but this is a must buy box set for any horror fan! The Phantasm series is one of the few franchises to maintain its integrity throughout the entire run of films and to have them all collected together with good transfers and a huge selection of fantastic extras will be a dream come true for all true Phans. Very highly recommended!