Phantasm (1979)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Angus Scrimm, Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Kathy Lester
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Interviews, Trailers, TV Spots

1979 was a great year for horror fans, producing many films that went on to become classics and cult classics. From Ridley Scott's "Alien" to Lucio Fulci's "Zombi" a lot of movies of that year are still held in high regard, but there's always been one film in particular that stood out for me – Don Coscarelli's "Phantasm." I remember well when I first saw it together with a bunch of friends. The discussion that erupted after the movie was truly memorable in how diverse the interpretation of the film fell out. We all agreed upon one thing. That it was a really scary film. From there however, everyone drew their own conclusions and interpretations of the story which should give you a sense that "Phantasm" is not your off-the-mill horror film but something that puts the viewer's imagination into overdrive. And by doing that it has become one of the best horror films of the era.

After the death of their parents, 12-year old Mike (Michael Baldwin) lives with his big brother Jody (Bill Thornbury). After one of Jody's friends dies, Mike spies on the funeral and witnesses a bizarre thing after everyone else has left. The undertaker, an extremely sinister, tall man (Angus Scrimm), picks up the 500-pound coffin all by himself and tosses it into the hearse. Scared endlessly by this inhuman feat and the Tall Man's frightening demeanor, but also curious, Mike tries to find out what happened to the coffin and more importantly, the body inside.

He breaks into the mortuary and discovers even stranger things when he is attacked by a flying sphere. In horror he runs away and tells Jody about the incident who has difficulties believing his younger-brother's hair-raising tale. But when Mike confronts him with real evidence, Jody decides that they have to take on the fight and put an end to whatever it is that is happening at Morningside Mortuary. Together with their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) they head for the mortuary to confront the Tall Man.

While this synopsis may appear straight-forward, its execution is not nearly as simple. In fact, it doesn't really do the film justice because there is so much more to it. In actuality, the movie's title "Phantasm" encapsulates it the best. The film is like some kind of nightmare where things are not always what they appear, where your fears are brought out around every corner, and where events may not always make complete sense at first. It is that nightmarish quality of the film that will leave every viewer with their own interpretation of the material. Full of subtle and not-so-subtle subtexts the film twists and surprises the viewer until the very end. It is a bit of a weird movie when you first view it but one that grows on you because the style is so unique that it leaves a mark on the viewer. Even to this day I cannot think of any other horror film that has such a distinct style and unsettling atmosphere of foreboding without doing much of anything. A slow dolly-shot down the mausoleum combined with the obstinate music theme of the movie however will do wonders to give you goose bumps.

Shot on a small budget, the movie often belies its production limitations, giving it a sense of scope that is missing from some other low budget films. You never get the impression that this is a film created by some friends on a backyard. This movie features real sets, wonderful long-shots and some remarkable special effects. Even the film's continuity is remarkable, given the fact that the film was shot over an almost 3-year period only on weekends. It is sound proof that multi-talent Don Coscarelli, who wrote, directed, photographed, edited, cast and who-knows-whatted the movie, has a seemingly natural talent for this kind of work – which he underscored, of course, with some of his subsequent movies. It is one thing to handle such a large and lengthy independent production. It is another thing to handle all these tasks himself on such a production. But it is something different entirely that as a 22-year old he managed to do all these things AND created a movie that still scares audiences almost 30 years later.

Anchor Bay Entertainment has now given the movie a new treatment – which was long overdue – and we finally have a pristine anamorphic presentation of the movie on this DVD. The transfer has been cleaned up and as a result it is free of any speckles or blemishes and shows only the slightest signs of grain in a few shots. Colors are strikingly rich and with its strong contrast, the presentation looks the best the film has ever looked. It captures small details as well as textures and shades in every shot, making for a truly wonderful viewing of the film. Blacks are deep and solid with good shadow definition. It is balanced, making sure that even the darkest shots in the film, such as the nighttime cemetery scenes, never appear too dark and never lose detail. I was unable to spot any edge-enhancement or compression artifacts making the viewing of "Phantasm" on this DVD a great experience.

The audio on the disc comprises of a DTS audio track as well as a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital and Dolby Surround mix. The tracks are glorious, though it is here that the film's limitations become most evident. Some of the dialogue recordings do have a bit of an unnatural-sounding quality to them. While frequency-response corrected to a degree there's only so much that can be done and therefore some of the dialogue lines still sound distant and ambient. Other than that the remix is cool and clear making the best of the elements and driving the film's eerie music theme home like never before.

The DVD contains a number of great extras. First off there is the commentary track featuring Don Coscarelli, and actors Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm and Bill Thornbury. The track is full of valuable information and insight as Coscarelli in particular, recalls many events of the movie's production. The group has good chemistry and dynamics going, showing that this was not your usual movie production but an undertaking of a group of people who became close friends and were in this together.

Next up is "Phantasmagoria," a new 30-minute featurette filled with interviews with cast and crew members. It is a great piece that sheds light on some aspects that have not been covered so extensively before, though some if it is essentially a repeat of what's been said in the commentary track.

Coscarelli mentions on various occasions that he shot hours of footage for the film as part of his process to put together the film and weave the story, including various different endings of the film. Some of these additional scenes are included on the DVD for fans to behold.

Also included is a 2-part interview from 1979 with Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm for a Florida TV station which I found exceedingly interesting. It is the candor with which Coscarelli discusses some of his thoughts and processes in this interview that makes it so valuable. (There's an interesting discussion about the stigma of horror films in this interview that is probably even truer today than it was then.)

There's also two behind-the-scenes featurettes on the disc, named "Actors Having Fun" and "Behind The Scenes," both of which cover the production in the form of a video diary. Aren't you glad the guys had a video camera around while doing their weekend shoots?

Up next is Angus Scrimm's 1989 appearance at the Fangoria Convention. Sadly the home video footage is of really poor quality going in and out of focus constantly. Also the angle from which it was shot is very unfortunate showing us only the profile of Angus Scrimm and thus making it impossible to see some of his intense grimaces as he switches into the Tall Man persona. It is wonderful to have nonetheless as it is a rare documentation of Scrimm working the audience and treating them to some great thoughts of his.
Also included is a Fangoria TV commercial featuring Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man in which he advises viewers to read "Fangoria."

The disc is rounded out by various trailers and TV spots.

"Phantasm" is a cult horror highlight of an era when horror films still dared to challenge the viewer's imagination. Today, horror is equivalent to gratuitous gore, lame brained dialogue, poor acting and gaping plot holes. While "Phantasm" may not always make sense to the viewer immediately, in retrospect it is possible for the viewer to analyze the film and put the various pieces together. As the title suggests, it plays like a nightmare that meshes realities with fears but without ever getting psychedelic, and it is only during the movie's final frames that we realize what it really is we have been witnessing. "Phantasm" is as cool as horror films get and with this new DVD it finally has received the appropriate treatment it always deserved. So, where's the high definition version?