Phantasm

Review by Mike Long

Phantasm  (1979)
MGM Home Entertainment

Length:        88 mins.
Rated:          R
Format:       Letterboxed ∑ 1.85:1
Languages:English
Subtitles:    English, French
Extras:        Commentary Track
                     Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots
                     Behind-the-scenes footage
                     Still Galleries
                     Audio extras
                     Deleted scenes
                     Interviews

For fans of late 70s horror, who also own DVD players, 1999 has been a good year. This summer saw the release of the "Alien" Special Edition and the "Halloween" Limited Edition was released last month. Later in October, we can look for the "Piranha" Special Edition. And now MGM Home Video has released "Phantasm" Special Edition on DVD. This not only gives us an excellent transfer of the cult favorite, but also more extra features than you can shake a flying silver sphere at. "Phantasm" presents us with a story that combines classic images from horror cinema and some sci-fi elements. The story presents us with the conflict between 12-year old Mike (Michael Baldwin) and The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), an evil undertaker. Mike lives with his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury). After one of Jodyís friends is killed in the opening scene of the film, Jody goes to the funeral at Morningside Mortuary. Here, we are introduced to the eerie mortuary and the strange Tall Man who oversees it. Although he was told to stay at home, Mike follows Jody. While spying on the funeral, Mike witnesses The Tall Man lifting the casket all by himself. Suspecting that something isnít right about the mortuary, Mike decides to investigate.

Mike breaks in and discovers that he is right -- with killer dwarves and flying spheres of death, things have definitely gone awry at the mortuary. Mike has some difficulty convincing Jody of the weird doings, but once Jody sees them first-hand, he knows that he must help Mike stop the evil forces. Joined by their friend (and ice-cream man) Reggie (Reggie Bannister), Mike and Jody head to the mortuary to do battle with The Tall Man.

There are so many odd things and subtle touches in "Phantasm", that it is hard to convey the experience of the film in a short plot synopsis. The movie contains many setpieces exploring The Tall Manís strange powers. There are also subplots showing Mikeís fear that Jody will abandon him and Mikeís encounter with the local fortuneteller. At times, the film displays a non-linear structure, shifting time and place, but still manages to convey the story in an understandable manner.

Letís be honest here. Does all of "Phantasm" make sense? No. Is some of it cheesy? Yes. But, is it one hell of a scary movie? Youíd better believe it. Even when writer/director Don Coscarelli leaves the narrative behind, he still manages to fill the film with many creepy images and ideas. While "Phantasm" certainly has a central narrative, it can also be viewed as a series of vignettes that play on our primal fears. While most of the events in "Phantasm" are fantastic and unreal, they all touch on fears and situations that most of us have thought about at some time in our lives. Of course, until I saw "Phantasm," Iíd never given much thought to a flying silver sphere sucking my brains out... but you never know.

Not only did "jack of all trades" Coscarelli write and direct "Phantasm," he also edited the film and served as cinematographer. This allowed him to have complete creative control over his vision. Despite the low budget, Coscarelli has given us a film full of unique and spellbinding visions. While there is not a great deal of stunning camera-work, Coscarelli obviously shot a lot of coverage during production and the look of the film often overcomes its low budget. (Also, those of you familiar with "Phantam IV: Oblivion" know that Coscarelli shot several hours of footage for "Phantasm.")

While Coscarelli was working his magic behind the camera, there was fine work going on in front of the camera as well. Michael Baldwin (who is not one of the Hollywood Baldwins), is excellent as Mike. While some of his dialogue sounds a bit forced, he is able to convey the sense that he is simply a teenage boy who is scared out of his wits. Thornbury is good as Jody, although one has to wonder about his derby hat and the song that he and Reggie perform for no apparent reason. Speaking of Reggie, Bannisterís character has become the backbone of the "Phantasm" series and in this initial outing we see him as a very laid-back person whoís concerned about the rampaging zombies, but also worried that his ice-cream may melt. But of course, the most famous member of the cast is Angus Scrimm. His performance as The Tall Man has made his an international celebrity. While he only has a few lines in the film, he is able to embody evil simply through his posture and facial expressions. Hereís the crazy part, Scrimm writes album liner notes under his real name, Rory Guy, and has one a Grammy for his efforts!

The MGM DVD presentation of "Phantasm" is an exact duplicate of the limited edition laserdisc box set which was released in 1995. The only difference is that the laserdisc was autographed by Coscarelli and Scrimm, contained a 24k gold CD of the soundtrack, and was limited to 2500 units. (Yes, I have one.) The other difference was that the laserdisc cost $65 more than the DVD! If one wants to question the advantages of DVD, all they have to do is compare these two editions. Information that filled four sides of laserdisc has been put on one side of a DVD. Now thatís progress!

"Phantasm" is presented on the DVD in a letterboxed format of 1.85:1. The framing is accurate, as there is no warping of the frame. This appears to be the same transfer which was used for the laserdisc (which was supervised by Coscarelli), but it looks much better on DVD. The picture is very clear, especially when compared to the laserdisc. The DVD picture looks like a HDTV broadcast, while the laserdisc picture looks like a VHS transfer. The colors on the DVD are truer and lush, while the laserdisc has a washed out appearance. In the past, "Phantasm" has always looked overlit or underlit. For example, check out the scene at approximately the 24-minute mark when Mike and Jody are talking in the cemetery. In the past, this scene always looked like it was shot day-for-night because it was so bright. Now, we can see that it is truly night-time and that Mike and Jody are simply standing in a pool of light, surrounded by shadows. There is little to no grain or artifacting on the DVD, but some dirt and very minor scratches are evident on the source material.

"Phantasm" contains two audio tracks. There is a newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which sounds very good. The dialogue is always clear and distinguishable, while leaving room for the incredible music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagraves that contributes to the overall effectiveness of the film. However, there isnít much surround sound action, except during select scenes. The DVD also contains the original mono soundtrack for those hardcore "Phantasm" purists who want to experience the film in its original form.

As with the box set, the DVD contains an incredible amount of extra features. The producers did the right thing by putting every imaginable supplement on one release, so that "Phantasm" fans donít have to worry about an even better version coming along in the future. The most noteworty extra is the audio commentary featuring Don Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, and Bill Thornbury. This commentary is both informative and entertaining. Coscarelli does most of the talking and he has an incredible capacity to remember filming locations and the names of those involved. (Many other directors should take a cue from Coscarelliís talent for recall.)
Itís clear that this group had fun making the film, and relate many interesting anecdotes about how the film was brought to life despite the low budget. (The best story deals with the untimely death of a stop-sign which was throwing off the composition of a shot.) But, DVD fanatics, be warned, as this is the commentary from the laserdisc, Coscarelli refers to "laserdisc" several times during the commentary.

Another great bonus on the DVD is 20-minutes of behind-the-scenes home movies. These were shot silent (on what appears to be 8mm) and are subsequently narrated by Coscarelli and Reggie Bannister. These home movies give us a look at how many of the special effects were done and show the cast and crew interacting behind the camera. Much of this was shot simultaneously with the real film, so we get to see what was happening right off screen during many of the effects shots.

There is also a 28-minute interview with Coscarelli and Scrimm which was done in 1979 at the time of the filmís release. It was apparently done for the film school at the University of Miami. Here Coscarelli and Scrimm talk about the making of the film, where the ideas came from and how it was financed. While many of these stories end up on the audio commentary, this is a neat addition and shows that people were taking the film seriously when it first came out. And does anyone else think that Coscarelli looks a little like George Lucas in this segment?

One difference between the laserdisc and the DVD are the deleted scenes. While the laserdisc contained only two deleted scenes (both pointless), the DVD contains six. While five of these six arenít very interesting, there is one which shows an alternate (or perhaps additional) demise of The Tall Man which wasnít seen, or even hinted at, in the finished film. This deleted scene and one other (of Mike looking at caskets) are presented full-frame (whereas the others are at 1.85:1) and have been cleaned up. I canít help but wonder if these were going to be used for "Phantasm IV: Oblivion" and were later dropped.

Besides these great bonus features, the DVD also offers the more standard fare. There is a theatrical trailer, which is letterboxed at 1.85:1. There are three TV spots, which are also formatted at 1.85:1. There is an audio-only section, featuring radio spots for the film, the song performed by Thornbury in the movie, and the disco version of the "Phantasm" theme. Iím not making that up.

There are three special features spot-lighting Angus Scrimm (who also does a short intro at the beginning of the movie). The first is a video of Scrimm appearing at a Fangoria convention and speaking to the crowd. Itís cool to see him out of his Tall Man character. He comes across as a very kind and warm person. There is also a TV commercial for Fangoria magazine featuring Scrimm, which is pretty silly. Finally, there is an Australian TV promo for "Phantasm", which was known as "The Never Dead" there. And what does that title mean? If youíve never been dead, arenít you alive? This features Scrimm threatening a journalist and then taking him to a graveyard. The whole thing is a bit weird.

Finally, there are the still galleries that show an incredible amount of "Phantasm" paraphernalia. We get to see photos and posters for the film from around the world, promotional items (including a cool severed finger which was given out at the premiere), merchandise, and fan art. For those of you who think that "Phantasm" is an obscure cult film, all of the items featured in these galleries should change your mind. And apparently, the film is huge in Japan.

To be honest, I never thought that anything could replace my laserdisc box set of "Phantasm," but this new DVD has proven me wrong. Iíve been a fan of the film since I first saw it at the age of 9 (!) and Iím glad that I now have a pristine copy of the film. While times have changed and there have been many advances in special effects, "Phantasm" shows what can be done when filmmakers use imagination and ingenuity. And I guess that the flying silver sphere of death helped out a little bit also.

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October 6, 1999

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