Phantasm (1979)


Reviewed by Scott Weinberg
Back in 1978 a 24-year-old horror freak named Don Coscarelli put together a low-budget movie that still brings in tons of new fans every year. His "Phantasm" might not be as well-known as other breakout chillers from the same era (say, "The Evil Dead" or "Re-Animator"), but the thing spawned three whole sequels (all of which were directed by Mr. Coscarelli), a whole bunch of Special Edition DVDs (including this one!), and looks to have left a huge impact on the current generation of horror-makers. (I guarantee you that Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and the Saw creators love the original Phantasm.) The thing's a haunted house story, a hardcore slasher movie, a seriously bizarre sci-fi piece, and a big dose of nightmare juice for any 12-year-old who happens to come across it. Best of all, it's a flick that, despite being firmly stuck in the late '70s, just never seems to go out of style.

It'd be absolutely futile to try and decipher Phantasm with a conventional plot synopsis, but here's the basic gist: Two orphaned brothers stumble upon an outrageously nefarious plot that's been cooked up by a local mortician who likes to use fresh corpses for reasons probably left unexplained until you actually see the movie because it's all just do damn weird. Plus there are these sentient silver balls that sprout blades and jam themselves into innocent peoples' heads -- and it's pretty wonderfully goopy. Toss in a freaky killer insect, a creepy gypsy down the lane, an alternate reality full of pint-sized lunatics, and a head baddie who just ... won't ... die -- and that's Phantasm: entirely bizarre, disturbingly nasty, and all sorts of low-budget fun from stem to sticky stern.

Sure, sure, some of the acting is "indie-style raw," and some of the special effects require a little bit of charity from the viewer, but when you're dealing with a movie with this many oddball ideas, and a director who's not afraid to "go weird" just because he wants to, your best bet is probably just to keep quiet, enjoy the ride, and then see how you feel once the whole crazy experience is over with. Phantasm doesn't fall into any of the easily-classifiable genres, and I suppose that's one of the reasons it's so well-remembered all these years later. It's a seriously original piece of horror-time storytelling, and it's a movie I have to revisit every couple of years.

And now that Anchor Bay has delivered Phantasm in a really fantastic Special Edition, there's no reason the title shouldn't find a home in your collection. (MGM released a damn fine SE a few years back, but that region 1 platter has long since gone out of print. Fear not, however, because most of the extras from that disc re-appear on this new one.) The film is presented in a new anamorphic widescreen transfer, which looks a bit better than the MGM release. Audio is delivered in your choice of Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, or DD 2.0.

Recycled from the MGM release is a fun and informative audio commentary with Coscarelli and actors Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, and Angus "The Tall Man" Scrimm. The guys look back on their baby with a good deal of fondness and respect, but they also don't mind poking some fun at the flick from time to time. Needless to say, fans of the film will definitely enjoy this chat-track.

Next up is a 36-minute retrospective featurette called "Phantasmagoria,"
which has been cut down from its original feature length (it debuted, I believe, on the swanky UK multi-disc release). Still, it's a thorough and entirely compelling look back at the making of Phantasm -- and since I don't own the UK edition, this inclusion goes down pretty smoothly. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty darn sure that ALL of the extra features have been recycled from either the MGM release or the UK box set: a 30-minute block of old-old-school interviews with the director and his head villain, a 1989 horror convention appearance by Mr. Scrimm, a kooky old Fangoria commercial, 19 minutes of on-set home movies, ten minutes of deleted scenes, two TV spots and the original theatrical trailer.

All in all, a fantastic package for the Phantasm Phans. True, the extras are all holdovers from previous releases, but Anchor Bay delivers a new video transfer that any fan should immediately check out. I still own the old MGM DVD, but I still say this new edition is something pretty special.