(Don Coscarelli, US, 1979)
I've always had fond memories of Phantasm stemming from the formative days of home video rental in the early 1980s. At the time I would rent as many as six videos a day many of which were obscure horror films. Phantasm was one of those rentals and compared with most of what I was watching at the time it stood out as a particularly strange and eerie movie. I've seen it a handful of times since but it has recently been reissued in the UK on DVD - on its own and as part of a three film box set that includes the first two sequels.
So what of the film? There's very little set up before writer/director Coscarelli plunges us straight into the weird stuff. A young boy, Mike, discovers that a tall, creepy-looking guy, who works at the local cemetery, has superhuman strength, commands flying silver spheres that kill people and is squashing and then reanimating dead bodies to work as slave labour in a hellish other dimension. When his older brother is killed by the Tall Man, Mike teams up with friend and local ice cream vendor, Reggie, to try and put a stop to the sinister goings on.
Whilst the sequels have increasingly been poor imitations of the original, Phantasm still works well today. The plot strings together a series of nightmarish images which, even now after decades of exposure to countless horror films, are unsettling, memorable and downright weird. Perhaps the oddest of these is the scene in which Mike has a severed finger of the Tall Man in a box. The finger oozes yellow 'blood' and continues to move. When it suddenly stops moving, Mike cannot resist opening the box to peek inside. Suddenly (and without explanation) the finger having turned into a tiny, hideous flying creature with razor sharp teeth, attacks the boy. After a struggle, it is finally defeated when Mike jams the thing to the waste disposal unit and switches it on - reducing the thing to pulp. Scenes like this would be funnier (than they already are) if they just weren't so strange.
There is also a good scene in which Mike visits a local 'spiritualist' fortune teller - a very old woman who laughs at the boy but only answers his questions via her granddaughter sitting beside her. It is during this scene that Coscarelli pays homage to/blatantly rips off a passage from Frank Herbert's Dune. In the novel, Paul Atreidies, is tested by an all-female religious sect. The test involves putting his hand inside a small wooden box. The tester then describes the hand slowly burning. Paul screams in pain but is then told that it is all in his mind - that there is no pain - only his fear of the pain is creating the illusion of the burning sensation. One of the novel's classic lines is the phrase - "Do not fear - fear is the mind killer". In Phantasm the scene is repeated step for step. The old lady (through the girl) even tells Mike: "Don't fear - it's just a reflection, fear is the killer". In both cases, sure enough, when the subject removes their hand they can see that nothing is wrong and it was only their imagination that created the pain. Both Paul Atreidies in Herbert's novel and Mike in Phantasm are now prepared to face their fate. It would be another five years before David Lynch's film version of Herbert's novel portrayed the scene as originally written - but by then merely following in Coscarelli's plagiarist footsteps.
Much of the film's dreamlike atmosphere is due to Coscarelli's cinematography working in syncronicity with his style of direction. There are more long shots than one would normally expect and they are often filmed in deep focus. Roads are devoid of traffic, streets are empty of people. The settings and locations, in small town America, are all familiar backdrops but they are not the way we expect them to be. The America portrayed in Phantasm lacks animation, even life itself. It is as though all the characters are simultaneously sharing a dream in which they move around still images backgrounds, like they are continuously walking through a series of photographs. This is almost expressly suggested in a moment when Mike looks at an old photograph of a horse-drawn hearse from the previous century. Looking closer he sees the Tall Man (who is driving) momentarily come to life - turning to face Mike. Ridley Scott would use exactly the same device a few years later in Blade Runner to suggest another kind of artificial life, one in which dreams would also play a key role. Phantasm's parts are often better than the whole but it remains without equal in the annals of fantastic cinema and remains the quintessential cult film.
Digital Entertainment DVD (Region 2)
First impressions are that this DVD release of Phantasm (it is the same whether you go for the stand alone release or the box set) are that it is simple a re-badged Region 2 version the Region 1 release. But closer inspection and viewing proves that whilst this has a number of welcome additional extras, it is not the same. The most obvious difference is that the UK release is neither anamorphic nor widescreen. There is a very minor letterboxing effect resulting in slim black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Whilst the film isn't greatly affected by the lack of correct screen ratio, it will annoy purists looking to own the film (in the words of the booklet) "in the format the director originally intended". These same fans will be sorely reminded of this shortcoming when they watch the theatrical trailer which is included in its original ratio.
The trailer does give you the chance to compare picture qualities and the image is certainly a big improvement over previous video releases and the prints used for UK TV screenings. The picture is bright and sharp. However, compression artifacts are noticeable on several occasions - mostly on plain flat surfaces (like painted walls) and during smoke or mist effects - and detract from the viewing experience. Image problems aside, the rest of the package represents good value even by DVD standards. Although there are no subtitles whatsoever (an unusual omission - perhaps for cost reasons?), the extras will delight Phantasm enthusiasts. In addition to the aforementioned theatrical trailer, you get three US TV commercials, a short introduction by Tall man actor Angus Scrimm, a stills gallery, one amusing deleted scene and, the highlight, a series of 8mm colour 'home movies' made during the shooting of the production.
In his brief introduction, Scrimm explains that Coscarelli (with who he'd worked previously) described the up coming role of the Tall Man as an alien and that the gateway seen in the film is not, as I and I'm sure many others will have interpreted, a gateway to hell or another 'dimension' but a doorway to another planet. I have to say that despite Scrimm's explanation, I still prefer to think of it, and think it works better, as I'd originally believed.
Although silent, the home movie footage is fascinating. Director Coscarelli and actor Reggie Bannister provide an informal, chatty and entertaining audio commentary. Clips lasting over 19 minutes reveal the special effects secrets like doors blowing off their hinges, the memorable gateway to the other dimension and, of course, the infamous flying spheres. All of which are exemplary examples of achieving a great deal with very little money and a lot of ingenuity. We also get to see Scrimm's first day on set and some Stedicam shots cut from the original film (but used as flashbacks in the sequels). There's also a nice, glossy eight-page booklet that opens with a 'letter' from the director, welcoming fans to the DVD release. Whilst it is nice to have all the extras, it will be a major irritation for many not to have the film itself in the correct aspect ratio. If you're not too bothered about the ratio then this DVD is a great value package. The only advice one can offer those who are bothered about the ratio, and have players that are Region 1 compatible, is get the US release instead, which has all the above-mentioned extras and a couple more.
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