4 out of 5
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
A sloppy mini-masterpiece. Raised on consistent viewings of Beastmaster as a kid – which I loved but had Dad-ed into me, via his commentary, that it was a bad movie (mind you he introduced me to it) – when I later rounded about into being a horror fan, I was floored by the revelation that my Raimi-loving peepers would get the opportunity to witness Bruce Campbell in a zombie flick helmed by the Beastmaster auteur, a.k.a. Bubba Ho-Tep. Excusing that I jumped in at the Evil Dead / Dead Alive side of horror and initially skipped out on all the main franchises, I had zero awareness that said auteur – Don Coscarelli – had a bona fide horror classic under his belt already with Phantasm, not to mention the sequels that followed.
In the years after, subsequent viewings of those two flicks (Beastmaster, Ho-Tep) would convince me that we had a unique visionary on our hands. While he maybe lacked the overt visual zip of some directors, or a particular style / vibe that we might associate with a Carpenter or Romero, Don’s films occupied a very exclusive corner of cinema in which camp concepts are given a rather serious treatment. Serious doesn’t necessarily mean dry, or without awareness of their own cheek, moreso that the flicks feel wholly considered: They are treated as works of art, and not disposable entertainment. The quality is high, even if the plots or budgets don’t suggest as such.
And that approach is evident even stretching back to Phantasm, Don’s first big success. He’d made two prior films at that point (one when he was 17…!), but availability makes them difficult to procure or view, so it almost seems like Phantasm was the start of Don’s career. And maybe looking at his Phantasm-centric output thereafter is suggestive of the same. Regardless: Whether it began here or earlier, those qualities that elevated Beastmaster, in particular, to something timeless, do the same for Phantasm. And those viewing from a perspective of horror being lesser-than, or giggling at the brain-sucking orbs which are the flick’s visual exclamation point, perhaps there’s equal perplexment at the dreamy story construction; the strangely entrancing edits; the glorious moody music; the remarkble set design. As some of this came to be due to an excessive runtime chopped up and restitched into 90 minutes, plus a shooting schedule that stretched over years due to budget and availability, Phantasm is sloppy in many regards: some questionable red herrings and rough acting are chuckle-worthy. But the Coscarelli passion and quality control brings it all together into something mythic and lasting.
Like many of the classic horrors, Phantasm’s plot can be boiled down to something simple: Teenage Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) starts seeing oddities related to the mausoleum in town and a creepy tall man (Angus Scrimm) who seems to hang out there. He shares his concern with his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), but it’s brushed off as Mike’s inability to deal with the loss of their parents, and the likely impending departure of his brother. Soon enough, though, the weirdness is too much to ignore, and Jody and his friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) are doing what they can to stop the Tall Man, who turns out to be up to a lot more than they (or the viewers) could’ve possibly imagined.
Phantasm flows along this plot rather loosely, with character decisions happening suddenly after strange, dreamlike lulls. And those lulls can be a bit tedious. But carried along by the excellent Fred Myrow / Malcolm Seagrave Goblin-inspired score, once you’re familiar with the pace, the film casts its spell: carried along, viewing events through Mike’s eyes, memories flitting in and out via edits that retell past events in occasionally conflicting ways. Pleasingly, while Phantasm gives in to genre tropes of charging into danger, giggling girls and goofy friends, by the same token, everyone is actually pretty competent, and when Jody is presented with proof of Mike’s findings, he’s quick to switch gears to TCB. Also: The blood-spurting orb scene is darkly comedic, but it also cannot be beaten as an original visual, and the same goes for the mausoleum set, which is nightmare inducing from the get-go.
For some reason, Phantasm seems to get glossed over in the Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, etc. classic franchise catalogue. But maybe that’s because it’s in a class of its own. Though low budget earmarkers and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants production prevent it from necessarily being perfect, Phantasm’s unique blend of tropes, camp, high concept, and surreality result in a truly lasting experience that still manages to deliver some effective jolts to this day.
Remaster / Blu-ray notes: The remaster is fantastic. I remember watching this on DVD some years back, and I’m blown away by the increased quality of the music and colors. The film already looked pretty good, as Coscarelli invested in the filming camera despite the budget, but there are so many iconic shots in this that the increased sharpness is a blessing. The extras are also pretty significant, though I’m not sure if they’re new to this edition: some archive interviews, TV spots, a Fangoria intro with Scrimm, home movies with commentary, and some bits and bobs of stills and trailers. (When even the home movies are interesting, you know it’s a worthwhile flick.) Two commentaries are included as well: one is apparently from the Laserdisc release, and one, as they mention Scrimm’s death, must’ve been for the remaster. There’s definite crossover between the two, but as the newer commentary has production folk instead of the actors, it has a few more technical details that are worthwhile. Definitely a worth-it blu-ray.