I have an inexplicable love for the movie Phantasm. It’s goofy and its low-budget origins really show, but it’s also undeniably creepy. It’s one of a handful of movies that I would just constantly throw in the VCR when I was a kid (see also: The Terminator, Star Wars), and I’ve seen it a ton of times. When I first started goofing around on the internet, I used the name “tallman” as my handle, not because I was tall, but because I loved this movie so much. This week marks the release of the newest entry in the series and along with that, all the other movies have been released in HD streaming for the first time (some even remastered), so I figured it was time I revisited the series. Let’s get to it:
- Phantasm Remastered – When I was a kid, I had this VHS copy of Phantasm that I’d watch, er, often. It was the bad old days of 4:3 TVs and pan-and-scan movies, but I feel in love with the film nonetheless. So it was a bit of a shock when it came out on DVD and I began noticing all sorts of stuff. Not just stuff that had been cropped out, but it turns out that the VHS copy wasn’t exactly a great transfer either. In particular, and I know this is a really bizarre detail to fixate on, the scene where the Morningside groundskeeper gets silver sphered to death and falls to the ground, you actually see that he, er, lost bladder control. So when I heard that J.J. Abrams was a big fan of the film and worked with Phantasm director Don Coscarelli to do a 4K restoration for the Butt-Numb-A-Thon marathon, I wondered what new details I would pick up on this time. Well, not much, but damn, that urine sure comes through crisp and clear! In all seriousness, though, the film has never looked better.
For all the ridiculous low-budget special effects and hammy acting in the film (not to mention stolen bits like the Litany Against Fear from Dune), Coscarelli does have a keen eye and many of the visuals are well composed and effective. The Tall Man is a great villain and the ending is one of the best of all time (so good that Wes Craven sorta borrowed it for Nightmare on Elm Street). I always forget how great the soundtrack is as well. The intentionally nonsensical plot just gets under your skin and even if you’re not terrified while watching, you find yourself having weird nightmares. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve seen it so many times. I have to wonder what it’s like for new viewers. It can’t seem like much and I don’t blame anyone for not getting into it, but I love it and this restoration is great. It’s only on streaming right now, but a BD release is coming in the next couple months… I’ve often watched this movie during the six weeks of Halloween marathon and I expect this practice to continue, better than ever.
- JJ Abrams talks Phantasm Remastered @SXSW2016 (interview)
- Phantasmagoria (documentary)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (trailer)
- Phantasm II – The lone “big budget” studio entry in the series, this one has a distinctly less dreamlike quality to it and Coscarelli was forced to recast the Mike role with a real actor, James Le Gros (who famously beat out Brad Pitt for the role), but this film still represents straight horror comfort food for me. It’s got the best Checkov’s gun ever, literally, a four-barrel shotgun, one of the key, beloved components of the sequels (It takes a while before Reg gets the chance to use it, but when he does…)
It’s got a very road trippy vibe to it that is a welcome addition (lots of great shots of the Hemi Cuda), and ups the stakes as it seems clear that the Tall Man has been destroying towns all throughout the country. Despite the recasting, there’s a great camaraderie between Reg and Mike and the new additions work too. Again lots of great visuals here of dead towns, emptied graveyeards, and of course more silver spheres and spooky cemeteries than you can shake a stick at. One thing I love: the shopping scene. Quintessential 80s stuff, like a combo of that scene in Commando with some A-Team improvised weapons flare. A lot of what became a mainstay in the sequels originated here and it’s hard not to enjoy because of that. Honestly, I don’t know that the sequels add that much to the series, but I kinda love them anyway, and this is no exception.
- Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off A Mountain Road (trailer)
- Werewolf Women of the SS (fake trailer)
- John Dies at the End (trailer)
- Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead – So we’re back in independent film territory, and it feels like Coscarelli went for an overcorrection with this one. More gore, more nudity, more silliness. I mean, this is really silly. You’ve got that annoying tyke, you’ve got Rocky, an Army vet who uses nunchucks… that don’t ever really do anything for her, you’ve got these three mooks who keep coming back as villains. It’s all a bit too zany, but fun in its own way.
That being said, the Tall Man is effective as ever, and Mike’s relationship with the Tall Man gets some interesting new wrinkles. Also, Jody is back! So is the four-barreled shotgun! The Tall Man also has a great final line in the movie, perhaps the best in the series. There’s entirely too much pointless filler here, like they knew they could get away with a bunch of stuff because they were independent again… but it also takes the series in a different direction. One thing that struc me about this movie is that, basically, it becomes clear that the Tall Man will always win. I mean, he does in the first movie too, but by this point, it seems like the Tall Man will always get what he wants. And that’s fine!
- The Exorcist (amazing unreleased trailer)
- Unedited Footage of a Bear (Adult Swim)
- Videodrome (trailer)
- Phantasm IV: Oblivion – AKA, OblIVion, which I always pronounce Oh-bli-four-ee-on, this one picks up where III left off. The Mike bits continue the interesting revelations, but the Reggie bits remain tacky and kinda boring (I mean, in as much as silver sphere tits can be boring, I guess). The most memorable part are these quasi-flashbacks with Dr. Jebediah Morningside, aka the Tall Man before he was an interdimensional monster. Angus Scrimm feels completely different in the role, it’s an interesting opportunity for him to show some range (which he’s not given in the rest of the series).
We also get a tantalizing glimpse of an desolate future. Other than that, we don’t get much in the way of road trip action, except for Reggie, but he’s relegated to a silly subplot that has him separated from Mike and the Tall Man for far too long. But he does get there, and we do get a decent enough finale, which in proper Phantasm style, resolves nothing and opens as many questions as it answers. The other fascinating thing about this movie is the incorporation of unused footage from the original movie, which actually works really well, even if it continues to contribute to the more nonsensical elements of the series. This is the entry in the series I’ve seen the least and I’m not really sure why. Oh, wait, it’s been out of print for a while and only recently came back because of the new movie, right. I should watch this more often, I’m sure it would grow on me.
- Screamers (trailer)
- Hell No (fake trailer)
- Bubba Ho-tep (trailer)
- Phantasm: Ravager – (aka Ra-five-ager?) This newest installment comes a decade after the previous entry and comports itself very well. The film has three threads to it, all focused around Reggie, the true hero of the series.
One picks up after IV, another takes place at a mental hospital where Mike informs him that he has early-onset dementia, and the third takes place in the future, as the Tall Man’s power has grown and nearly destroyed the planet and a group of freedom fighters attempt to counter the final onslaught. Or something. Look, plot has never been a key Phantasm selling point, and this one really hits those dreamlike notes hard, making you wonder what’s going on for, well, most of the film. Still, the film continues Coscarelli’s examination of seldom explored areas of culture, like death, cemetaries, or old-folks’ homes. There’s CG, which I’m sure some folks will hate, but whatever. It’s worth it for seeing gigantic silver spheres destroying cities and whatnot. The ending does seem a bit anticlimactic and it kinda just happens, but it also seems fitting (the coda after the credits is a bit less successful, but hey, it’s fun). Ultimately, I enjoyed this as much as any of the sequels.
There you have it! Next up comes some 80s Halloween Episodes, followed by… I’m not sure what next week will be. Old school slashers? Blumhouse movies? Or maybe just a no discernable theme week. See you Wednesday!