Studio: Well Go USA
Release date: December 6th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Few films are as aptly titled as Phantasm. As the name suggests, Don Coscarelliís masterful, otherworldly transmission floats like an elusive dream, evading logic and total coherence. Referring to films as ďdreamlikeĒ has perhaps become overdone, but make no mistake: Phantasm earns the distinction with the ephemeral but resonant mood it leaves behind. Like a dream, its images flicker and fade, leaving behind a fleeting, illusory quality; more indelible, however, is the haunting streak it leaves on your soul. Visually, itís a feverish haze of sinister dwarves, a Satanic boogeyman, sentient death spheres, interdimensional landscapes, and mysterious blondes; spiritually, it lingers with the unmistakable melancholy of a dream gone awry, one that perverts our comforts into a unsettling nightmare.
More specifically, it captures the distinctive anxieties of adolescence. Given the filmís resistance to certainty, itís difficult to say exactly whatís haunting 13-year-old Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin): multiple possibilities are floated, including the deaths of multiple loved onesóhis parents, his older brother Jodyís (Bill Thornbury) buddy, and perhaps even Jody himself, if the filmís final twist can even be believed. Or it could very well be about none of these things exactly but rather the snapshot of general teenage angst. I donít think itís a coincidence that its first scene intertwines sex and death, the twin preoccupations of a brain feverishly growing into adulthood. His experiences here could well be a last, desperate attempt to cling to boyhood innocence, as he takes Jodyís impending plans to ditch him with an aunt and blows it up into apocalyptical proportions. Perhaps itís not the end of the world but only the world as he knows it.
More than anything, this is what strikes me about Phantasm watching it as a 33-year old and in light of the recently released Ravager: it could well be the most affecting portrait of adolescent turmoil ever captured on film. At the very least, itís one of the most mesmerizing in its ability to capture the desperation of fleeting youth: so much of the film feels like watching a childís sandbox being twisted into a nightmarish mausoleum. Lost in the twisted funhouse of his own imagination, Mike attempts to fashion a fantasy thatís thwarted at nearly every turn.
Consider how closely Phantasm resembles a childhood adventure story. It pits a mostly lone adolescent protagonist against forces of evil hailing from the most naturally terrifying of places: the funeral home and adjacent graveyard where some of his family and/or friends may or may not have been laid to rest. He often bikes around town as a lone adventurer in scenes that feel like dark inversions of Spielbergís nostalgic oeuvre. The demons he faces feel like the sort of thing a child might dream up: faceless dwarves and a ghastly old crypt-keeper whose limbs remain alive even after amputation.
His two eventual companionsóonce they finally come to believe his wild storiesóare an ice cream truck driver (Reggie Bannister) and his eternally cool older brother. Decked out in a leather jacket and a Stones tee, Jody is the platonic ideal of the badass, idolized older sibling, right down to his boss Hemicuda. Reggie and Jody are exactly the sort of stabilizing presences any young kid would crave, especially one in such desperate need of them. The two are almost preternaturally comforting, somehow almost always there to help Mike once he convinces them of his wild tale.
And in those instances where Jody and Reggie arenít around, it feels as though Mike retreats into his imagination in a way only a kid can. Consider the ludicrous climax of Phantasm, which begins with Mike locked in his own room, left stranded by Jody as he goes to take care of the Tall Man on his own. To escape, Mike rigs up a contraption involving a bullet and a hammer before rejoining both his brother and Reggie at the Morningside funeral home, where things start to get really weird, almost as if they were guided by an adolescent subconscious weaned on too many science fiction books. What begins as a trip into a haunted house climaxes with a glimpse into another world altogether, a turn of events that would be jarring if Phantasm werenít so ethereal already.
Here, it becomes the stuff of high fantasy and unfolds with the assurance of a child dreaming up his own bizarre but happy ending. When it seems clear that The Tall Man canít be stopped, Mike continues to devise ways to defeat him. Eventually, he settles on the most childlike fantasy imaginable: he and his brother will lay a trap and trick the Tall Man into falling down a mining shaft, then roll boulders over the opening to trap the boogeyman forever. Of course, the plan goes off without a hitch, complete with the rocks almost mystically falling into place, with Jody standing in triumph high above like a conquering hero.
And then Coscarelli goes and pulls the rug from beneath both Mike and the audience by casting doubt over the entire movie. Perhaps all of the events have been an elaborate fever dream, he suggests, before tossing in even more doubt with the final, indelible image of the apparently very real, very much still alive Tall Man. Whatever it ultimately means specifically isnít as important as the insistence that thereís no escape. Try as he might to concoct an elaborate fantasy world, Mike is thwarted at every turn by the omnipotent Tall Man, the most sinister of all cinematic boogeymen.
Angus Scrimm is tremendously unsettling during every appearance; unlike so many completely otherworldly or monstrous horror villains, The Tall Man is the boogeyman as children usually imagine themóas a mean old fucker from a spooky house that somehow feels larger than life and slightly unreal. No matter where Mike goes or what he does, he canít shake this scowling wraith masquerading as a man. Not content to simply be the stuff of nightmares, he even strolls out into the daylight, where his presence is even more unnatural. Mike canít even retreat to his favorite spotóa fortune tellerís houseówithout The Tall Man haunting the photos, forcing him to reckon with the sheer eventuality of this specter. This motherfucker is everywhere, the finality of death forever trailing in his wake.
Because of this, it doesnít matter what Phantasm is ďaboutĒ exactly. Even after 38 years, it remains something of an enigma, and not one that Coscarelli himself has been too concerned to explain in the four sequels that followed. What really matters is that gut-wrenching melancholy that lingers in every frame and every synthesized note of Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagravesís Euro-tinged score. This is what Phantasm is about: that perceptible awareness of impending death and loss that arrives with growing older. Itís for this reason that Phantasmís most triumphant imageóMike looking up to that Jody in their moment of victoryóis also its saddest. Life will wonít always grant these glorious moments; your friends and families will eventually fade, vanquished by time death; finally, the boogeyman will come for you with an insatiable thirst for youth and innocence.
One of the more prominent holdouts on Blu-ray, Phantasm had languished in (out-of-print) DVD hell for years until it found an unlikely savior in JJ Abrams. As a long-time fan armed with plenty of money to throw around after that sweet Star Wars gig, he commissioned a full 4K restoration and remastering of Phantasm, guaranteeing not only its Blu-ray debut but also a short theatrical run last fall. The commendable result doesnít come without some slight reservations since some digital tinkering has replaced a few frames here and there, most notably a shot of one of the Tall Manís spheres. While itís miles away from the sort of revisionist work George Lucas did on Star Wars, itís notable enough to warrant a mention for purists.
These observations aside, however, itís quite a stunning restoration. The typical high-def upgradesóimproved detail and richer colorsóare on display, and the film generally looks like it could have been made within the last few years. Itís that terrific looking, and Iím even further happy to report that itís been accomplished without scrubbing away all the grain detail as well. Purists will also be relieved to hear that Well Go has also included the original mono track in addition to stereo and 5.1 remasters, so this is a truly complete package in terms of presentation.
Whatís a little bit more disappointing is the relative lack of supplemental features for such an otherwise monumental release. The only thing that qualifies as new here is an episode of Graveyard Carz featuring Coscarelli and Baldwin, with the two overseeing a restoration of a Hemicuda like the one featured in Phantasm. Everything else has been ported over from previous releases: a commentary with Coscarelli, Baldwin, Scrimm, and Thornbury, 9 deleted scenes, a vintage 28-minute television appearance by Coscarelli and Scrimm from 1979, and the original trailer. I suppose the new ďremasteredĒ trailer also counts as a new addition, but itís hardly substantial. This is especially true when you consider how much old stuff from previous releases didnít make the cut here.
Of course, you could also make the argument that Well Go is holding out a bit since theyíve scheduled a full box set release for later this year. Hopefully, that release will include an entire disc worth of extras and represent a definitive release for a series thatís always had an odd home video presence (remember when Phantasm II wasnít even on DVD as recently as five years ago?). For now, the Phantasm: Remastered disc is fine, if only because the film itself was in desperate need of this kind of release. Itís unfathomable that a film this monumental has been quite difficult to see for the past few years, so Well Go has at least remedied that.
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