PHANTASM has always been a unique franchise. Say what you want about its subsequent sequels, but you cannot deny the odd charm of the original. Don Coscarelli’s horror debut could have easily ended up being more than he could chew. However, only six months prior to its release, another independent horror film called HALLOWEEN was a massive hit against a miniscule budget, proving that, if the right elements were there, money and history could be made. Much like HALLOWEEN, PHANTASM was an independent labor of love. Coscarelli managed to pull it off with the help of family and friends, while taking on a multitude of roles as director, editor, photographer, writer and co-producer; a daunting task for a young filmmaker, no doubt. Against a budget of $300,000, PHANTASM would go on to make nearly 12 million by the end of its theatrical run, and over 35 years later, continue to live on as a cult classic.
Following a 13-year-old boy who unravels the supernatural mystery surrounding the local mausoleum and it’s caretaker in his sleepy Oregon town, Coscarelli’s film has an idiosyncratic structure that plays out like the frazzled ramblings of a child who’s just woken up from a lucid nightmare. The pace is intentionally dreamlike, allowing only a vague exposition for us to inerpret how we’ve gotten from point A to B. Whether it was the honest intention, or the result of extensive post editing, is irrelevant, because what makes PHANTASM stand out from the rest is how it unveils like a sleepy spell that was burned to celluloid. If its themes of loss, death and of a child trying to convince his elders that an underlying evil permeates the town, are heavily reminiscent of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, it’s for good reason; Coscarelli initially intended to bring Bradbury’s horror classic to screen but couldn’t secure the rights.
Considering the budget, PHANTASM also serves up some fairly impressive special effects, especially where the iconic silver sphere is concerned. Although the sequels would tend to focus too heavily on hordes of chrome-plated drilling balls (already rendering them stale by the end of PHANTASM 2) the introduction in the original is effective because it’s used to sparse. The shock, when it swings around a corner, bulls-eyes into the head of a man, and beings spurting out generous amounts of blood, has become a memorable WTF moment in horror history. Beyond that, there’s a literal trip to hell, tiny robed minions (no, not Jawas) and a white room of barrels so clinically symmetrical, that it would make Stanley Kubrick smile.
As central villain “The Tall Man”, Angus Scrimm’s scowl and raised eyebrow would become just as iconic as Jason’s hockey mask or Michael Myer’s pasty Captain Kirk visage. Meanwhile, for a fairly young actor, A. Michael Baldwin carries the film on his shoulders as the protagonist and handles it rather well. The kid has more balls than either of his elders – and I don’t mean the silver kind. Reggie Bannister takes a pony-tailed shot-gunning ice cream man, originally intended for comic relief, and turns him in PHANTASM‘s unsung hero. Coscarelli must’ve seen what he had in Bannister, as Reggie became the star of the sequels and the Tall Man’s worthiest opponent (that is, when he wasn’t trying to get laid).
Well, the time has come and finally PHANTASM gets a much-deserved Blu-ray treatment. However, there’s two sides to this coin. On the plus side, despite Coscarelli not having a high-quality print, the film looks absolutely beautiful and sounds amazing. Feeling the 5.1 bass rumble under the opening buzz of Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s Goblin-inspired electro score, as the title PHANTASM appears on the screen, was a glorious moment in this horror nerd’s life. So, if all you’ve wanted is to see and hear PHANTASM at its very best, then your wish has come true.
Sadly, there is a down side to this coin; the Blu-ray comes with a lackluster number of special features. If you own the Anchor Bay DVD release of PHANTASM, hang onto it, because it has the best special features of any release currently. Yes, this Blu just recycles everything from it, while leaving out the “making-of” featurettes!? There’s nary a single featurette on the 4K restoration process either. The only new thing: Don Coscarelli and A. Michael Baldwin on an episode of “Graveyard Carz!?” I’d say the special features on this Blu-ray are phantasmagorical themselves.
All in all, if you’re a fan of the film, I still suggest picking it up. If you’ve never seen PHANTASM, shame on you, but, this is the way to experience it for your first time. Just think how nice and red that blood spurting from the chrome sphere will be.