Since its release on home video back in the early 1980's Don Coscarelli's low budget indie shocker 'Phantasm' has had a strong place in my heart. Although worthy enough of three sequels (to date) the Phantasm series has for some reason never managed to attain it's rightful rank in the genre as a series as worthy as say The Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th lines. Perhaps with this respectful and lovingly presented special edition box set release of the Phantasm series by Anchor Bay UK fans (both new and old) would get the opportunity to revisit an underrated genre classic.
Made back in the late 1970's, 'Phantasm' was a refreshingly original addition to the growing resurgence in the indie horror genre scene in the USA. A chilling modern gothic classic, 'Phantasm' follows insecure teen Mike as he struggles to come to terms with the growing loss of family and friends whilst slowly uncovering some mysterious goings on at the local cemetery; why are bodies going missing from their graves, what is the secret of the creepy 'tall man' who is in charge of the graveside misdoings and what the hell are those strange flying steel balls of doom? As most interfering teenagers do, Mike starts to investigate the chilling misdemeanours at the cemetery and with the assistance of his brother Jody and family friend (erstwhile guitar jamming ice-cream vendor) Reggie they uncover something more terrifying than any of them could ever have imagined!
'Phantasm' has always been for me one of the most exciting genre movies of the period. It was one of those rare occasions where a horror movie defied to be something different; forget teens in peril, no rape revenge or chainsaws are needed here - 'Phantasm' is simply an atmospheric horror fantasy with a refreshingly original script that belies its low budget origins with high quality production delivery throughout (and a touch of bloody grue to keep splatter fans happy). The ensemble cast offer great performances, perhaps due to mosts familiarity from working together as part of the Coscarelli family team and Angus Scrimm in the lead ghoul Tall Man role brings another worthy entry into the horror hall of fame. Don Coscarelli himself in this production alone shows what an all round talent he could be with the aforementioned highly original scripting as well as a show of great skill behind the camera as director. Rounding off the films stunning delivery is Fred Myrow's haunting score which has a dizzying theme that sounds a bit like Fabio Frizzi reinterpreting the Tubular Bells theme from the Exorcist; absolutely beautiful.
Astonishingly, even though 'Phantasm' done good brisk business across the world (more so when released onto the home video market) it wasn't till many years later (in fact, almost a decade) that a sequel was unleashed. 'Phantasm 2' was to prove very popular with fans but perhaps on reflection is a slightly mixed bag movie experience. On one hand 'Phantasm 2' is a power house of non stop horror fantasy action as Mike (now having been transmogrified into a completely different unfamiliar looking actor following studio pressure) and ex-ice cream man now gun toting wisecracking balding anti-hero Reggie go on the offensive hunting down the Tall Man. On the other hand, the film (whilst of course still thoroughly enjoyable) disposes of the first films gothic atmosphere and originality in favour of low plot sequel stylings which was very much the standard at the time (sans all the other like minded sequels; Elm Street, Friday 13th et al). What it does have though (also very much like it's other 1980's genre counterparts) is some stunning gore effects that will inevitably appease any genre fan left feeling wanting from the lacking plot.
'Phantasm 2' (like its predecessor) garnered solid enough business globally to warrant yet another sequel but thankfully fans didn't have to wait another 10 years for the viewing pleasure and with the release of 'Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead' a few years later Don Coscarelli delivered another welcome sequel. Again, continuing the theme of our heroes going on the offensive against the Tall Man as he travels across mid-west America devastating every small town hicksville in his path. Whilst 'Phantasm 3' once more displays some of those somewhat middling 1980's horror sequel sensibilities (which where championed by the Elm Street franchise), here evident by the introduction of disposable characters such as the tough kid and the even tougher nunchaku welding army chick it actually more than makes up for this with both the return of Michael Baldwin (the original and best lead Mike) and welcomingly some new exciting plot concepts to progress and enhance the Phantasm story arc. Add to this the fact that yet again the film rolls along at breakneck pace 'Phantasm 3' is a welcome return to form for Coscarelli in a sequel almost worthy (for the script nuances alone) of its original predecessor.
It wasn't though until the release of 'Phantasm 4: Oblivion' in 1998 that Don Coscarelli actually delivered what is without doubt the strongest and most exciting of the Phantasm sequels. Rather than the previous repetitive sequel set pieces of Mike and Reggie chasing down the Tall Man and his dwarf lackeys whilst tackling progressively bigger and badder flying sentinel steel balls; 'Phantasm: Oblivion' is a genre fans wet dream of layered horror fantasy with plot twists, gripping characterisation and edge of the seat genre action. At last we get an insight into the origins of Angus Scrimm's Tall Man (by now a genre creature feature legend), we're gripped by the unfolding drama of lead Mike's role in the saga and ultimately although this gem is packaged as the climax of the series you'll be left reeling in excitement as the final reel unfolds leaving you hanging with yet another unfinished plot flow. Brilliantly scripted and beautifully presented (more so with the jaw dropping use of footage filmed back in the late 1970's but never utilised till this chapter) 'Phantasm: Oblivion' is the sort of genre sequel that fans should deservedly applaud; a film that no doubt would exclude anyone not familiar with the series for its welcomingly selfish presentation but ultimately a decision worth taking by Coscarelli as this is perhaps one of the finest genre sequels ever produced.
But what of this latest multidisc DVD package from Anchor Bay UK? Whilst the Phantasm series has had some mixed bag incarnations before (the budget half hearted UK trilogy set of the first three movies and the recent bootleg workprint editions from Germany), this five disc set from Anchor Bay UK is hands down the finest package for Phantasm fans to date. Each of the films has been remastered by Don Coscarelli himself and therefore (unlike the German releases which with their lacking presentation, poor image and timecodes present show that more isn't always good) present the best possible presentation of the directors own approved vision of the series (including some great gory moments previously omitted from any UK versions). The image on each of the films is the best they have looked yet with a lovely sharp anamorphic widescreen image and audio wise we get an option of either the original 2 channel stereo or 5.1 surround and DTS mixes; all of which play well through any decent surround system (especially in highlighting the powerful theme and any scenes with the flying silver sphere sentinels on the loose thanks to a nice bassy sub woofer effect). Anchor Bay UK should also be applauded for its continued inclusion of English subtitles for our genre loving hard of hearing friends (a practice that all genre DVD producers should take note of).
On the extras front, the four movie discs themselves present a selection of welcome features that will in the main be familiar to fans (or Phans as they are seemingly referred to) that already own any of the previous release discs (deleted scenes, trailers, galleries etc). That said, all four films here have for the first time ever (outside of the seminal first flick) full audio commentaries present which include various key participants (on various discs) such as creator/director Coscarelli, leads Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm; each of these contributors are expert storytellers so there's stacks of light hearted fun for fans to soak up whilst listening to the crew reminisce. But even though the first four discs of the movies themselves would normally be ample enough pleasure for any Phantasm fan Anchor Bay have teamed up with some of the UK's finest documentary filmmakers in the form of both Nucleus Films (Jake West and Marc Morris) and Blue Underground UK (David Gregory and Carl Daft) to deliver a fifth bonus disc that contains hours of borderline orgasmic viewing for any Phantasm fanatic.
Kicking off the proceedings on the bonus disc is Nucleus Film's 'Phantasmagoria'; a movie length documentary feature that has virtually everyone (cast and crew) involved in the Phantasm series discussing at length their involvement. Fascinating, fun and essential viewing, this is close to being one of the finest genre movie specific features to date. Next up is the 'Phantasmagorical Mystery Tour'; another damn fine new featurette by the team at Nucleus which presents everyone's favourite ice-cream vendor Reggie Bannister as he travels around the various key location sets for the Phantasm series - the highlight being when Reggie skips through one of the infamous dimension vortexes to visit the location of the Red Planet only to find Don Coscarelli (the discussion that follows is absolutely hilarious). 'Phantasm: Genesis' is the first of the Blue Underground contributions which complements the 'Phantasmagoria' feature nicely by chatting to key cast and crew about specific scenes from the series with some rare behind the scenes footage from said discussed moments. 'The Gory Days' featurette is yet another stunning piece that has gore prosthetics guru Greg Nicotero talking through not only the effects work done for the Phantasm films but nicely links their place with regard to the rest of the genre scene from that period. The final all-new segment comes in the form of 'Phandom' which is a nice tip of the hat to some of the die hard Phans of the series with chat with some of the films more obsessive fans as well as the filmmakers thoughts on their interaction. And if all that brand new goodness wasn't enough then there's also some nice extensive retro footage from various Fangoria conventions including Angus Scrimm's deserved induction to the Horror Hall of Fame and a lengthy question and answer session with the great man Don Coscarelli.
Mention must also be made of the sumptuous packaging that Anchor Bay UK have used in presenting the Phantasm set; as well as a nice digipack set with a cool 3D lenticular front image of everyone's favourite Tall Man Angus Scrimm there's also a mind blowing sentinel silver sphere edition package too (which comes packaged in an easter egg type presentation box). Both packages come with a small colour booklet containing an overview of not only all four movies but the as yet unfilmed epic finale (?) pencilled to star genre icon Bruce Campbell alongside Reggie fighting the legions of the Tall Man's evil army…bring it on! And hidden DVD easter egg fans will want to get searching as each one of the five discs contain a groovy hidden extra video segment (including the truth about the dwarf/jawa link and a live rendition of everyones fave Phantasm jam).
Whether you've only ever seen the classic first part of the Phantasm series or are (like myself) a long time devotee of the line this new special edition box set from Anchor Bay UK is quite simply an essential addition to any sane genre fans collection. A long overdue and beautifully presented package of one of the most underrated genre film series. Of course, once you've kicked back with this marathon of horror fantasy fun and reach the final reel of 'Phantasm: Oblivion' you'll be screaming for more…Don Coscarelli, we beg you "give us some more!"
Review by Alan Simpson
|Released by Anchor Bay UK|
|Region 2 PAL|
|Extras : see main review|