In 1977, a 22-year old Southern California filmmaker and a 51-year old character actor created a legacy of nightmarish films that are unequaled in their commitment from both Star and Director. Freddy, Jason, Chucky and all the others have soldiered on long after their respective creators passed them by for sometimes-greener pastures. But in the 28-years since it first arrived on movie screens, PHANTASM creator Don Coscarelli and Star Angus Scrimm have never wavered in their commitment to the terror of The Tall Man.
It took Coscarelli and company almost two years to shoot and edit PHANTASM, with cast and crew working on the film over weekends to keep the costs low. Truly a labor of love for all those involved, what the film world got a hold of in the spring of 1979 was perhaps the rarest of all things—a truly original horror film.
PHANTASM is really the story of a boy—Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin). Mike has already lost his parents and now he’s obsessed with losing his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury). For Jody’s part, he’s having a difficult time being tied down as a surrogate father to Mike. When the film begins, Jody and his best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) try to shield Mike from another death as they forbid him attending the funeral of a friend. Mike sneaks to the cemetery anyway and soon discovers strange goings on amongst the tombstones. As Mike begins to unravel the mystery surrounding the Morningside Funeral Parlor he uncovers a bizarre realm presided over by a menacing Tall Man and his midget minions.
The thing that Coscarelli’s film imbues in its viewers is a profound sense of dread and the confounding possibility that the entirety of the production is taking place in the mind of 13-year-old Mike as some heightened form of psychosomatic separation anxiety. It would take further sequels for the realities of the first film to truly be explored, the history of The Tall Man, his motivations behind stealing the dead and the truth about what really happens behind the walls of the Morningside Funeral Home.
Interestingly, if the film is all held in the subconscious of young Jody, then the illusion of cinema allows Coscarelli free reign over the surrealistic world he sets forth. The film certainly has all the hallmarks of a childhood dream. Mike shows up often to save the day, he packs a chrome plated pistol, drives his brothers supped up Hemi ‘Cuda and tools through graveyards on the back of his motorcycle—all things that might run through the mind of your average 13-year old boy. But, the air of unease that permeates the film leaves viewers unsure, until the final moments, exactly what the actuality of the situation is.
Indeed the final frames of PHANTASM are the stuff of cinematic legend. And Coscarelli is given little credit for the influence that the scene had on Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH and Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. In fact, over the years, Coscarelli has been shown very little respect for a series that he has personally overseen. Perhaps it is because the PHANTASM films were never showy, or filled with exorbitant amounts of blood, gore and naked bodies. The PHANTASM films are psychological science fiction horror and they exist to leave your head scratching in their wake. Taken as a whole, the four films that make up the series—even in their inherent unevenness—provide a broad scope into a world created within the mind of a visionary filmmaker.
The length of the original production was so long and varied that Coscarelli ended up with multitudes of additional footage and discarded plot devices—a bonus, since the filmmaker has kept his entire cast intact for nearly 30-years, is that the filmmaker can insert “lost” footage and alternate takes from the original film into flashback sequences in the subsequent sequels—a technique that Coscarelli does so well, it’s almost hard to believe he wasn’t planning it from the start.
Anchor Bay’s DVD release of PHANTASM only slightly improves on the old MGM disc in the bonus department. But, devoted fans will have no problems ponying up the extra bucks for this top of the line release and it you don’t own if by know, I can only ask…why not? The DVD starts out with a 30-minute documentary entitled Phantasmagoria, which looks at the production from inception through distribution. It lets you in on what the cast knew going in, and what they learned when they finally saw the theatrical cut of the film. It picks up with all five major players—Scrimm, Baldwin, Bannister, Thornbury and Kathy Lester who portrays the films mysterious Lady in Lavender—and relegates the viewers with anecdotes of on-set pranks, bruised and battered foreheads and The Tall Man’s decidedly un-supernatural platform shoes.
Also included in the set are home movies from the production, which are shown with commentary from Coscarelli and Bannister and present themselves in much the way an afternoon screening of family videos would in the company of friends. Outtakes from the documentary show up later as “Actor’s Having A Ball” and include producer Paul Pepperman’s discussion of the “who came first…The Tall Man’s dwarves or George Lucas’ Jawas?” saga.
There are about 8 minutes of deleted scenes including the famous “Fire Extinguisher” death scene which also includes the legendary PHANTASM II dialogue “You think that when you die, you go to Heaven. You come to us!” The disc also features a convention appearance from Scrimm in 1989 in which the intimidating actor morphs from jovial self to threatening Tall Man persona, delighting the crowd. Theatrical Trailers for Parts I and III along with T.V. Spots—including one with Scrimm shilling for Fangoria magazine—round out this packed edition.
Still the highlight of the package is the audio commentary track from Coscarelli and his three leads—sans Bannister. It’s recycled from both the original Laserdisc special edition and the MGM release, but it’s still a grossly fascinating track with Scrimm coming off composed and authoritative while Coscarelli gives up the ghost on a few of the technical feats the film accomplished.
In the world of double dipping DVDs arriving every 6 to 12 months, it seems impractical to call this the definitive release. With Anchor Bay streeting this special edition, along with a legitimate release of PHANTASM III as well, it seems only time before Universal kicks it in gear to get Part II out—or farms the rights out to another source for release. The packaging may never be as cool as the celebrated Region 2 box set, but it’s very cool reproduction poster art all the same and a thousand times better than the old MGM VHS and DVD art from awhile back. Coscarelli’s film franchise may not be done yet and whispers in the wings say more PHANTASM films might be on the horizon to take the story even further down its twisted path. But, for true fans the first and second films are what define the legacy of The Tall Man and his flying spheres of death.