phantasmPhantasm 1 – 5

Director: Don Coscarelli (1 – 4) David Hartman (Phantasm Ravager)

Starring: Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister and A. Michael Baldwin

Label: Arrow Video

Phantasm has always been on the second tier of horror franchises. Not as well known or widely seen as the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th films but if you are into horror you will at some point have at least seen pictures of the Tall Man and his killer chrome spheres.

It was from this position that I watched this box set of all 5 films in the Phantasm franchise. Being vaguely aware of it as a property but never having actually seen any of them. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised.

Firstly all of these films look fantastic. The 4k restoration of Phantasm was led by JJ Abrams and the other 3 initial sequels have all been made to look really good in high definition. Phantasm: Ravager, the most recent entry in the franchise, is shot on digital film and lacks a little something by comparison but more on that later.

Phantasm can be an odd film when watching for the first time. It feels a bit disjointed and more like a series of connected vignettes than a fully coherent story. The performances are not bad given that the lead cast (other than Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man) had very little acting experience. The standout is A. Michael Baldwin as the teenager Mike who gives a very natural performance rather than what you would often expect from a child actor. Angus Scrimm makes for an imposing sight as the Tall Man and it is easy to see how he became a horror icon to some. He has the look and the presence to him that elevates the Tall Man to something special.

Don Coscarelli makes the most of his limited resources and the film looks striking especially the scenes that take place in the mortuary which make it seem like an unsettling, otherworldly place purely through how it is shot. The other element that endures through the franchise are the sentinels. The chrome spheres that have vicious prongs and drill into the skull are an innovative idea which Coscarelli, wisely, only shows in full, gory action once and that is so effectively done that their further appearances carry weight. Phantasm is a reasonably well executed film given its constraints and arguably better than the first installments of some more well known horror franchises. It’s certainly worth seeing if you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet and it has never looked better.

Phantasm II is a sequel I really enjoyed. Flashing back to the events at the end of Phantasm it centres on a now grown up Mike and an older Reggie going on the offencive. They travel America in their black muscle car filled with weapons tracking the evil force that killed Reggie’s family. If this sounds a little familiar that’s because Phantasm II looks and plays like a prototype version of Supernatural. The similarity is so strong in places (Reggie spends most of the film in the check shirt/body warmer combo favoured by recurring character Bobby Singer) that I am amazed that there is no reference to it being an influence on the show’s creation.

The effects are stepped up impressively with some great creepy and gory moments. Baldwin is replaced by James Le Gros who makes for a good, if generic, hero figure and Reggie Bannister as Reggie begins his transition from side character in the first film to Ash like unlikely hero status thanks to his hangdog look, bald man’s ponytail and wonderfully impractical looking quadruple barrelled shotgun. There is more sentinel action and a original, messy death for the Tall Man. Like the first film it ends on a twist/cliffhanger that some might consider a cheap ending but I rather liked. It is a sequel that feels like it is building on the first film and doing more rather than just rehashing the original and for an 80s horror franchise that is something to be commended. In short, Phantasm II is a lot of fun.

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead came six years later and Baldwin returns as a grown up Mike. Once again picking up right where Phantasm II left off a wounded Reggie gets into a stand-off with the Tall Man who makes it clear that he wants Mike with a specific purpose in mind. Bill Thornbury returns from the first film as Mike’s brother Jody whose soul now inhabits a sentinel. This leads to several scenes of Reggie Bannister emoting to a metal ball.

This is another entertaining sequel and Coscarelli has particular fun with one set piece where a group of looters, who have already got the better of Reggie, are picked off one by one in a house by a child rigging deadly traps for anyone breaking in. Phantasm III is worth the watch if only for this more deadly (and arguably more realistic) homage to Home Alone. It is also notable for Gloria Lynne Henry as Rocky, a nunchuck wielding ex-soldier who adds some more competent action chops alongside Reggie’s dogged if slightly inept efforts. It is a pity she couldn’t come back for further installments.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion is a bit of a patchwork of a film. Made on a fraction of the budget of the previous two sequels it makes the most of its limitations via exploring the background of the Tall Man and making use of the fact that Coscarelli had a lot of unused footage from Phantasm. So we get a lot of flashbacks and Scrimm gets to show his more avuncular side as Dr Jebediah Morningside, the scientist who becomes the Tall Man. It all just about hangs together though the reduction in money is pretty obvious. Once again the film  makes the best use it can out of its limited resources.

Something that I can’t say about Phantasm: Ravager which is a film with a reach that far exceeds its grasp. Ravager started out as a possible webseries spin-off for Reggie before being extended into a film over a 4 year period. Produced and co-written by Coscarelli and directed by David Hartman it has all the hallmark of over ambitious fan film. Hartman falls into the trap that a lot of modern low budget filmmakers do of thinking that cheap CGI means that you don’t have to scale back on a project. It is the first film to realise the sentinels with CGI and it looks absolutely godawful. Any scene that relies heavily on CGI effects looks like an FMV cut scene from a Sega CD game. It tries to go way too big in scope where an approach similar to the previous film would have been better. Especially when the central premise, of whether Reggie has really been fighting the Tall Man for years or is suffering from dementia, would lend itself to some the same kind of character driven story that Coscarelli brought to the similarly themed Bubba Hotep.

It is a shame as Angus Scrimm died shortly after completing work on the film and there is enough of a kernel at the centre of this to be annoyed at a wasted opportunity to do something interesting with it. Instead what we end up with is overblown, cheaply made fanwank with giant sentinels poorly composited onto stock footage of buildings being demolished. It is an ignoble end to a franchise that up to that point I had been enjoying.

The first four Phantasm films each have something to recommend them and overall earn their cult status. I will be watching them again in the future and I would say that they are worth owning. Phantasm: Ravager comes with the set but there is no reason to watch it outside of learning what not to do as a low budget filmmaker in the 21st century. I’m sure the disc might make a good coaster.

The extras are as impressive as horror fans have come to expect from Arrow. The centrepiece of each disc is the multipart Reflections on Fear documentary series. Arrow have filmed this new series of interviews combined with behind the scenes footage and have clearly taken Leviathan, the Hellraiser documentary, as they template. There are interviews with Coscarelli, Bladwin, Bannister, Hartman, and others from in front and behind the camera. Sadly Angus Scrimm passed away before this was made but he still puts in plenty of appearances in the bonus material. He appears on the commentary for the first four films as well as TV spots and archive interviews. There is a separate disc that contains another well made feature length documentary Phantasmagoria which was included in a previous release. Plus there all the usual trailers, outtakes, deleted scenes and previous behind the scenes footage that you have come to expect from an Arrow release.

If you are a Phantasm fan then this is the box set to upgrade to. The prints look stunning, the bonus material is as definitive as you are likely to get now and it even comes with its own sentinel. If you have ever had an interest but never got around to watching the Phantasm films then I can strongly recommend this set. It definitely made a fan out of me

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