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Young Mike loses his mother and father at a young age to an accident and is left to his older brother Jody. Soon after their parent’s death, a friend of Jody’s is also found dead. Mike isn't allowed to go to the funeral, but decides to sneak a post burial peek. While hiding out in the cemetery he witnesses the local mortician lifting his friend's casket single-handedly from the grave. This intrigues the lad. He investigates further and finds a disturbing world of flesh eating, cloaked dwarfs, living fingers that turn into insects, and flying spheres that eject blades and suck the brains from their victims.

Phantasm: Special Edition
Phantasm: Special Edition
So we've all heard Phantasm is a horror classic, right? It's wildly imaginative, energetic, epically scaled; it's thoroughly cemented a spot in cult cinema history. I think the key word of praise is 'imaginative'. The film is a sometimes sloppy mish-mash of horror, sci-fi, exploitation, action, comedy, family film, children's adventure story; it even has some musical elements. It may have bits and pieces that hark back to other films, more popular films, but on the whole there's really nothing like it.

Yet everyone I show the movie to that isn't a dyed in the wool, die-hard horror fan isn't impressed with it. Moreover, a lot of them hate it. I myself, a fan, am usually only able to watch it about half way through before I stop it and put in Phantasm II instead. Why is this? Is Phantasm a victim of hype, or is it factually a simply average film with a solid presence?

Overall, even as a fan, I have to admit that Phantasm’s greatest strength is equal to its greatest weakness, and both are chaos. It's not so much that there are too many ideas floating around, it's more that writer/director Don Coscorelli couldn't commit himself to any of these ideas long enough to maintain interest from fussier modern viewers. Either that or he has the attention span of a gnat. Random is one thing, but making it up as you go along is another, sadder story.

Phantasm: Special Edition
Phantasm: Special Edition
The new gimmicks end up running the story rather than being an organic part of it. The problem is that an unsusceptible audience doesn't like a story without direction. There isn't a lot of time for us to find our footing in the complex universe, and unfortunately the film's calmest moments are its blandest. Really, nothing happens for the first thirty minutes that's particularly interesting. Non-fans might want to fast-forward through the first third if they want to have a good time.

Yet Phantasm still demands a certain level of respect for simply not giving up. There is a brave and unbridled sense of imagination at work. Those who've taken the time to watch children play make-believe will recognize this brand of innocent, idiot savant genius that is found in the cluttered, arbitrary mind of a child. If it wasn't for all the violence, nudity, and language, I honestly think Phantasm could've been a hit kid's flick. There is a warm heart at the film's centre, some strong family values in the face of overwhelming adversity, alien invaders, and most importantly the protagonist is a young boy who gets to ride a motorcycle, drive a muscle car, use weapons to defend himself, and who in the end saves the day. Well, more or less. One might even call the film a grim fairy tale.

I still like the film a whole lot, and I end up recommending it to anyone that asks, it just always seems to backfire. I'm not going to demand non-fans give it a second chance with a different mindset like I would with say, Dawn of the Dead or RoboCop. It's not a film classic worth getting worked up about; although I'm sure plenty of fervent fans will hate me for saying so (see the fifth disc on the R2 special edition to get an idea about these well-meaning people). This 'toss it and see if it sticks' style does end up lending itself very well to a series of entertaining and enduring sequels. More so than any other film series, even Star Wars, the Phantasm movies are my favourite to watch in succession, and without the original the sequels make no sense...well, they'd make less sense.

Phantasm: Special Edition
Phantasm: Special Edition

Video


This disc represents the second R1 release of the film. Back in the early days of DVD popularity MGM released a reasonably sharp little special edition (taken from an Elite Laser Disc), but the video was not anamorphically enhanced. It was good enough for its time, but an update was needed. Different regions came out with better transfers, but it was Anchor Bay UK that released the 'best' version in R2 a little over a year ago. The UK version was made available as a set of all four films, which is the real reason I bought it.

I had assumed that this R1 Anchor Bay release would be identical to the R2 release, considering it came from a foreign arm of the same company, but that it would look a little better on my NTSC TV. However, when directly comparing images from both discs, there are a few obvious differences. First up is the framing, and I've left the mat in my screen caps to illustrate this. It appears that the R2 version is about 1.78:1, and that the new R1 release is a slightly tighter 1.85:1. Yet somehow the headroom is slightly less on the R2 release. This is because the R2 release seems to have been zoomed all around, as a closer look at the left and right will reveal.

Both versions are pretty well worn, and cluttered with artefacts. The compression in the R2 disc appears to be a hair more drastic, as hard edges often appear blocky (this is a problem that runs through all four discs in the R2 set), and noise overwhelms a few sequences. The R1 disc is still quite noisy, but manages better edges, despite some enhancement in bright scenes.

Phantasm: Special Edition
Phantasm: Special Edition
The colours of the R1 disc are warmer than those of R2, as seen in skin tones and interior lights. Details are slightly sharper as well, but the R2 disc manages better contrast overall. This new disc occasionally looks washed out in places the old disc wasn't. The new release is slightly better overall, but not enough for a repurchase to be required me thinks. Those without multi-region access will for sure want to update their non-anamorphic MGM release, however.

Audio


I remember that around the time I purchased the MGM release I had just acquired my first surround sound system. I was excited to hear an old movie revamped for the digital age. Phantasm incorporates an aggressive enough sound design that actually lends itself to a revamp, unlike so many other aged horror films that sound silly in surround. The music is huge, though repetitive, and the sound effects are pretty freaking wacky.

The R2 disc houses both Dolby Digital and DTS surround tracks, and both were satisfying but for the most part just louder versions of the stereo surround track. This new disc is a marked improvement, specifically in speaker discretion and spatial representation. Now when objects move from front to back and side-to-side on screen the corresponding sound is distinctly located in one channel or another. Both Anchor Bay UK and the R1 MGM release were quite bass heavy, especially during the 'inter-dimensional gateway' scenes. This new DTS track is even more relentless, and ending up vibrating the room enough to give me a subtle massage, yet I could still discern the music and sound effects tracks.

I have to admit that despite a few off effects and some occasionally unblended vocals I'm very impressed with this track. I don't think state of the art surround sound is really a good reason to buy or re-buy a twenty-seven-year-old film, but I'm sure plenty of series fans will be excited at the prospect.

Extras


This is a rather loaded single disc set, but there isn't anything here not already made available on previous incarnations. Factually there's quite a bit missing, like the awesome disco remix of the original theme, the extended version of the dull folk-rock song found in the film's early scenes, and the silly Angus Scrimm Masterpiece Theatre styled introduction. I suppose this isn't such a huge loss after all.

Phantasm: Special Edition
Phantasm: Special Edition
First we've got the updated R2 commentary track writer/director Don Coscarelli and actors Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm and Bill Thornbury. The MGM/Elite version featured fan favourite actor Reggie Bannister, who if I remember correctly was pretty entertaining, but the inclusion of the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, is a decent trade-off. Scrimm is an entirely adorable old man, who seems to remember more about production than most everyone else. Baldwin, who for all intents and purposes never made it anywhere outside of Don Coscarelli movies, is slightly annoying, but mostly amusing. Coscarelli himself is, as usual, pretty drab. I don't think public speaking is his strongest suite, but he doles out the factoids like a true master.

The fifth disc in the R2 collection (which comes in a replica of the evil flying balls) featured a feature length documentary entitled ‘Phantasmagoria: The Making of Phantasm’ (along with four other fifteen to twenty minute featurettes), which covered the entire series of four films. For this release the folks at Anchor Bay have edited together about thirty minutes of info on the first film, and titled it the same thing. Had the Phantasm 2 rights not been tied up in the US, I'm guessing they would've included the entire documentary. Even at only half an hour the featurette still entertains, but doesn't inform beyond the commentary track. It's followed by something called ‘Phantasm: Actors Having a Ball’, which is a series of outtakes from the documentary's interviews, including a story about the Phantasm crew catching word about a little film called Star Wars that also featured dwarfs in brown robes (Jawas).

From this point on we're back in MGM/Elite territory. Included here is about twenty minutes of rough (and I mean rough) behind the scenes footage. These 'home movies' have no sound, so Coscarelli supplies us with an audio synopsis. This leads us into six deleted scenes, running about ten minutes total. Parts of these scenes were included in the forth Phantasm film, subtitled Oblivion. A lot of the plot was made up as the filmmakers went along, and some of these deleted scenes actually contradict some of the film's rough chronology. They're a good addition, but it's good that they were never reincorporated into the film.

Phantasm: Special Edition
Phantasm: Special Edition
To go with our various trailers and TV spots from the era (and beyond, there's a Fangoria commercial from 1988 featuring Scrimm) is an interview from 1979 featuring Coscarelli and Scrimm. It's decidedly lo-fi, really just a promotional piece, but still a fun little blast from the past. The features come to a close with video footage of a Fangoria convention where Scrimm speaks candidly about his most famous character. The cutest bit is when he recalls all his lines from the first two films, which takes him a matter of minutes (the Tall Man isn't a talky fellow).

Overall


To recap, Phantasm isn't the best film, but it's one of a kind, and I think worth the time. This DVD isn't a great improvement over the Anchor Bay UK release, but is an improvement over the R1 MGM release. The video quality is different, if not entirely 'better', and the DTS track is enough an improvement to call it such. Readers will have to judge for themselves. Extras are solid, but are still rather sparse in the shadow of the epic UK release.


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