Phantasm/Phantasm Ravager Double-Feature (US - BD RA)
Gabe quickly reviews the remastered Phantasm and its new fourth sequel...
At a funeral, Mike (Michael Baldwin) watches as a tall mortician clad in black (Angus Scrimm) tosses the unburied coffin into a waiting hearse as if it were nothing. Seeking the truth behind this unusual sight, Mike breaks into the mortuary, where he comes face-to-face with the sinister Tall Man. After barely managing to escape with his life, Mike enlists the help of his brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Together, they set out to uncover the secrets of the Tall Man and those who dwell in his hellish world. (From Well Go’s official synopsis)
There was a delay on all screener copies of the remastered Phantasm and Phantasm: Ravager, so I’m keeping the review portion of the original film quite brief, in favour of delving into their A/V qualities. But I will say this – every year I live, I find myself enjoying writer/director Don Coscarelli’s original Phantasm just a little bit more. In my original DVD review (which is, gulp, almost a decade old), I spoke of respecting the movie’s ambition, while finding its eccentricities sort of exhausting. At the time, each new gimmick and strange twist seemed more disparate than the last and I found myself accusing Coscarelli of embracing weird for weird’s sake. Now, I find myself preferring weird for weird’s sake and can’t help but be whisked away in the film’s dreamy nature and tenacious imagination. I’ve also come to enjoy the fact that it is essentially an R-rated kid’s movie – an idea that Coscarelli revisited for the third movie in the series.
Somehow, it has taken until the year 2016 for Phantasm to hit an HD format (the closest fans got was a bootleg of an upscaled 1080i German TV broadcast). In fact, I had actually forgotten that there was no Blu-ray version when news of J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions’ new 4K restoration came down the pike. There are, of course, a number of DVD releases, including MGM’s original non-anamorphic disc (itself mostly a dupe of Image Entertainment’s collector’s edition Laserdisc), the Anchor Bay UK ‘sphere collection,’ and Anchor Bay’s US special edition, which had a different anamorphic transfer than its British counterpart. So, obviously, most fans are going to want this release for the simple fact that they’re finally getting Phantasm in HD. The better news is that this new 1.78:1 (slightly reframed from the theatrical 1.85:1 AR) restoration is so good that, even if there had been a previous Blu-ray release, most fans would probably want this disc. Based on the film’s tiny budget, independent production, and age, I genuinely don’t think that it’s possible to squeeze any more detail or clarity from the original material.
There are minor signs of post-production tampering, namely boosted colours and softened contrasts (very similar to Fox’s recent Rocky remaster), but these are largely in-keeping with the movie’s intended look and seem like a decent compromise, considering the possibility of a 4K theatrical roll-out. While grain levels are decent, there are some exceptions, namely a few sequences that exhibit a DNR sheen. It’s less of a waxy issue and more of a blending problem. Print damage is constrained to a couple of blobby stains and white dots. The aforementioned colour boosting makes for slightly pink skin tones overly house orange interiors, but is otherwise a big improvement, offering a greater number of hues per image. The similarly higher contrast leads to a bit of pooling and bleeding among black shapes, but, again, the change is worth the minor drawback, because it cleans up the muddiness of the darkest scenes and amplifies fine textures that were hidden in the noise of DVD releases. This is a BD25, rather than a BD50, but the movie is short, there’s only one uncompressed audio track (see below), and the extras are relatively brief, so everything fits nicely without notable compression problems. The only exceptions are perhaps the aforementioned black crush and some banding within the smoother transitions.
Fans should note that Coscarelli did take the chance to ‘George Lucas’ the movie up a bit, specifically by altering some effects and removing background elements that bothered him. A rundown of what was changed is noted in the following Birth. Movies. Death. Interview with the director. I’ve read reports that there are interlacing issues, but I didn’t see any – not on my set, nor on my computer.
The first MGM DVD release of Phantasm included the original mono soundtrack, but it was overshadowed by the 5.1 remix, which was a big deal at time. When Anchor Bay re-released, they dumped the mono track and reused the remix, in both DD and DTS. While AB’s UK release, Geneon’s Japanese release, and XT Video’s Aussie release featured 2.0 stereo downmix, the original soundtrack disappeared from home video, until Bad Robot and Well Go USA included it here, alongside their own, brand new 5.1 remix. Most readers know that I am all for watching movies with their original audio intact and this film is no exception. The old tracks have been cleaned-up to remove buzz and vocal hiss, while maintaining the feel of a low-budget horror/fantasy film from the mid-’70s. The only drawback is that the mono sound is presented in a lossy Dolby Digital format (I also suspect that some effects have been altered/redone for this release, but don’t own the original MGM DVD anymore, so I was unable to make a comparison). The new remix is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. When it comes to the film’s science fiction-y effects and Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave’s eerie musical score, the extra channels and immersive qualities are neat; however, the incidental effects have been altered to create directional cues and the results are a bit off-putting to me. Still, its dialogue tracks are clean and centered.
- Commentary with director Don Coscarelli and cast members A. Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, and Bill Thornbury – I believe that this is the same commentary that has accompanied almost every digital release since the 1996 Image Entertainment Laserdisc.
- Episode of Graveyard Carz (11:24, HD) – A Phantasm-themed episode of a car restoration show featuring Coscarelli and Baldwin.
- 1979 interview with Coscarelli and Scrimm (27:54, SD) – This local TV promotional interview has also made the rounds on various DVD releases.
- Six deleted scenes (9:59, SD) – While DVD releases have included nine deleted scenes, these appear to be the same material compiled into fewer segments. Original trailer, Phantasm: Remastered trailer, and trailers for other Well Go USA releases
Following his battle with the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), a battered Reggie (Reggie Bannister) awakens suddenly to find himself sitting in a wheelchair pushed by none other than the elusive Mike (Michael Baldwin). Initially overjoyed by their reunion, Reggie soon realizes that he is in an alternate dimension, where he is an aged and weary patient in a psychiatric ward. And only he remembers their battled and bloodied past with the Tall Man. Now, Reggie must travel between dimensions and discern what is reality in order to confront the mysteries at the heart of a decades-long struggle against evil. (From Well Go’s official synopsis)
The Phantasm series is nothing if not tenacious. It took almost ten years after the original film for a studio (Universal) to take interest in a sequel ( Phantasm II, 1988). When that sequel underperformed it took six painful years for that studio to dump the third movie ( Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, 1994) straight to video. Undaunted, Don Coscarelli more or less self-financed a super low-budget third sequel ( Phantasm: OblIVion, 1998). By that time, the saga had spanned very nearly two decades. Despite hints and rumours, most of us assumed OblIVion would be the end of it. But Coscarelli still had some tricks up his sleeve. He secretly co-wrote and produced a series of exclusive webisodes with director David Hartman. After choosing to combine them into a feature film, he foisted a surprise fifth movie on an unsuspecting fan-base that had assumed that the franchise was dead (or awaiting a reboot by a different creative team). Hartman’s C.V. is mostly made up of animation credits. He has worked as director, art director, editor, and even actor on the likes of Transformers Prime (2010-2013), My Friends Tigger & Pooh (2010), and something called Laser Fart (2004-2005), among others. Mixed up in all of this are acting and animation credits on Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End (2012), which is where, I assume, the seeds of Phantasm: Ravager were sowed*.
Hartman conjures some amusing moments and, since this is the first Phantasm to forego MPAA ratings standards, the gore is pretty juicy, but he and his well-meaning crew rarely develop the project beyond a high-end YouTube fan film or, rather, a strung-together series of webisodes. The issue extends past the special effects limitations and novice performances, which are easily forgiven, and into the general camerawork and editing. Simple compositions are constantly too tight and/or oddly balanced, the handheld camera work doesn’t create a sense of immediacy, the pacing is ragged, and even the smallest touches (like the watery stage blood) look like cheap facsimiles of ‘real’ moviemaking. On the other hand, despite its achingly episodic structure (another side-effect of its original webisode format), Hartman and Coscarelli’s script has its virtues. The final act plays nicely with the franchise’s mythos, has fun with dream logic, and makes good use of the shifting timelines. The advancing ages of the returning cast also give Coscarelli a chance to revisit some of his Bubba Ho-Tep themes. There’s a satisfying, made-for-YouTube fan short here, wedged between uneventful stretches, lame callbacks, and not one, but two unceremonious death scenes for the only major female character. Better luck next time, I guess.
Ravager is the first Phantasm movie to be shot using digital HD cameras. Hartman and cinematographers David Hartman & Brad Baruh haven’t merely utilized the new technology for its cost-effective purposes – they have fully embraced the format’s possibilities, sometimes to a fault. This makes for a very sharp and clean 1.78:1, 1080p image, one that makes good use of contrast during dark shots. The negative effect is that daylight sequences have a weird made-for-television quality. This isn’t a problem for the transfer, of course, which does a fine job of recreating what was shot, including the foggy effects, awkward blooming during the familiar ‘white room’ sequences, badly blended digital effects (especially during the aforementioned daylight scenes), and aggressive colour timing (even the stock footage from the old movies has been futzed with). There are some compression issues, specifically noise during dark/warm moments, but these, the extra crispy edges and occasional super-soft gradations aren’t surprising, given the lesser quality of the camera rigs used (sometimes, it looks as if the movie was recorded on an iPhone). Action shots appear a bit too blurry/ghosty at times (as do slo-mo inserts), but I believe this is the result of special effects tampering, rather than HD authoring problems. The colour quality is eclectic and, when needed, consistent, ensuring that red, yellow, and lavender hues look the same from scene-to-scene.
Phantasm: Ravager comes fitted with a very loud DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Like his contemporary low-budgeteers, Hartman tries to cover his lack of cash with a wide, aggressive soundscape. It didn’t trick me into thinking the budget was any bigger, but it did give my system a decent workout. The surround channels are busy with zipping sentinel spheres, growling creatures, and the formidable hum of the transdimensional tuning forks, while the center channel is occupied with clean and balanced dialogue tracks. Christopher L. Stone’s electronica-meets-symphonic score pays homage to the original themes and gives the track something to do when people are talking.
- Commentary with director/co-writer David Hartman and co-writer/producer Don Coscarelli – This pleasant and friendly discussion covers the film’s very long production process, from its inception as a collection of shorts to its eventual compilation into a full feature. Hartman and Coscarelli default to congratulating their cast/crew and patting each other on the back a bit too much, but they manage to draw the conversation out over the entire runtime.
- Behind-the-scenes featurette (5:24, HD) – A fluffy, nostalgia-driven EPK that includes cast & crew interviews.
- Three deleted scenes (3:47, 2:24, 1:42, HD) – These scenes were filmed back when the movie was still a web series and deleted for pacing issues. Given how badly-paced the whole movie is, I think they probably should’ve been included anyway, because they’re pretty amusing. They include Reggie’s battle with a ‘giant’ dwarf (he’s rescued by Mike and Jody in sphere form), an extended escape from Dawn’s cabin, and an elongated fight between Reggie and the spheres on the highway.
- Phuntasm: Bloopers & Outtakes (8:40, HD)
- Trailer and trailers for other Well Go releases
* For more on Ravager’s production – as well as the production of the other films – see one-time DVDActive writer Dustin McNeill’s Phantasm Exhumed: The Unauthorized Companion.
** Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 6th December 2016
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English (both movies); Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Phantasm only)
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: See individual releases, DVD Copy (Phantasm only)
Easter Egg: No
Director: Don Coscarelli, David Hartman
Cast: Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 167 minutes
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