Tuesday, 5 June 2018
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
When J. J. Abrams produced and directed the first of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, the chrome look of one of the character costumes reminded him of the iconic chrome/silver ball in the Phantasm series of movies and so he named that character Captain Phasma. I’m just recounting this story by way of demonstrating how well loved and how far reaching these particular low budget horror movies are. When you watch the first one nowadays it maybe seems a bit dated but still retains its quirkiness and I think, if I were truly watching this for the first time now, then I would possibly be wondering what all the fuss was about. However, Phantasm has been with me for a not inconsiderable chunk of my life and its something I like to come back to every now and again and, this newish Blu Ray box set from Arrow Films was a good excuse to do that. Not only does it have another model sphere, smaller and closer in size to the real thing than the excellent DVD box set of some years ago, plus a little book full of photos and information... it also has the long awaited fifth movie from the end of 2016, Phantasm Ravager, making it’s UK premier here. So I was very excited for this new, restored boxed set.
My first experience with Phantasm in the UK was the TV spot used to advertise its first cinema run back in 1979, contrary to what the IMDb is now telling me in that it says this movie didn’t even get a release over here until 2016. But I clearly remember the TV spot at the time with the main teen protagonist running from one of the lethal chrome balls, flattening to the ground and letting it pass over his head. I also remember the tag line in that advert, with the voice saying at the end... “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.” I just confirmed my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me by phoning my friend @cultofthecinema, who remembered the posters being out on the tube at the same time and I remember them front of house at my local cinema. So, yeah... sometimes the IMDB can get it very wrong.
Of course, I was only 11 years old in 1979 so it wasn’t a movie that I would have been allowed to see at the cinema. It was an 'X' movie anyway but I remember that, by then, my head was perpetually filled up with lots of science fiction stuff such as Doc Savage, the Flash Gordon serials, Doctor Who, Space 1999, Star Trek, Sinbad, The Six Million Dollar Man, Logan’s Run comics (the actual movie was a 'AA' when it came out in 1976 so I was too young but, again, in addition to the comics there was the short lived TV show), Star Wars, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica and... well, you get the picture. I mention this in passing to indicate that, even though my mind was on other things, the TV advertising for this was very much a ‘thing’ and the imagery found in even those short ads was quite haunting.
I don’t think I came into contact with the movie itself until the late 1980s or early 1990s and it would have almost certainly been a TV print. Probably uncut but maybe not. I’ve seen this movie maybe another three or four times since then and, every time I watch this one, I am always surprised by the ‘just about hanging together’ and surreal nature of the experience. The film stars A. Michael Baldwin as the teenage Mike and the plot deals with how he and his brother Jody, played by Bill Thornbury, team up with their friend Reggie (played by Reggie Bannister) to investigate the local funeral home Morningside after their mate has died and strange, inexplicable stuff is happening around town. In fact, Mike and Jody’s friend is stabbed by The Lady In Lavender (played by Kathy Lester) in the opening sequence of the film and it’s then that we also get our first flash of a shot of one of the film’s longstanding icons.
That icon being one Angus Scrimm, who is probably best known for playing The Tall Man in all the Phantasm films and who is recognisable in costume and saying his catch line “Booooooy!” in a way transcendent from the films which made him such a famous figure in low budget horror. Scrimm died in January 2016 and his last two films were Phantasm Ravager and Dances With Werewolves. It’s always good to see Scrimm turn up in stuff unannounced (like this director’s film John Dies At The End, which I reviewed here) but it’s in this film where it all begins for him as far as being a larger than life horror personality is concerned. Seeing him strutting his way through the beautiful, vertical shapes and tones of the Morningside Funeral Home is still something special... probably more so when you’re seeing it in the context of the larger body of work that is the Phantasm series.
Phantasm is a great film and, sure, it has its other great icon the flying spheres. We only see it in two scenes in this original. The first being the scene which was used for the trailers and TV spots where Mike is being held by a guy with the sphere flying towards him... the blades come out but Mike bites through the other guys hand and wriggles out from his grasp just in time for the ball to land on the other guy’s forehead, fixing itself by its twin bayonet blades before unleashing a high powered drill to burrow into the victim’s head while a hole opens out in the back to eject the blood. One might possibly, the second time you see it, be asking yourself why such a bizarre and elaborate method of killing is required in the first place but the first time you see it, you’re probably too distracted by the novelty to care. The only other time we see the ball is in a much later scene where... oh, okay, I don’t want to give away everything.
Quite apart from these two great icons of modern horror... The Tall Man and his silver spheres... we have a movie which, in all honesty, jumps about a bit, doesn’t make a lot of sense, has tuning fork portals, shrunken slave midgets which look like Jawas (but which were conceived well before the Star Wars lookalikes made it to the screen... the film shoot was lengthy and even the principal photography took a year of weekend filming to finish), a black box of mind pain and a possibly even more painful guitar duet played by Reggie and Jody. it’s disjointed and surreal in places but, for most of the time, manages to maintain a semblance of holding itself together... although every time I get to the ‘double ending’ of the first movie, I’m reminded how this doesn’t seem to make any coherent sense and am baffled how they managed to pull off even one sequel... let alone another four.
Oh... and it’s also kind of brilliant in its own, low budget way. Conjuring up an atmosphere fairly unique to this franchise and managing to inextricably be both dated and timeless at exactly the same moment. We also have Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s haunting and fairly minimally spotted score which seems to be almost trying to catch the same kind of progressive and relentlessly driven tone of things like Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from The Exorcist, Goblin’s score for Suspiria and John Carpenter’s Halloween theme... although it’s a more laid back version of ‘relentlessly driven’, to be sure. And yes, I know that makes no sense but it’s also a good term for the movie itself, with it’s slow and rambly but ultimately eventful pacing... driven but also laid back.
Arrow’s new Blu Ray transfer is the best I’ve ever seen the film looking and, as it’s Arrow, you get a package with gazillions of extras on each of the five discs... not to mention a sixth bonus disc with even more extras on it. If you are into horror movies or even if you are into weird or off-key tales of science fiction, which this movie is as much as it’s a scary movie, then you should definitely check Phantasm out if you’ve never seen it before. It’s strangely addictive and it’s something you can go back and have a look at every few years and probably see something new or, at the very least, something you’ve forgotten, in it. Am really looking forward to continuing my revisitation of the Phantasm universe as I delve deeper and put my hand back into the Arrow box of fear. Keep your forks tuned.