J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Phantasm: Remastered—The Cult Classic Rises Again

It inspired the Slender Man internet meme-hoax-phenomenon and the name of Captain Phasma in The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams is indeed a fan, which is why he offered his Bad Robot production company’s facilities for the 4K restoration. The original that spawned four sequels (as of now) has been spruced up, yet it still looks appropriately of its era. The creepiness and raw potency remain as strong as ever when Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm: Remastered (trailer here) releases today on DVD and BluRay, from Well Go USA.

Thirteen-year-old Mike Pearson has had a hard time dealing with his parents’ death. He idolizes his shaggy-haired grown musician brother Jody, to a degree that may not be healthy. Understanding his brother’s issues with death and separation issues, Jody instructs Mike to avoid the funeral of his recently deceased bandmate, but he watches anyway—through binoculars, while hidden in the woods bordering Morningside cemetery and mausoleum. That is how he happens to see the sinister funeral director (a.k.a. The Tall Man) pick up the casket and carry it back to the mortuary, rather than burying it after the service.

At first, Jody dismisses his younger brother’s weird claims as the product of his troubled psyche, but Mike soon retrieves some pretty compelling evidence to change his mind. Unfortunately, the Tall Man is onto Mike’s snooping by this point.

One of the knocks on Phantasm I is that the narrative does not make much sense, but frankly, it seems reasonably coherent compared to some of the postmodern pretensions and micro-budget schlock hailed and forgotten in the thirty-seven years since its initial release. Granted, the ending is a bit of a head-scratcher. Yet, it still kind of works in the context of the film’s themes.

Most horror fans will agree Coscarelli hit the trifecta in three key aspects. One is the casting of tall, menacing Angus Scrimm as the iconic Tall Man. He just radiates malevolent power. Secondly, late metal-crafter Will Greene’s designs for the flying, brain-drilling Sentinel Spheres have truly become the stuff of nightmares. Finally, the locations, including the exteriors shot at Dunsmuir Mansion outside Oakland, really evoke foreboding and dread.

Arguably, A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury do not get the credit they deserve for their work as Mike and Jody Pearson. Their brotherly relationship really is at the heart of the film. Little things also jump out at viewers when they revisit Phantasm with fresh eyes, like Mike’s wall-sized NASA moon poster, reminding us of the idealism so many had for the space program in the 1970s, which suits the character so well.


As a 1979 release, Phantasm was part of a banner year for film, sharing company with Alien, Rocky II, Life of Brian, Mad Max, Apocalypse Now, Love at First Bite, and Tarkovsky’s Stalker. This is an under-recognized golden year—and Phantasm, the scruffy indie that could, becomes its genre capstone, in retrospect. It still holds up, feeling eerily familiar, like a suspicious face we recognize but cannot identify. Very highly recommended for all horror fans, Phantasm: Remastered releases today (12/6) on DVD and BluRay, from Well Go USA.

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