Phantasm I-V

Don Coscarelli’s gloriously off-kilter Phantasm series comes to Blu-ray in a new spherical set. If you don’t already own the films, you need to buy this. For those of us who already own the Anchor Bay release, the big selling points of this box are the 4K restoration of Phantasm (overseen by JJ Abrams’s Bad Robot production company) and the first UK release of the latest (and final?) film in the series, Phantasm: Ravager.

Phantasm is an odd beast, but a compelling one – from the very first scene it is clear that something supernatural is going on, as we see a nubile young lady murder her lover in a cemetery before turning into a creepy man, but it would be impossible to guess at the eventual direction the film takes. Creepy morticians turning people into slave dwarves to use as labour on a red planet, the bonds of brotherhood and friendship, and something about tuning forks – everything is at play here. This is a film that has no qualms about pausing for a musical interlude if need be, and the loose structure means you are never quite sure of what is real. The film could be a meditation on love and loss, fear of death and growing old, or it could just be a mad little tale of space dwarves. Coscarelli wanted it to be oddball and scary, and it succeeds admirably at both. It is interesting in retrospect that Angus Scrimm’s superlatively terrifying monster mortician, the Tall Man, and the flying silver balls of death really don’t feature that heavily in the first film. Don’t worry, we’ll see a lot more of both soon enough.

The first film made unlikely heroes of ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin, and once James LeGros). The sequels get steadily wackier, reflecting the periods in which they were made. Phantasm II has the biggest budget, allowing for some really fun explosive thrills, but loses some of the homemade charm of the original. In trying to impose a linear narrative, it takes away from the nightmarish atmosphere. The evident influence of the Nightmare on Elm Street series (snakey Tall Man) takes its toll too. That said, it is still an accomplished shocker (even if the substitution of James LeGros for A. Michael Baldwin is a pity – nothing wrong with LeGros, good actor, but he ain’t our Mike) and the idea of the Tall Man blighting the towns he passes through is both delicious and pretty well realised. Plus it sees the start of Reggie becoming an unlikely (and unlucky) lothario, which is amazing.

Arguably the series goes off the rails a little in the third instalment, Lord of the Dead. The directing is still strong, but a few too many characters are thrown into the mix (though Gloria Lynne Henry and Kevin Connors do excellent work with the pretty stereotypical roles they are given). There is still a lot to love, and it’s good to have Mike’s older brother Jodi (Bill Thornbury) back in the mix, but the attempt to impose a plot starts to grate here. There’s also one heck of a cliffhanger…

The fourth film, Oblivion, has a much lower budget than the previous two sequels, and makes use of extensive unused footage from the first film to pad out the running time. Oblivion plays to the strengths of the cast and inventively gets round the budgetary issues by filming in some stunning locations and using some subtle CGI. The extensive use of chopped scenes from the first film might seem a little cheap, but at best these scenes are integrated in a genuinely effective and affecting way. Angus Scrimm also gets more to do than usual, which is definitely a good thing, and we’re almost back to the dreamy atmosphere of the first film. The downbeat conclusion leaves things very open, though, and this was not the conclusion fans were looking for.

Which brings us to Ravager. This fifth instalment came as a surprise to everybody. For the first time it isn’t Coscarelli directing, though David Hartman does a pretty decent job. It looks cheap as chips, unavoidably, but it is great to have the gang back together. Angus Scrimm sadly died shortly after the film was announced, so it is nice to see the Tall Man get a final outing. Scrimm is great, but his advanced age is clear and he is kept off-screen for much of the film. He gets some killer lines, though, with ‘your tenacity has amused me and I’ve enjoyed your despair’ being a particular favourite.

The ambition far outstrips the budget, but it’s nice that they try and give us the sort of epic conclusion we were promised back in the 90s but never materialised (look up Roger Avary’s proposed final chapter). There are a few seriously fan-pleasing cameos and some likeable new characters, but the focus is still on Mike and Reggie. It’s lovely to have Mike being more proactive than we’ve seen him since Phantasm II, and Reggie is as engaging as ever. Some scenes of Reggie in a hospital, apparently suffering from early onset dementia, echo Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep and are just as touching. It’s also great to be back in the ‘is it all just a dream?’ realm, something which has been a strength of the series since the very beginning. It might not be a perfect conclusion, but it is a very commendable effort.

This set comes crammed with extras and if you like horror you’ll want this on your shelf.

The Phantasm Collection is available now from Arrow Video.

With thanks to Fetch Publicity.

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