Review of "Phantasm 1-5 Collection (Blu-ray)"

published 15/05/2017 | hogsflesh
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Pro The first film is a classic
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"Horror with balls"

The Tall Man and Reg (Phantasm)

The Tall Man and Reg (Phantasm)

This limited edition boxset from Arrow films is £70 on amazon at time of writing.

Phantasm is a venerable horror franchise that never quite made it to the kind of public recognition of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, but which has a fairly passionate cult following. It’s not a slasher movie franchise, like most long-running series, instead having an oddball sci-fi premise. It’s villains are an unusually tall undertaker, and his flying silver balls.

The first film in the series is a classic. It’s also increasingly obvious as the series wears on that the first Phantasm was an unrepeatable fluke – subsequent instalments are as weak as the original is strong, and director Don Coscarelli’s other films have been uninspiring, in spite of some good ideas.

Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm is about 13-year-old Mike, who uncovers sinister doings in the local funeral home – corpses are mysteriously vanishing, locals are being murdered, and an unusually tall mortician seems to be the focus of everything. Mike has to convince his sceptical older brother Jody to help him unravel the mystery and stop the Tall Man. Jody’s friend Reg, an ice-cream vendor, also gets involved.

One of the main reasons Phantasm is so good is that the characters seem like real people – you can imagine them having lives outside of the story. Jody and Mike’s parents have recently died, and Jody is having to act as his kid brother’s legal guardian. Mike is paranoid about being abandoned, and has taken to following Jody everywhere and spying on him, a credible enough bit of character detail that leads him to accidentally witness the first of many strange activities. So the plot develops from the way the characters are written, which is refreshing and – to put it mildly – unusual in a horror movie. The bond between the two brothers is also convincing, and they and Reg are genuinely likable characters. They live in a well-drawn small town, too (it feels like the film might have partly inspired Steven King’s novel It).

And the scary stuff (well, scary might be overstating it a bit, but still…) is inventive enough to have spawned a whole franchise. The Tall Man, as played by sonorous-voiced Angus Scrimm, is a memorable horror movie villain (although his catchphrase, the bellowed word ‘Boy!’ reminds me of Uncle Monty from Withnail & I). His main weapons are floating silver balls that contain knives and a drillbit. Some of the other weirdness is perhaps a bit less successful – the supposedly creepy dwarfs just look like Star Wars’s Jawas, and the effects budget isn’t quite up to the final revelation of what’s going on. But the combination of creepy funeral homes and horror with a sci-fi tinge works pretty well, and there’s an unsettling dream logic to the story that sees you through the occasional dodgy special effect.

There’s some really striking imagery in the film, and the music has a decent plinky plonky horror ambience (it’s wheeled out in the rest of the series, of course). The first film is good enough to survive the systematic cheapening of the rest of the series, and is a classic of its kind.

Phantasm II (1988)

Even by the second film, things are plummeting rapidly. From the well-drawn characters with believable relationships, we have regressed to the usual, dull horror movie stereotypes. Reg and Mike are back, but Mike is now played by a bland, generic hunk, rather than the ordinary looking kid of the first film. The Tall Man is back, too.

Phantasm 1 ended with a twist ending that was a bit silly, but worked quite well in the context. Unfortunately, Phantasm II has to account for that ending somehow. And it takes forever – about 20 minutes of silly false starts and convoluted exposition. Supposedly big moments happen in such a throwaway fashion, I’d have forgotten all about them, if not for the fact that the later films refer back such a lot (Phantasm II begins the tradition of playing clips from the earlier film – all the subsequent sequels do the same).

There was a small amount of nudity in the first film, but it didn’t feel too gratuitous. Here we get an extended sequence featuring a dead naked lady in a mortuary, with other boob shots scattered throughout. I guess that’s just the way things were for horror movies in the 80s.

The main problem with Phantasm II is that it’s going to be very difficult to understand without the context of the first film – most Halloween or Friday 13th sequels don’t really need a backstory, as the basic premise is beautifully simple. Phantasm II is almost incomprehensible without knowledge of the first one, something that will get more and more extreme as the series progresses. (Maybe it’s ahead of the curve, given that most Marvel and Star Wars films only make sense in relation to each other.)

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

This one picks up where the last one ended (the films tend to end on cliffhangers). There are two problems with this. Mike has now reverted back to the original actor from Phantasm 1, so they have to edit out shots of the previous Mike from flashbacks. And Reg is noticeably getting older – he ages several years in the space of what should be a few minutes of his life. Jody also returns in this film, and looks much too old. At least the Tall Man always looked kind of old, so his ageing isn’t as much of a problem yet.

Reg becomes the focus of the series at this point, as he hunts for Mike. He picks up two infuriating horror movie stereotypes, a tough kid and a sassy black chick (from this film on there’s a running gag about Reg’s increasingly desperate attempts to get laid). There are also three nasty looters, who are presumably meant to seem sinister and Lynchian, but are simply tedious, the kinds of characters you only find in bad horror movies.

Plotwise, it’s the same-old same-old, although it’s less good. Do the silver balls really become scarier when they have eyeballs on stalks sticking out of them? I would contend that they do not. There’s some half-hearted gore, some nudity, a lot of swearing, but absolutely no emotional involvement at all. Reg is now devoting his time solely to hunting the Tall Man – what on earth does he live on? Where does he get money to buy food and gas?

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

The low budgets are really starting to hurt the films now – a shot where a supposedly marble wall wobbles and crinkles when Reg touches it about sums things up. We have another cliffhanger to resolve, and once again, Reg ages about ten years between shots. The special effects are uniformly terrible, and the plot is more or less exactly the same as Phantasm III’s. The kid from the previous film, who was in at the final cliffhanger, has vanished without a word, like Short Round in the Indiana Jones series.

We do get an origin for the Tall Man here, although it’s close to being incomprehensible, and can’t help but reduce the character as a threat. Otherwise the silver balls and hooded dwarfs are back. A woman’s boobs turn into silver balls, in perhaps the only vaguely original idea in the whole film. There are only about 6 speaking parts, and four of those are series regulars, so this is about as impenetrable a film experience as one could have if it was viewed as a standalone.

It uses a lot of unused footage from the first film, which does give it a certain resonance – seeing Mike as a 13-year-old boy and as an adult simultaneously is quite engaging. But as ever, it just serves to show how far things have drifted from the original.

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

This one really is incomprehensible, and it would be entirely pointless to try and watch it without seeing the other films first. There’s a new director for this final film (Coscarelli co-wrote and produced), but sadly there’s no injection of new ideas.

It’s at once over-ambitious, taking place in several different dimensions and timelines at once; and pitifully un-ambitious, as it just rehashes the same-old same-old. It’s obviously aimed at hardcore fans of the franchise, excluding anyone else – it wants us to cheer when certain familiar faces turn up out of the blue, but the passage of time means it’s often difficult to even recognise all the actors.

Reg is still the hero, and the film can’t seem to decide if he’s an Ash-from-Evil-Dead style befuddled everyman action hero or a delusional old man more in the vein of Coscarelli’s Bubba Hotep. There’s a germ of an interesting idea here (albeit not a very original one), as one character’s supposed dementia makes the ‘reality’ of what we see hard to assess. Unfortunately the execution lets it down badly. The special effects are laughably unimpressive, and this has a cheap-looking digital video look, rather than being shot on film.

It has terrible ‘edgy’ dialogue – the line ‘your kind are simply skin sacks full of water and meat’ might have looked badass on paper, but just sounds clumsy in delivery (they’re obviously proud of it, though, as we hear it twice). Angus Scrimm was in his late 80s by this point, and at one point they cheaply superimpose his face onto a more limber man’s body. He looks frail in his few dialogue scenes, with watery eyes – not a horror boogieman anymore, just an elderly actor who probably should have been left to enjoy his retirement. Reg, Mike and Jody have also aged noticeably (not surprising given how long it was between films)

Blu-rays

In terms of picture quality, these look as good as they’re likely to. As low-budget horror movies made from the 70s to the 90s, they won’t look as pristine as, say, Star Wars, but there’s a wealth of visible detail, strong colours, and a good layer of film grain. The last film was shot on digital video, and has that slightly raw, harsh look that cheap DV always has.

There are short ‘making of’ documentaries on each disk (mostly just talking heads), and commentaries on the films. There’s also an extras disk, which includes a rather nice tribute to the late Angus Scrimm from his neighbour. The main extra on this disk is a long documentary about the series (up to episode 4 – it was made a while ago. Angus Scrimm is interviewed, and everyone looks a lot younger). Perhaps inevitably, this renders the shorter documentaries on the disks for the first four films a bit redundant.

There’s also a book, which has a good essay by Kim Newman and some less exciting ‘making of’ stuff. The box is well put together, but comes with a slightly embarrassing silver ball (into which you can slot little plastic blades). I guess the idea is to emulate an older DVD boxset that came in a replica of the silver ball from the films. The version in this Arrow set is lightweight and feels kind of cheap, but I guess is nice if you’re into that kind of thing.

The first Phantasm is a classic. I was totally unimpressed with the rest of the series, but I guess they must have fans. It’s probably worth waiting to see if Arrow release the original film separately when this limited edition set is sold out, as it's way too expensive to buy this just for the one film. But if you like all the films enough to want to own them, you are unlikely to do better than this.

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Comments on this review

  • Pointress published 30/05/2017
    The mind boggles at your title!
  • Chippytarka published 28/05/2017
    Excellent reviewx
  • jb0077 published 21/05/2017
    fab
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Product Information : Phantasm 1-5 Collection (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

DVD Region: Blu-ray

Actor(s): Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister

Director(s) (Last name, First name): Coscarelli, Don

EAN: 5027035015583

Classification: 18 years and over

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