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Phantasm (Blu-ray/DVD)

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Phantasm

PhantasmStarring Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury

Directed by Don Coscarelli

Distributed by Well Go USA


There is no horror series as ambitious and enigmatic as Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. Beginning with the original Phantasm in 1979, the series has spawned four sequels – the most recent, Phantasm: Ravager, seeing release just this year – and yet phans will agree we are no closer to answers now than we were nearly 40 years ago. Odds are Coscarelli never planned for such a long, confounding journey when he undertook the job of writing, shooting, editing, co-producing, and directing his first horror feature. It was only meant to be an auspicious stepping stone into the greater world of Hollywood; instead, it became his legacy. Unlike the films of horror’s A-list icons – Freddy, Jason, Michael, Leatherface – the Phantasm films can be watched ad nauseum and scrutinized with extreme care, yet the events unfolding still won’t be any clearer. It rewards with each viewing because it is a great film and it challenges audiences to think long after the credits have stopped. What is real? What is illusory? That is the true genius of Phantasm.

After the death of their friend Tommy (Bill Cone), longtime buds Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) meet at the Morningside mortuary to attend his funeral, while Jody’s kid brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) spies on the services from afar. While inside Jody has a brief, bizarre encounter with the mortician, who is eventually referred to as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Mike, meanwhile, catches a glimpse of this Tall Man picking up Tommy’s casket, unaided, and loading it into his hearse. Chilling as this Tall Man is, Mike’s has a bigger concern: Jody leaving town. Mike and Jody’s parents were killed in a car wreck years ago, and with all the bad memories surrounding the town Jody would just as soon up and leave, ditching Mike in the process. And this terrifies Mike. He sees a town psychic who assuages his anxiety, reminding him that the real killer is fear itself. Mike needs to be brave.

Some clandestine investigative work by Mike reveals that the Tall Man has sinister plans for their small town, though what those plans are no one is ever sure. A late night trip to the mortuary nearly gets Mike killed as a flying sphere, equipped with razor-sharp prongs and a drill, chases him down before burying itself in the head of a character whose only purpose is to show off the sphere’s abilities. Mike is confronted by the Tall Man and escapes, taking with him a piece of still-moving severed finger he chopped off the Tall Man’s hand during his flight. Armed with this evidence he is able to convince both Jody and Reggie that something evil is happening at the mortuary and the three of them are the only ones who can do anything to stop it.

The success of Phantasm can be attributed to one word: mystery. Just when it seems like the story is progressing linearly Coscarelli throws a wrench into the mix that causes viewers to question nearly everything they have just seen. There isn’t much doubt the Tall Man is real, since, you know, we have sequels, but what pieces of Mike’s story are authentic and what came straight from his imagination? And even if viewers are able to ascertain the fate of Mike, Jody, and Reggie then what of the Tall Man and his endless horde of minions? An all-too-brief visit to the Tall Man’s home planet produces a modicum of answers that, again, only raise more questions. Phantasm plays with fantastical elements constantly, giving viewers just enough information to maintain interest while consistently keeping them behind the ball (sure, pun intended). I’m of the opinion that the success here is part long term planning – the film shot for over a year – and part happy accidents – actors were often given pages at a time; Reggie Bannister says he never received an actual, complete script.

Although none of the lead actors are particularly great, they work well as a trio. Individually, limitations are apparent. Reggie fares the best, probably because in reality he isn’t too far removed from that laidback dude who just wants to get his work done so he can get back to cranking out tunes on the guitar. Bill Thornbury is mostly one-note as Jody, whose primary interest throughout the film is figuring out a way to leave town. Even once Mike comes to him with evidence of evil deeds, one gets the sense that Jody is willing to help him out simply to end the mystery and then move on. So, most of the acting onus is placed on Mike and, well… “A” for effort? I’ve always thought Mike was the weak link in the series, truth be told, although he actually did a wonderful job in the second film…

Mystery and that fear of the unknown are what drive Phantasm, not jump scares. Questions are raised and almost-but-not-quite answers are given. Because Coscarelli didn’t wrap everything up in a neat package by end credit time, nor does he really answer lingering questions left by further sequels, the mystery of the Tall Man and his ultimate purpose remains unanswered – and the series, especially the first entry, is all the better for it.

Phans have been clamoring for years to get Phantasm on Blu-ray and now, thanks to a shiny new 4K remaster courtesy of JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, it’s here from… Well Go USA? I guess Scream Factory and Arrow don’t have such deep pockets… Honestly, it doesn’t matter who got the rights because the transfer work was already done and it is indeed spectacular. The 1.78:1 1080p image is a revelation. Period. Anyone familiar with previous home video releases will immediately recognize the level of care and consideration that has clearly gone into making this 37-year-old picture shine. Color saturation, fine detail, contrast, black levels… everything across the board is as meticulously restored as possible. Coscarelli even went the extra mile and made some very minor revisionist changes, like removing wires on the spheres. The video quality speaks for itself, right from the first frame.

Similarly, the new English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track is superb. Purists and the surround-sound challenged can opt for either the original mono track or a 2.0 stereo offering but the multi-channel track is the clear winner on all fronts. Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrove’s perfectly chilling score sounds tremendous in lossless, soaring at all the right moments and completely captivating at every cue. Dialogue is perfectly prioritized and comes through clear and free from hiss. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

Now, here’s where the issue with Well Go releasing this comes into play: bonus features. Where a company like Scream Factory or Arrow would have collected all previous bonus features in one tidy package, Well Go has included a few legacy features along with exactly one new supplement that gets little mileage.

The audio commentary track, featuring director & writer Don Coscarelli, Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, and Bill Thornbury returns here.

“Graveyard Carz” – A shop that customizes cars remakes the old ’71 Hemicuda for an audience composed of Coscarelli and Baldwin. Meh.

“Interview from 1979 with Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm” – Taken from footage on an old talk show, this is a cool chat with the guys right around the film’s release.

Several deleted scenes, along with a “1979 Phantasm Trailer” and the film’s remastered trailer are also included.

Special Features:

  • NEW 4K Restoration
  • Audio Commentary with Director Don Coscarelli and cast members Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, & Bill Thornbury
  • Graveyard Cars
  • Interviews from 1979 with Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm
  • Deleted Scenes

BUY IT NOW!

  • Phantasm
  • Special Features
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User Rating 3.36 (14 votes)

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The Cured Review – Ellen Page Fights for Her Life

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Starring Ellen Page, Sam Keeley, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Paula Malcomson

Written and directed by David Freyne


Taking a cue from AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the new Irish horror film The Cured begins where most zombie stories end. Drawing more comparisons, the themes of mistrust and social upheaval are front and center here as well. We’re the real villains, and the infectious disease turning humans into monsters is only there to hold up a mirror to show the worst sides of ourselves. The Cured uses the zombie mythos as Romero intended as a commentary on culture, with a little cannibalism thrown in for good measure.

Against the backdrop of a military takeover attempting to reintroduce the recently cured back into society, two people try to return to some kind of normalcy in a war-torn Ireland that’s been turned upside down by the zombie menace. Recently widowed, Abbey (Page) allows her now virus-free brother-in-law Senan (Keeley) to live with her and her son, even though most survivors are forced to live in an army encampment. Under constant surveillance, Senan’s old friend Conor (Vaughan-Lawlor) radicalizes the mistreated survivors of the virus into open rebellion.

The treatment of the survivors isn’t entirely unfair considering that they still have a connection and are not detected by a small percentage of the infected that haven’t responded to the cure. As both sides size each other up, Abbey and Senan are caught in the middle as they try to restore their humanity before the powder keg around them erupts.

Given its far out premise, the story stays firmly grounded in reality, focusing on the growing resistance and its political implications, drawing parallels to the protest movements such as the “Black Block” that have dominated some recent news cycles. When the virus divided the population, it was easy to know what side you were on; now, the cure has created a new class structure where the lower class is maligned until they cross the line and overthrow the uninfected. Clearly still affected and haunted by the heinous acts they committed when they were infected, the cannibalistic rage they still carry reflects the rage felt by the mistreated masses hellbent on overthrowing the powers-that-be.

Whether for budget reasons or simply a style choice, the eating frenzies that occurred before the cure are never fully shown so any gore and graphic images that could’ve been showcases for effects are left to the imagination. Maybe they weren’t shown because these acts were so unspeakable that they are too horrific to see and too painful to fully be remembered by the survivors. The top-notch sound design ratchets up instead and roars to life to the point where just hearing the carnage is enough to make you turn away.

Page’s performance is the emotional core of the film as she goes from understanding to fear to dealing with the ultimate betrayal. It’s important for a slow-developing story like this to have an actress with some star power, and director David Freyne and his team were fortunate to have a high caliber actress ready to deliver in some of the film’s quieter, more intense moments. Freyne directs these smaller character moments with care and also delivers once things open up to show the inevitable anarchy brimming under the surface.

The Cured may feel too closed off at times to allow its bigger ideas to fully breathe, but it never pretends to encompass a more epic scope that would be more in the vein of something like World War Z. Without ever addressing it directly, Freyne, as an Irishman, seems well aware of the history of the country; and he and cinematographer Piers McGrail inject their film with a pathos that makes Dublin come to life inside the world of the undead.

  • The Cured
3.5

Summary

The Cured is a gritty take on the genre that fits nicely into the new type of storytelling that these stories need to embrace in a post-Romero world.

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Bad Apples Review – Rotten Fruit, Indeed

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Starring Brea Grant, Graham Skipper, Alycia Lourim

Directed by Brian Coyne


Like a seriously bad rash, some films stick with you regardless of whichever topical ointment you slather in generous fashion over your regions – ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce today’s orbital irritant: Bad Apples.

Directed (rather misdirected) by Brian Coyne, this lamentably sterile piece of celluloid follows a couple of murderous sisters, donning horrific (and not in a good sense) masks, and generally putting the sharp edges to random folk on Halloween night…case closed. Only problem here is this: the film has no pulse, no interesting characters to speak of, and basically nothing to redeem or recapture the time that you’ll have spent watching this complete dud. A husband and wife duo has a spotlight on them as well, but their tempestuous relationship makes rooting for them about as pleasing as sitting through 3 hours of Olympic curling…absolutely brutal. Also, you’re reading the babblings of a guy who loves to put the boots to any film that has been deemed “unwatchable”, but this complete wreck of a production is entirely that – something so remedial and uninspired that to type an endless array of rightful vitriol would be an utter waste of time.

So I’ll go on a bit longer with my public display of vehemence, as the casting seems WAY out of whack, and the production? Whoa…don’t even get me started on this – okay, I’ll go on a bit. With differing levels of sound editing, you’ll get the feeling at times like you could pick up a needle drop inside of a concert hall, and other frames of dialogue are so muddled they’re incomprehensible (not like you’ll feel the need to know what’s going on). Wonky camera angles and following shots are so horrendously captured, you’ll be wishing to watch your Mom and Dad’s old home movies just to gain a sense of stability. I normally pride myself on not begging this particular audience to take what I say to heart, or to shy away from something that could potentially ruin their eyesight, but believe me when I plead with you: do not waste your valuable time on this shipwreck – even if your time isn’t all that valuable: don’t waste it. Find something else to do and take a big ol’ pass on this wannabe slasher.

  • Film
1.5

Summary

I don’t mean to pick on the low-hanging fruit, but these Apples should be batted away with a Louisville Slugger.

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Edge of Isolation Review – A Movie with a Simple Message: Don’t Trust Anyone

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Starring Michael Marcel, Marem Hassler, Alexandra Peters

Directed by Jeff Houkal


Sometimes, relying on the kindness of strangers is the thing that’ll do your gullible asses in – kindness? Strangers? Come on – think about it! Even further proof of said warning comes in the form of director Jeff Houkal’s brutally blatant film, Edge Of Isolation – won’t you come inside and grab a seat? You see! You fell right into another trap – jeezus, people…don’t trust just anyone, will ya?

Set up in a simplistic format, we’ve got a traveling couple (Lance and Kendra) whose Jeep, conveniently enough decides to shit the bed along a desolate stretch of roadway, leaving them at the mercy of the Polifer family, a slightly odd bunch of backwoods residents. This particular clan isn’t exactly wrapped too tightly, and they’re not afraid to let their freak flags fly, that’s for sure. You see, the family has been deeply-rooted in these here woods, and their “hospitality” has kept them fed for quite some time, and with a fresh supply of unsuspecting commuters stopping in at varying spells, their stomachs never truly seem to growl out of sustained hunger…oh, that kindness will bite you in the ass every single waking moment.

As I mentioned earlier, the film is constructed fairly simple, yet effective in its barbarism, and those who dig survivalist-horror will be wringing their mitts in anticipation for this one. While some editing does look a bit hokey, the practical effects more than make up for an at-times bit of strewn-about plot navigation, but who’s keeping score? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. I absolutely revel in low-budgeted films that don’t necessarily have the looks and feels of such, and Edge Of Isolation is one of those presentations that is certainly worth its weight in blood and guts – do yourself a solid and give this one a look when it becomes available to the masses, and for f**k’s sake, don’t take up anyone’s offer to chill at their place when your ride breaks down – get AAA and save your life (the previous statement was in no way affiliated or endorsed by the Triple A Automotive group – just sayin’).

  • Film
3.5

Summary

Edge Of Isolation doesn’t need a full-blown allocation to keep future stranded motorists from losing their heads – all they have to do is push “play.”

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