Starring Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thronbury
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Released by Anchor Bay UK
“You think when you die, you go to heaven?”
The Phantasm series of films has always been a favourite of mine. The only other series that I think holds themselves so well over the full course of it are the Ju-On series and Romero’s Dead series, all of which are notable for being series where every film was written and directed by the same person. I’ve owned a number of versions of all of the Phantasm films to date, but there’s never been a good collection of them until now.
Taking the success of their Hellraiser boxset and using it as the model for their Phantasm set, Anchor Bay UK have released what is undoubtedly their most ambitious box set to date. Similarly to the Hellraiser box, the case the Phantasm DVDs come in has taken its cue from an icon of the series: one of the spheres. This mirrored plastic casing is an oversized replica, featuring two extended blades, and even comes with its own little stand to keep it from rolling all around your DVD shelf. Impractical as it is cool, it’s a real head turner.
The set has been delayed, but for good reasons. Don Coscarelli made it known that he wanted to remaster the films, and there’s no doubt that the new transfers have been worth waiting for, especially as they went back to original prints and as such have reinstated a few pieces of gore into the third entry, Lord of the Dead, that have never before been seen outside of workprints.
All four films now sport 5.1 DTS soundtracks and anamorphic widescreen, and the transfers of all but the third film are of the standard you’d expect from Anchor Bay’s American counterparts. For whatever reason, and I’m presuming it’s the medium they shot III on, it just doesn’t match up to the other three in picture quality, but it’s still better than any other version of III I’ve seen, though when watching them side by side, III stands out like a sore thumb.
The Phantasm series, for those that don’t know, generally follows the exploits of two brothers, Mike and Jody, and their good friend Reggie in their fight against a mysterious tall undertaker, known to them as The Tall Man. The Tall Man is reanimating the dead bodies he’s receiving and doing all kinds of other crazy stuff to them. Dreams and reality blur, time and space are traveled, and lots of things die.
Made over a period of almost a quarter of a century, one of the coolest things about the series is how, apart from the notable exception of Mike in Phantasm II, the same actors have returned to their roles time and again. Each film has differing strengths and weaknesses, but generally the films have held up well. The original is the most dated but still my favourite of the series by far. Phantasm II is the most straightforward and actiony, Phantasm III the most comic, and Phantasm OblIVion the most surreal.
It’s low budget, bloody fun about a small cluster of endearing characters fighting an unstoppable evil, and while the special effects in the first are looking more and more hokey with time (in fact they were even being joked about while Phantasm II was being made as you’ll see in Nicotero’s spot on the extras DVD), it’s great to see the film looking and sounding as good as it does here, in anamorphic widescreen for the first time.
Just a note on that; it was always Coscarelli’s intention that the first film be shown in widescreen. However, when he was shooting, he made sure that areas above and below what was shot remained free of any boom mics or other imperfections, so that when shown on TV it could be shown unmated. That means that the Region 2 4:3 release of Phantasm loses nothing at the sides when compared to the letterboxed Region 1 MGM disc. If you’re used to the 4:3 version you might feel like you’re losing picture in this version, but bear in mind this is how Don always wanted the film to be presented.
The first and second films both look and sound better than I ever thought they would, and these are the transfers I’ll be watching time and time again without question. Compared to the DVDs I already had, it’s like night and day. Previous versions of II and III were merely in stereo but now offer full 5.1 surround sound, and I’m a sucker for DTS every time. The spheres are exactly the sort of thing that surround sound was made for, and they don’t disappoint as they whiz around the sound field and gnaw their way through flesh.
Phantasm II and especially III always felt neutered with their cut down head drilling scenes, so it’s unfortunate that the scene in the second is still the trimmed version. Fortunately, and rather deliciously, the same isn’t true of Phantasm III, which has gone from no blood in its drilling scene to the full-on geyser you’d expect. It’s now my favourite drilling scene, in fact.
Another scene featuring an axe has always been horribly edited out of III in a very obvious and jarring way, and having it back doesn’t just give you some gore to enjoy, but gives you a better paced and edited scene.
OblIVion, being the newest in the series, had already been put out with a fairly solid transfer, so it’s the least noticeably improved, but it’s certainly nice having that DTS track and seeing the first two films look just as pristine. The footage from the original shoot of Phantasm that they reincorporated back into OblIVion look closer in quality than I remember them looking before.
I should mention the menus at this point. The menu on Phantasm features a CGI version of the Morningside Mausoleum with a handful of spheres flying around it, and it looks rather good. II, III, and IV all share the same menu, a full motion rendition of the mausoleum from Phantasm II. It’s nice but not quite as good, and it’s a shame each film couldn’t receive its own menu — but understandable all the same.
As far as extras go, there’s pretty much everything from the MGM disc and the previous Region 2 releases. There’s the same wonderful behind the scenes video footage from Phantasm and the amusing footage of Angus Scrimm reciting all his lines from the first two films at a Fangoria convention back in the Eighties.
Every film has commentaries, and the usual suspects rotate in and out. No one is on all four films, but you’ll hear Don Coscarreli, Angus ‘The Tall Man’ Scrimm, Bill ‘Jody’ Thornbury, A Micheal Baldwin, and Reggie Bannister. The commentary on Phantasm is the same one from the MGM Region 1 disc, which is a good track that it benefits from having Bill Thornbury, but it is a shame that we aren’t getting a new commentary there. The other three are new commentaries, and surprisingly I found the commentary on Phantasm III the most entertaining.
It’s performed by Angus Scrimm and A. Micheal Baldwin, who both go missing for a huge portion of the film, but Mike’s dry wit entertains at every turn, and Angus, who tends to fade into the background when there are two or more other people in the booth with him, is most active here. It’s probably the least informative, but all the same it’s great to hear these two talking about their experiences on the series and theorizing about what certain things may or may not mean.
There are deleted scenes from the original and a disc of bonus extras that contains a number of documentaries covering various aspects of the films. Aside from just the usual ‘making of’ things, there’s ‘Phantasm Genesis’ which shows you a number of scenes go from shooting to final edit, a Sean Clark-esque tour of a few filming sites with Reggie Bannister, a look at the effects from II through IV with Greg Nicotero, and a look at the “Phans” of the series.
The star of the disc is undoubtedly “Phantasmagoria,” a feature-length look at the making of the entire series. Anything not already covered in the commentaries is covered here with fortunately little repetition. There are a lot of nice material in this, good interviews, good behind the scenes footage… It’s really a top notch example of this type of thing, and that the series contains mostly the same cast and crew throughout ensures that it’s a lot more balanced than, say, the Friday the 13th documentary which seemed to speed through a couple of the films.
‘Phantasm Genesis’ is a little on the strange side. Basically it consists of behind the scenes footage of a handful of shots from a scene, compared against the final edited together scene. Apart from a couple of amusing outtake style moments, it really doesn’t do much to educate and inform.
Fortunately the same isn’t true of Nicotero’s spot. Obviously it only focuses on Phantasm II and OblIVion, the only films he was involved in, but the vintage footage of the make-up effects guys goofing around is as fun as similar footage from Evil Dead 2. Actually, it’s more fun, with Mark Shostrom’s team seeming like a great group of people to work with as they goof around with the appliances. Nicotero is interviewed, and the only thing you could say about it is that it’s a shame they didn’t get Shostrom in to talk about the work done on the third movie too.
‘Reggie’s Phantastic Tour’ is a bit of a disappointment, covering only a few of the sites that our intrepid Sean Clark hit in his Horror’s Hallowed Grounds article on the series. Reggie performs it half in character, which makes it a little uneven. It’s fun enough, but it just seems like too few of the filming sites are included and almost all the locations are from the first film. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Sean Clark’s take on it.
The final documentary is on the Phantasm fans, dubbed ‘Phandom’. It’s enjoyable, not as good as the main documentary or the Greg Nicotero one, but definitely a nice nod to some of the more hardcore Phans and pays some nice lipservice to those of us that are a little bit obsessive with this series.
There are easter eggs on every disc, but I’ll let you find those for yourself.
Finally, I have to talk about the sphere box itself. The mirrored plastic really does evoke the spheres from the film. It’s extravagant and fitting, and it’s very much the bow that makes this set must have. If you’re weird and want normal sized DVD packaging, there is a digipack version; but seriously, once you see the ball, you’ll know you need it.
The Phantasm series is one of the more endearing horror franchises that has some of the best crafted long-running characters of any horror series, not to mention the mighty Angus Scrimm, whose Tall Man manages to go four films without ever doing anything stupid or losing any of the presence and menace he has in the first film.
Unless you can’t stand the Phantasm series, this is really a must-own set, and it’s good enough that I’d recommend any of you that don’t have a region free DVD player get one to check it out, the only major gripes being the picture quality in III and the still-cut ball scene in II.
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