The Dark Specter of Death Remastered in 4K
Phantasm: Remastered is now available to rent or purchase on Amazon or iTunes and is in limited theatrical release.
Shot on a shoestring budget and comprised of a crew of ambitious amateurs, creator Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm was released into theaters in 1979. In the nearly four decades since, the terrifying, reality-warping battle against the mysterious tall man has been carried on through four sequels and the series has influenced numerous films and filmmakers alike in the time since. Now, Phantasm has been painstakingly remastered after years of waiting in the purgatory of poor quality transfers and hastily assembled home video releases despite its passionate and loyal following. Through a 4K remaster made possible through the assistance of J.J. Abrams (a lifelong fan of the franchise) and the production company Bad Robot, Phantasm: Remastered looks and sounds far better than ever.
While its story is simple and limited due to the tiny independent production of the film, Phantasm has stayed in the minds of fans for decades because of its potent themes and perception-altering approach to horror. Set in a small Oregon town, Phantasm tells the story of 13-year old Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin), who is being raised by his 24-year-old brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) after the deaths of their parents. But the suspicious death of a friend causes their paths to cross with an ominous undertaker known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), whose strange powers and disturbing plans for the bodies of the recently deceased threaten their lives in an increasingly dangerous game of cat and mouse.
While the micro budget of Coscarelli’s film and the inexperience of its writer/director are evident in the limited locations, small yet effective kills, and often stilted acting, Phantasm gets by on sheer verve, the terrifying notions at its core, and the nightmare logic that is employed in the film’s composition. Like most low budget horror films of decades past, part of the movie’s charm is due to the can-do attitude and sheer vision on display thanks to its creator’s passion and attitude. That’s still evident today, and Coscarelli wisely never steps outside the limits of his budget, which has helped the movie to age as well as it clearly has.
But Phantasm is loaded with compelling, unforgettable imagery. Scrimm’s Tall Man looms over all like death personified. Flying metal orbs streak through the air, drilling into the foreheads of victims to unleash geysers of blood. Vicious dwarves attack in the night like far less friendly cousins of Star Wars’ adorable Jawas. These elements are pieced together through dreamlike editing that turns a very simple battle against evil into a much more metaphorical meditation on death. As young Mike struggles with the passing of his parents and an ever-distancing relationship with his older brother, the realization of mortality takes literal shape in the form of The Tall Man. The themes of coping with loss and facing your fear of death are everywhere in Phantasm, keeping the film potent and consistently relatable to new generations.
Scenes like the infamous introduction of the floating deadly metal sphere known as The Sentinel, Mike’s feverish graveyard nightmare, a blinding white room where secrets are revealed, and the numerous chases involving The Tall Man stick in the memory. And so do the directorial flourishes by Coscarelli, like an old photograph coming to life in the hands of its observer or a brief trip to a strange, red dimension. They swirl and shift through the dreamlike construction of the movie, bewildering the audience without losing the action-focused narrative thread.
And what about the tweaks that Coscarelli has mentioned being made to the film itself beyond the remaster? They’re incredibly small. And while many fans may have had fever dreams of a George Lucas-like overhaul of what they have known and loved for decades upon the announcement of this remaster, the changes are incredibly minor. The wires and minor production gaffs that naturally come with a low budget have been erased and a flying Sentinel has been replaced by a CGI version in one quick shot, but you wouldn’t be able to tell without major scrutiny. This is the cleanest possible reproduction of Phantasm you could hope for with a film shot on a low budget in the 70s. Crisp audio for the dialogue, sound effects, and score, deep blacks in the nighttime, and a color balance that evokes the exact vision of the director at the time the film was made. Fans should be thrilled with what has been done to make this seminal horror film look great today.
While the somewhat lax tone of Phantasm may hurt the movie most when it comes to visceral fears, with moments intended as jump scares never quite working and the most intense moments feeling less dynamic than what is ideal, it also adds to the unique flavor of the entire film. Phantasm works through its creeping dread and consistent sense of unease. According to Coscarelli and the film’s cast, much of the script was rewritten or improvised throughout the year in which the film was shot (mostly on weekends) and numerous revisions through the editing process resulted in the film’s dreamlike nature.
Also of note is the unique nature of the movie’s protagonists. Jody and Mike are unlike the common horror protagonist. Rather than flail in fear and deny their peril until their imminent doom arrives, these two brothers are far more active, pursuing The Tall Man in hopes of killing him in revenge for his murders and out of atonement for the loss of their parents, while still being scared out of their minds. The dynamic at play would speak to any young viewer who wishes to be like his or her older sibling and their monster hunting heroism is a clear influence on later horror franchises like Supernatural. Their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is also one of a kind – a balding, ponytail-wearing ice cream deliveryman who is equally heroic in unconventional manners. While Reggie would go on to be the central protagonist of the series in future installments, his charm and charisma shine brightly in his limited screen time here.
Of course, Scrimm’s Tall Man is perhaps the defining element of Phantasm and its subsequent sequels. Standing well over six feet tall, face twisted into a constantly menacing grimace, The Tall Man casts an imposing figure. His limby, stiff body is the encapsulation of unknowable horror and the inescapability of death, adding far more layers to Scrimm’s performance. He’s an unconventional icon of horror and one that has never reached the same levels of mainstream recognition as other slashers and monsters. Yet his unique qualities and thematic resonance make the late Scrimm’s Tall Man something very special.
It’s easy to see why Phantasm was never the mainstream icon like other series of the genre, such as Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street. It lacks the visceral punch, budget, and sheer mastery of those films (at least in their initial installments). But Phantasm is an idiosyncratic indie horror movie that literally came from the nightmares of its creator, which primarily seeks to explore the idea of a young boy facing adulthood and mortality for the first time. With its small focus and instantly iconic visuals, Phantasm is meant to speak to a specific audience, but those who find the film to resonate with them will be pulled into a dark, thrilling, and inescapable world.