Phantasm (1979)

AUGUST 18, 2008


I was recently sent the DVD of Phantasm IV for review, and I was like “Hey, maybe I should rewatch the whole series for some non-canon reviews first.” Then I looked at the date of release for part IV and realized that, since I had done the same thing for the film when it first came on VHS, that it had been well over 10 years since I had seen any of them! I also realized that my memories of the films were rather fragmented, so non canon my ass, you’re getting a full blown legit HMAD review for each of the films over the next couple weeks, starting with the original Phantasm.

Phantasm was released right in the middle of the golden era for modern horror. Over a 2 year period (78-80), we got Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Tourist Trap, The Shining, and Death Ship, and Phantasm fits comfortably among all of those. Like Halloween, it was shot independently for about 300k in the Los Angeles area, had a relatively low body count, an amazing score, and is now a perennial double/triple/quadruple dip title for Anchor Bay.

The key difference is that the film’s creator, Don Coscarelli, stuck around for all of the sequels (as did the cast, with the exception of part 2, the four principals have all appeared in each sequel), giving the series more legitimacy as a result. The first one may be the best, but it’s probably the only major franchise other than Saw to have such a strong tie from one film to the next*.

To me, the best thing about the movie is its quirkiness. Some of it may just be the result of the small budget, but I like to think not. For example, Reggie drives not a traditional ice cream TRUCK, but a jeep of some sort:

There’s also a bit where Reggie and Jody play a song on the guitar. You’d think it’s a completely pointless scene, but then Reggie pulls out a tuning fork, and the tone segues into the next scene, which takes place at the constantly humming mausoleum. The whole scene exists to provide a nice edit to the next one (OK, to be fair, it’s also a bit of foreshadowing, but it’s still pretty goofy). Also, Jody is possibly the worst guardian/older brother in movie history. He gets his 13 year old brother drunk (and on a deleted scene, then takes him for ice cream! That’s the WORST thing to have when you’re loaded!), and later in the film, hands him a shotgun and tells him that “Warning shots are bullshit, shoot only to kill!”, and also instructs him NOT to stay close to him. Nice.

Speaking of drinking – what the hell is with all of the Dos Equis in this movie? Is the Tall Man in fact the world’s most interesting man?


There are a couple things I don’t like. One is that the manlier brother is named Jody. The younger kid looks way more like a “Jody”. Also, Mike looks in the other dimension for about 12 seconds. All he sees is a line of Jawas walking through the desert, but yet he instantly figures out that they are slaves, why they need to be shrunk, etc. There’s also a bizarre part where Mike announces that the hearse chasing them has no driver, then after the car hits them, he says it again as if he just realized it.

It doesn’t help that you can see someone driving.

Also I have no idea what’s going on at the end, but maybe the sequels will (re)explain it to me.

My DVD is the 1999 one from MGM. Anchor Bay has since reissued it a couple times, with some extras carried over, others replaced with different extras. However, the biggest draw is that theirs has an anamorphic transfer; MGM’s does not. Still, you can’t argue that the collection of extras is impressive for a single sided disc. The commentary aside (haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but it’s mainly nuts and bolts stuff like locations and “Do you remember this day?” conversation so far), there are a handful of deleted scenes, a 1979 talk show, Angus Scrimm hawking Fangoria, and a nice 20 minute collection of behind the scenes footage, narrated by Coscarelli and Reggie Bannister (who is strangely absent from the commentary track). I plan to get the nice “Sphere” box set from Region 2 someday, which has additional extras on the DVD for the first film.

One of the more ambitious films of the period, Phantasm holds up remarkably well. The sequels got a bit too goofy, if memory serves, but this one is creepy and fast paced, though not without humor. Like Evil Dead, it’s a great testament to how much a filmmaker can pull off with meager means and make big budget films look like crap in the process.

What say you?

*Sure, Raimi did all three Evil Dead movies, but they are so wildly different in tone from one another that it hardly even feels like a franchise.


  1. Is it just me or has Angus Scrimm aged relatively little over the past 30 years? That dude is frightening.

  2. YAY!

    Phantasm (ALL 4 Of Them) is awesome. There isnt one of them I disliked. I enjoyed the close connection between all of them, and how they open a little more information in each one. The first one is a bit dull to me ONLY as it would be alone, but the rest makes all of them top notch IMO. The tie in makes all the dull parts of 1 much more interesting.

  3. I'm curious to know how much footage they shot for this first movie, as some of the sequels -- three and four, if I remember correctly -- have these HUGE flashback scenes that were obviously shot way back when the first movie was filmed. Was the script for this first one much, much longer than the movie ended up being? I loved those long flashbacks in the sequels and love how all the movies tie together so well. These movies aren't perfect, but they're mostly great. Can't wait to see reviews of the whole series.

  4. Great movie that is the first I can remember in my personal experience that had horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and comedy all rolled into one, and each bit worked.

    I seem to remember them addressing the Dos Equis issue on the commentary--somehow they got a nearby bottling plant to sponsor them for screentime, or something. Or maybe I'm thinking about another movie.

    Also, in Tall Man Trivia--I believe Angus is the only Horror Icon who is also a Grammy winner! He's a music scholar and won a "technical" Grammy for an essay in some liner notes, or something.

    Also also, I think that Phantasm came out after Star Wars, but was filmed before--which means two separate filmmakers had the Jawa idea independently of each other. Weird.

  5. That score is indeed great. I was introduced to it many years before seeing the film in a death metal song called Left Hand Path by a band called Entombed. Despite being a part of a music genre know for focusing on brutality rather than songwriting, they are surprisingly good song writers. So they cleverly use the theme as the outro of the song whilst the lead guitarist plays a tuneful and mournful solo. I had enjoyed it for years before discovering that the source was this movie.

  6. It is the all time best horror movie nothing comes close to it dont hate

  7. Also, the bit where the younger brother puts his hand in the box and gets the lecture about fear ... they stole that straight from Frank Herbert's "Dune."


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