Phantasm is the film series that made Don Coscarelli’s career. Made for very little money, the original was an independent film (like most of his work)—he directed, wrote and shot the series beginning in his mid-20s. The genre hops between supernatural horror and science fiction, and the films even feature some Kubrickian strangeness a la 2001 (the director’s favourite film). Of course, genre-hopping is something Coscarelli has subsequently done throughout his career, most notably in Bubba Ho-Tep and his most recent film, John Dies at the End.
The first Phantasm film came out in 1979 and stars A. Michael Baldwin as Mike and Reggie Bannister as his friend Reggie. These two protagonists are in most of the film series (although Bannister was absent from the second, except in flashbacks). Together, Mike and Reggie fight the interdimensional grave-robber known as the Tall Man. The first film is about grief and mourning: Mike’s parents and brother have died, and he suspects that a mysterious villain, the Tall Man, was responsible for their deaths. Reggie, whose rock-n-roll ice-cream vendor persona is largely based on the actor himself, teams up with Mike to pursue their target together.
Upon arrival, Phantasm got very mixed reviews. Ebert called it “a labor of love, but not a technically skilled one.” However, due to home video and late-night screenings, it became a cult hit and gave Coscarelli a boost as a director. (Incidentally, Motorhead’s most famous song, “Ace of Spades,” came out of Lemmy seeing Phantasm.) It has lived on due to being a teenage-boy empowerment story that also deals with serious themes and has surreal elements. It’s a bit incomprehensible, as not every element is explained, but it still works.
The new 4K restoration by J.J. Abrams, who wrote and directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens (within which he included a character called Captain Phasma because his suit reminded him of the ball in Phantasm), looks great. The flying silver ball has been very slightly digitally enhanced with CGI, which has upset some fans. When I talked to Coscarelli recently, I suggested including a version without the CGI, an idea that he liked, but in the end the production company didn’t go with it. Purists can always get a cheap DVD.
The film certainly had visible influence. Without Phantasm, you wouldn’t have had Nightmare on Elm Street—it was first with the disturbed-dreams and creepy bogeyman plot, pioneering the use of dream logic in ‘80s horror films to tell a story (of course, it’s always been a part of horror fiction, starting with Edgar Allen Poe). Internet bogeyman the Slender Man is also clearly inspired by Coscarelli’s Tall Man.
Phantasm II (1988) picks up where the first feature ended. It was recast with James Le Gros (Rick from Drugstore Cowboy) as Mike, which made the film somewhat controversial among fans of the original. Coscarelli worked with a studio on it, which marked the last time he used studio money to do his work. Despite Universal’s involvement, it was still a low-budget feature. This sequel begins with Mike locked up in a mental hospital after the events of the first film, and the plot has more scope than the original. There’s a road movie element to it, for example. The studio did control a lot of the production, and kept Coscarelli from putting in much ambiguity, opting instead for more of an action-movie feel. As with any horror sequel in the 80s there’s more gore and more guns, but he still managed to get his vision through. It was the last of the series to really get a theatrical release.
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead and Phantasm IV: Oblivion were released direct to video in 1994 and 1998, with Baldwin back in the lead role. They were made on small budgets—about the same for both films together as the $3 million Coscarelli had for the second sequel, with the fourth even using some funds left over from the third.
The years have been fairly kind to the third film, although it wasn’t very well received at the time. A new Tall Man appears through a dimensional portal, and it includes more comedic elements. These had always been present, but not all fans liked the increase. The new Tall Man is trying to build a sort of undead army, harvesting people’s brains to create killer spheres and turning their bodies into drones. It definitely deserves a second viewing as it has some good elements.
Coscarelli had planned to make a really huge Phantasm film next, Phantasm’s End, a post-apocalyptic feature with a script by Roger Avary and Bruce Campbell as the star. Avary had just co-written Pulp Fiction, making him a big fish at the time. It was a ridiculously ambitious project, so Coscarelli decided to make a low-budget interim film first, Phantasm IV, in which Mike travels through time and dimensions to try to figure out the origins of the Tall Man. He’s trying to understand what happened when his brother died, bringing the viewers back to what was a pivotal moment in the first film. Reggie, meanwhile, is trying to find Mike through battles with more silver spheres, the undead, and other fun stuff. It features a lot of flashback sequences, as does the actual fifth Phantasm: Ravager. It works better as a film than Ravager, although the director wrote it off at the time as just a way to make money from the series.
Ravager arrived last year, and was the first to be directed not by Coscarelli but by David Hartman. Hartman is primarily an animator, but had worked on John Dies at the End and Bubba Ho-Tep. It came out of a series of Webisodes, Reggie’s Tales, that were then edited into a feature. That’s the core problem—it looks like a cheaply made student film at times, the special effects aren’t great, and the plot is even more confusing than usual. Even John Dies at the End, which has some fairly bad CGI, looks better. The narrative is all over the place, with a lot of flashbacks that basically just make you want to watch the other films. The director shot it himself, as had Coscarelli years ago, but it looks like it was done with a consumer-level film camera—a real missed opportunity. Despite all this, fans will likely enjoy seeing these characters in action again.
As you might imagine, the box set is absolutely rammed with cool stuff. Every film has a commentary track with the cast of Coscarelli often both. There are introductions, interviews, Q&A panels, trailers, absolutely everything that could be packed in, including a full-length documentary on the series, Phantasmagoria. It’s a very nice package, and the six-disk set of remastered features also includes a 152-page book and a replica Phantasm sphere.