By Jason Cueto
In a celebratory art-house event at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, I attended a special screening of a horror film that has haunted my subconscious since childhood. Don Coscarelli’s 1979 film, “Phantasm,” which by now has been assimilated by legions of horror fans, was one of the most celebrated cult hits of its genre, spawning four sequels and a dedicated fan base that I was privileged to share the experience with. It was a nostalgic pleasure to watch a piece of my youth reintroduced to audiences who, that night, were laughing and jolting throughout the film.
The film recently underwent a restoration process overseen by award-winning filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who was deeply influenced by “Phantasm” when he first saw it as a young boy, eventually leading to his career in filmmaking.
Collaborating with Coscarelli, Abrams and the masterminds at his production studio, Bad Robot, took the film’s original 35mm negative and refined it to stunning 4K, a super high resolution image. From the Morningside Cemetery in broad daylight to the eerily sterile mausoleum halls supported by Fred Myrow’s and Malcolm Seagrave’s iconic score, the film has never felt any creepier than in its restored form.
Today, “Phantasm” still remains one of my favorite horror films, but how well does the film hold up? This surrealist horror flick follows two brothers, Mike and Jody Pearson (Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornsbury) who are haunted by the sinister Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), a ghoulish mortician who summons flying deadly spheres and zombie dwarves molded from fresh corpses. The brothers, accompanied by their best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), must work together to end the Tall Man’s reign of terror. The plot is as ridiculous as it sounds, but there is a surreal and creepy imagination to Coscarelli’s craft.
However, the film is still flawed; there are some acting moments that feel flat, and the editing occasionally feels disjointed because of the lack of proper transitions between scenes. Occasionally, minor characters show up without prior introduction. Some shots didn’t meet the 4K tune-up — for example, a repeated establishing shot of the Pearson house that looks muddled and unfocused.
Despite a measly $300,000 budget, the film sometimes looks like a million-dollar studio film. The film’s 4K restoration made Coscarelli’s excellent sound and set design, cinematography and optical effects feel palpable. There are iconic moments that remain haunting. My favorite scene features Mike walking through Morningside, and in a POV shot, he spots the Tall Man who pauses to stare at Mike. While staring Mike down, the mortician inhales an icy mist from an ice cream truck with chilling pleasure.
Other great details stand out, such as Mike equipping himself with a large Bowie Knife a la “Taxi Driver.” Another scene depicts a character’s capsized truck surrounded by hauntingly backlit fog.
It’s these technical elements throughout the film that help Coscarelli achieve greatness in horror filmmaking, despite some shortcomings in the plot. The themes work and the characters are likeable. Mike is the scrappy, younger brother who does not want to be alone without his eldest brother, Jody. Reggie becomes the scene-stealer, providing comic relief but also displaying genuine loyalty and empathy to his comrades. And needing no introduction, there’s the late Angus Scrimm’s iconically over-the-top performance as the Tall Man that created one of the most celebrated boogeymen in horror cinema.
The thematic resonance in “Phantasm” largely lies in the two lead characters’ tragic backstory that coincides with Coscarelli’s emphasis on fear, grief and death. Ultimately, if fear feeds the evil you dread, it will come to determine your mortality.
“Phantasm” is still a delight to revisit with a critical eye, and I highly recommend it to new generations of horror fans. Without spoiling the film, I should warn that some viewers may feel cheated by the resolution, but its final shocking, open-ended scare will leave you satisfied.
If you’re left wanting more of all things “Phantasm,” there are four sequels all directed by Coscarelli, and now a fifth and final installment scheduled for October 7, “Phantasm: Ravager.” The remastered version of “Phantasm” is set to be re-released on home video on Dec. 6, but the digital copy will be available on Oct. 4 for all your pre-Halloween scares.