Color, 1979, 88 mins.

Written, Produced & Directed by Don Coscarelli

Starring Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Kathy Lester / Music by Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrove / Cinematography by Don Coscarelli

Format: DVD - MGM (MSRP $34.98)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital 5.1

If someone found a way to transfer the grief-ridden fever dream of a preadolescent horror fan directly onto film, the result would look a lot like Phantasm, a rare entry in the late '70s horror sweepstakes that doesn't involve mad slashers or demonic children. Filmed on a ridiculously low budget and extremely popular upon its theatrical release and subsequent incarnations on video, Phantasm in many ways prefigures the "irrational" horrors of the '80s (A Nightmare on Elm Street in particular) and, despite a few dated but lovable trappings of its period, has managed to retain its scare value over the past twenty years.

Jodie (Bill Thornbury) and his younger brother, Mike (Michael Baldwin), relocate to a small town where they attend the funeral of one of Jodie's old buddies. Mike begins noticing strange events in the local cemetery, Morningside, which usually involve the sinister caretaker (Angus Scrimm), whom Mike dubs "the Tall Man." Mike already suffers from anxiety over the death of his parents, and he harbors fears that Jodie will take off and desert him. After dealing with rampaging robed dwarfs and other odd occurrences, Mike finally decides he's had enough and sneaks into Morningside after hours, where he has a very close encounter with the Tall Man. Mike manages to sever and hold on to one of the Tall Man's fingers, which continues to ooze and spew yellow glop. Mike shows the finger to Jodie, who, along with plucky ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister), decides to help Mike get to the bottom of this bizarre mystery.

Deftly mixing elements of gothic horror, sci-fi, and surrealism, director Don Coscarelli performed most of the major production functions on this film, an amazing feat considering his young age and the impressive results. In fact, Phantasm proved to become such a surprise cult hit that it spawned no less than three sequels, though only the third, Lord of the Dead, came close to recapturing the same terrifying delirium on display here. Wisely, Coscarelli chose to place a great deal of emphasis on the human characters, all of whom are sympathetic and quirky. Oddly enough, Reggie, basically a supporting character here, became the protagonist in the other films, and Bannister wound up becoming an impressive comic and action presence in the process. As the audience identifier, Baldwin's lack of acting experience is countered by his sheer believability as a real kid -- neurotic, foul mouthed, and imaginative. Though Thornbury was relegated to bit parts afterwards for reasons best not discussed here, he also does a fine job and even does a little singing (included as a separate audio track here as well). Of course, the most memorable presence, Scrimm, has few lines but quickly became a horror icon, thanks in no small part to his creepy agents of death: flying metal spheres that burrow into victims' heads and expunge their blood.

The ideal Phantasm seemed to arrive from New Line thanks to their deluxe laserdisc box set, which included a widescreen transfer and an avalanche of extras including outtakes, TV appearances, trailers, deleted scenes, and commentary from Coscarelli, Baldwin, Thornbury, and Scrimm. MGM's nicely packaged DVD edition offers the same extras at a fraction of the price, as well as even more deleted scenes (including a splattery encounter between the Tall Man and a fire extinguisher). The transfer actually looks even better, with richer shadows and duskier colors that very closely resemble how this looked back on drive-in screens in '79. The rechanneled 5.1 mix obviously isn't as smooth and elegant as a recent film, but the startling sound effects bursting from every channel are guaranteed to send viewers flying out of their seats. Of course, the eerie, elegant electronic score (second to Halloween as one of the decade's finest) also sounds greatly improved. MGM's animated menus remain perfectly in keeping with the film's imagery, featuring characters' faces and film stills morphing into spheres from one screen to another. A fantastic job all around, this may be pricier than a standard DVD, but it's unquestionably money well spent.

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