phantasm remastered review

How does Phantasm exist?

That’s an odd rhetorical question to ask of a movie that has such a strong cult following, that has inspired four sequels over 37 years, and has inducted a genuine horror icon into the genre canon in the form of Angus Scrimm‘s The Tall Man. But revisiting the film in 2016 courtesy of a new 4K restoration that has the film looking better than ever, demands that this question be asked. Because Don Coscarelli‘s horror masterpiece isn’t just creepy, funny and wildly entertaining – it’s weird. Deeply weird. Endearingly weird. Weird on the kind of wavelength that you really don’t see very often. And it’s a wavelength that many horror fans seem to be right in tune with.

The story of how Phantasm went from a beloved cult horror movie to a film that was meticulously restored by J.J. Abrams and his fellow fans at Bad Robot is delightful and Coscarelli recounted it to me detail at SXSW earlier this year. Revisiting the film on the big screen at Fantastic Fest only makes it more clear why Abrams would be so devoted to such a small movie. Released in 1979, Phantasm exists on the border between the offbeat and challenging horror of the ’70s and the tougher, meaner family-friendly adventures that would define the ’80s for so many filmmakers. It’s a mystery wrapped in an riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in The Goonies. And it somehow works.

Examined it great detail (especially on the big screen), not much of Phantasm makes sense. And that’s perfectly okay. As a narrative, Phantasm is collection of concepts strung together by cardboard and determination. As a haunted dreamscape that feels like you’re watching someone else’s nightmare, it remains exceptional. Like any bad dream worth recounting the next morning, Phantasm is full of odd and inexplicable moments, startling images, realizations reached with the bare amount of evidence, and people making preposterous decisions while always ending up in the right place at the right time. Phantasm is not a movie you take literally – it is a movie you let wash over you. You experience it.

Plot is unimportant here. The mysterious Tall Man (the late Angus Scrimm, delivering a memorably physical and alien performance) is using the Morningside funeral home for his own nefarious purposes. Brothers Jody and Mike investigate. They find weird things. It gets cosmic as gothic horror gives way to bonkers science fiction. Deadly silver spheres destroy people’s brain. Mutated dwarves drive hearses in wild car chases. Balding ice cream salesmen rise to the occasion. Everyone has a gun. A psychic woman shows up to drop some important information and never returns. As a checklist, Phantasm is chock-full of memorable insanity.

While the hit-and-miss sequels choose to delve further into the unanswered questions raised by the original, the power of the original lies in what Coscarelli chooses to not explain. Phantasm is frightening because you don’t know what’s going on. It’s funny because every character on screen is off just enough to suggest that reality isn’t a key priority. It’s silly because there isn’t a shred of cynicism on display here and Coscarelli goes for broke. There really isn’t anything quite like it and these disparate elements are held together by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s haunting musical score.

And Phantasm has never looked better. Bad Robot’s 4K restoration has made this low-budget, homegrown horror movie look like it was shot yesterday. A handful of pennies rubbed together with a little bit of spit and string now looks like a million bucks. For longtime fans, the remastered version will be a dream come true. For newcomers, this is the only way to watch movie. Even more impressive than the fine-tuned look of the film is the soundtrack, which sounds nothing short of incredible when it’s blasting in your ears.

The remastered Phantasm and the fifth (and final) film in the series, Phantasm: Ravager, are arriving on VOD next month. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer, there has never been a better opportunity to check this one out.

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About the Author

Jacob Hall is the managing editor of /Film, with previous bylines all over the Internet. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, his pets, and his board game collection.