If there’s one genre where the law of diminishing returns is most evident, it’s horror. After a horror film becomes a success, it’s rarely followed up with worthy sequels. Horror fans may love their favorite franchises, but you have to admit there are some sequels that should never have happened. In the case of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series, it’s an even rarer case of the original director clinging to each sequel for better and worse.
Coscarelli is the very definition of cult following. I never watched the Phantasm movies growing up — the original came out the year before I was even born — but I was always attracted to the idea of Coscarelli’s deadly flying orbs, and Angus Scrimm’s iconic Tall Man is something every horror fan recognizes.
I may have shown up late to the party in discovering Coscarelli’s genre-bending shenanigans, but with Well Go USA releasing both Phantasm: Remastered and the newest entry, Phantasm: Ravager, together, I can’t say it was worth the wait. The original at least holds up as an example of low-budget filmmaking done right, but Coscarelli has handed the reigns of Ravager to first time live-action director David Hartman and the results are disastrous. Ravager is meant as a fond farewell, and a farewell is clearly all that’s left for the films if this is the best they can do.
The original Phantasm introduces us to the series’ teenage hero, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). He’s been creeping around Morningside cemetery after his older brother Jody’s (Bill Thornbury) friend has been killed. Soon enough, Mike and Jody, and Mike’s guitar-wielding ice cream man best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), are fighting for their lives to discover the Tall Man’s evil plot involving resurrected bodies and evil dwarfs.
In Ravager, we catch up with Reggie (still played by Bannister) as he suffers from delusions that he can’t quite figure out whether they’re real or not. He keeps flashing back and forth between a ravaged universe overrun by the Tall Man and his spheres and the sanctity of being locked up in a mental hospital where he’s continually visited by Mike (Baldwin again), who finally let’s Reggie in on a secret as Reggie’s two existences collide into one with the sake of humanity at stake.
Well Go USA delivers both Remastered and Ravager on 25GB discs and they both look pretty exceptional. The ironic part of this being that Remastered has been given a full 4K restoration courtesy of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robots facilities. Abrams is a huge fan of Coscarelli’s films and gave him full access to their equipment after seeing a partial 4K print at the annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin. Both come in frame-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratios.
Remastered shows just how good a low-budget horror film can look with the right amount of care. Colors are completely natural with bloods having the appropriate bright red they deserve. Blacks are nice and inky with crush never an issue and shadow detail probably better than it’s ever been. Grain is always present with noise never seeping into the nighttime sequences. Detail is always spot on.
As for Ravager, it was clearly filmed digitally and shows in every scene. It’s a startling difference when jumping from one cinematic format to the other. Remastered looks fully organic and theatrical while Ravager never looks more than being filmed for home video. Detail is extra clear, but when it comes to colors, there are lots of sequences full of banding and bleeding reds that make the film look downright garish. Noise is evident in a few sequences, with crush never overwhelming thanks to the oversaturated reds. Ravager was made for home video and it looks it every second.
Both films come equipped with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks and sound every bit as good as they look. Dialogue is always clean and prioritized with surrounds and directionality helping lend some extra creepiness as the Tall Man’s spheres whiz about the soundstage. Bass comes in handy in a few sequences while the sound effects and music never engulf the cheesy dialogue. Both feature the same additional audio tracks and only contain English subtitles: 2.0 Stereo or Mono.
Remastered and Ravager contain nearly identical special features. Remastered kicks things off with a “Graveyard Carz Episode” (11:24) as host Mark Worman gets pumped up to meet two of his horror idols (Coscarelli and Baldwin) to unveil his work on rebuilding the series’ Barracuda car. “Interviews from 1979 with Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm” (27:58) include two clips from an old TV show where they discuss the film’s inspirations, budget, costumes, and sets. The most fun part watching Scrimm explain the film’s synopsis in character as his beloved Tall Man.
“Deleted Scenes” include: “Bank Scene” (1:14), “Casket Room” (1:45), “Ice Cream Scene” (4:28), “Jody Visits Mike” (0:59), “Tall Man Fire Extinguisher” (1:39), and “Tall Man Smile” (0:17). None of them really add much to the film, if anything it just shows how much more odd it could have been. Two trailers are included: “1979 Phantasm Trailer” (2:13) and “Remastered Trailer” (1:56). An “Audio Commentary” features Coscarelli, Baldwin, Scrimm, and Thornbury together, waxing nostalgic on the production.
Ravager contains “Behind the Scenes” (5:24) which shows how excited Coscarelli was to resurrect the series, with some fun clips of him and Scrimm revisiting locations used in the original film. It’s great to see Scrimm going back to where it all started, especially since he passed last January — yes, another unfortunate 2016 celebrity death to add to the list. Three “Deleted Scenes” include rough cuts of the following: “Giant Dwarf” (3:47), “Escape From Dawn’s Cabin” (2:24), and “Cuda vs. Sphere” (1:42). Again, none of them add anything to the final cut, but it was fun to learn that Derek Mears (Jason Vorhees from the 2009 reboot) was the “Giant.”
“Phuntasm: Bloopers & Outtakes” (8:40) is an excruciatingly long exercise in tedium. Most blooper reels are never funny, now imagine that for nearly 10 minutes. The “Trailer” (1:46) and an audio commentary with Ravager director Hartman and Coscarelli (who served as co-writer/producer) rounds things out. Remastered and Ravager both contain preloaded trailers for additional Well Go USA titles: Train to Busan, The Wailing (both exceptional horror features), Kill Zombie! (this one being a head scratcher as it was released on Blu-ray two and a half years ago).
Whether I was late to the party, or simply missed the boat, Coscarelli’s Phantasm series is simply just not for me. It does have its share of fans — most evident in that Scream Factory released Phantasm II all the way back in March 2013 — but there’s not much here to entice horror fans who have yet to discover the films. It’s never as outrageous as Coscarelli thinks it is, and the humor is far too wacky and weird, clashing with the deadly serious antics of the Tall Man and his killer orbs and dwarfs. While the original film works way better than the thankfully final chapter, at least Coscarelli fans have a definitive presentation they can fall back on when trying to convince friends they need to check out this “far out” horror film. Featuring great video and audio, but saddled with throwaway special features — it would have been cool to have Abrams brought in to discuss the film, possibly shedding some light on his adoration — both Phantasm: Remastered and Phantasm: Ravager are Blu-rays that fans will be very happy to finally have in their collections.