Don Coscarelli's Phantasm is one of those movies whose total value exceeds the sum of its parts. Some of the dialogue is pretty bad, and the wooden acting -- particularly from the performers in minor roles like the fortune teller's daughter -- clearly marks this as a b-movie. This was only Coscarelli's third feature, and his relative inexperience is pretty obvious. Things like the villainous Tall Man, the flying bloodthirsty spheres, and an extra-dimensional conspiracy, on the other hand, set the film apart and mark it as something unique. There are plenty of scares here, and a story with enough meat on it to warrant two pretty good sequels and one pretty bad one.
The story kicks off with the death of Tommy, a close friend to Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Everyone believes Tommy has committed suicide, but the audience knows better, having seen Tommy's tryst with a mysterious blonde woman which resulted in his murder. Jody's 13-year-old brother Michael (Michael Baldwin) doesn't attend Tommy's funeral because the death of his own parents is too fresh in his memory, but he watches the proceedings from a distance. Michael is suffering from an overwhelming anxiety that his brother will also leave him, so he rarely lets Jody out of his site. Once the mourners have departed, Michael is the only one present to see an odd site: the hulking and mysterious funeral director known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), picks up Tommy's casket entirely by himself and loads it into the back of the hearse.
Michael decides to investigate further and he breaks into Morningside Funeral Home. He spies on The Tall Man briefly before a flying silver sphere with razor sharp blades and a built-in power drill embeds itself in the face of an unlucky caretaker. The Tall Man gives pursuit but loses several fingers thanks to Michael and a handy axe, revealing that The Tall Man's blood is a viscous yellow fluid. Yup, something strange is definitely going on at Morningside, and Michael uses one of the still twitching fingers to convince Jody. The two brothers make an even stranger discovery when they are attacked by a demonic dwarf creature that turns out to be their late friend Tommy. Apparently The Tall Man is harvesting the dead, crushing them down to dwarf size, and reanimating them for some sinister purpose.
At the heart of the story is Michael's fear of abandonment, a fear that is shown to be well-founded when Jody mentions the idea of leaving town and sending Michael to live with his aunt. At times it's easy to believe the entire movie is Michael's nightmare. Like a dream, parts of the film seem strangely disjointed, like the scene in the mausoleum where Reggie, Jody and Michael are suddenly plunged into darkness, and we inexplicably see Jody outside the building moments later. At one point Reggie tells Jody and Michael that he has rescued two of their friends being held by The Tall Man, though it seems odd that we are never shown this and we never see those characters again. Bits like this may be accidental, but they also add to the sense of weirdness, working in the film's favor.
Phantasm has been unavailable on DVD for some time, so this release from Anchor Bay Entertainment that hit shelves a few months ago is most welcome. As Scott Weinberg mentioned last January, the extras are pretty much the same as the version released a few years ago by MGM, though this new version presents the feature in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The audio commentary with Coscarelli, Scrimm, Baldwin and Thornbury is fun, but for my money the best of the extras is the 30 minute feature Phantasmagoria, a documentary looking back at the making of the film. There are a couple of behind the scenes features, and a vintage TV commercial for Fangoria magazine with Scrimm as The Tall Man. The deleted scenes are nothing to write home about, and if you're really in the market for some unused footage from Phantasm I suggest taking a look at Phantasm IV: Oblivion, which incorporates a lot of deleted scenes from the original film. All in all, a pretty enticing little package.