Don Coscarelli created THE formative surrealist nightmare work that would go on to influence a generation of filmmakers and fascinate fans of strange cinema for decades to come.
From the tender ages of 23 - 25, Don Coscarelli worked on a movie involving a tall, macabre undertaker who caused a lot of undead, little-person shenanigans in the fictional Morningside Cemetery and the small town around it. Coscarelli didn't know it then, but what he created was THE formative surrealist nightmare work that would go on to influence a generation of filmmakers and fascinate fans of strange cinema for decades to come.
We now know that film as Phantasm. In the movie, Michael (A. Michael Baldwin) follows his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) around like a stray puppy. Seeing as he's an orphan, I'm not surprised, and it's as endearing as it is annoying. Michael catches the local undertaker loading up the coffin into a hearse all by himself, which is weird and unsettling, to say the least. Later, Jody hooks up with a mysterious Lady in Lavender (Kat Lester) in the cemetery who turns out to be a real femme fatale.
What ensues is a pretzel-like plot of nightmare logic wherein evil reanimated corpses (which are stolen from Morningside and shrunk down to about three feet each) and the Tall Man hunt down living victims in order to add to their slave army in another world --- while Michael, Jody, and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the local ice cream man, combat them. It sounds hokey and from that description, I have to admit that the film is far better than it has any right to be. This is due to Coscarelli's sheer talent in writing, directing, casting, cinematography, and editing. Then there's the incredible score and theme by Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave.
You simply cannot un-see the film, as its images keep tugging at dark corners of your mind long after you've watched it. A dismembered finger wriggling in a puddle of yellow blood in a box. The murderous woman in the cemetery. The Tall Man pausing by the ice cream truck to take in the escaping chill. The flying silver murder sphere. The evil Jawas running to get you or pulling Michael through a mirror. There are just so many set pieces, FX gags, and insane situations.
Thank you, Don Coscarelli, for filling our brains with fever dreams forever.
As it turns out, J.J. Abrams is also a big fan, and tasked his production company Bad Robot with cleaning up Coscarelli's personal 35mm print, leaving us with Phantasm Remastered, for which which legions of Fantastic Fest attendees scrambled for tickets. Bad Robot did a terrific job: Phantasm Remastered looks and sounds great. Myself included, the crowd was ridiculously happy to be in the theatre. Kudos to Fantastic Fest for hosting the director and cast.
While the 4K remastered print had previously played at SXSW with Coscarelli and Abrams in attendance, the Fantastic Fest screening was a seriously special event. There was a tribute to Angus Scrimm --- aka Rory Guy aka The Tall Man --- that had a few audience members sniffling.
After the credits rolled and Coscarelli took the stage, pretty much everyone in the audience who could stand to honor the director, did. The crowd was treated to a special Q&A with Coscarelli and the cast (Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, and Kat Lester) that was simulcast across the country to theatres playing the film for "Art House Day," as well as an acoustic musical performance by Thornbury and Lester. I can't imagine that this won't be featured on an upcoming blu-ray release, but who knows when it comes down to licensing rights and such.
Check out the Phantasm Remastered trailer below. For news, merch, all things Phantasm-related, head to the website here.