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The Hell Plaza Oktoberfest

The Hell Plaza Oktoberfest

Adam Jahnke - Main Page


1979 (2007) - Anchor Bay

The other day, I was having lunch at Jack in the Box. The fast food chain is running a promotion with Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights this month and I sat for a moment staring at my drink cup decorated with images of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface. Suddenly I realized that the horror icons of my youth, who once seemed so dangerous and edgy, have become as neutered and cuddly as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. Seriously, a fast food chain has a guy wearing a mask made out of human skin and wielding a chainsaw on their cups. It was a strange and depressing moment. Fortunately, there's still one horror icon from the 70s and 80s that hasn't been totally sold out and compromised through overexposure. That, of course, is the Tall Man from Don Coscarelli's Phantasm.

Coscarelli began work on Phantasm when he was just 23 years old. Even more astonishingly, he already had two commercially successful features under his belt. Take that, Orson Welles! Made outside the studio system with limited resources and a whole lot of Do-It-Yourself ingenuity, Phantasm quickly earned a reputation as one of the most terrifying movies of its era. It's easy to see why. It has a great, enigmatic title. It's steeped in a freewheeling, anything goes atmosphere that makes it virtually impossible to predict what's going to happen next. It's got the Tall Man, an imposing, instantly iconic villain played memorably by Angus Scrimm (a name that was made to be associated with horror movies). And it has those unforgettable silver spheres that come shooting down the hall to drill into some poor sap's cranium.

Yes, almost everybody has fond memories of Phantasm. But I think you'll find that most people who cherish this film originally saw it when they were around 12 or 13. That's really the ideal age to see Phantasm for the first time. Our hero, Michael (Michael Baldwin) is 13 himself and virtually the entire film unfolds from his point of view. To a 13-year-old, the events of Phantasm are indescribably cool and frightening. As you get older, the movie's flaws become more apparent. That anything-plus-the-kitchen-sink attitude to filmmaking makes for an unpredictable ride but it also smacks of narrative sloppiness, as if Coscarelli isn't following his own rules. The movie may have been improved if Coscarelli had embraced his surrealist aesthetic more fully and not bothered to try to explain a single thing. Also, the film's tone isn't as consistent as some of its contemporaries, including those that introduced those other horror legends. Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an unrelenting swan dive into hell. By comparison, Phantasm is a trip through a really good haunted house. It's scary fun but you never feel like you're in danger. Still, Phantasm is almost impossible to dislike. Those images, those dwarfs, those balls... and towering above all, the Tall Man with his unstoppable lanky gait and his raspy, "BOOOYYYY!"

Anchor Bay brought the original Phantasm to Region 1 DVD just last year. Over in the UK, where the Bay controls the rights to Phantasm II, the entire series was released in a way-cool box set shaped like one of the spheres. Alas, Universal still controls the first sequel over here, so Anchor Bay has done the best they can with what's left to them. Technically, the movie looks very nice and sounds great with your choice of 5.1 mixes in either DTS or Dolby Surround or Dolby 2.0 (the original mono track would have been nice to have but oh well). The disc includes a wealth of extras including a very good commentary by Coscarelli and actors Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury and Angus Scrimm, whose voice just naturally makes it sound like he's recording prewritten narration separately even though he was actually part of the group. You also get about half an hour of the documentary Phantasmagoria. In its original form, the doc is over 90 minutes and covers the entire series. This is edited down to focus on just the first film. Of course, who wouldn't want to see the entire thing? But bearing in mind that rights issues make it impossible, the cut-down version is more than acceptable. The disc also includes a number of deleted scenes, home movies from the set with commentary by Coscarelli and Reggie Bannister, a featurette called Actors Having A Ball (more scenes from the documentary that didn't quite fit into the edited version), trailers, TV spots, and a 1989 appearance by Angus Scrimm at one of Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors conventions. Perhaps my favorite treat is a 1988 TV commercial for Fangoria with Scrimm as the Tall Man with a casket overflowing with back issues of the magazine. It's wonderfully bizarre.

Revisiting cherished movies from one's youth is always a risky venture. That goes double for horror movies since you just know there's no way you're going to be as scared by them as you were when you were 12. But for all its flaws, Phantasm holds up better than most. At least it's not obnoxious or irritating. I've rewatched more than a few movies that made me wonder what I ever saw in them in the first place. Phantasm has enough going for it that you won't question your youthful taste too much. The original is also a natural choice for Anchor Bay to revisit on Blu-ray, hopefully sooner rather than later. Until that happens, this disc is more than satisfactory.

More silver spheres will be flying into the Hell Plaza Oktoberfest in the weeks to come, so stay tuned...

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A-/A-

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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