Independent horror has a long and remarkable history, from George A. Romero's genre-defining zombie flick Night of the Living Dead (1968), to John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), which introduced the world to Jamie Lee Curtis and the masked killer Michael Myers, to future Spider-Man (2002) director Sam Raimi's gore-splattered The Evil Dead (1981). It's a durable format with a rabid fan base that is generally unconcerned with marketing or popularity. What these independent productions sacrifice in budget is often more than compensated for by a lack of studio oversight, and the passion of a hungry cast and crew.
Back in 1979, Coscarelli was a young maverick with few resources. He borrowed money from his father and a few doctors and lawyers, and hired a cast of actors with few credits among them. With $300,000 and gallons of blood, sweat and tears, Coscarelli forged a lasting legacy with an atmospheric horror film about two resourceful orphan teens who pit themselves against the sinister Tall Man portrayed by the iconic, and recently deceased, Angus Scrimm.
Set in the imaginary small town of Morningside, Ore., Phantasm is a gruesome buddy flick. Two brothers, Mike (Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), team up with the local ice-cream man, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), to try their damndest to figure out why the people of Morningside are mysteriously dying. All signs lead to the local mausoleum, an austere and chilling battleground for a series of confrontations with the Tall Man, who wields deadly chrome orbs to dispatch townsfolk and reanimate them into dwarf-sized undead minions.
Critics didn't love Phantasm upon release. At the time, Roger Ebert called it "a labor of love, if not a terrifically skillful one."Phantasm's production was a notoriously disorganized affair, with a cast heavily reliant on aspiring professionals and Coscarelli's friends. The script was changed scene by scene and relied heavily on improvisation, and Coscarelli edited the film under duress down to about 90 minutes from three hours' worth of film.
But there has been a serious reappraisal of Phantasm over the years. The editing resulted in the film progressing with a nonlinear, dreamlike quality that has drawn comparisons to the work of Dario Argento, Luis Buñuel, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. It's now considered a classic of the horror genre, landing at No. 14 on Wired's "25 Best Horror Films of All Time," with Moviepilot.com calling it "one of the best least-known horror movies."
Despite the lukewarm reception, the original Phantasm returned nearly $12 million on its minuscule budget. Home video kept the film alive for decades, spawning three sequels, with a fourth on the way, One of its most significant fans is J.J. Abrams, who went so far as to name Star Wars: The Force Awakens character Captain Phasma as a tribute to Coscarelli.
Phantasm's original print suffered in the interim. When Abrams asked Coscarelli for a high-quality reel to view, it was revealed that no such print existed. Abrams enlisted the technicians at Bad Robot to assemble a 4k digital restoration. As a result, the release of the fourth and final sequel, Phantasm V: Ravager has been delayed until October to enjoy a wider release after the buzz the remastered original is now receiving.
Phantasm is showing around the country as a top-billed feature of the inaugural Art House Theater Day. This Saturday, Phantasm: Remastered is being projected at the Hollywood Theatre for a single showing whose cult following should ensure that the theater sells out in advance. The screening will be followed by a pre-recorded Q&A with Coscarelli and select cast members.
Phantasm delivers the requisite sex and violence, but also the mood, atmosphere, mystery and cosmicism that has come to define indie horror. Even if you saw the original Phantasm on 35 mm at a drive-in back in '79, there's no chance it looked or sounded as good as this.
A SEE IT: Phantasm: Remastered is rated R. It plays at 7 pm Saturday, Sept. 24, at the Hollywood Theatre.