I know it’s only April, but I’m calling it right now. When 2018 rolls around and people start cobbling together their lists of the Best Blu-ray Releases of 2017, you’ll find no shortage of horror fans whose lists declare Well Go USA’s The Phantasm Collection to be bar-none the #1 release of 2017. And the craziest part of it all will be that, until Well Go USA put out Phantasm: Remastered (1979/2016) and Phantasm V: Ravager (2016) last year, the high-end horror Blu-ray market was dominated by the likes of Scream Factory and Arrow Video USA, with distributors like Synapse and Severin putting out some more obscure titles. Well Go’s most notable horror releases were previously a Ju-on sequel, a Ringu sequel, and 2016’s Train to Busan. (Train to Busan is an absolutely incredible film, by the way.)
Then Well Go comes along and snaps up one of the most beloved cult franchises in horror history, doing what many including myself thought impossible in the North American market by collecting every installment of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series in a single Blu-ray box set. What made this so unlikely and such a coup for Well Go is that, before they released either Remastered or Ravager, the bulk of the series was seemingly in limbo, leaving us horror fans unsure if there would ever even be such a set as this. J.J. Abrams was remastering the first Phantasm in HD, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994) and Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998) had been unavailable since their DVD releases went out of print years back, and the only installment to receive a Blu-ray release was Phantasm II (1988) from Scream Factory.
This resulted in all the series’ DVD and VHS releases fetching a pretty penny on eBay and elsewhere online for a long while, as we all assumed no single company would ever be able to get all these films together in one place. And if a company did get the rights to a Phantasm collection, we kind of all assumed Scream Factory would be the ones to do it! So serious kudos have to go out to Well Go USA for pulling off this impressive feat and putting together a release that’s every bit the special features-packed, beautifully-packaged collection that we “phans” have long longed for.
But what is it about these movies that makes them so desirable, that would compel people to spend upwards of $50 buying up relatively common lots of VHS and DVD copies for? That’s a bit hard to explain, since, in my experience, the films are extremely divisive. It’s near-impossible to summarize what the films are about with any coherence, as they’re constantly backtracking and retconning themselves, and each question the series answers only raises a dozen more. Plus, the films have gotten more cheaply made since the second installment (III and IV were straight-to-video releases and V was originally intended to be a web series), which makes loving the later installments ever more difficult, even for folks who do love the original and its sequel. To an outsider, then, those of us who love the series must look like absolute crazy people.
Yet at the heart of the series is exactly that: heart. The folks who make these movies—the original writer/director Don Coscarelli and his recurring cast including the late Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, A. Michael Baldwin, and Bill Thornbury—clearly love making these movies. More than that, the film is itself all about love, at its core following the journeys of a pair of brothers and their old, ice cream-slinging pal, Reggie. And at the center of it all really, is a simple question: is love stronger than death? To that end, the films pit these three men against a series of tests both real and imagined, many of which include otherworldly monsters in the form of Scrimm’s iconic Tall Man and his hordes of dwarfish minions, zombies, and murderous, flying spheres. And the only way they’ll overcome the odds and come out on top is to stick together.
The strength of the series, apart from the relationships at the heart of it all, has always been in its ability to accommodate any idea Coscarelli could dream up. After all, when the film’s title implies a “delusion of a disordered mind,” you can pretty much get away with anything. The only hindrance: money. Maxing out with a budget of $3 million for Phantasm II, the scope of the series has always been more conceptually impressive than it has been spectacularly impressive. But Coscarelli just kept on making them, because he has the ideas to suit all budgets. For me, it’s always been Coscarelli’s ambition and devotion to these characters that kept me coming back for more. Had Scrimm not passed away and Coscarelli himself been able to make another dozen Phantasm movies, you bet that I’d have been on board for every single installment. (Though after seeing the visually-underwhelming if emotionally-rewarding fifth installment, I honestly might have avoided another installment without Coscarelli at the helm.)
At last, this series so fundamentally about love has found the love it deserves in Well Go USA’s Phantasm Collection. The five films come packaged in individual Blu-ray cases housed inside a chipboard slipcase alongside a folded, dual-sided, 21”x27” poster (one side features the collection’s cover art and the other, the poster for Phantasm: Remastered) as well as a 120-page book of interviews. The book includes an introduction by Coscarelli himself and interviews conducted by Ben Wan with Coscarelli and actors Scrimm, Baldwin, Bannister, Thornbury, Kat Lester (the “Lady in Lavender,” who I could seriously write a whole paper on), and Ken Jones, who was the first man on film to be killed by the Tall Man’s spheres.
The transfers on Phantasm, Phantasm II, and Phantasm V are the same as those in the previous Well Go and Scream Factory releases (the Phantasm II disc is essentially the same disc as that released previously by Scream Factory). Phantasm III and Phantasm IV see their first ever Blu-ray releases in this collection and the transfers are equally as stunning as the others, looking worlds better than I’ve ever seen them on cable or VHS, which are the only ways I’ve ever watched either. The special features on the previously-released Blu-rays are also the same as on those previous Blu-rays, excluding some additional home movie footage accompanying the first film and a new audio commentary for that film with Coscarelli, co-producer Paul Pepperman and visual consultant Roberto Quezada.
The new special features included with Phantasm III and Phantasm IV totally live up to the precedent set by the other films’ special features, in no small part because the featurettes on each disc, including the lengthy, interview-heavy, making-of featurettes on each film were produced by Well Go in collaboration with Red Shirt Pictures. And Red Shirt is a name you’ll recognize from a host of Scream Factory releases’ special features in the past, including Phantasm II itself! Phantasm III also includes a featurette about Bob Ivy’s amazing pink hearse flip, a behind-the-scenes compilation, and a commentary with Coscarelli and editor Norman Buckley. Phantasm IV also boasts a behind-the-scenes compilation, another behind-the-scenes featurette comparing home video footage with what wound up onscreen, and a conceptual art gallery. Both include the customary trailers/promos of course.
The Phantasm Collection streets on April 11th, 2017 from Well Go USA, and is a no-brainer for horror hounds (pun, like, half-intended I suppose).