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How J. J. Abrams Rescued the Classic ‘Phantasm’

For nerds like you and me, the movies and shows we consumed at 12 or 13 were formative experiences. They soaked into our spongy brains, and they’re part of us now. For J. J. Abrams, one of those formative experiences was Phantasm. When writer and director Don Coscarelli released the seminal horror film in 1979, Abrams was at that perfect age. Not only because his nascent movie geekery was forming, but because the film’s protagonist is a young teenage boy, just like Abrams was.

All these years later, and Abrams is one of the biggest names in cinema. But he hasn’t forgotten Phantasm, the little horror movie that could. In fact, Captain Phasma, the chromed-out Stormtrooper officer from The Force Awakens, is a nod to one of Phantasm‘s lasting images: the Sentinel Sphere. And when Abrams was making Alias, he cast the man who played Phantasm‘s iconic villain in a recurring role.

phantasm-hero
Angus Scrimm (right) plays The Tall Man.

And about two years ago, Abrams wanted to further share his love for Phantasm by hosting a screening for his staff at Bad Robot. But asked Don Coscarelli about getting a 35mm print, Coscarelli had bad news. The print was in bad shape, and in dire need of restoration. So Abrams took action, and Bad Robot suddenly found themselves in the film restoration business. They performed a new 4K scan of the print, meticulously removing any damage or dirt from every frame of the movie.

The end result is a complete remaster, and a beautiful one at that. The picture is clean and sharp, with vivid colors and deep black shadows. The audio received a complete overhaul as well, with a new mix that makes the score sound positively epic. The VFX team at Bad Robot even did some tasteful wire removal and spiffed up a quick effects shot that had bugged Coscarelli for years. This isn’t some Star Wars Special Editions fiasco — it’s very much the original Phantasm, with all its charm intact and uncluttered by CGI twiddling.

The movie itself is a true cult classic in the vein of The Evil Dead. But its young protagonist and fun sci-fi spin give it a proto-Amblin feel. Phantasm is about what happens when young teen Michael starts to suspect the mortician in his small Oregon town might be responsible for the murder of his older brother’s friend. The movie uses that simple premise to kick off a series of increasingly strange attacks. Michael, his older brother Jody, and the resident ice cream man Reggie must fend off a mysterious blonde woman, the undead, a mutant housefly, and flying silver spheres that want to drill their brains out.

While it occasionally struggles to make narrative beats land, there are surprising amounts of polish and ambition to Phantasm. It sets up a complex ecosystem of horrors, unintentionally laying solid groundwork for four sequels. Like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, there’s a can-do attitude and a strong, capable vision behind Phantasm. Don Coscarelli created satisfying setups and payoffs, both visual and verbal. And though its sequels have largely discarded this, the original is about more than just its premise. The story is a metaphorical exploration of a boy’s grief — a theme Abrams echoed in his film Super 8.

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But for the nascent nerds of today, J. J. Abrams has done them a solid. He has restored Phantasm to its original glory. It proves that good filmmaking, no matter how small, can still hold up to today’s expectations of technical quality. But if you’re young and you enjoy horror movies, now’s your time to get into Phantasm. And if you’ve got kids who are into stuff like Stranger Things or the many films that inspired it, this flick is right up their alley. Maybe it’ll be a formative experience for the next generation of J. J. Abramses.

The newly restored Phantasm and the latest sequel, Phantasm V: Ravager, are now available for rental in the US on iTunes and other on-demand services. Go get you some!


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