Casual moviegoers may be surprised to find out that one of the biggest and most important filmmakers working today used his highly sought-after resources to restore a relatively obscure and very schlocky 40-year-old horror movie. And yet, here we are, with J.J. Abrams and his production company, Bad Robot, having scooped up director Don Coscarelli’s 1979 cult classic Phantasm to give it a meticulous restoration called Phantasm: Remastered, which will receive a theatrical release on October 7 and a home video release sometime in the future.
As it turns out, Abrams is a huge fan of Coscarelli’s delightfully sordid tale, which focuses on an evil undertaker known only as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who resurrects the dead as his own personal zombie army. He’s got plans to use them to take over the world. Abrams even included a little nod to Phantasm in The Force Awakens by naming a character Captain Phasma.
If Abrams can use his unique ability as a Hollywood heavyweight to highlight this unsung horror favorite, what others can he restore or present in the best way possible? Well, if he’s looking for ideas, we have a few suggestions.
5. The Toolbox Murders
In 1978, two horror movies about a masked killer terrorizing a woman named Laurie hit theaters. One changed cinema forever, and one remains a semi-obscure cult classic.
The game-changer was John Carpenter’s Halloween, while the other was filmmaker Dennis Donnelly’s The Toolbox Murders. The film focuses on a ski-mask-wearing hooligan who goes around a Los Angeles apartment complex and kills unsuspecting victims with a variety of different blunt-to-sharp pieces of hardware. While admittedly not as good as Carpenter’s slasher touchstone, Donnelly’s film does feature early examples of the tropes that would define the genre but only in its first half. In the second half of the movie, the killer abandons his ski mask and the plot devolves into a kidnapping thriller. The end credits feature a faux inter-title that supposedly reveals the movie was a dramatization of events that actually occurred in 1967, a fictionalizing technique used more prominently in later films like the Coen brothers’s Fargo.
American audiences are slowly but surely discovering the absolutely coo-coo-bananas work of Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, especially his somber 1981 freak-out masterpiece Possession. Żuławski remained relatively obscure up until recently due to the difficulty he had with censorship in Cold War-era Poland, but his genre-bending films like the sci-fi epic On the Silver Globe and the metaphysical noir Cosmos are now getting a greater audience. Possession, however, is his crowning achievement.
Ostensibly about a bitter divorce between a spy named Mark (Sam Neill) and his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) in West German Berlin, the snail-paced film eventually reveals itself to be a kind of metaphorical monster movie when Mark discovers that Anna had been cheating on him with a gigantic, immobile, and shapeless creature that she keeps in a separate apartment building across town. Adjani’s performance as Anna is among the most intense descents into on-screen madness you’re likely to ever see, and Żuławski’s unique vision would go on to influence filmmakers like Lars von Trier and David Cronenberg.
Speaking of Cronenberg, the Canadian body horror auteur has spent the twilight of his career delving into different kinds of cerebral dramas like Maps to the Stars of A Dangerous Method, but his early work is distinctly clever schlock. Initially denounced in his native Canada for its explicitly sexual subtext (and the fact that Cronenberg financed the movie via the taxpayer-funded Canadian Film Development Corporation), Shivers is about the bourgeois residents of a modernist high-rise who are gradually infected by a parasite that turns them into sex-crazed pseudo-zombies.
The film was reevaluated and renamed (it was also released in various markets as either They Came From Within or The Parasite Murders) as Cronenberg made more celebrated films like Videodrome and The Fly, and it even received a restoration by TIFF following a career retrospective of the filmmaker. Yet Shivers still remains semi-obscure despite anticipating the more acclaimed indictments of corporeal modernity that would define Cronenberg as an auteur.
2. *The Devils
Chances are you haven’t seen director Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils. That’s because it was so controversial that the movie studio that financed it, Warner Bros., has declined to make it readily available on home video. Based on true events, the film stars Oliver Reed as a 17th century Catholic priest who was executed for witchcraft.
If that doesn’t seem too controversial at first blush, the flesh-filled scene featuring a gaggle of nuns who collectively have sex with a crucifix might make you do a double take. But the movie is much more than sacrilegious titillation. At once an indictment of how mutual hysteria is strengthened by religious fervor, it’s also a thematically rich narrative that uses timeless themes of family, lust, greed, and sexuality to tell a relevant story that should be seen by more people despite Warner’s long-held hesitations. The statute of limitations on a 40-year-old movie are up.
1. *Night of the Living Dead
George Romero basically invented the modern zombie with his 1968 classic, and the undead are as popular as ever because of things like The Walking Dead, which owe a massive debt of gratitude to Romero’s work. It’s not like Night of the Living Dead is obscure and hard to find — in fact its way too easy to find, and that’s the problem.
Because of convoluted rights issues, the film is in the public domain, meaning home video releases are as plentiful as the zombies that continually populate Romero’s movies. Any old company can come along and release the movie, and seemingly everyone has, but they’ve overlooked a true restoration of the film in favor of making a quick buck on ill-informed fans hoping to own the one that started it all. The only way for Night of the Living Dead to become the important film that it truly is would be for someone to treat it that way.