Phantasmagoria (Sierra On-Line, August 24, 1995)
I had quite a lot of email regarding my article on a reboot of the insanely popular PC game from 1994, The 7th Guest. And since you lot are generally pretty subdued, I decided to jump on the enthusiasm and keep the goodness going by revisiting another more controversial game from around that same time period, which I referenced in the write up on The 7th Guest. And if you’re keeping track, this isn’t the first time I have publicly declared Phantasmagoria, the 1995 horror-themed video game by Sierra On-Line as one of my all-time-favorites to this day. I first wrote about it back in 2016 when there was chatter that a movie was in the works, based on the game. But more on that in a minute.
Why you ask, would Phantasmagoria rank so high in my esteem, when the quality of today’s gaming experiences are movie-like. Compared to, for instance, games like Uncharted and Dying Light, Phantasmagoria’s live-actor-against-computer generated-background appears fairly cheesy. And you would be absolutely right. But gather round the soft glow of the monitor and heed this historic tale.
Back in the ‘90’s when point-and-click adventure games reigned supreme, LucasArts and Sierra were the “Nintendo and Sega” of the era, and Roberta Williams was Sierra’s wunderkind; the designer responsible for a number of hit franchises like King’s Quest, Mystery House, and The Colonel’s Bequest. But in spite of the many titles that Williams worked on, she’s said that her sole entry in the horror genre, Phantasmagoria, was her favorite.
So, a rockstar female game designer in the early 90s was about as rare as a Gringgott’s dragon, and one who created a horror game of this magnitude was unheard of. So there’s that in the way of historical significance. Also, Phantasmagoria to this day remains one of the biggest spectacles of gaming. No expense was spared and the game sprawled across 7 CD-ROMs due to the heavy amount of FMV (Full Motion Video).
Williams wrote a 550-page script for Phantasmagoria, (a typical movie screenplay is around 120 pages, as a point of reference), which required a cast of 25 actors, a production team of over 200 people, took two years to fully develop and four months to film. Phantasmagoria’s initial budget was $800,000, but by the end of production costs had hit a staggering total of $4.5 million (with the game also being filmed in a $1.5 million studio that Sierra built specifically for it).
The game was directed by a then B-horror-movie guy named Peter Maris (Land of Doom, Terror Squad) and all the actors performed in front of a blue screen which was then superimposed onto a graphic-generated set. Most games at the time featured 80 to 100 backgrounds, but Phantasmagoria included more than 1,000. A professional Hollywood special effects house worked on the game, and the musical score included a neo-Gregorian chant performed by a 135-voice choir. Sierra stressed that the game was intended for adult audiences, and the company willingly submitted it to a ratings system and included a password-protected censoring option within the game to tone down the gory content.
The game’s graphic violence (and I do mean “graphic” – in some cases disturbingly so) and content also led to some controversy. Phantasmagoria was attacked by a number of people, refused to be carried by some retailers, and was outright banned altogether in Australia due to their censorship laws. Unsurprisingly, all of the red tape around the game just made horror fans crave it even more.
In spite of Sierra’s many gambles, Phantasmagoria was a huge success, bringing in over $12 million in its opening weekend alone and being one of the bestselling games of 1995. To go one step farther, Sierra’s stock rose from $3.875 in June of that year to $43.25 by September, which is just insane, and primarily due to the anticipation and impact of Phantasmagoria.
Around this same time, the concept of Hollywood capitalizing on the popularity of games by turning them into feature films was just getting started. Super Mario Brothers (1993) was the first and scored a moderate box office success. But it would take another few years until Mortal Kombat (1995) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) for the really big bucks to start rolling in from the game-to-big-screen conversion. I always wondered why Phantasmagoria never made the leap considering the story was ripe for a treatment and fans were clamoring.
But there were no takers until about ten years ago when Black Castle Productions, an independent production company based in New Orleans, decided to take a run at it. When Sierra was dissolved by Activision back in 2008, it left its properties to be bought and sold, and Black Castle Production scored Phantasmagoria in June of 2013, marking its first production as a studio. Like the game, Phantasmagoria: The Movie would follow characters Adrienne Delaney and husband Donald Gordon as the two move into a mansion previously owned and now haunted by an eccentric 19th century magician.
Sabrina Cooper, Black Castle’s founder explained at the time:
As a huge fan of the game when I was in high school, we are all very excited to bring this film to life. We have taken what was great about the game and tweaked it just a bit. The changes we made were not only to help it cross over to film but also to update it for today’s audience who might not know about the game. We also have a few surprises up our sleeves, some things that actually have never been done before in our industry! Like I said, as fans of the game, we are all pretty excited about this project.
By 2016 some casting had even been announced such as Kelly Overton (True Blood) signing on to play Adrienne, Matt Dallas (Kyle XY) as Don and BAFTA winning actress Miriam Margolyes (Harry Potter, Babe) as Harriet – the disheveled vagrant living in the barn of the mansion’s estate.
However, that’s when all went quiet.
According to Black Castle’s Facebook page, a post dated February 9, 2016 states, “We are still trying to secure the last $1.5mil in order to go into production. Until we can secure that, we cannot move forward. We will keep you posted once financing is fully secured!” There has only been one post since then, and though Black Castle’s website shows a lot of completed projects with a new one teed up for 2023, there are no further updates regarding Phantasmagoria: The Movie, beyond a lonely graphic on their “Feature Film” page. One can guess the $1.5M was not forthcoming but neither was Cooper’s desire to release the rights back into the wild for someone else to try. Because curiosity was killing me, I reached out to Cooper to see if I could dig up anything more decisive and if I hear back, I’ll definitely let you know.
In the meantime, want a little trip in the way-back machine to see what I’m talking about? Here is a complete, uncensored walkthrough of Phantasmagoria. You can fast-forward to the icky parts…
Have a question, comment or reminiscence about the hours you spent trying not to die a horrible death in Phantasmagoria? I’d love to hear about it!