Usually when I do reviews, I don’t discuss films that I liked as a child. I feel sometimes that reviewing a film that I’ve never seen before leaves out a sense of bias and fandom that some may think tarnishes my opinion for whatever reason. Writing about films that have left an imprint on me and seeing differing opinions on it usually bring out the ugly fanboy in me, when usually I’m more than okay with debating these opposing opinions in a gentlemanly fashion. But some films deserve to be discussed, whether they’re personal favorites of mine and not everyone will agree with what I have to say on them. The 1979 Don Coscarelli cult classic, Phantasm, is one of those films.
Phantasm begins at Morningside Cemetery, where Jodi (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) are attending the funeral of their best friend Tommy, who they believe committed suicide. Jodi’s younger brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) shows up, knowing he’s not invited, to spy on Jodi. Mike seems to have abandonment issues, as he and Jodi lost their parents in a car accident years prior, and fears Jodi is moving on without him. After the funeral, Mike sticks around a bit to watch a tall mortician (Angus Scrimm) arrive in a hearse and pick up Tommy’s coffin all by himself. Knowing that the coffin must weigh a least a few hundred pounds, Mike is concerned and haunted by this Tall Man.
After witnessing the Tall Man’s uncanny strength, Mike rushes over to a local psychic and explains the situation. The psychic tells Mike that it’s all in his imagination and that “fear is the real killer”. Mike is not convinced and slowly begins to notice strange things happening in his town. He notices cloaked dwarves attacking people, as well as the Tall Man following him around and targeting him – in both reality and in his dreams.
Curious, Mike decides to confront the Tall Man inside the funeral home – where he finds deadly flying spheres and dwarf workers who want to kill him. The Tall Man also attacks, but Mike manages to cut off his finger and taking it with him. Running home scared, Mike decides to confide in Jodi about it. Showing Jodi the finger, Mike is relieved that Jodi believes him and wants to help. Reggie, after seeing strange stuff himself, decides to join the brothers in finding the Tall Man and figuring out what he’s been up to. They soon learn that the Tall Man is actually an alien on Earth, using the corpses at the funeral home as his minions to take over the planet – with Mike being his main adversary for some reason not yet explained.
Before I get into my thoughts on Phantasm, I need to explain why this film has such a personal connection in my life. I first saw this film when I was seven years old right before Phantasm II was released back in 1988. My late uncle watched it with me, and I was creeped out by Phantasm – especially by the Tall Man. This film really messed with me, as I wondered if my dreams were real. Was reality a dream? Anyway, I remember taking a nap after watching the film and I started hearing noises in my closet after a while, waking me up. I get up. I go in my closet. And my uncle is in there, and he goes “BOOOOOOOOYYY…” And I remember screaming from the top of my lungs and crying out of fear. For years, he would mention it and take pride of succeeding in his prank. I will never forget the pleasure he took in doing that to me, making Phantasm a film that will forever remain implanted in my psyche.
As for the film itself, Phantasm has a pretty hard story to decipher. Don Coscarelli (who directed, produced, wrote, and photographed this film) mixes a dreamlike atmosphere with moments of reality, making you wonder which one is which. While some complain about the execution of the narrative, I think having to think about what Coscarelli is trying to express makes Phantasm a horror classic even today. Coscarelli really did a great job mixing both horror and science fiction together, because we’re never sure if this whole film is Mike’s dream, or really happening to him. It’s never really answered in a concrete way, which I actually admire. Even today, I wonder if the film is all a dream or reality. The twist ending doesn’t help, making you want to re-watch it just to figure it all out.
Phantasm has a good story going for it, with good dialogue and excellent pacing. Phantasm builds on its characters, who are all interesting and have logical reasons for their decisions and actions throughout. Mike, the younger brother type, could have been really annoying like in other similar films. But his backstory makes him sympathetic, and we can all understand how traumatic losing parents are and why that feeling of abandonment by the people closest to him (Jodi) makes him somewhat troublesome in his behavior. Speaking of Jodi, he’s a young man who wants to live his life – travel the world, meet hot girls, hang out with friends – not wanting to raise a brother that may limit what he wants to accomplish personally. This creates conflict between the two brothers and it all comes across very realistic. You get Mike’s point-of-view of wanting to remain with Jodi, as he’s the only family he’s close to. And you understand Jodi’s need for independence. Even when the two brothers bond over investigating the Tall Man, there’s still strife between the two – even though Jodi slowly becomes Mike’s mentor in terms of defending himself. With the addition of Reggie as the best friend, it creates a memorable dynamic with all three wanting to stop the Tall Man to protect themselves and the town they love. Speaking of Reggie, he’s the comic relief of the film. While the character has his moments, he doesn’t really become the hero we know him as until the sequels, where he gets more to do and his character is explored more. But he’s a cool ice cream truck driver who plays guitar, has a bad ass pony tail, and livens things up when things get tense.
And Phantasm would be nothing with the Tall Man, who I consider a pretty underrated horror villain when compared to Freddy Kreuger, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc. He’s just creepy as hell; his presence alone is chilling at times. He barely says anything in the film, but his body language and facial expressions tell the audience a lot about him. Angus Scrimm really made the character iconic, giving us an unsettling horror villain that doesn’t want to be a pop culture icon. He just wants to scare people, which is refreshing. All the actors do a great job, but Scrimm is obviously the star.
The special effects in Phantasm are pretty good, especially for a budget of $300,000 in 1978 dollars. Considering how low that budget is, Phantasm uses its money really well. While the film isn’t all that gory, we do get a hand that’s cut off which bleeds mustard colored blood. And because of Phantasm, it took me years to even have the ability to eat mustard on hot dogs again without wanting to puke. The other major effects involve the flying spheres, which have become the trademark of the franchise. They’re pretty wicked, having been shot in reverse and on strings (which you can notice in some shots). While I’m sure Phantasm V: Ravager uses CGI for its spheres, I actually think the old school approach makes them scarier and more realistic to watch. Watching the spheres attack people’s heads and drill until blood funnels out is pretty bad ass.
The direction by Don Coscarelli is brilliant, as he knew exactly what he wanted to do in terms of visual presentation. Phantasm is full of tension, suspense, and mystery. The film looks great. The editing is perfect. There are moments where the editing is so quick and jarring, that it leads into a dream sequence. It works so well because you start asking yourself what’s going on. The best part is the thick atmosphere Coscarelli creates, creating a bleak world that you’re just captivated by. Great visuals mixed with great acting – low budget horror filmmaking at its finest. Even though the man has made some other memorable films, like Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm remains Coscarelli’s masterpiece.
Phantasm is one of my favorite horror films and a cult classic for a reason. Don Coscarelli directs a fine film with a memorable narrative, great acting for well-developed characters, and low-budget special effects that look more expensive than they actually are. The film still holds up very well and I’m very happy it finally received a remastered treatment that’s leading to a much anticipated blu-ray release. While it doesn’t scare me as it did as a child, it still remains pretty creepy horror film that will confuse some, but delight everyone else. Couldn’t recommend a film more.