REVIEW: Phantasm [1979]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 88 minutes | Release Date: June 1st, 1979 (USA)
Studio: Embassy Pictures
Director(s): Don Coscarelli
Writer(s): Don Coscarelli

“You think when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!”

Of course J.J. Abrams would initiate the process of remastering Don Coscarelli‘s seminal Phantasm. Anyone who’s seen “Lost” will quickly notice similarities in their worlds shrouded by mystery devoid of a need or desire to provide explanation. This is what makes them great: they’re intentionally left open to interpretation. We don’t need to watch as the Island is constructed (although subsequent seasons did delve into its history at the behest of fans). And we don’t need to know The Tall Man’s (Angus Scrimm) origins or why he transforms dead bodies into demonic dwarf minions (although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn the four sequels do exactly that—I haven’t seen them). All that matters is the fact he proves a maliciously formidable force that will not be stopped.

A low-budget independent shot for an estimated $300,000 by friends and family (Coscarelli’s mom handled make-up) that grossed over eleven million dollars despite mixed reviews, it inevitably suffers from inexperience like most cult classics. Objectively speaking the acting is lacking (save Scrimm fully embodying his nameless evil) and some line deliveries are hammy in a way that gives pause towards intent. I want to believe they’re intentionally funny considering Coscarelli has made a career out of humorous horror flicks throughout the years. But was that aesthetic born from the unintentional comedy experienced during this first foray in the genre (his career began with two family-friendly works) or was it the plan all along? Either way, Phantasm becomes as much prototypical of his oeuvre as fantasy horror in general.

Despite any production failings, however, one cannot deny the effective special effects and formal structure. The latter is said to be a direct result of a much longer cut full of character development being badly received, but Coscarelli masterfully pares things down into a fever dream of surrealistic mayhem regardless. The effects/costuming aren’t perfect, but they’re hardly deficient for the era. Metallic orbs flying through the air with razor sharp knives look fantastic in their high-speed yet level movement and the dwarves’ faces are covered in the shadows of hoods to ensure they’re steeped in mystery rather than laughed at under rubber masks. The style is undeniable even in cinematography: a shot of Scrimm turning to stare at us through the fog of frozen desserts remains unforgettable.

It’s a mood piece beyond anything else, the plot of young Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) discovering the nefarious goings on of The Tall Man paling in comparison to atmosphere and tone. We’re watching a boy cope with mortality after his parents’ deaths hit hard and the sudden “suicide” of his brother’s (Bill Thornbury‘s Jody) friend Tommy (Bill Cone) keeps the subject fresh on his mind. And now comes the revelation Jody is going to leave him in the care of their aunt so he can pursue the goals he created before finding himself as an unwitting guardian. Mike is soon to be alone and this thought tortures him to the point of believing this mortician reaper roams the earth solely as the orchestrator of his pain.

We buy into The Tall Man’s actions as the first of two cemetery sex scenes alludes to him being the alluring Lady in Lavender (Kathy Lester) seducing men between her legs with knife in hand to add to an already growing army of diminutive slaves. He has inhuman strength and an occupation perfectly-suited to mask true intentions—a physical being interacting with the public as much as a malicious specter haunting Mike’s and Jody’s nightmares a la Freddy Kruger (Wes Craven‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street must have been influenced by Phantasm subconsciously if not blatantly). And he won’t be contained whether maimed (a dismembered finger tapping in green goo blood before evolving into a hyper critter feels incongruous to the subtler and darker rest), blown-up, or suffocated.

Mike and Jody recruit friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) to their quest of discovering what’s going on at the mortuary, his ice cream truck driver practically another brother to them. The camaraderie of this trio ultimately speaks to most audience members in its portrayal of love from an alternative source besides parent and child and its unwavering dedication to stand by each other offering protection and support. They do whatever it takes to survive in reality and nightmare, the difference between the two proving harder to discern after an ending that beautifully wraps up the film if also providing a truth that makes subsequent entries problematic. By letting us wonder whether The Tall Man truly exists, however, Phantasm is cemented as the eerie creeper it strives to become.

Inspired by Ray Bradbury‘s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Phantasm has subsequently taken on that role for other genre artists. Elm Street is obvious, but I also felt shades of Hellraiser in promises of alternate worlds. Its legacy has taken a life of its own and that power shouldn’t be dismissed. And since the aforementioned moments of levity don’t detract from the feeling of dread cultivated, the amateurish acting never renders the finished piece a classic to be laughed at. There’s legitimate respect involved in the fans’ effusive adoration, something I’d attribute to Coscarelli for turning his limited resources into a striking visual design. Credit Scrimm as well. Save his opening line—people laughed, I rolled my eyes—his Tall Man is possessed by an intensity that lingers via his calmly menacing determination.

[1] The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) feels the chill from ice cream man Reggie’s truck.
[2] The sultry Lady in Lavender (Kat Lester) lures the unsuspecting Jody (Bill Thornbury) into the graveyard.
[3] Jody (Bill Thornbury) has a rude introduction to the creatures living within the walls of Morningside Mausoleum.

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