By Patrick King.
Just when you start to think Don Coscarelli’s 1979 horror film Phantasm is going to be a conventional horror film, your expectations suddenly get turned around and you realize you’re watching a pretty unique piece of low-budget filmmaking, psychologically and cinematically. A new crisp transfer and remastering from JJ. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions has just been released on Blu-ray and it looks perfect. There hasn’t been a better time since its theatrical release to see this film.
Writer/director Don Coscarelli started making Phantasm when he was twenty-three, but didn’t finish it until he was twenty-five. Much like Stephen Spielberg, he wrote and directed short films as a teenager. He made his first feature film, Jim, the World’s Greatest when he was nineteen, following it quickly with Kenny & Company, both of which were released in 1976.
The films were dramas about teenagers. Kind of like infamous microbudget filmmaker and “Godfather of Gore” Hershell Gordon Lewis, Coscarelli got into horror because he knew the genre had a built in audience and made money. However, unlike Lewis, Coscarelli actually has a passion for filmmaking apart from its ability to earn him a few bucks. Coscarelli loves making movies, and it shows.
The plot is thin, relying mostly on atmosphere and visuals to push the narrative forward. Mike (Michael A. Baldwin), a kid of about thirteen or fourteen, lives with his older brother and caretaker Jody (Bill Thornbury) after their parents’ death. When a pal of Jody’s dies and is interred at Morningside cemetery, Mike spies on the funeral from afar, watching the thing with binoculars from a distance.
In an unguarded moment, the mortician, referred to as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) because of his height, which made even more noticeable because he’s almost comically skinny, lifts the coffin into his hearse singlehandedly. Knowing this is physically impossible, Mike decides to investigate. From there, we slowly learn what lies behind the Tall Man, his little dwarf minions, and the funeral home with the strange mausoleum where bodies are constantly disappearing.
The question throughout the movie, and one that’s never really answered is, what’s really happening and what’s in the characters’ minds? If you don’t like at least a little ambiguity in your movies, you won’t dig this one. Although it constantly seems like the movie is veering toward horror movie cliches, those conventions are constantly being subverted.
Point of view shots are used extensively. Most of them are from Mike’s perspective as he tries to solve the mystery of the Tall Man. You find yourself consequently questioning what, if anything, is real, what is imagined, and what is a combination of the two. And even though most of the point of view shots are from Mike’s perspective, not all of them are. Sometimes something, we don’t know exactly what, though it surely has something to do with the Tall Man, is watching Mike.
Tiny flashbacks, lasting maybe a few seconds each, are peppered throughout the film. These bursts of memory add a nice touch of verisimilitude, like the sudden flashes of something we thought had been long forgotten coming to mind quickly and disappearing just as fast. Anyway, all of these elements come together to create a wonderfully unique mood.
Phantasm touches on nearly every horror subgenre that existed up to that point. It’s a bit gothic, there’s some elements of a slasher film, there’s even a bit of gore, exemplified by the shot where a poor schmuck of a funeral worker gets knives that are attached to a self-propelled silver orb bored into his forehead and blood squirts out in a steady stream, as if being released from a garden hose. The music, too, is a big factor in the movie’s unique mood. Composed by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, the keyboard-heavy tunes are reminiscent of the stuff Goblin did for Dario Argento, specifically in Suspiria.
There are short sections of the movie that border on surrealism. On two separate occasions, Mike and Jody fall asleep and are attacked by the Tall Man and his little dwarves. When Mike falls asleep, the Tall Man appears malevolently at the head of his bed, now in a graveyard, watching ominously as hands push out of the ground and try to drag him to hell. Not a fun way to spend one’s evening.
Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man is used sparingly, thankfully, adding to the mystery. We don’t get tired of him and the black-suited funeral director always appears menacing. Scrimm was one of Coscarelli’s discoveries. Beginning as a stage actor, he later became a journalist and wrote liner notes for a variety of records, from rock-n-roll to classical. Every second he’s on screen is one of complete menace. Who knows to what strange depths within himself Scrimm had to dig to find this character, but he really pulls it off.
And besides the menace, there’s something bizarrely Freudian about the Tall Man. On more than one occasion he transforms from a beautiful naked blonde into the middle-aged and pale Tall Man after seducing and stabbing a male victim.
The visual effects aren’t bad, either, especially for the budget. There’s a kind of mutant fly puppet that menaces Mike and Jody toward the middle of the film and it doesn’t come off as overly silly, though as you might suspect, it does require a bit of suspension of disbelief. Probably the coolest effect comes when Mike finds an old picture of the Tall Man in an antique shop. The photo is from some time in the 19th Century, of the Tall Man in a horse-drawn buggy. As Mike looks at the photo, the Tall Man moves his head toward Michael to stare back. This is possibly one of the creepiest parts of the film.
The killer dwarves in their brown hoods always have darkness obscuring their faces, even though you know there’s either little people or kids underneath the robes. (As it turns out, they were a couple of boys who lived next door to Coscarelli.) Unfortunately, they do look almost identical to the jawas from the first Star Wars film, a coincidence that Coscarelli laments in the commentary track: “We were shooting the film…and somebody said, ‘they’re using your dwarves in Star Wars.’” Well, what can you do, eh?
Originally a three hour movie that was cut down to around 90 minutes, Phantasm feels disjointed at times, but that only helps the subjective mood and strange psychology of the piece. It’s not quite one of the great horror movies, but it’s not hard to see how it has developed such a cult following over the years. Not just for horror fans, Phantasm will appeal to anyone who likes their movies on the weird side and a touch abstract.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.