Don Coscarelli, 1979
Starring: Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm
Jody and his younger brother Mike are struggling along together after the death of their parents. Jody is planning to leave and send Mike to live with an aunt, which Mike fears and works to prevent. They are occasionally joined by their friend Reggie, a musician and ice cream man. After one of Jody’s friends is killed, Mike spies the mortician, an imposing, tall man, lift the coffin into the back of the hearse on his own. He tries to tell Jody about the strange events, but Jody will not believe him. Soon, they learn that something is happened with the dead bodies at the funeral home. They are all pursued by the terrifying Tall Man and his minions, and must struggle to survive.
If you haven’t seen Phantasm, there is no real way to do it justice without spoiling things. It is one of the most bizarre and sublime films of the ‘70s and absolutely must be seen by all genre fans. The film was truly an independent affair, with creator Don Coscarelli acting as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and more. He acquired funding from his family, effects, costumes, and make up were designed by his mother, and a cast and crew made up of friends and amateurs. The script was rewritten as shooting went along (on weekends for several months) and this, along with Coscarelli’s quirky editing, adds to the surreal, nightmarish feel.
Phantasm is the loose story of young Mike spying on trouble at the local graveyard and trying to keep his brother around, but there are many inexplicable events and little nonsequitors spliced in for a surreal, almost absurd effect. There are jawas from Star Wars -- the midgets the Tall Man crushes down and dresses in brown robes -- and even a scene right from Dune, where Mike sticks his hand into a box (presumably the gom jabbar is hidden somewhere) and is essentially told by an old, black-clad woman that “fear is the mind killer.” This is a film full of nightmare logic, where the sensory takes precedence before the rational or the linear.
The film successfully represents the fears of death and abandonment, as well as Mike’s struggles to emerge from childhood/adolescence into adulthood. He is able to act like an adult for much of the second half of the film, including scenes where he drives a muscle car, drinks beer, fires a gun, and uses other masculine tropes to defend his own life and the lives of his friend and brother.
Throughout the film, Coscarelli constantly declares that he is playing by his own rules, something he astonishingly accomplishes with Phantasm, despite such a small budget and inexperienced cast and crew. There are some very thinly written but incredibly endearing characters that drive the film on despite the odds. The performances from all three leads are strong, Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, and Bill Thornbury. Reggie Bannister is an amazing human being and deserves his own television series. The film is peppered with wonderful, memorable moments from all three, such as one of my favorites, where Mike mouths “what the fuck,” after he first spies on the Tall Man single-handedly lifting a coffin into the back of a hearse.
And let us not forget the great Angus Scrimm, who, despite his relatively small amount of screen time, is both memorable and terrifying. He doesn't do much to actual instill terror, other than leer menacingly at the camera, barely squeezing into the frame. He is perhaps the most iconic remainder of Phantasm, a symbol that even newbie or fringe genre fans will recognize.
Phantasm has it all: aliens, other dimensions, loads of inexplicable and supernatural events, convincing effects, plenty of gore, and more, as well as dizzying blend of dreams and reality that was an obvious influence on Nightmare on Elm Street. The plot remains intentionally unresolved in yet another example of Coscarelli boldly bucking convention. There’s also a nice score from Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave that is a little reminiscent of John Carpenter’s work. He does include some conventional scares, but gleefully abandons horror clichés and throws in the wackiest shit imaginable, including the iconic silver ball that flies around and drills into unsuspecting human heads.
Available on special edition DVD, Phantasm comes with the highest possible recommendation. Followed by Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), and Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998), a fifth film was just announced, Phantasm V: Ravager. I can’t say I have high hopes for that one, though it’s always better than another horror remake.