Phantasm Movie Review
Written by Giuseppe Infante
Written and directed by Don Coscarelli
1979, 88 minutes, Rated R
Michael Baldwin as Mike
Bill Thornbury as Jody
Reggie Bannister as Reggie
Kathy Lester as Lady in Lavender
Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man
Phantasm is about a teenage boy's unraveling suspicion about the recent deaths in his small town. The Tall Man is a mortician seeking eternal damnation and slavery for humankind. No one believes the young protagonist's claims of a murderous mortician, including his brother and friend. He must take it upon himself to stop The Tall Man's sinister domination at any cost, including his own sanity.
Phantasm is not for the average mainstream filmgoer, especially the people who dislike 'old movies.' At first look, one may automatically deem Phantasm a B-movie, but to the analytical eye, and the hordes of "phans" and horror aficionados, it exceeds low-budget B-horror and enters a realm of filmmaking alchemy – mixing part indie/art house, part horror, part coming-of-age, part sci-fi, part cerebral, and part comedy. Don Coscarelli directs, writes, photographs, produces and edits with precision, especially considering the budget. There is an Argento/Bava-esque quality in Coscarelli's vision (which was originally a three-hour epic, but was cut down to half that size). After close viewing, Coscarelli's idea, the use of a phenomenal local, the comradery of the actors and the haunting score, Phantasm holds up as a top tier horror film 36 years after its release.
Phantasm depicts an array of ideas and themes, such as alternate dimensions, alien beings, perception of reality, death, loss and family abandonment. These ideas are brought to the viewer subtly, with a slow burn, while the mystery of what the hell is actually going on encompasses the psyche. Ambiguity is present here, leaving viewers with thoughts and questions for discussion after the credits roll. Coscarelli's influence of Italian horror and giallo of the '60s and '70s transcends.
With these concepts fused in the movie's DNA, the setting is the backbone of Phantasm – using any other set design or location would not give the alluring staging the film has. Staging is crucial. The mausoleum is a character in its own right, adding to the cemetery scenes, where during the day it is just as creepy as during the night. The building lingers, whether in the background of a grassy field or up-close amongst the tombstones.
The gore scenes are kept to a limit, though when they do come they are successful. The long and brightly lit corridors of the mausoleum are where blood spills. The sentinel, the notorious flying silver sphere that drills out brains, is primitive when compared to the array of gadgets the spheres from the sequels use. But still, the introduction to the sentinel is matchless, gruesome and unforgettable. The killer dwarves, who look exactly like jawas from Star Wars, were apparently an idea and filmed before Star Wars was released (Phantasm was filmed in 1977), but that is a whole other issue…
The players are an effective band of actors, who add to the aura of Phantasm. Angus Scrimm's portrayal of The Tall Man is a rare and memorable performance. Like the cemetery's mausoleum, no one could nail this part besides Scrimm. His physical appearance and oppressive stalking is just as important as his dialogue, where you won't hear much, as he is limited to five lines consisting of 28 words. Scrimm, clad in a morticians suit and some light makeup, pursues the lead protagonist, Michael (played by A. Michael Baldwin), in the small town of Morningside. Along with being haunted by The Tall Man, Mike is worried his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), is going to abandon him. Viewers find out early on the brothers had recently lost their parents in an accident and Jody came back to town to raise Mike. Though not Oscar performances, the two are believable and have a familiar onscreen chemistry. Along with the brothers, Jody's friend, an ice cream vendor with some one-liners named Reggie (Reggie Bannister), helps transcend the comradely between the trio, as they all eventually encounter The Tall Man.
Recently released on vinyl, the soundtrack of the film is rendered by synthesizer and organ eeriness, providing a disturbing vibe which induces the surrealistic, Argento/Bava-esque quality. You know from the sound something's going down.
There is much to appreciate here, especially the devotion put into the film by its creator and his troop. Don't expect a Hollywood blockbuster, but more of an ambiguous mystery, as you keep asking yourself, "what the hell is going on?" By the end, it may be apparent to some, but not to others. It all depends how invested into a film one gets. If you want to be force fed cliché-ridden Hollywood horror, this is not an outlet for you. If you want to open your mind to something different, "The funeral is about to begin, sir!"