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Phantasm (1979)

by Steve Habrat

While watching Don Coscarelli’s 1979 horror film Phantasm, it is truly hard to believe that Coscarelli was only 23-years-old while he was making the film. Treating the horror film as high art, Coscarelli’s Phantasm is a remarkable vision for a young mind and there is a sense of calm control as the film builds to its spacey climax, but the real clincher is the doom-tinged sense of dread that continuously washes over the viewer as events snowball into something much more sinister. Phantasm indeed gets by and earns praise for its nightmarish imagery aided by moaning organs that give these images a vague gothic facade, but Phantasm seems like just a collection of images that Coscarelli found scary with very little coherence connecting them. Coscarelli attempts to link these images with a hit-or-miss plot that is only sporadically articulate with some repellent hints of pretention thrown in. With artistry and atmosphere doing all the work, we are able to forgive the flaws in the story but another distracting element manifests in some of the questionable acting, an aspect that Coscarelli doesn’t seem very confident in as a director. Still, Phantasm has the spooks and for that, it shouldn’t be missed, especially if you’re a fan of gritty horror from the 1970s. It also has the Tall Man and you should be very afraid of the Tall Man.

Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury), a 24-year-old musician, is raising his 13-year-old brother Mike (Played by A. Michael Baldwin) in a small southern California town. The two boys lost their parents at an early age and they have been taking care of themselves ever since. Close family friend Reggie (Played by Reggie Bannister), a sincere family man who happens to be the neighborhood ice cream vendor, checks up on Jody and Mike from time to time just to make sure they are doing okay. Out of fear that Jody may leave, Mike follows Jody every time he leaves the driveway. One day, Mike follows Jody to a funeral where the both catch a glimpse of a strange dwarf-like figure creeping around the cemetery. Mike also happens to catch a glimpse of the local mortician (Played by Angus Scrimm) picking up a coffin as if it weighed nothing and tossing it into the back of his hearse. Mike quickly tells Jody about what he saw but Jody simply waves him off. After Mike follows Jody and a girl to the same graveyard one evening, Mike is attacked by the same dwarf-like figure. The attack leads Jody to believe Mike and the two boys, along with Reggie, begin to investigate the cemetery, but they soon regret their investigation when the mortician begins attacking them with an army of alien dwarfs and an array of futuristic weapons. Things really get dangerous when the boys discover that the mortician may come from another dimension.

Going heavy on the fantasy, Phantasm does seem a bit too mystical for the late 1970s, when things were grounded in gritty realism with just faint hints of supernatural forces at play. Even the demonic offerings from that time seemed just a little too real for most people to handle, even to this day. Phantasm gets really bizarre, especially when other dimensions and alien grave robbers emerge from the darkness. Still, Coscarelli keeps things properly grounded when he can and the grainy film used to shoot the picture adds that familiar feel of watching some disturbing home video footage that was packed away for many years. At times, Phantasm can be unintentionally hilarious, from the Jawa-like dwarfs that dart around the graveyard to a scene involving the cheapest looking red-eyed insect you have ever seen. And yet you can’t fault Phantasm for any of this due to the small budget that the filmmakers are forced to work with. There are a number of shocks that do work, from a scene involving the hood being ripped off a dead dwarf that reveals yellowish ooze pouring out of its mouth to a scene involving a flying sphere that latches on to the head of one victim and turns his brains to goop. The sphere scene initially earned the film an X rating but the X was soon changed to a more accessible R.

Then there is the acting, some of which is okay and some of which is really awful. The most iconic performance in Phantasm is without question the Tall Man, the super-strong mortician that stomps around and terrorizes the boys. He twists his face into some of the most deranged expressions and his eyes will reduce you to quivering jelly. When he appears, you know things are not going to end well for the person he is going after. The two leads, Jody and Mike, are saddled with delivering some truly awful dialogue and at times, they even seem a bit unsure of the actions they have been asked to perform. Jody is easily the cheesiest as he tries to deliver macho one liners that hit the ground with a splat when they leave his mouth. Mike is asked to just run around and repeat over and over that he is not afraid as baddies leer at him in the dark. Reggie is a little better but he isn’t on the screen long enough for us to ever really invest in his character. Then there is the really peculiar scene that has Mike visiting an old Fortuneteller (Played by Mary Ellen Shaw) and her granddaughter (Played by Terrie Kalbus), which has them asking Mike to stick his hand in a black box that bites. These characters add to the hypnotic mystery of the film but their presence is a bit inexplicable when we look at the big picture. I guess it was all about foreshadowing?

In addition to some creepy imagery, Phantasm does have one hell of a memorable score, perhaps one of the best to ever come out of the horror genre. The score actually covers for some of the sillier aspects of the film and it is guaranteed to give you goosebumps, especially if you choose to view Phantasm after dark.  As the film reveals more and more about its paranormal grave robbers, the terror that the film was working hard to build deflates right before our eyes. Coscarelli does give us a brief glimpse of this alternate universe, one where the sky is burned blood red and hooded dwarfs slave away in a barren desert. We don’t get much of an explanation for this alternate universe and we only catch a quick glimpse, which allows the film to recover and keep the dread high. At times, the film slips into non-linear montages that do catch you off guard, mostly because they come at a time when we think we have everything figured out. Once again, it is effective in the way it throws us off but I wish certain moments would have made a little more sense. The film also has some incredibly precise editing, which is extremely effective in the opening cemetery sequence where hooded ghouls are just barely glimpsed. Overall, Phantasm isn’t perfect but you can’t help but admire it on the grounds that this was made but a 23-year-old with some serious proficiency.  It may not rank as one of the best horror films to emerge from gritty age of horror, but it sure works hard to make sure you remember it when the lights go out.

Grade: B-

Phantasm is available on DVD.