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Watching Phantasm 40 years after its release, one realises it’s sandwiched between two times. Parts feel very 70s American cinema, a period when it was more acceptable for a mainstream movie to emphasise atmosphere over plot. Blending sharp cuts with strangely languorous passages and employing a hazy, dream-like narrative – where scenes don’t lead but drunkenly stumble into each other – Phantasm for huge stretches recalls Robert Altman’s avant-garde thrillers from the decade such as 3 Women and Images.
Yet, then there’s the other period with which this 1979 Don Coscarelli joint belongs, the late 70s to 80s American horror wave. This was a time when terrifying figures like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Pinhead and their gory actions were enough to launch franchises of frighteningly fun films.
Filling the big bad role in Phantasm is Angus Scrimm’s The Tall Man, a sinister looking figure running a mortuary in a small, suburban town. Our 13-year-old lead character, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), and his brother/guardian after their parents’ deaths, Jody (Bill Pearson), begin to suspect strange things are happening at the funeral parlour. This is after some of their friends die in odd manners and small animal like creatures begin terrorising the locals.
The original workprint cut of Phantasm went over three hours long in length – suggesting Coscarelli (who made it for 300k) had intended the film to be even more freewheeling and experimental. However, realising it would need a faster pace and a standard duration to play in theatres, the writer-director and editor gutted the movie to a slim 89 minutes run-time. In the wake of the surprise success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Phantasm was snapped up by the now long defunct distribution company Embassy Pictures, going on to gross $12 million in cinemas.
Spawning four sequels Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), Phantasm IV (1998) and Phantasm: Ravager (2016), the franchise has a sizable following. JJ Abrams, for example, is a huge fan. The Force Awakens helmer oversaw a 4K restoration of the original. He even named Star Wars character Captain Phasma after the film.
There’s enough that’s iconic in Phantasm to understand why certain cinephiles will defend it tooth and nail. Wearing a size too small suit and shoe lifts to emphasis his height, Angus Scrimm projects so much menace in limited screen time. With his overly mannered movements and permanent stone-faced scowl, he looks – despite no special effects – totally unhuman.
On top of Scrimm’s performance, The Tall Man’s scheme once revealed is very imaginative and deeply creepy. There’s also a handful of incredible stylised horror set pieces, ones which recall Dario Argento at his best (the score too sounds like the Italian auteur’s house band Goblin meets Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack). Being chased by The Tall Man, Mike catches some of his attacker’s fingers in a door. To get away, the teen pulls out a butcher’s knife and cuts them off. The Tall Man oozes bright yellow blood and his fingers continue to move after being detached from the body, in a creepy shoe-string special effect.
And we couldn’t forget the murder balls, inspired by a dream of Coscarelli’s. As Jody and Mike wander around The Tall Man’s mausoleum, they are attacked by silver spheres with hooks on their side that shoot out of the walls. As they slam into your head, the hooks grab on. Then the ball emits a screw which begins to drill into your brain. The sphere then pumps all your blood out in a steady stream, a machination with forms a string of unforgettable scenes in Phantasm.
All that said, do the outwardly horror elements gel with the psychedelic 70s almost Easy Rider-esque vibe of the rest of the movie? The latter involving Jody and his best friend/shotgun wielding mensch Reggie (Reggie Bannister) strumming away at guitars and multiple male characters sneaking into graveyards to have sex in public with mysterious women they just met in shapeless, extended scenes. The answer: yes and no.
On the negative side, Phantasm is oddly paced. The viewer feels like they spend too long watching inconsequential scenes. All the while vital parts of the story – including an early encounter Mike has with a magic fortune teller – are very undeveloped. The film seems to be hinting towards some grand idea that Mike represents the time when people learn about death with The Tall Man a metaphor for fears about mortality. Yet, the idea gets lost in the choppy, disjointed nature of the movie. To make that point hit home, Jody and Mike’s dead parents would need to have a bigger impact narratively. Instead, they are only mentioned briefly.
However, the fact that the movie just glides from one moment to the next without much connecting tissue does give the film an idiosyncratic, striking quality. Comparable in tone to both Michael Mann’s The Keep and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser – other later horrors with strange behind-the-scenes issues – Phantasm truly does feel like a dark dream. The type that upon waking you feel must be symbolic of something deep inside. And while you can’t really put a finger on exactly what, it sticks with you nonetheless.