It’s been a long, Long, LONG time since I’ve seen Phantasm. So long, in fact, that other than a few still images and basic concepts I couldn’t remember a damn thing about the movie. However, I did remember enjoying it, so I decided to give Phantasm its due.
Musician Jody returns home after his parents’ death to take care of his younger brother, Mike. After the death of one of Jody’s friends, Mike notices the funeral director single-handedly remove the coffin from the ground as if it were Styrofoam and take it back to the funeral home.
Suspecting something fishy, Mike breaks into the funeral home after hours where he encounters aggressive, hooded dwarves; a flying, silver sphere that has a penchant for human flesh and a very pissed off funeral director.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot of buried (haha) secrets at Morningside cemetery and it’s up to Mike, Jody and their buddy Reggie to uncover them before those secrets consume the town.
And as everyone knows, the best way to uncover secrets is with the help of heavy firepower.
One of the first things anyone who watches Phantasm is going to notice right off the bat is that the film is low budget. Writer/Director Don Coscarelli got everything from the actors to the funding locally, so the whole thing has a very low budget, almost amateur-is vibe to it. His dad was the producer, his mom designed some costumes (and wrote the novelization) and the extras were either his, or other actors’ family members. When it comes to ‘independent’ films you really can’t get much more ‘independent’ than that.
But just because it was low budget doesn’t mean everything looks cheap. Sure, the acting can feel a little wooden and they threw in a bizarre folk duet for some reason…
Clearly, what every horror film needs more of.
…but you can tell the whole movie was a labor of love. Considering the budget and the time, the special effects are pretty damn impressive, especially the detached finger and the now iconic flying, silver balls that like to dig deep into a persons thoughts.
Oh sorry, mind. I meant they like to dig into a persons mind, drill and splurty blood and all.
You know another iconic gem the film is known for? That creepy-ass mortician; aka, The Tall Man. There’s a reason why people recognize him when they might not even know what movie he’s from. Angus Scrimm plays him with such malicious glee that there’s just no way you couldn’t be creeped out by him. When I was younger this was the guy that gave me nightmares. Not Freddy Kruger, not Michael Myers, or Jason Vorhees. That guy.
That’s right, the guy in the pressed, black suit freaked me out more than all the supernatural beings with sharp, pointy object combined.
Pictured: Every child’s worst nightmare.
I’m guessing what’s going to throw a lot of people off by Phantasm though, probably won’t have anything to do with the characters or special effects, but the story itself. The plot’s a bit nutty, the narrative is often choppy and the pacing is uneven. Those aren’t exactly things that are going to guarantee a wide audience. Couple that with the fact the most of it shot at night in near darkness and the almost surreal effect that gives the film is probably not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
Though Phantasm is best remembered as a horror movie, it isn’t really a horror movie at all. It’s actually closer to a dark fantasy, albeit one with elements of gore and sex. The blurred line between what’s real and what isn’t makes the entire thing feel less like a movie and more like a fever dream, where the real and the surreal become almost interchangeable. Is any of it real, or is the whole film just a figment of Mike’s imagination, a re-direct of his grief into some unstoppable specter? Who knows. What we do know is that Director Don Coscarelli conceived of the premise of the movie after “thinking about how our culture handles death.” And if that’s true, than Coscarelli has some really disturbing thoughts regarding the afterlife.
Personally, I think Phantasm is pretty awesome and really like the surreal, dreamlike vibe. It’s certainly different than a lot of the other horror movies out there, but no one should go into it thinking it’s going to make a whole lot of sense.
Phantasm is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.