Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm, 1979; directed by Don Coscarelli ; starring  A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister

The end of the 70s/start of the 80s gave us many notable horror movies: Alien, The Shinning, Friday the 13th, The Changeling all just scratch the surface.  We were fearful of many things – the cold war, nuclear war, the gas shortages and opec, unemployment and the hostages in Iran.  The fact that we fear many things today and that we are also experiencing yet another renaissance in horror films – and American horror films – is probably no coincidence.

Some of these films deal directly with our fears, with some form of metaphor (Invasion of the Body Snatchers with communism for example; or The Fly with aids).  Others just grab our fear and take it on a crazy journey of escape.   Phantasm is an example of the latter.  Coming out of nowhere, Don Coscarelli took horror fans by storm – well, a cultish storm –  with this low budget but creative horror film.

Phantasm deals with the goings on at a peculiar Funeral Home in an unnamed small town of America.  It opens with a couple taking a page from the Allman Brothers and enjoying a carnal encounter in a graveyard (The Allman Brothers instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” got it’s title, the story goes, from it’s author Dicky Betts enjoying his own romance in a graveyard and looking up at the grave stone he was romancin’ under…) that turns deadly.

We meet Jody, his younger brother Mike and their bald but pony tailed buddy Reggie at the funeral of the deceased man from the opening scene.  It would seem Mike and Jody recently lost their parents too, and they are buried in the crypt below the funeral home.   Soon Phantasm’s iconic character, the ominously named Tall Man, appears to bark at Jody, “the funeral is about to begin.”   After the funeral, which because Jody had kept his younger brother away from for fear of causing him trauma, Mike is spying on the funeral home with binoculars.  He sees the Tall Man pick up the coffin, by himself, and place it in the hearse before driving away.

What follows is a tale of awkward dialog, wooden acting, and endless inventive creepiness (Reggie drives an old fashioned ice cream truck that would be right at home in Mayberry, and of course the small metal sphere that drills into your skull and sucks the blood out are two examples).  Through the strength of this film, Coscarelli went on to be sort of a poor man’s George A. Romero.  Only instead of working with the living dead (as one might work with oils or watercolors) Coscarelli works with The Tall Man.   As of this writing there are 4 Phantasm films, with a 5th one written.  Incidentally, Coscarelli also went on to make the 80s cult fantasy film The Beastmaster as well as the odd 2002 horror film that has Bruce Campbell playing Elvis in a retirement home investigating a possible egyptian mummy killing the residents.  Sadly Angus Scrimm – aka The Tall Man – passed away earlier this year so it is unclear if there will actually be 5th Phantasm film.

Though it’s low budget origins are fairy obvious in some of the visuals, it’s creativity and willingness to go places a big budget film wouldn’t have touched are what make this an enjoyable halloween film.  It’s one of those rare films that works both as a film to watch with friends to make wisecracks about and as just a film to watch.  I’ve yet to see any of the sequels, but the word among horror fans is that they are all credible to excellent examples of Coscarelli engaging in very creative and thorough world building, long before Marvel comics started to figure out even how to get a decent film made of one of it’s properties.


Dr. Vorhees