CULT CORNER: Phantasm (1979)

Our horror proceedings continue with one of the greatest genre offerings you probably haven’t seen. Welcome to the start of Don Coscarelli’s beloved franchise. 

Who made it?: Don Coscarelli (Director/Writer/Co-Producer), Paul Pepperman (Co-Producer), New Breed Productions Inc.

Who’s in it?: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Angus Scrimm.

Tagline: “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!”

IMDb rating: 6.9/10.

Don Coscarelli was twenty-four-years old when he wrote, directed, shot and edited Phantasm. Filmed on a bargain basement price of $300,000 – which was loaned from family, friends and doctors – the cheapie horror flick eventually grossed in the millions and kick-started yet another sequel-baiting franchise. Yet Phantasm, despite its fan-fuelled reputation, has become very much a cult film sought-out by genre buffs who’ve exhausted every last screen slasher and desire an American horror series with class. This indie offering is better than a peruse of the details would suggest, sparking what could be the most consistent franchise in the genre’s innumerable history. Against all odds, obvious inexperience, frequently inept acting, and secondary baddies who look like demented Jawas, the original Phantasm lives up to its four-sequel legacy.

As is always the case with low-budget fare by relative amateurs, I get the impression the picture’s ultimate success was a complete accident. For starters, Coscarelli wasn’t necessarily a “horror guy”, having already made two unsuccessful features. Gory exploitation was almost always a guaranteed success, leading Don to concoct a scary story to entice cinema-goers. But instead of yet another film where a masked ghoul slices up female teens in the woods, he weaved a narrative about two grieving brothers ripped apart by an unstoppable bogeyman. Those looking for excessive gore are in the wrong place, as Phantasm is unlike anything else you’ve seen whilst conforming to the basic requirements of the genre. Part of that is down to a disastrous preview screening of Coscarelli’s original three-hour cut that necessited trims. It resulted in a picture that feels fractured like a half-remembered dream… all to its credit. I’ve seen it three times now and I’m still not sure I grasp every last detail, and I don’t even care.

We follow the young Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) after the loss of their parents. This has clearly left a toll on Mike who has taken to hanging out in graveyards. Oh dear. He also becomes fearful of Jody meeting a similar fate. After spying on a funeral his brother has attended from afar, Mike notices a strange, old mortician lifting a heavy casket into a hearse with remarkable ease. He decides to investigate, and discovers, ludicrously, that this decrepit geezer – dubbed the “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) – is actually an alien who has come to Earth to raid graves and use the undead for his bidding. As you do!

You’re not watching Phantasm for what its actually about, though. If it wasn’t for the follow-ups – which carry on directly from this film – writing the above outline may have been difficult. This is very much a young director finding his footing, both creatively and aesthetically. Though they were all relative novices, the mood and atmosphere in this picture is incredible, and a large part of that is down to how unpredictably dreamlike it is. Wes Craven must have been influenced by Coscarelli for A Nightmare on Elm Street; the line between reality and mere vision is blurred from the very start and you’re unsure who to trust. This is only exacerbated by the really rather competent and diffused lighting of Coscarelli’s own photography, which gives everything a veil of fantasy. Phantasm‘s world of sleepy suburbia and mausoleums feels satisfyingly complete, even with the rough edges reminding you that everything was done on the fly.

It’s also amazing that the home-made special effects stand-up well thirty-five years on. They’re not all seamless and there’s a bit with a malevolent bug so ludicrous that Coscarelli would lampoon it decades later in Bubba Ho-tep, but the majority of the set-pieces still work like gangbusters in the face of modest resources. The coup de grâce is without a doubt the flying spheres – later dubbed “Sentinels” – which help to do the Tall Man’s dirty work. They’re airborne, intelligent, and packed with razor-sharp accouterments that lead to the picture’s bloody highlight (a moment so shocking on the initial watch that it almost gave the film a dreaded X). Phantasm is chock-full of memorable bits and pieces that you’ll recall long after viewing.

As one of the screen’s most unfairly-overlooked horror stars, Scrimm is perfect as the Tall Man, always raising his eyebrow as if to tell us we shouldn’t be taking any of this seriously. Like many of his contemporaries, his presence in the sequels became overstated, diluting his fear factor somewhat. Here, he is an omnipresent spectre lingering over the proceedings and always threatening to pop-out at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t matter that his screen-time is so brief; the classically-trained Scrimm leaves such an impression that we’re genuinely in fear for Mike and Jody. Along with Freddy Krueger and Chucky, he is also one of the few “slasher” icons to have a personality, and they’re always more interesting. You’ll want to find out more about the Tall Man and the hellish world that spawned him.

The rest of the cast are less accomplished, of course, with the young Baldwin doing the best he can at that precocious age, and Thornbury being merely fine as Jody. They weren’t working actors, and for once, I can accept that here. There’s something to be said about a project clearly put together by passionate people giving it everything they’ve got, and that goodwill extends to every level of Phantasm. It also has one of my favourite genre protagonists in ice cream salesman Reggie, named affectionately for the actor who plays him. Reggie Bannister, with his ice cream uniform and balding head, is about as far from “cool” as you can get, but such inadequacies only make him more likeable. Really, he’s this universe’s Ash from The Evil Dead (released in 1981)and if you’re a fan of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, this film comes highly recommended. Thank fuck it doesn’t focus on another screaming woman being chased for ninety minutes!

As good as the actors give, this film belongs to Coscarelli. It has boundless enthusiasm, a keen attention to detail, a killer pace, well-orchestrated effects, and a handling of mood that provides an ample amount of creepiness. The evident flaws, such as they are, only serve to make it more charming.

Phantasm is definitely not for all tastes, and many may find it off-puttingly retro or even obscure, but this is the rare horror classic that gets better the more times you see it. There are few films like it in the genre and any filmmaker looking to deliver more than blood and guts gets the thumbs up from me. Phantasm and its above-average sequels are diamonds in the rough…

Best Scene

Ridiculous and awesome in equal measure.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The genesis of the story came to Don Coscarelli in a dream. One night, being in his late teens, he dreamed of fleeing down endlessly long marble corridors, pursued by a chrome sphere intent on penetrating his skull with a wicked needle. There was also a quite futuristic “sphere dispenser” out of which the orbs would emerge and begin chase.
  • The Tall Man’s “henchmen”, the dwarves, were played by children.
  • The “ball” scenes were simple special effects. The sphere was being guided around a corner by a fishing line. The sphere was thrown from behind the camera by a baseball pitcher and then the shot was printed in reverse. The ball attaching itself to the man’s head was filmed by sticking it on his head, then pulling it off, and printing the shot in reverse.
  • The mansion used for the exterior shots of the mausoleum was also seen in the James Bond film A View to a Kill (1985), and also the 1976 horror film Burnt Offerings (1976).
  • Some of the unused footage from the fabled three-hour was located in the late 1990s and became the framework for Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998). The rest of the footage is believed to be lost.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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