Released in 1979, Don Cosceralli’s “Phantasm” was one of the strangest and most creative horror films of that decade. This is no small feat considering the same decade brought us “Suspiria”, “Death Bed: The Bed that Eats”, “Rabid”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Eraserhead”. Followed by three sequels, “Phantasm” has carved it’s own brand of carnage over a 20 year period that still embeds itself firmly into the skulls of new and old “phans” alike.
This article has to do with my own feelings (both good and bad) regarding the series as well as a basic overview of the first film, with other articles about the sequels to follow. The film was conceived by writer-director Don Coscrealli following an audience reaction to a jump scare in his children’s film “Kenny & Co.” Realizing how easy and fun it is to scare people he decided to make a full on fright fest. To do so, Coscrealli isolated himself in a cabin for two weeks and penned the script for “Phantasm”, basing it’s central plot on the strange rituals that occur to a person’s body after death. The oddness of a loved one’s corpse being taken, embalmed, then coming back looking like a different person before being paraded around in a funeral gave genesis to the film’s villain “The Tall Man”. Most of it’s principal cast were actors Coscerealli had worked with before on his first two films “Kenny & Company” and “Jim The World’s Greatest”. These actors include A. Micheal Baldwin, Reggie Bannister and Rory Guy. Rory Guy was cast as the villainous Tall Man for “Phantasm” and thus adopted the meancing pseudonym Angus Scrimm, a name which he uses to this day. Interestingly, Scrimm was only 6’4″ at the time of filming. Since he has aged he has dropped down closer to 6’1″.
“Phantasm” was filmed over a period of two years before it was released. The film was shot on weekends then the crew spent the week doing editing and putting it together. The shoot script was three hours long and most of it was shot but only half of the footage made it to the actual film. Some of the deleted scenes can be viewed on the DVD releases of the film, and watching them one can’t help but agree with the decision to leave them on the cutting room floor. Don Cosceralli’s mother, the novelist Kate Cosceralli, wrote an adaptation of the film which contains the entire story from the shooting script and can be purchased at Phantasm.com.
“Phantasm” begins it’s story with a murder in a cemetery. A couple are making out on by tombstone when the woman (referred to as “The Lady in Lavender”, played by Kathy Lester) pulls out a knife and kills the man (Tommy). The Lady in Lavender then turns into the Tall Man, prompting a great twist. The series is known for it’s left-of-center ideas and overall weirdness, and this scene sets up the viewer to be prepared for things that aren’t often as they seem. This is one of the central themes of the series.
From here we’re introduced to Jody (Bill Thornbury) and ice cream man Reggie (Reggie Bannister) who are Tommy’s best friends and getting ready for the funeral. We learn that Jody has a little brother named Mike (A. Micheal Baldwin), and that they lost their parents not too long ago. Jody talks about the effect their death had on his little brother, and that’s why Mike will not be in attendance. They also mention that Tommy’s death was a suicide; one of two complaints I have about this movie. I understand that crime scene investigations weren’t the same 31 years ago as they are now, but how can a stab wound to the heart be deemed a suicide? Such a criticism seems unfair considering the outlandish nature of the rest of the film (and series), but it is something that bothers me.
The film then switches gears to Mike, who is the central character of the series. He does go to the funeral but only to spy on Jody. While in the cemetery he spots the Tall Man lifting the casket of Tommy into the hearse by himself. Spooked by this and still worried about losing Jody, Mike goes to talk to the local fortune teller (Mary Ellen Shaw) to talk about these situations since she is an occult expert in a scene that is in my opinion the emotional heart of the film. We’ve heard Jody talk about Mike’s fears since the death of their parents but now we get it straight from the horses mouth. Mike recalls to her of a conversation he overheard Jody having with a friend of his where Jody has expressed remorse over planning to leave Mike. “He’s a good kid. I’m going to miss him”, Jody says. A scene is inter cut with this where Mike is shown on foot chasing after a motorcycle riding and unaware Jody. It ends on a winded and defeated Mike left behind and unable to follow. The fortune teller tells Mike that if Jody leaves, he’ll take Mike with him. She then gives him a lesson in overcoming fear to help ease his mind about what he saw in the cemetery. It can be inferred that the old sinister hag knows more than she is letting on.
From here on the main storyline kicks in as Mike continues to investigates the Tall Man’s activities while following Jody around and trying to convince him what’s going down. Mike succeeds in convincing Jody that this guy is up to no good and they set out to put the Tall Man six feet under with their loyal friend Reggie also saddling up with them. Armed with a restored black Barricuda, various firearms, and a lot of testicular fortitude, the heroic trio set off to “stomp the shit out of that tall dude”.
One of the things that sets “Phantasm” apart from other horror films is that it’s protagonists don’t sit around waiting for the evil to come attack them; they are proactive about the situation from the get and ready to lay the smackdown. However, the odds are stacked heavily against them. Human servants of the Tall Man, an army of zombie dwarfs, and the famous flying spheres of death are ready to assail our heroes at every turn. The rest of the film follows them as they break into Morningside Cemetery, do battle with the Tall Man’s minions and uncover some of the secrets behind the Tall Man’s existence before taking on the Tall Man himself.
The big twist of the film comes at the end: it was all just a dream. Mike wakes up goes downstairs to Reggie who comforts Mike telling him that it wasn’t real. We then learn that Jody is dead, and has been for a while. Reggie swears to take care of Mike and tells him he isn’t his brother and can’t take Jody’s place but he sure as hell is going to try. They both plan to take off for a while to clear their heads of the tragedy of losing Jody and while Mike goes upstairs to packs, he is ambushed by the Tall Man as the film reaches it’s smashing conclusion.
This is my second complaint with the film. I understand what they were going for and I think this ending is one of the best of all time, but it invalidates everything that came before it by making it a dream, then validates it by having the Tall Man capture Mike at the end. The finale wants to have it’s cake and eat it too. The series further exasperates this in the sequels by having it’s heroes refer back to things that took place in the first movie in Mike’s dream as though they actually happened. The only way to explain this is by saying Reggie and Mike both developed PTSD and repressed the events. The repression causes Mike to relieve it in dreams while Reggie completely blocks out the entire experience. The second film gives a bit of weight to this theory; but keep in mind that’s all it is.
There are two elements that elevate “Phantasm” into the realm of horror classics. The first of these is the iconic musical score done by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. It ushers forth the Tall Man’s appearances in some scenes, while also highlighting Mike’s emotional turmoil in others while managing to feel appropriate in both circumstances. The sequels upgrade the theme to a more epic feel by having it done with an orchestral score.
Anyone familiar with the series will always talk about the spheres. As deadly as they are cool to look at, they are the second element that makes this film a classic. This truly original weaponry shows up in the film near the halfway point out of completely nowhere and becomes the star of the show by embedding itself in a man’s head with two pronged blades. As if that weren’t enough of an attention grabber, the sexy little bitch shows off even more by producing a drill which penetrates the mans forehead while also sucking the blood out of him and shooting it out in the opposite direction. Nothing like this had been seen in horror movies up until that point. Truly original and amazing. “Phantasm III” has a scene explaining their creation which makes them significantly less interesting especially since the enigmatic nature of the spheres is what made them so intriguing. It doesn’t help that the explanation of their workings makes very little sense in light of what we have seen from them previously, but I will save my thoughts regarding these matters in my reviews of the sequels.
“Phantasm” is a one of a kind experience. Owing as much to sci-fi trappings as it does horror, it’s otherworldly nature helped influence the dream sequences in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm St” as well variously plot points and iconography on the TV show “Supernatural”. It spawned three sequels, a comic book, action figures, and is responsible for the popularization of the Hemicuda. A large cult fan-base helps keep this series alive with even more members joining it’s ranks each year. Full of heart and surprises, “Phantasm” earns it’s rightful place as one of the best cult classics of all time.