There are many things humans fear: falling, getting trapped in an elevator with too many people and someone shits their pants, waiting in line at the DMV. These events pale in comparison to the one thing that waits for us all and can't avoid: death. We are so afraid that entire belief systems have been constructed that claim to know what lies on the other side to comfort us. The truth is nobody knows for sure what happens when we die. This is the subject Don Coscarelli explores in his breakthrough horror/sci-fi flick Phantasm. A film that started a franchise and made a monster of Angus Scrimm's Tall Man; who haunted many children's dreams after they experienced this fever dream of a film.
On its surface, Phantasm tells the story of Mike (Baldwin), his older brother Jody (Thornbury), and their too cool friend, Reggie (Bannister), who find themselves caught in the sights of an ethereal entity known only as the Tall Man (Scrimm), who is doing something with the recently dead bodies in their town. The genesis for this idea came from a dream that Coscarelli had when he was younger of silver spheres chasing him. Later he had an inspiration to make a movie set in a mausoleum and began to marry the nightmarish images in his dreams to the reality of a creepy setting and so Phantasm was born. This was Coscarelli's third film and he had developed a stable of crew and cast that he would continue to work with throughout his career. Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister had previously worked with Coscarelli on his first two films (Jim the World's Greatest and Kenny & Company) so he brought them along for this project and used their real names for the now iconic characters of Mike and Reggie to illicit more genuine performances from the actors. The performances are raw at times but, for me, never take away from the experience of what they are going through once the shit really starts to hit the fan. Mostly taking place in and around the Morningside Cemetery and funeral home, the film relies more on imagery, sound, and editing over performance to keep the audience engaged. This creates a divisive experience for people because there are no ambivalent Phantasm fans, you either love it or hate it. I belong to the former. I have seen this movie numerous times and I see the impressions it has made on films that have come after it, even the lauded Amblin flicks like The Goonies and E.T. In those flicks the kids are the stars and the adults are totally clueless to what's going on and dismissive of the kids who come to them for help and, once rejected by the adults, take matters into their own hands. This is absolutely the case when Mike first sees the Tall Man inexplicably lift the casket of Tommy, Jody and Reggie's recently dead friend, and shove it into his hearse. As things continue to get weirder and weirder, Mike tries to convince Jody and Reggie but is continuously turned down and told that he's just acting out to get attention. Mike and Jody's parents died two years earlier and Mike keeps thinking that Jody is going to abandon him, which turns out to be true because Jody is planning to leave him as he thinks he's capable of taking care of himself. The familial connections, to include Reggie, is the heart of the series and continues through the sequels.
Grounding the film in the relationships of the characters in a film that escalates into weirder and weirder territory is one of the strengths of this film that has confounded and terrified fans for 40 years. Is the narrative loose? Yes. Is that a problem? For some it is. This is a flick that starts out with a sex scene in a cemetery where the naked lady turns into the Tall Man, giving any young man who watched it a confused boner, definitely something that's "hard" to reconcile. A film that works best when your mind is loosened up a bit with a couple shots or a fat doobie that lowers your rigorous adherence to narrative structure. In this viewing of Phantasm, I felt like Coscarelli was channeling Fulci in that he took ideas and images in his head and wove them together into a meditation on death, family, friendship, and the fear of the unknown. This franchise is also a testament to enduring in the face of adversity and making your movie with the resources you have available. It is also a series that has maintained a continuing narrative through its sequels, something that horror films have a hard time doing as writers, directors, and studios can change hands frequently as the years go by. Coscarelli has given the genre a film that will continue to haunt your dreams long after the film has concluded.
I'm a sucker for cult horror, and I always try to give most horror films the benefit of the doubt. Still, when I watch a movie, I expect certain things. Horror is one of the few genres where basic story structure sometimes isn't included, and it turns the film from a potential winner to a mindless slog. Such is the case with Phantasm. This horror "classic" has nothing holding it together. No story, no interesting characters, no memorable performances. Apart from the intriguing villain, Phantasm never once attempts to make any sort of sense and ends up being not just one of the worst horror movies I've ever seen, but one of the worst movies period.
When young Mike sees the mysterious Tall Man steal the coffin after his friend's funeral, he investigates and learns that the Tall Man is a graverobber with sinister intentions. That's about as much as we ever get, apart from the implication that the Tall Man is either an alien, a demon, or some sort of interdimensional boogeyman. I'm not saying it needs to be spoonfed to the audience, but a little clarity now and then wouldn't hurt. While Angus Scrimm delivers a creepy performance as the Tall Man, he's about the only thing to look forward to. Everyone else delivers typical late 70's cheesy performances, spouting off nonsensical dialogue that meanders us towards a ridiculously underwhelming ending capped off with a predictable final twist. It's just awful.
For some reason, Phantasm is highly regarded in the horror community. I can't imagine why. It's one of the most dreadful horror movies I've ever had to watch. I nearly fell asleep several times due to boredom. When compared to the other iconic and terrifying horror movies that came out around the same time (Halloween and Suspiria, just to name a couple), there's no reason that Phantasm should've been this remarkably terrible. This is one film I'd be in favor of a total remake. All they'd have to do is actually write a script that makes sense.