Phantasm (1979)
Phantasm (1979)

Genre: Slasher Running Time: 1 hr. 28 min.

Release Date: March 28th, 1979 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Don Coscarelli Actors: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester, Terrie Kalbus, Susan Harper, Angus Scrimm

 


 

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hough the blood and gore may be dated by today’s standards, the inventive ideas and inspired imagery in Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” helped the film obtain an appropriate cult status. Complete with monstrous antagonists, a weirdly dreamlike premise, and, of course, a spiked brain-drilling silver sphere, “Phantasm” remains a fun-filled frightfest that imparts a clear influence on later entries in the genre (certainly Wes Craven’s macabre masterpiece “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1984). As a low-budget independent film constructed by industry outsiders, its remarkable endurance is attributable to an unnerving ambiguity and the uniquely youthful viewpoint on mortality.

The opening scene reveals a young man stabbed to death after an encounter with a mysterious woman. From there, audiences are introduced to Mike (Michael Baldwin) and Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury), brothers who were close friends of the deceased. When Mike spies on the creepy undertaker, dubbed the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who removes the coffin after the funeral, the boy embarks on a journey to the barren halls of creepy Morningside Mortuary. With the help of his sibling and their guitar-playing, ice-cream-truck-driving friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), Mike uncovers a sinister plot involving the imprisoning of the souls of the dead for a slave army – that may find them all prospective victims of zombification.

Coscarelli utilizes a disturbingly unstable reality that borders on a world of nightmares – the perfect setting for pondering life, death, and reincarnation. The unforgettable Tall Man, with his dwarven minions, is the centerpiece to this ghastly environment, not unlike most horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s that invented villains far more significant than the heroes who combat them. Combined with the eerie events surrounding the cemetery, where hallucinatory interludes punctuate the blurred timeline, “Phantasm” exudes an aura of deliberate disorientation. It keeps the viewer in a constant state of uncertainty and distress for the lead characters, which may or may not actually be experiencing everything shown. And with numerous unexplained events and disjointed appearances, audiences have on their hands an exhilarating recipe for cinematic paranoia.

“What’s out there?” asks Jody. “I don’t know. It was little, brown, and low to the ground,” responds Mike. “Ahh, it was probably just a gopher in heat.” With spotty dialogue, bits of humor, and plenty of terror (a spooky soundtrack by Fred Myrow also adds to the curiosity of this perplexing gem), this labor of love for director Coscarelli (who also wrote, shot, and edited the picture) evidently had no studio executives interfering during production to force it down the avenue of just another generic horror venture. Although the subsequent three sequels (two of which went straight to video) became exponentially less appealing, this first experiment managed to snag a considerable following and is frequently considered not only a forefather to later successful slasher franchises, but also a genuinely scary thriller.

– The Massie Twins

  • 6/10