October Horrorshow: Phantasm

There are some horror films that endure — that have become an essential part of the horror film experience. Part groundbreaking, part cheesy and stupid, Phantasm is one of those films.

From 1979, Phantasm is writer/director Don Coscarelli’s magnum opus. Phantasm is such an important part of his oeuvre that of the ten feature films he has directed, four of them were Phantasm and its sequels.

Phantasm takes place in Anytown, USA. There, a tragedy has unfolded. A local man, named Tommy (Bill Cone), has been murdered by a beautiful woman after coitus atop a graveyard tomb. Later, we meet Tommy’s friends, Jody and Reggie (Bill Thornbury and Reggie Bannister) as they attend Tommy’s funeral. As far as they know, Tommy committed suicide.

The true nature of Tommy’s death has been covered up by The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm, in his defining role), who also happens to be the local funeral director. The Tall Man is as iconic as he is creepy. Scrimm was thin and pale, and clothed in a black suit that was inches short at the cuffs. Combined with his sneer and a wild Phantasmhairdo, The Tall Man owns this film, and has since entered the pantheon of horror film bad guys, alongside Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, Pinhead, and many others.

After Tommy’s funeral ends and everyone leaves, Jody’s little brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) spies The Tall Man picking up Tommy’s casket singlehandedly and taking it away in a hearse. Earlier, Coscarelli made sure viewers saw six pallbearers struggle to bear the weight. Strange things are afoot in the cemetery.

Mike is a restless sort. He’s suffering from a one-two punch of grief and a lack of adult supervision. He and Jody’s parents died a couple of years before events in the film, and it appears to have shattered his young life. We never see any friends, if Mike even has any. His life revolves around his older brother, whom he follows constantly, worried he will leave and never return. But he does manage to break away one evening when he decides to investigate what he saw after the funeral. He makes his way to the funeral home, played ably by the beautiful Dunsmuir House in Oakland. There, the supernatural aspects of the film begin, and we see another of Phantasm’s iconic contributions to horror — the sentinel sphere.

A chrome sphere capable of independent flight and about the size of a baseball, the sphere roams the halls of the funeral parlor and mausoleum like a guard dog. When it finds an intruder it attacks them with blades and a drill bit resulting in a spectacular death unlike much else in horror. On first seeing the sphere, as it arcs into view after being thrown from off-camera by one of the film crew, it’s one of the moments in this film that feels a little cheap. That is, right until the sphere digs its way into someone’s skull.

Mike manages to escape the funeral parlor and pursuit by The Tall Man. He also managed to grab proof that there’s weird stuff going on, and enlists the help of Jody and Reggie when The Tall Man and his dwarfish minions continue to pursue him.

As the film progresses, The Tall Man’s motivations are explained, and they’re dastardly. Without spoiling anything, The Tall Man is a funeral director because it’s a great way to get ahold of corpses without arousing suspicion.

Phantasm only had a budget of about $300,000, which was paltry even in 1979. The cast were unknowns from top to bottom, and it shows quite often. But Coscarelli was good enough of a filmmaker that the strong parts of the film overcome the places where it slipped. Mostly that’s down to atmosphere. More than once this film inhabits the same type of precise surrealism that was typical of a filmmaker like Dario Argento. Coscarelli took his characters and placed them in surroundings designed to evoke coldness and distance. On such a small budget, a viewer should get used to seeing the same sets over and over again. The soundtrack, by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, is at times a thrumming electronic backdrop that is as much sound effect as music. The result is music capable of causing its own stress and anxiety, enhancing what Coscarelli placed on the screen.

Phantasm starts out as a slow burn. It looks like the plot development will never end, but then it all comes together in the second half. Coscarelli even managed to cram in some car chases and shotgun blasts. That’s not too shabby for a film whose frights are driven by creepiness rather than shock or gore. Phantasm is a classic of the horror genre.

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