Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” is one of those movies from the late ’70s that I’ve heard a lot about, but has never seen. It’s achieved cult status among horror aficionados and is treated with the same regard as the “Friday the 13th”, “Halloween,” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchises. (Take that last sentence to mean what you will.) It’s so popular it has spawned 3 sequels (all done by Coscarelli and starring mostly the same people) with a 4th (and probably final) to come out sometime in 2002, called appropriately enough, “Phantasm’s End”. So, with that in mind, let’s see what all the fuss is about, shall we?
“Phantasm” opens with 13-year old Mike (Michael Baldwin) secretly attending the funeral of his brother’s friend. Hidden in some brushes, Mike spies the funeral home’s mortician (aka the Tall Man) picking up a heavy casket from the ground and putting it into his car like he was removing cardboard. Intrigued, Mike returns to the funeral home to investigate, only to discover that the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) is not who he appears to be, and seems to be stealing dead bodies in order to reanimate them — but for what purpose?
It wouldn’t be entirely correct to call “Phantasm” a horror film, because it’s more of a mystery/science fiction. The sci-fi angle comes at the price of some credulity, as we begin to suspect that the Tall Man may be…otherworldly. Besides possessing a small, metallic sphere that can fly around, navigate corridors, and drill into people’s brains, the Tall Man also has an army of dwarfs dressed up like those small scavenger aliens from “Star Wars,” complete with brown hood and odd sound effect.
Is “Phantasm” scary? Not in the least. It has surprisingly little gore to speak off, and its action is mostly unconvincing. It also uses all the same tricks all horror films from the ’80s use in order to (or at least try to) scare you. If there is one thing that really kills “Phantasm” it is its obviously low budget. The film was shot on a shoestring, and besides using very little characters, the movie’s settings are also limited. I can easily picture the original concept of “Phantasm” to be much more ambitious than what eventually appeared onscreen. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but there just isn’t enough time or money or talent for writer/director/creator Don Coscarelli to shine. The result is a movie that tries very hard, but in the end its own limitations doom it to be average, at best.
The film also offers up one of the weakest, most confusing, and just plain silly ending I’ve stumbled across in a long time. The ending sequence, involving Mike being chased by the Tall Man, ends so implausibly that you just have to shake your head and wonder what Coscarelli could have done with some more money and time, or if this was actually the ending he envisioned. And confusing. Did I mention how utterly confusing the ending was? My reaction was, word for word, this: “Wow, that didn’t make a damn lick of sense!”
“Phantasm” isn’t all bad, though. Sure, it’s cheesy as hell, the acting is sometimes miserably amateurish, and its action scenes rival those of a bad high school production. Still, I liked young Michael Baldwin, who turns in a charming performance as the ready-to-rumble and resourceful Mike. The writing is also good in spots, and I liked how the movie treats Mike and his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) as capable heroes with some common sense rather than bumbling would-be victims. Reggie Bannister shows up as Reggie, Jody’s buddy and ice cream salesman. Reggie provides the film’s comedy, and his scene in a kitchen where he notices something out of the corner of his eye is hilarious. Unfortunately, it’s a shame that Reggie is not in the film more.
But it’s easy to see why “Phantasm” is a franchise. It has the makings of a good series, even though part one’s ending is just plain bad. Like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Pinhead, the Tall Man is destined to (and has, many times over) rise again. I will reserve final judgment regarding my intentions to follow — or not to follow — the franchise until I see the first sequel.
That said, it might be worth seeing the sequel just to find out if it tries to explain the crazy sequence that ended part one. God knows anyone who has seen “Phantasm” deserves an explanation.
Don Coscarelli (director) / Don Coscarelli (screenplay)
CAST: A. Michael Baldwin …. Mike
Bill Thornbury …. Jody
Reggie Bannister …. Reggie
Lynn Eastman …. Sally
David Arntzen …. Toby
Bill Cone …. Tommy
Angus Scrimm …. The Tall Man